Giving Thanks for Paris, Where a Life of the Mind Finds Life in the Streets

On this day devoted to giving thanks I want to return as a grateful flaneur to a story from the Left Bank. Since launching this blog in 2007, it remains my most favorite post. I was sad the day it dropped off the bottom of the home page. Maybe no one would ever read it again. So I re-posted it on Thanksgiving, that year and most years since, claiming it as a family tradition. Along the way I prefaced it with a quotation from Walter Lowenfels, the Old Leftie poet and labor organizer whom Henry Miller immortalized as Jabberwhorl Cronstadt in Black Spring. “One reader is a miracle,” Walter said. “Two readers are a movement.”

Let me give thanks again today to Ms. Modigliani, my first reader; to all of you who stroll the site, who are my kind of movement; and to Paris itself, its people and its streets, which have given me a freedom of place that cannot be extinguished by terror and hate.

[Photo by Ms. Modigliani]

I remember the book I held in my hands that day. I remember the feel of its time-warped, water-stained pages. I remember its murky, moldy river smell, call it the book’s bouquet, suggesting years of storage on the banks of the Seine. Had I bought it then, I could feel and smell it now and know it from a thousand other books in my studio. Its touch and bouquet would transport me into the midst of its terroir, several blocks of the Latin Quarter only a stone’s throw from the river, where it was printed and published, sold and re-sold, read and debated, discarded and read again in other hands — for three centuries. Like the fish that got away, it looms ever larger and more mysterious just below the surface of my memory.

It was a 1745 edition of Voltaire. The price was 45 euros. I had as much cash in my pocket, but that seemed exorbitant for a book slowly composting like leaf-mold. Voltaire never meant that much to me. I was hoping to stumble upon an affordable antiquarian volume of Rabelais. Still, 1745 was 1745, and I liked the smell of leaf-mold…

“You don’t need to buy books,” Ms. Modigliani said after snapping the photo. “You don’t need to read them. Just touching books is what you really want.”

She was right. Until then, she’d always been a little dubious about my passion for collecting books. Charitably, she overlooked the impracticality, the apparent futility of a blind man acquiring (and housing) countless printed volumes he could never read. Patiently and generously, she read to me more than a few obscure books over the years. As we made our way through the bookstalls along the Seine, she gamely surveyed the titles for me, translating snippets of this text or that. She almost succumbed to the passion herself as she haggled with bouquinistes on my behalf. Nonetheless, she couldn’t ignore the incongruity that I might pay more for a musty old book than she would spend for chic new shoes. It seemed, well, profligate.

So it was a moment of deep insight and acceptance when Ms. Modigliani said, “Just touching books is what you really want.” I felt understood then, and loved. How could buying any mere physical object compare with that?

I didn’t buy the book. We walked down Quai des Grands-Augustins to the Institut de France, then turned left onto Rue de Seine. There was Voltaire! Chancing upon his statue unexpectedly must have been an omen. I took a picture as if to prove to myself that I truly was a free agent in this situation. Then I heard a cold marble voice mocking me. Maybe it was an oracle from the terroir. “You should have bought the book.”

[Photo by a blind flaneur]

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Peace for Paris

Jean Jullien. Peace for Paris. Image posted on Twitter on111315.

Via NPR 111415: “In the aftermath of the coordinated terror attacks on Paris, people around the world have been taking to social media to share their grief and show support for the French people. | One image, in particular, has become a kind of icon of international solidarity: a simple, but powerful, black-and-white ink drawing of a peace sign — with the Eiffel Tower at its heart. The picture popped up online last night, and since then it has been shared, liked, tweeted and retweeted as people attempt to cope with the tragedy. | It has become known as the “Peace for Paris” symbol. And its creator, illustrator Jean Jullien, awoke Saturday morning to discover that it had gone viral.”

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What Is Success? Fare Thee Well, Allen Toussaint

New Orleans composer, producer and piano doctor Allen Toussaint died last night following a concert in Madrid. He was 77 years old. I learned his name first as the songwriter of “What is Success?” recorded in the 1970s by Bonnie Raitt. It wasn’t the first time I heard is music, I just didn’t know who wrote the hits for the Rolling Stones, Irma Thomas, Lee Dorsey, and many other R&B singers. Wish I could be in New Orleans to dance in his Second Line!

Allen Toussaint – Tipitina & me | BBC 4 documentary


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Al Purdy Was Here, So Have Another Beer

“I am a sensitive man. Would you believe I write poems?” After seeing his documentary at the Toronto International Film Festival, whenever I drink a beer or talk about poetry I sound like Al Purdy…

At The Quinte Hotel

Al Purdy – On Being Human

Al Purdy – Necropsy of Love

AL PURDY WAS HERE Trailer | Festival 2015



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My Valentine for Ms. Modigliani

Velázquez. "Venus at her Mirror" 1649-51.

Elegy To His Mistress Going To Bed
by John Donne

Come, madam, come, all rest my powers defy ;
Until I labour, I in labour lie.
The foe ofttimes, having the foe in sight,
Is tired with standing, though he never fight.
Off with that girdle, like heaven’s zone glittering,
But a far fairer world encompassing.
Unpin that spangled breast-plate, which you wear,
That th’ eyes of busy fools may be stopp’d there.
Unlace yourself, for that harmonious chime
Tells me from you that now it is bed-time.
Off with that happy busk, which I envy,
That still can be, and still can stand so nigh.
Your gown going off such beauteous state reveals,
As when from flowery meads th’ hill’s shadow steals.
Off with your wiry coronet, and show
The hairy diadems which on you do grow.
Off with your hose and shoes ; then softly tread
In this love’s hallow’d temple, this soft bed.
In such white robes heaven’s angels used to be
Revealed to men ; thou, angel, bring’st with thee
A heaven-like Mahomet’s paradise ; and though
Ill spirits walk in white, we easily know
By this these angels from an evil sprite ;
Those set our hairs, but these our flesh upright.
Licence my roving hands, and let them go
Before, behind, between, above, below.
O, my America, my Newfoundland,
My kingdom, safest when with one man mann’d,
My mine of precious stones, my empery ;
How am I blest in thus discovering thee !
To enter in these bonds, is to be free ;
Then, where my hand is set, my soul shall be.
Full nakedness !  All joys are due to thee ;
As souls unbodied, bodies unclothed must be
To taste whole joys.   Gems which you women use
Are like Atlanta’s ball cast in men’s views ;
That, when a fool’s eye lighteth on a gem,
His earthly soul might court that, not them.
Like pictures, or like books’ gay coverings made
For laymen, are all women thus array’d.
Themselves are only mystic books, which we
—Whom their imputed grace will dignify—
Must see reveal’d.   Then, since that I may know,
As liberally as to thy midwife show
Thyself ; cast all, yea, this white linen hence ;
There is no penance due to innocence :
To teach thee, I am naked first ; why then,
What needst thou have more covering than a man?

Listen to the poem as read by Jasper Britton:

About the image: Velázquez. “Venus at her Mirror” 1649-51[Source: Web Gallery of Art]

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