One Hundred Umbrellas

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After so long, I’ve finally arrived
exactly . . . where? Well, here. Yes, here, for sure:
a lampless street, an obscure neighborhood,
outside the walls, an hour’s walk from town.
I gave up town. Now what do I have left?
A tiny dolor I’ve fed on for decades—
this pang is now the full scope of my gift.
But thankfully that’s nothing at all to you.
I’m so glad you’re here. You’re good to come.
I’ve been turned down before, yes, many times,
by women who could clearly use the money,
artists’ models mostly, like she was.
That dress you’re trying on should fit you well.
It’s stolen from the Ballet Russe, a getup
that Bakst designed for Boris Gudanov.
I took it last night from the costume shop.
It’s possible I’d had a bit to drink.
Did I tell you that I’m writing ballets now?
Me and Picasso. Yes, and Jean Cocteau,
that imbecile. So earnest and effete.
Pablo’s more my taste. He’s dee-vious.
And yet his sets—of cardboard!—Cubist, so . . .
well, striking in a nonsense sort of way.
His kind of nonsense, though, makes too much sense.
Perhaps you’ll come one night. We’ll go together.
….. ….. ….. ….. And, please don’t worry,
with that screen between us, you can be discreet.
It’s Japanese. Do you admire the work?
Indoors, it’s cherry trees; outside, it’s snow!
And freezing rain, then, finally, merely rain.

….. ….. ….. Sleet.

….. ….. ….. ….. ….. ….. ….. ….. Rain.

Gray water threads the jet-black paving stones
in rivulets around the egg-shaped cobbles,
then back together and apart again,
before joining with the torrent in the gutters,
churning downhill like springtime in a valley.
Have you been to the South? One day you will,
when you are older. You will love the Alps.
You think I’m joking, but I never joke.
I sometimes smile, though that’s by accident.
Occasionally, back when she was there—
the one I mentioned, Suzanne Valadon—
a smile would cross my face like a spooked bird
for a second and then vanish, registered
only by her surprise, a passing shade.
The things I say must seem quite strange to you,
but I am not a madman, nor this a hoax.
It’s just the way I am, a little . . . what?
It’s true: I only like to eat white foods:
eggs, sugar, shredded bones, and certain fish
without their skins; fat from dead animals,
chicken cooked in water, moldy fruit,
rice, turnips, sausages in camphor, veal,
salt, coconuts, white cheeses, cotton salad.
I boil my wine and drink it mixed with fuchsia.
I love to eat, although I never talk
at mealtimes, lest I suffocate myself.
I breathe with care, a little at a time:
all that she knew.

Sleet’s ticking at the windows. Sleet and ice
are not my elements. I like the rain.
It rains in Paris in the key of D.

You see this painting? I was younger then.
My hair long in back and I affected
a stovepipe hat. I think that was the happiest
I’ve ever been, that springtime long ago.
You see how foolish she has made me look.
Biqui, I called her. Bonjour, Biqui, Bonjour.
She painted it when we two lived together.
In separate flats. And I would play for her
a song to say good morning through the wall.

The rain has made a lake of dirty water.
There’s black and then there is blacker than black.
There’s nothing mystical about what vexes me,
but, at night, I play it over in my mind
eight hundred times (but first, an hour of quiet).

I’m boring you. Please, will you have a drink?
I think I will, if you don’t mind. Absinthe
is just anise plus poison. Light through fog
calls home the small boats from the storm-tossed sea.

I know this place
is not so tidy. I had to fire the maid.
She made me itch, a very haughty person,
very arrogant. I always felt her eyes.
But you don’t judge me, do you? No, my dear.
You are an angel, heaven’s purest creature.
I’m not a slob; I just can’t part with things—
magazines, newspapers. I’ve kept a record.
Here’s April 13, 1893,
the last night that we spent with one another.
We’d been to see the show at the Grand Palais.
She jumped out the window when she left me.
No one will think of me when I am gone.

You’re wondering at these umbrellas, my dear?
I admit they look quite frightening at night.
I find them on my trips into the City.
Sad creatures, wind-wracked birds with broken pinions
lying in gutters or crashed onto the quay,
or under porticoes in the Marais.
A few still work. This one is cut bamboo.
Its slender bones expand to lift its wings
against the midday sun or cold spring rain,
like the one we have tonight that won’t let up.
After, you’ll take it as a souvenir.
I miss the City, but way leads on to way.
These wounded dinosaurs are my mementoes,
like a tune of 18 bars ad infinitum,
because extinction sounds like that,
played over just the same each time, forever.

I walked to town today. I like to walk.
And now I have a blister on my toe.
I saw no one and yet it felt like home—
the markets of Montparnasse, the sculpted gardens,
the people to-ing and fro-ing on the stones,
a tussle overflowing the café.
Ha! Such wildness. Here, we have the rain,
a drip, a drop, a hovering mist of gray.
I worry that we’ll meet around a corner.
I see her dressed in black outside the church;
I see her disappearing down an ally;
I see her in a taxi going by,
behind the high glass of an atelier,
nude, posing for her lover, or she’s painting
in the sun of Montmartre in the afternoon,
in that same square that she knew as a girl,
growing up without a father, in the streets.

The street’s a river, never twice the same.
Look at this flood.

Mi sol re mi ti

….. ….. ….. ….. ….. La ti do fa.

Rain. ….. ….. Wind. ….. ….. Rain.

The umbrella is a devilish machine, each one
as if flown from the blind recess of history
to die in a heap on the Pont Neuf. Or sometimes:
I steal them from cloak rooms when the staff
are smoking cigarettes outside in the alley.
I can’t resist my lust for gorgeous things.
Look: this one has a mallard’s head. How fitting,
a duck in a downpour, beads on its back.
The streets tonight are filled with mercury.

….. ….. ….. Here’s to you.
You see the fairy dancing in the flame
in green chiffon, like one of Degas’s dancers?
Absinthe is a green fairy, so they say.
She’s cold and growing smaller every year.
I hate her. I adore her. Her white skin
is the latest inspiration of Degas.
She often takes her clothes off for him now.

When you are dressed and ready, you may
behave as cruelly as you like, the crueler,
the better. Though, in truth, she wasn’t cruel,
not wantonly. She didn’t mean to be
uncaring toward me, though she never loved me.
That much I know, and when she realized
that it was so, she never came again.
She left a shelf of things: perfume, a brooch,
a snake with ruby eyes—a gift no doubt—
this portrait of me, and this satin dress.
I confess it is no costume. It was hers.
The one you’re wearing now. Come, let me see you.
One minute while I take away the screen.

O worthless imbecile: she left no dress.
There’s no one here! I am not mad. No, look . . .

….. ….. ….. So beautiful.
Perhaps you’ll come again tomorrow night?

Or stay now for a while, until it stops,
the rain. Shh. Listen, like a song. You’ll stay.

….. ….. ….. Rain.


Arcueil, 1916

[Note: Erik Satie (1866–1925) was a French composer and pianist in the early 20th-century Parisian avant-garde. Satie began an affair early in 1893 with Suzanne Valadon, a painter and sometime artists’ model. He became obsessed with her. After six months, she ended the affair, leaving Satie devastated.]