Stride Magazine -



Paris is an egg. It is the egg.
Wide or narrow, it is a ribbon
of pastry, of moonlight, of butter.
Paris is the light
gliding over our eyelids,
sneaking in even when we try
not to see. We know ourselves
through Paris & in this
Paris is as private
as blood & as public
as humiliation in high school. I broke a molar
on a piece of popcorn
watching Les Enfants du Paradis
in Paris, watching that luminous cloud Arletty
playing the heroine Garance.
Like the flower, she says
after giving her name. What flower? the audience
always murmurs. Me too
& that's what I love
the not knowing.
Just as no one in the Paris of the film
can truly know Garance.

But what with the cracked tooth,
watching this film about Paris
in Paris turned out
not to be the rush of paradise
I expected, but instead,
along with Baptise the mime,
I was in agony. Baptise
from his unconsummated love
for Garance. Me from my molar,
from the pain crashing through my nerves,
& for a moment I thought
ammonia & chlorine bleach
had come accidentally together
filling the whole theater
because I was crying,
because I couldn't breathe.

Then the Paris
took me out of myself & into the souls
of the stars, filled me with great pity,
with a sense infinite space as poignant actuality,
as the light from the projector
shone over the heads of the audience.
But there is more, much more
to Paris than that. In Paris, life
runs away, is a runaway
at play & passion is everywhere.
Paris dangles all possibilities before us,
clanging as loud as bells. The mind sees
as through a glass Heaven.
The heart sees as through a moving curtain
worlds beyond the bones
of everyday.


At Versailles, in this
toy hamlet,
Marie Antoinette,
Queen of France
daughter of a queen,
granddaughter of a queen
mother of daughters
who would die princesses
played at being

In the same petit hameau
my daughter Magdalena,
plays at being Queen
her mother a professor
who wants to be a poet,
her grandmother a teacher
who wanted to be a doctor,
her great-grandmother a wife
who wanted to be loved
Why do humans
have such unhappy

Around us, sheep decorate
the long meadows
of the hamlet sheep
whose mothers were sheep,
whose grandmothers were sheep
back into the wooly
mists of time. Sheep
who wish for nothing else,
ewes and lambs
who, unhurried,
crop the grass.


Imagine a guillotine
in a cellar near old Les Halles
where onions are chopped
for all the onion soup in France.
A ferocious iron machine
hung with weights and counterweights,
sharp blade winking
as it slices through the onions,
falling with a whoosh,
a thud. Patented,
unique, it can chop a hundred pounds
of onions in a morning--
if the person using it is quick
and careful.

Imagine too, that man, the one
working the onion guillotine.
He is wearing goggles
tied by leather straps,
holds a slice of bread
between his teeth and breathes
through it, a filter
for the caustic air.
But still, onions
are what he is chopping,
and he can't escape that.
He is crying. His eyes swimming
awkwardly behind the lenses
of his goggles, green turtles
drowning in the open sea.

Imagine there's a list
kept, say, at the Prefecture of Police
where each morning the people
of Paris line up for a chance
to work the guillotine.
Not because they're crazy about onions
or after the poor man's job,
but because they want to cry
for hours, all day,
as they have never cried before.
Cry for lost mothers,
fathers, lovers, children.
For those six million
dead Parisians
who decorate the Catacombs,
maybe even for those deported
in 1944 whose bones
as well as lives
are lost to Paris

Now imagine that all this crying
changes nothing.
And they know it,
but are content to cry,
until their mouths are dry as sand,
until they feel emptied,
begin to giggle,
and leave the cellar as light
as holiday balloons.

Is this what you want?
So much crying,
over just a little death,
a small and private grief.
Pack it in a suitcase,
your mother would have said,
and put it in the attic.
Your life, that fast train
to the future,
is leaving from this track
at five o'clock.

                  Jesse Lee Kercheval 2003

Jesse Lee Kercheval was born in France and raised in Florida. She is the author of the novel The Museum of Happiness
. Her second poetry book, Dog Angel, is forthcoming from the University of Pittsburgh Press. Her poetry and prose appears in recent issues of such magazines as Poetry London, the Poetry Ireland Review, Poetry New Zealand, The Rialto, the Missouri Review, Prairie Schooner, and the Virginia Quarterly Review among others. She is the Sally Mead Hands Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin where she directs the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing.