Ask him where he wants to be buried?
(from Where Water Comes Together With Other Water, 1986: 59–61)
Reluctantly, my son goes with me
through the iron gates
of the cemetery in Montparnasse
“What a way to spend a day in Paris!”
is hat he’d like to say. Did, in fact, say.
He speaks French. Has started a conversation
with a white-haired guard who offers himself
as our informal guide. So we move slowly,
the three of us, along row upon row of graves.
Everyone, it seems, is here.
It’s quiet, and hot, and the street sounds
of Paris can’t reach. The guard wants to steer us
to the grave of the man who invented the submarine,
and Maurice Chevalier’s grave, And the grave
of the 28-year-old singer, Nonnie,
covered with a mound of red roses.
I want to see the graves of the writers.
My son sighs. He doesn’t want to see any of it.
Has seen enough. He passed beyond boredom
into resignation. Guy de Maupassant; Sartre; Sainte-Beuve;
Gautier; the Goncourts; Paul Verlaine and his old comrade,
Charles Baudelaire. Where we linger.
None of these names, or graves, have anything to do
with the untroubled lives of my son and the guard.
Who can this morning talk and joke together
in the French Language under a fine sun.
But there are several names chiseled on the Baudelaire stone,
and I can’t understand why.
Charles Baudelaire’s name is between that of his mother,
who loaned him money and worried all her life
about his health, and his stepfather, a martinet
he hated and who hated him and everything he stood for.
“Ask your friend,” I say. So my son asks.
It’s as if he and the guard are old friend now,
am I’m there to be humored.
The guard says something and then lays
one hand over the other, Like that. Does it
again. On hand over the othere. Grinning. Shrugging.
My son translates. But I understand.
“Like sandwich, Pop.” my son syas. “A Baudelaire sandwich.”
At which the three of use walk on.
The guard would as soon be doing this as something else.
He lights his pipe. Looks at his watch. It’s almost time
for his lunch, and a glass of wine.
“Ask him,” I say, “if he wants to be buried
in this cemetery when he dies.
Ask him where he wants to be buried.”
My son is capable of saying anything.
I recognize the words tombeau and mort
in his mouth. The guard stops.
It’s clear his thoughts have been elsewhere.
Underwater warfate. The music hall, the cinema.
Something to eat and the glass of wine.
No corruption, no, and the falling away.
Not annihilation. Not his death.
He looks from one to the other of us.
Who are we kidding? Are we making a bad joke?
He salutes and walks away.
Heading for a table at an outdoor cafe.
Where he can take off his cap, run his fingers
through his hair. Hear laughter and voices.
The heavy clink of silverware. The ringing
of glasses. Sun on the windows.
Sun on the sidewalk and in the leaves.
Sun finding its way onto his table. His glass. His hands.