Perceptions are what hews the memory. Reality is what you perceive, or rather what you select and construct from your perceptions. Your mental image of Le Club des Poètes in Paris is constructed from what you remember from your last visits 43 years ago. You are surprised it turns out physically different on your return. Not emotionally different.
You turn up on a rainy Saturday evening, around 9 pm. You had checked out the website – that didn’t exist back then – it was to be an international evening, with poetry from across the world. It doesn’t turn out like that.
You go in the door which seems to open inwards and outwards if you push hard enough. The Club is one medium-sized room, with a bar at the front beside the front door, and a kitchen at the back. Previously the same room had been bigger, shaped differently, and it was on different levels with an upper level and a lower level – or so your memory tells you. The room has a Bohemian look to it, with books around the walls and on some of the wooden tables. A friendly cat observes patrons through closed eyes. It seems to select key visitors for special attention. You sit wherever you like.
Blaise Rosnay welcomes you, asks you if you are a poet. His father had asked you the same question. You reply hesitantly, but say no, or think you do. You tell him you were here back in the early days, when Jean-Pierre Rosnay (father) started the Club. The welcome is the same, kind, generous. The tempting smell of food cooking seeps in from the kitchen. It used to be Gauloises and Gitanes. Blaise says his mother will be there later; you remember his mother, don’t you? You used to sit at the back, unobtrusive, but present. And you are transported back to the cadences of La Prose du Transsibérien of Blaise Cendrars, reconstructed in your memory – only – the one thousand and three belltowers of Moscow ringing, the interminable rhythm of the long rail journey across the steppes towards Port Arthur. You remember the bloody horrors of the multilated soldiers, the crazed and crazy, returning from the front, the fires of destruction. ‘Dis, Blaise, sommes-nous bien loin de Montmartre?’ intones repeatedly Jehanne’s refrain. You remember it was the time of Vietnam for you, the Russo-Japanese war for Blaise Cendrars. Afghanistan for your young neighbours. How appropriate the Jean-Pierre’s son should be called Blaise.
You wonder whether there will be a celebration in 2013 to recognize the centenary of the publication of La Prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France, to give it its full title. A masterpeice. A spectacle of a publication. Multiple fonts, and painted by Sonia Delaunay. Folded like a harmonica. You study the two-metre long facsimile on your wall.
Back then the poet or comédienne reciting Le Transsibérien was young, dynamic, expressive, and female. No, male, you are now told. No, you are sure, on this point your memory doesn’t deceive you. Blaise says his mother will know. She’ll be in shortly.
You read some of Jean-Pierre’s poetry, noting the familiarity of Cameret. Yes, the Rosnays had a house on the Breton coast, and Cameret is a good place to have a house. The sea, the land, the rocks influenced Jean-Pierre – it’s in his name – as much as it influenced a favourite of yours, Guillevic, but differently. Jean-Pierre perhaps is more concerned with the people; Guillevic more with the nature of things, and how man – very much, man – is just one of nature’s things. But Guillevic is different, perhaps not fitting in the Club.
The Club fills up, you get talking with the neighbours, he a consultant for IBM, she, a recent partner, at home, no work. He dominates, she smiles. They eat, you don’t: you drink in the atmosphere. The Club fills up: every seat taken, and some twice. You are clustered with three young girls, bright faces, final year of the Bac, the scents of the promising future, and they like Jacques Brel, Léo Ferré, Georges Brassens, Juliette Gréco. You are surprised: the music of your youth, your past. They are only 17. They hit back, silencing you: Why not? It’s good music, good poetry. One carries around Léo Ferré on her MP3 – you listen.
Blaise starts the evening introducing the performers one by one, who recite known and unknown poems, some new, some their own, some translated. And there’s a guest, from Brittany, who recites two poems. You talk with him, and discover you have friends in common. But you forget his name. Memory. You have turned back 43 years.
Marcelle has arrived before the start, and you chat. She doesn’t remember you, and your memory suggests a different person. Marcelle says you must come back, and next time recite your poetry. You say yes, but think no. Yes, you’ll come back, but recite someone else’s poetry. Guillevic, perhaps, or Seamus Heaney. There’s two with much in common, hewn from the same Celtic stone. Both concerned with remembering the past, remembering origins. And the sphinx of a cat sits staring, interrogating your face.