March 2006


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here’s a cool poem from Billy Collins:

JANUARY IN PARIS

‘A poem is never finished, only abandoned’ Paul Valery

That winter I had nothing to do
but tend the kettle in my shuttered room
on the top floor of a pensione near a cemetery,

but I would sometimes descend the stairs,
unlock my bicycle, and pedal along the cold city streets

often turning from a wide boulevard
down a narrow side street
bearing the name of an obscure patriot.

I followed a few private rules,
never crossing a bridge without stopping
mid-point to lean my bike on the railing.
and observe the flow of the river
as I tried to better understand the French.

In my pale coat and my Basque cap
I pedaled past the windows of a patisserie
or sat up tall in the seat, arms folded,
and clicked downhill filling my nose with winter air.

I would see beggars and street cleaners
in their bright uniforms, and sometimes
I would see the poems of Valery,
the ones he never finished but abandoned,
wandering the streets of the city half clothed.

Most of them needed only a final line
or two, a little verbal flourish at the end,
but whenever I approached,
they would retreat from their makeshift fires
into the shadows- thin specters of incompletion,

forsaken for so many long decades
how could they ever trust another man with a pen?

I came across the one I wanted to tell you about
sitting with a glass of rose’ at a cafe’ table-
beautiful, emaciated, unfinished,
cruelly abandoned with a flick of panache

by Monsieur Paul Valery himself,
big fish in the school of Symbolism
and for a time, president of the Committee of Arts and Letters
of the League of Nations if you please.

Never mind how I got her out of the cafe’,
past the concierge and up the flight of stairs-
remember that Paris is the capital of public kissing.

And never mind the holding and the pressing.
It is enough to know that I moved my pen
in such a way as to bring her to completion,

a simple, final stanza, which ended,
as this poem will, with the image
of a gorgeous orphan lying on a rumpled bed,
her large eyes closed,
a painting of cows in a valley over her head,
and off to the side, me in a window seat
blowing smoke from a cigarette at dawn.

Billy Collins

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Got an email the other day about a new version of my song ‘Nobody’s Girl’ on MySpace. It’s beautifully sung and played by a new performer named Ernie Halter. Look for ‘Nobody’s Girl’ in his blog listing and have a listen (.http://www.myspace.com/erniehalter)
Turns out he was playing that night at The Hotel Cafe in Hollywood, as well as my friend Jesse Harris, visting from New York. I stopped by. Magical rainy night. There’s a whole scene going on at Cahuenga and Hollywood Blvd. Midnight and crowded with people spilling out on to the street from the clubs. More like the East Village in New York than what you usually see in L.A.
Standing there at the bar hearing my song coming back to me this many years later from someone else, making it his own. Very poignant. Such a long history I have with Los Angeles now. Probably it is home, if you were to count up the years that I’ve spent here, even though I grew up in Maine and I consider my apartment in New York to be ‘home’. I remember writing ‘Nobody’s Girl’ back at the guesthouse I had in Brentwood. I was positive that it was far too personal to ever see the light of day in the music business. I wrote it ‘just for myself’, not knowing, of course, that Bonnie Raitt would come along and send it out in to the world in a big way. Now here it is walking down the street without me. It doesn’t need me anymore. I wave hello as if to a grown son who doesn’t have time for hanging out with Dad anymore, a tear in my eye. All the rock star dude wanna-be hopefuls, hanging out, all the beautiful young girls. I wouldn’t dare speculate at what it is they wanna be, here at midnight on a Monday night, but I hope they all get what they’re looking for.
I say hi to Jesse and he plays a nice set with Van Dyke Parks sitting in on piano and accordion. They could be father and son up there. Van Dyke is a 60’s legend famous for writing the legendary ‘Smile’ album with Brian Wilson. Jesse has become a bit of a legend in his own right, for the songs that he wrote on Norah Jones’ debut album. I met Jesse back in The East Village in maybe 1993 or so. I ended up naming my son Jesse. It means ‘God exists’ in Hebrew, something I’m now well aware of. I used to see Jesse Harris’ Dad at his shows around New York. It warmed my heart. You can be sure that if my son ever performs anywhere I’ll be there! The first gig my own father ever saw me play was at a now defunct bar on Avenue A called ‘Downstairs at Two Boots’. I couldn’t have asked for a better night. Totally packed house, everyone singing along with me. I’d been out on a small tour of Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, D.C., etc., and the songs were well warmed up. Then my Dad and my sister and I went out for a Bushmills at an Irish bar nearby. A sacred moment. Fathers and sons. Now I’m both.

Been on a tear with the poetry of Jack Gilbert. He’s got a real handle on the close proximity between the sacred and the profane, the spirit and the flesh. Check out the interview with him in the latest Paris Review, issue #175.

THE CONTAINER FOR THE THING CONTAINED

What is the man searching for inside her blouse?
He has been with her body for seven years
and still is suprised by the arches of her
slender feet. He still traces her spine
with careful attention, feeling for the bones
of her pelvic girdle when he arrives there.
Her flesh is bright in sunlight and then not
as he leans forward and back. Picasso in his later
prints shows himself as a grotesque painter
watching closely a young Spanish woman on the bed
with her legs open and the old duenna in black
to the side. He had known nakedness every day
for sixty years. What could there be in it still
to find? But he was happy even then to get
close to the distant, distant intermittency.
Like a piano playing faintly on a second floor
in a back room. The music seems familiar, but is not.

THE LORD SITS WITH ME OUT IN FRONT

The Lord sits with me out in front watching
a sweet darkness begin in the fields.
We try to decide whether I am lonely.
I tell about waking at four a.m. and thinking
of what the man did to the daughter of Louise.
And there being no moon when I went outside.
He says maybe I am getting old.
That being poor is taking too much out of me.
I say I am fine. He asks for the Brahms.
We sit and watch the sea fade. The tape finishes again
and we sit on. Unable to find words.

POETRY IS A KIND OF LYING

Poetry is a kind of lying.
necessarily. To profit the poet
or beauty. But also in
that truth may be told only so.

Those who, admirably, refuse
to falsify (as those who will not
risk pretentions) are excluded
from saying even so much.

Degas said he didn’t paint
what he saw, but what
would enable them to see
the thing he had.