On the streets of Paris: In Memory of Jean Rhys

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I came looking for you on the streets of Montparnasse
boulevard Arago, rue Saint-Jacques, rue Mouffetard, boulevard Raspail
place de l’Odéon
I came looking for a woman solitary not afraid
living on coffee and fine
on the money men gave though not freely
I came looking for a woman who lived in cheap hotels
fifth floor, dark corridors
a woman who looked down into alleyways
with no chances left
except in one week or two
maybe one last shot at love

your women were almost all the same
names not quite English but not outlandish either –
Marya, Julia, Sasha –
you didn’t want us to know them
not well
what you named were the streets they walked on
so we could be there
rue Saint-Jacques you called
the street of homeless cats

in Paris all the streets and squares and monuments speak of the past –
Austerlitz, Tilsitt, Solférino, Sébastopol, Clémenceau, George-V,
Wilson, Roosevelt, Mittérand, Charles de Gaulle –
quays and metro stops, battles and statesmen, arches and obelisks,
victory and peace
on place Notre-Dame a giant statue of Charlemagne
further from the centre I note the defeats –
place 16 juin 1940, Villejuif, Mémoriale de la Déportation
Jean Biguet, sous-lieutenant, tombé ici pour la liberation de Paris

would you care you’re not remembered with the rest?

you came not for France but because you hated England
and especially the English
you hated the accents, like a uniform, like a weapon
used to beat people down
you hated the savagery of belonging
here you found street life
hurt life
lives lived in the open
pale and pulsing and not afraid
Paris, you said, is life itself
it was your life
you peeled back the skin.


jean-rhys-older tilted

Jean Rhys (1890-1979) was born in Dominica and died in Exeter, England. She lived on the Continent of Europe for ten years, beginning in 1919, and in Paris for several years in the 1920s. Three of her five novels are set in Paris.