Watching the Tour de France from a roadside in Southwestern France, in the Midi-Pyrenées, I learn there’s a name for the cyclist who comes in last: Lanterne Rouge, for the red lantern that used to hang on a train’s caboose.
In Auvillar, in mid-July, the world is mating: dragonflies, frogs, French couples. But not me. My words have a sterile edge to them.
A wedding in the town square. I used to think it would bring me good luck. As years ago, my lover and I, newly affianced, observed one in Rome at the Campidoglio. He died six weeks later.
Sabine, the Dutch photographer who speaks perfect French and her partner, François the stone mason, have a roadside garden that is open to everyone.
To enter a place with a view can be more difficult than one without.
You think you need to climb to understand where you are but that perspective is like the wedding guests’ who go to see the panorama, then leave before they have spoken to any of the locals.
Or leaned over far enough to see the price for the view: the twin-domed nuclear power plant chuffing away upriver.
“Always be a poet, even in prose.” – Charles Baudelaire
Grateful that the people accept my pidgin French. That making an effort has created the bridge we need.
Sitting in Sabine’s arbor under the shade of a quince tree. Or are they apples.
When Sabine comes by, she says they are apple and also walnut trees.
I will miss her photography show at the port. She gives me a poster with her photograph of a lone cow rising up out of the winter mists of where the river should be, a flock of small birds gathering overhead.
“The book is the only medium left that hasn’t been corrupted by the profane: everything else on your eyelids manipulates you with an ad.” – Nassim Nicholas Taleb
“Most people write so they can remember things; I write to forget. – Taleb
Am I writing to remember or forget? I am writing in a notebook as a way to manufacture experience. Manufacture: as in to make by hand. To relive or live without any interference between self and world other than words.
I write to digest experience: to figure out what I am thinking/feeling about someone, something, someplace.
Thus these aphorisms of place.
Flares, as in brief incendiaries to set neurons firing. After Baudelaire’s fusées (flares, rockets) in his Intimate Journals.
To sojourn in a place where the wind soughs through the tree leaves. Insects zing. The rooster crows. Do my thoughts grow louder here?
Aurelien, the nearly blind French painter, takes the world in through his nose: he brings sense and scent so close together.
He says he can smell the falsity of people, the village preserved as museum.
Here is my portrait of Aurelien: On the plain deal table, box of Lucky Stripes “Original Red” topped by an aquamarine lighter. Round, beveled-glass ashtray filled with butts. Thick, round, tortoise-shell sunglasses with green lenses. Magnifying glass dangled on a braided silk, necklace-ribbon. He tells me it’s a good portrait.
And this is where four of us have come to make art. To find the feral in the tame, the raw inside the cooked.
Sabine, whose brown eyes and name I envy, having myself been named for my great-grandmother Sabina.
The difference between poets and fiction writers: Poets feed off of the place and people around them. Like silkworms, we spin the thread out of our own bodies.
Novelists may have a substrate or use their lives as the primer coat. But ultimately what they paint is a story with characters from elsewhere. D’ailleurs.
Poets make out of memory a “here.”
Novelists make characters and their actions into a memory—the memory one used in words.
Wordsworth was wrong. Poems are not “emotion recollected in tranquility.” Poems are memories ignited by rage, grief, desire.
There is nothing so sterile as a poem made only of words.
Carved out of this beauty is a bit of anxious terror so that I almost did not venture here. The nuclear power plant that spews its steam just a few kilometers up the river.
“Every social situation that is not face-to-face is injurious to your health.” – Taleb
As I am writing in the garden of the couple who live here, they drive up and invite me for lunch.
In every language, morphemes glitter. To my ear, l’amour and la mort sound the same.
Here, in this place of love and death, I am trying to ride exactly in the middle.
What am I seeking? L’amour before la mort. Love before death.
His eyes were blue. If only they’d been brown… would that have made the difference?
L’etranger: “celui qui n’est pas du pays.” – Guillaume de Machaut, Prise d’Alexandrie (1369).
If here I am une étrangère, am I une autre Sharon—the Sharon who stumbles in French the way at home I stumble on gaps in the pavement?
All the young sunflowers I cycled past had their heads turned away from me.
Something uncanny about sunflowers. Strange. Frightening. My favorite flower. Because of their miraculous transformation from yellow petals surrounding brown fuzzy core to stooping giants full of hard, striated black-and-white, sweet seeds.
“Do not ask the foreigner his place of birth, but the place he is going.” – Edmond Jabés
Where am I going? To the place of ongoing.
I write best like the shark with my multiple sets of teeth.
Poets who stop, die. Poets self-create through words—sounds—lines. To make a sculpture out of the stream that is behind sense-making. Which is not the same as making sense.
Jabés called Jews “the foreigner of foreigners.” That is what I’d call a poet because she loves the words inside the words—the silent word that is framed by words.
Any poem that leaves room for the silent word is a devotional poem.
Are poems “étrangères,” strangers to everyday language?
Ostranenie: making the familiar strange, as the Russian Formalists called it. Aren’t poets best at defamiliarizing the familiar?
All art is a thunderclap—but not of fear, of feeling: the light within the sound of the words.
I learn about the erasure of Jews from this part of France by the first crusaders who went out of their way to annihilate them.
The Jews of Aquitaine introduced chocolate to France.
“I must learn to write words gorged with silence.” – Jabés
Though we are the people of the book of words, since our Genesis begins with the void and in Exodus relies upon the desert to receive God’s word, we are also the littoral space: the space where silence and speech meet. Where the desert and sea touch.
The burning ember on the lips of Moses made him stutter. Thus his voice contained both wind and words.
The way the unpronounceable name for God: the yud hay vahv hay is the sound of wind passing through sand.
As though God’s name were an alternation of sound and breath. Breathlessness.
And yet, to receive the tablets, to hear God’s voice, Moses had to pass through the sea, Nature’s birth canal.
Bordeaux, where there have been Jews since the 4th century. Where so many came from Portugal and Spain after the decree that they would be killed if they did not leave.
This year I will be 56, having been born in 1956—the year Edmond Jabés left Egypt, having been expelled with all the Jews during the Suez Crisis. Never to return. An unhappy coincidence.
Yet would Jabés, or I, be writing the words of the foreigner? Would the Jews have received the Law had they not been expelled from Egypt?
Always in places where I feel the absence of Jews, I feel the most Jewish. Like the last Lord God Bird, a ghost shadow call in a land that has hunted us down and extinguished us. Out of love, out of hate, what does it matter.
So we exist only in traces. Crumbling fragments of stone. Cemeteries.
Like the ivory-billed woodpecker in the archives of Harvard, where rows of dead birds can be pulled out of a drawer to show what they once were.
The Hunter’s Club that meets next door has invited me for lunch. If they knew I was a Jew, would I be as welcome as I am as a blue-eyed, blonde stranger?
There is always the trace of carbon in my words—the pencil with orange and black spirals—incinerated bodies or merely decomposed.
Who knows if, as I write with a pencil from Spain, it does not hold molecules of Jews and those who tortured and expelled them.
Scroll and scrawl. Scrolls were not always sacred books but in this age, they are. So much difference—a wall to divide the morpheme that makes scroll (sacred) and scrawl (profane, improvisatory gesture).
If the scribe who was at work on the Torah would bathe himself in a mikveh for ritual purity, today I have doused my innards with red wine and wild boar: the most treif (non-kosher) thing of all. A kind of secular mass. A scrawl across my body.
What little book did I have up my sleeve or in my bra that I could touch—as did conversos in Spain forced to attend mass? My silence. My lack of assent to a man who thought to desire me with enough persistence was to have me.
I live in the desert of no desire with a slakeless thirst.
Am I perhaps (alas) scrawling over the perfect contemporary scroll—the desert of the book?
Juif: Mélange of Je (I) and wyf (Middle English for wife, woman).
To be a Jew, a Juif, is to be married to (to be the wyf of) the “Je” (I) of God whose essence is Being or Bringing into Being.
Kellipot: husks or shells around the Divine Light after the shattering of the vessels. Exiled from God. So is my divine spark encased in a husk, hidden?
A five-hour lunch with the Hunting Club. Deer. Wild boar. And a Swiss man for three of those hours hunted me not realizing my escape hatch is with words or its shadow, silence.
The men played pétanque, a kind of bocce ball, the object being to roll a silver ball as close to the small dung-colored one as possible. Symbol of part of the boar. Men in their endless passion for the hunt.
I took the Jesus painting down from my bedroom wall, turned him to face the back of my wardrobe. Thus, the closeted Jew with light eyes and hair has closeted Jesus for no longer being a Jew.
True love is the complete victory of the particular over the general, and the unconditional over the conditional. Thus, my amorous failures may be due to a refusal by me or my lover to see each other as more than conditional and generic.
“The inward is that which is clearest.” – Michel de Montaigne
Reminding myself that what I see—vineyards, rivers, churches, sculpted hillsides, fields forbidden to all but hunters and deer—is subjectively received. That does not make them any less real—just as color is a matter of culture.
Today on my bike I rode by Avenue Monplaisir (my pleasure) but I knew if I stopped, I would not find it there. Is that my fate: to be passing by my pleasure?
Also passed the sign: Réserve de chasse et de faune sauvage. Forbidden except for hunters and wild fawn. Having been hunted yesterday, was I qualified to enter? Or am I not wild enough?
“Words express only their solitude.” – Jabés
Jabés, living in Paris, was in exile from his home. But Egypt, being his home, was for the Jews the first land of our exile. Thus, in exile from his exile, Jabés, like so many of us, may have felt more at home.
In New York, at times, I feel exiled from myself—at one remove from the life I am living.
Jouez avec vos emotions: an ad for online betting on an outdoor umbrella. Nonetheless it seems to capture a certain esprit francais.
Play, even gamble, with your feelings.
Rose of Sharon trees everywhere. Called altea here.
As when I was a girl growing up in Brooklyn and met a girl named Ruby at a Girl Scout meeting and wished she could be my friend. Shortly after, she and her family moved into the house around the corner from me, and we had adjoining backyards. Her older sister’s name was Sharon. And there grew at the border connecting both our yards a Rose of Sharon bush.
Living in the heart of contradiction: an artisanal soap shop in town where they sell handmade soap using only the most natural ingredients. In a landscape with a nuclear power plant huffing steam a few kilometers away. And the River Garonne, I am told, filled with pesticides so it is too toxic to swim in.
Enter my life, leave my life. My English friend who paddle-boards in the bay of San Sebastian.
Like a field painter, I must go somewhere in order to write. If I remain in the studio, I can only write about three white walls and a window with blue-grey shutters looking out on where I have not been.
Today is the 26th of July, and was the day, 56 years ago, when Nasser declared the Suez Canal to be Egyptian, which led to the “Suez Canal Crisis,” which led to the expulsion of the Jews from Egypt, which led to Edmond Jabés emigrating to Paris. If he had stayed in Cairo, would he have been able to write his particular, idiosyncratic poetico-philosophical prose on exile?
Would there have been A Book of Questions or A Book of Answers?
Egypt was Jabés’s home. It took his exile for him to be doubly exiled or, rather, to get in touch with his primary exile as a Jew in the world.
The only way I contact a place is through reading. If I stop, I lose touch with this place of exile, which is my home.
To be exiled from the page is the real Egypt—the constricted place so the windpipe can’t open to form the sounds of God’s name from which all the other letters and words have emerged.
“Displacement is in his very sentences.” – Jabés
What does sitting in a garden with the rooster crowing and lavender bush wafting its song over have to tell me about absence and presence?
Why does it seem to be a characteristically French move to talk about the text of the world?
Is, as Jabés says, “God’s first reader” the Jew, the wanderer, oriented in his night by love of the Book?
Always, when I travel, I become more hidden and yet more revealed to myself as a Jew, as though History cannot help but throw up the embedded crisis of the slain.
I define myself here by what I am not: not French, not Christian, not European.
Always, here, I have sand on my tongue and sea salt beneath my feet.
“The writer is forgiven because he is his words’ own place.” – Jabés
But displaced from my place, I am at home in this hybrid global tongue: English.
Is the poet’s job to sacralize the profane?
Being from the priestly caste (the Kohanim), I take my role to be to bestow blessings and then to elevate this work tool—language—so it becomes an instrument of holiness.
And yet my writing is concerned with the dailiness of life: how to inhabit a body. How to conflate birdsong with the clock tower incessantly chiming out the hour of now.
Sitting outside in the grape arbor with a screen I can read words or look through to the lake where the grape arbor rests its leaves against the lake of the sky.
A stillness here so I can hear the light, see through the mesh of words to their source. The void is always present, with every letter, every word, before we cover it over with our finite dreams.
Poets seek to use language that screens and opens to the void.
Like the prohibition against seeing God’s face, the only way to see the void is through words (screens).
Do I write about absence as presence or presence as fertile absence because I am reading the landscape through Jabés?
The only way I can feel at home here is through the screen of the exiled.
Here I am in exile from my solitude.
In one of the populous, great cities of the world, I have achieved a solitude that is impossible to come by in a small village such as this.
In cities, increasingly, we are in exile from each other and make contact only through screens as though we are all swallowed by the void. This is not a fertile void but a voided void from which creation is no longer possible.
In this village, I am companioned in my solitude.
Avoidance is filled with the void.
The heart is like the shattered vessel of Creation, longing for those dispersed sparks once more that it had to let go of at birth.
Auvillar, birthplace of the troubadour poet Marcabrun, whose song helped inspire Crusaders who, in the name of Christ, killed Moslems and Jews.
The tragedy of the last 100 years is that Jews and Moslems have forgotten their shared brotherhood as exiles, infidels.
The goal of exile: to go from being outside (ex) to being inside, though the etymology of exile is from the Latin exul: banished person.
Jabés wrotes—and I have tried translating—La Memoir et la Main (Memory and the Hand). But what of the hand’s memory? Or the hand of memory? Or the handiness of memory? The memoried hand. Memory contains death (mori) inside it, which we seek to veil with story.
Passing under the archway containing the name of Marcabrun reminds me of the time I passed beneath Titus’s Arch in Rome. She who survives is victorious.
Amour en cage (Love in a cage) is the name for this strange orange fruit inside a paper-thin cup. Fisalis (physalis) bush of glowing lanterns in a small garden in Auvillar.
The absence of a lover can sometimes feel the most imprisoning.
To be caught up in a man’s hands. To be cupped inside my garden.
One of the poets, Yona, took Polaroids of us in the main square because she was already missing us, though our departure was weeks away. She missed us in the future.
What do I have to lose if I go to Toulouse.
This evening is the eve of Tish B’Av (the ninth day of the month of Av), fast day to commemorate the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem both times. Also the expulsion of the Jews from Spain.
Sunflowers in a field with one sunflower periscope looking back at me.
As I rode to Agen and the nuclear power plant’s huffing towers came into view, I thought, my ex-husband is my nuclear power plant. From him I irradiate myself with enraging stories of his duplicity, his making a fool of me. That’s the toxic element in my environment.
The painter from Bordeaux with a grey parrot resting on a bush says, “He’s my muse,” every time I pass by. Who’s the parrot here?
Only the five-year-old painter in the “Paint my Village” competition had thought to glue seeds and grains to his painting of the Halles aux Graines.
At Sabine’s terrace picnic table overlooking the bridge over the Garonne, I write best. I could be sitting in a sukkah, with its temporary rattan roof overhead that still lets in the light.
Today is the 9th of Av. I remember now that Mari-Josef told me yesterday she has clothes and books from the four families who were deported from Auvillar to Auschwitz.
So today I mourn for the destruction of a local temple—the temple that resides inside each Jew, each community of Jews.
I tried to suck the honey-stick of sweetness out of the honeysuckle—one of my earliest childhood memories of doing so. Back then, I knew how.
Aurelien gives us each a bon-bon au miel.
A commentator is someone at one remove from experience.
A poet, metaphorist, relaxes the borders between self and other, between things and feelings, between past, present, and future.
The aphorist seeks to solidify those boundaries—horizons—into the smallest of semi-circles, otherwise known as the grin.
A critic’s chief tone is chagrin.
A poet’s chief tone is rhapsody. Even a rhapsody of despair.
Perhaps all my writing is an attempt to write or avoid writing the word on my death day. And when I inadvertently say/write it, I pass.
The difference between a painter and a poet: The painter paints the view through landscape. The poet uses the landscape or the painting to distract her mind so the spirit may emerge to paint itself.
All these realist painters who came to this small village on Sunday to paint: a portal of stone, an archway, or the spire across the river, have painted their own inadequacy.
The most abstract painting may capture the spirit of the place better than the painted likeness.
“Enthusiasm for anything other than abstractions is a sign of weakness and sickness.” – Baudelaire
Have I found the adequate means for painting this village and its environs?
The doves’ hoo-hooing stops when the cicadas begin to buzz.
Aphorisms are the writer’s attempt to return to the blank page by the shortest route possible.
Toulouse: “the pink city,” city of violets, city of the violated.
Where the Jews were recorded to have been since the 7th century because the richest Jew was required to have his face slapped in public for some trumped up offense.
And after: a tax. And after: forced to convert, massacred, expelled in 1321.
No Jews, then, in Toulouse, for 500 years.
“On the colour violet (inhibited love, love veiled and mysterious, the colour of canonesses).” – Baudelaire
The day after Tish B’Av, in Toulouse’s Saint Sernin Cathedral: a funeral. A short priest in his floor-length, deep-violet chasuble is collecting money in a small basket from all the mourners on their way out.
Taleb says that wisdom works more through subtraction than accretion: knowing what not to do. In my case, knowing who not to fall in love with. Is “no,” then, more powerful than “yes”? Weeding in order to discover the single, inviolate flower.
If Taleb is right, then we live in a very stupid age, where the sheer volume of information bombarding us makes it nearly impossible to winnow away anything.
Eau de violette contains the music of the viol but the risk of being violée.
For lunch, I sit at a high table on the Place du Capitole and eat skewered duck hearts with potatoes.
The Jews are away or wary of visitors, especially after a recent shooting at a Jewish school, so all I can see is the outside of the Synagogue Palaprat.
As I stroll I see the presence of Muslims, North Africans with their Halal restaurants and their head-scarfed women. But where are the Jews? Are they, like me, hidden, camouflaged?
The saxophone player under the Pont Neuf who played mournfully, sweetly: the spirit of Toulouse.
In the Dourade with its chapel for the Black Madonna, a black man enters and purchases two long white candles—an offering, perhaps, for his pregnant wife.
The church was built over a pagan temple. Which goddess does the black virgin most resemble?
The Black Madonna has various dresses designed just for her. Down the street, a store with doll’s clothes in the window.
Of all the churches I visited today, this one, with the Black Madonna, was the one with hushed reverence.
At ombres-blanches (white shadows), a large bookstore in Toulouse with a café in its belly, I find a book commemorating what would have been Jabés’s 100th birthday.
It is forbidden to swim in the Garonne River in Auvillar because of the family who drowned. As though to do so were to desecrate their memory.
The problem with a small village is that a personal tragedy becomes everyone’s tragedy. That is also its charm.
So the village has created a taboo against swimming in the Garonne out of the singular tragedy of a drowned family.
The weeds entangled their legs and pulled them down and killed them. It’s too dangerous!
The pesticides are very bad for you
I am the sole person who is swimming in the Garonne with water spiders, darning needles mating mid-river, frogs belching from shore.
A boy on the far bank, fishing, screams, “C’est interdit!”
There were no killer plants except for the nuclear power plant. There was a man who probably had a heart attack while swimming with his young children and he went under. The pregnant wife, who jumped in, in a panic to save everyone, in her awkward state, possibly not knowing how to swim, flailed around and drowned. Did she pull her own children down with her? Or did he drag them down with him?
I hear about the memorial service being planned to commemorate the day when, 70 years ago, four Jewish families were taken from Auvillar to Sept-Fonts, then on to Drancy, from there to Auschwitz.
To feel myself fortunate to have grown up in Brooklyn, where to be Jewish was a normal—negligible—thing. Nothing to hide. Nothing to fear.
I write this on a picnic table overlooking the Garonne as pilgrims on their way to Santiago (here, San Jacques) de Compostela wend their way uphill with backpacks and the tapping of walking sticks.
My pilgrimage route will only be to a Jerusalem of words.
Kurzweil, the father-lawyer of one of the deported families, had written to his French friend on the eve of their deportation, that he had a premonition that something bad was about to happen.
My premonition is that I am a wanderer in search of the Holy Land. I continue to seek it in words. In Eros.
What is it about traveling by train. I see the small village where I have lived for two weeks, as charming as it is, would slowly wrap itself around my neck and strangle me—the way the weeds in the river were said to have pulled down the family to their death.
The oafish American artist who had to tell me if I drowned, no one would know where to find me.
Carefully, carefully, I slip into the water like a salamander, without incident.
The coffee woman in the Toulouse station refused to speak to me in French and I refused to speak to her in English: her way of saying, You are butchering our tongue; let me butcher yours.
Fatya, the Moroccan woman who made Moroccan tea and sweet pastries, a garden of salads, couscous with merguez and beans and lamb, cooked everything while fasting for Ramadan. After we were finished eating, as the full moon rose, she broke her fast and joined us. A double fast: to cook without tasting, without even swallowing one’s own saliva, as it is said.
Only the traitor knows how genuine the heart is of the one he betrays.
The immoralist draws a circle around the moral act. Relies on it more than those who swim inside its charmed circle.
It’s not that I love swimming in forbidden waters because they are forbidden. I just love water more than the law. I love the law of water: If it’s clean enough for frogs, water spiders, and dragonflies, it’s good enough for me.
The exhaustion at the end of the book. At the impending end of the journey. The book knows the hand is almost done with it.
Hummingbird moth on the lavender bush: what I have been in the Midi-Pyrenees. What these aphorisms have hoped to be: quick, light, tasting of lavender or violet fertilized by the ashes of the dead.
“It is always sad to leave a place to which one knows one will never return. Such are the melancolies du voyage: perhaps they are one of the most rewarding things about traveling.” – Gustave Flaubert
Alain reminded us at dinner last night that religion comes from re-ligere, to retie us to the source of our being. In that sense, a poem may be religious for the sensitive reader.
The traveler is always tasting the landscape, the life, on the tongue: Could I live here?
Poets seek repatriation of the word to thing.
The farther away in time I go from my father, the more I miss him. The more farther and father become interchangeable.
The reason I have been unable to grieve for him: I was the one who gave the sign to the doctor to stop antibiotics. Stop oxygen. Stop food. Stop water. Because that is how it is done.
Were it left up to me, I would have continued water. Instead, my father died in the desert of his own body.
Like some mythical figure, I failed at retrieving my father soon enough from Cherry Hill, which I rename Chary Hill, where his partner of 27 years was chary of her visits, her love, her patience with him.
I see the world with my father’s eyes: the blue-green, myopic eyes he gave me.
The he who was, from whom you seek forgiveness, is no more. Nor can he seek it from you.
On the wall of the house of the elderly German couple organizing the memorial to the deported: Je suis qui je suis. Je suis celui qui suis. Je suis celui qui est YHW. Je suis qui je suis. Je serrai qui je serrai. Je suis celui qui suis lá. I am who I am. I am that I am. I am the one who is YHW. I am who I am. I will be who I will be. I am who I am there.
All quotes from Charles Baudelaire are from Intimate Journals. Trans. Norman Cameron. London: Syrens by Penguin Books, 1995.
Sharon Dolin is the author of six poetry collections, most recently Manual for Living, published by the University of Pittsburgh Press in 2016. “French Flares” was written while in residence at the VCCA Le Moulin à Nef Residency in Auvillar, France. The recipient of a 2016 PEN/Heim Translation Fund grant, she directs and teaches in Writing About Art in Barcelona each June.
Header photo of sunflowers at Auvillar by Sharon Dolin. Photo of Sharon Dolin by T. S. Ellis.