Bio Note: Recent publications include poems in The American Journal of Poetry, Calliope, (forthcoming, spring 2020,) Innisfree Poetry, Juniper, and Nightshades, a full-length collection, (forthcoming fall, 2020). Analects has just been released, which is the fifth book of prose. I live in Tucson with my wife, Jane Catharine, a water colorist. Our son, Chris lives in L.A. and writes for screen.
The Markets of Seine-Saint-Denis
The Metro shoots out of Paris like an eel through
a winding cave, gaining speed, the urgency to get
to where it must go. In the crowded car we grip
the balance pole. There is a gang of older boys
who stare at us as if we were invaders, ghosts
of tyranny, come back to haunt (honte) with another
plan for oppression.
November 23; 27, 1870
For two days Paris has been living on salt meat.
A rat costs 8 sous . . . . Pâtés of rat are being made.
December 1, 1870
[a friend] came to see me today. We ate bear meat.
. . . . stag, and bear, and antelope—presents from
the Jardin des Plantes, [La Ménagerie].
— V. Hugo
We hurtle on toward the end of the line and deboard
at Seine-Saint-Denis. The boys are the first off, and wait
on the platform for the new arrivals. One will shout to a
woman stepping into the subway—she has lost something,
and must attend to it—while she turns, and the doors are
closing, another boy grabs her purse as the doors shut.
They run up the stairwell laughing. We pass a mutant
mother on the stairs under a light like an egg in a wire
cage, dull in the damp passageway. She sits hunched
by the wall. There is a rusted can for coins by her feet,
and a baby cradled in her lap. She stares into the eyes
of the subway voyeurs, exposing her right shoulder;
crossing her breast with her left hand, she flips
her fingers at the three fleshy fins from some aberration,
thalidomide, or a remnant of the aquatic life.
December 24, 1870
It is freezing. Ice floes are floating down the Seine.
December 31, 1870
Yesterday I ate rat. We no longer have horse to eat . . . . I am
beginning to suffer pains in the stomach. We are eating the
January 3, 1871
Moon. Intense cold. The Prussians bombarded
St. Denis all night.
Here we’ve come to the home of the homeless, Séquano
Dionysiens, the grounds of the kings and queens exhumed
by revolutionaries, come to the labyrinth of tented markets
that sell living creatures for consumption, what creeps or runs
or crawls; crickets, monkeys, turtles, horse organs, pig intestines,
insects—siege food—meats of unidentifiable origins, carp
and eel and octopus among jars of chamomile flowers,
vanilla beans, hibiscus leaves for bissap tea; absinthe
leaves for licorice tea. This is the motif.
January 12, 1871
We had elephant steak for luncheon today.
We cannot stay long, never after dark, the guide shows us the
Basilica of St. Denis and hurries us along to the markets. They
are festivals of brightly colored tents with every exotic thing
the heart desires. We must hold our belongings tightly to our
chests, leave no thing loose or it will be ripped away, never
look eye-to-eye for you may become prey, put your cameras away,
hide the slings, hold your handbag to your body. Do not reveal
your hands or let them hang by your sides.
We walk about the edge of the rings within rings of booths
packed together, we could go deeper but it was not advised.
It was not advised by the concierge at our hotel in Paris,
not advised to come here in the first place, and we went anyway,
and we did not know why. During our walk from the Basilica
to the market places, there was an interview. What did the
foreigners make of this region of the Red Belt, how startling
and varied, how multi-cultural, how novel. It was as if we
did not know poverty; that we were charmed by cheap rugs
and scarves, underwear, motor oil and mouse traps.
This was televised on France 24; later, a German affiliate ran the
interview with background footage of the fires set during the
last riot,as if poverty is uncommon, when it is everywhere.
Some streets are named after Communards, and others who
served the Paris Commune; Jean Baptiste Clément, Gustave
Courbet, Louise Michel, Jules Vallès.
©2020 Michael Gessner
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