An Imagined City
Let me tell you about my imagined Paris. It’s a flimsy version of the true city, and yet it reminds me that a body of work can be simultaneously of one small, drenched island, and of Europe. An inventory of its form at this moment might include a narrow alleyway where a dog is scampering away from its shit, while above, a piano is winched through a window. A rubbish lorry tugs its merry stench past a cinema where a boy presses a palmful of popcorn to his laughing mouth. In my imagined Paris, now, it is evening. Candles devour themselves in cathedral gloom. Steam rises from a saucepan in each narrow kitchen, but in the attics, bats are still dreaming.
In entertaining such reveries, I am far from alone. In the icy New York winter of 1939, Anaïs Nin wrote in her diary, “I sit by the fire of my life in Paris and wonder when this life here will start to burn brightly. So far it looks like those electric logs in artificial fireplaces burning with moderate glow and without sparkle or warmth.” To return to Paris is to approach that old fire, and to feel its heat press new warmth into an imagined twin.
My circumstances are such that with four young children and a growing aversion to air travel, I must decline nine in every ten invitations to perform abroad. I could never, however, say no to Paris. On one such visit I’d been invited to share a stage with two writing heroines of mine: Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill and Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin. I had long looked forward to this trip, to be taken with my husband and the youngest of our children, my parents having graciously offered to look after our older sons at home. The night before the flight, however, I began to shake. Within an hour, my whole body was trembling violently. Despite huddling under four blankets, I found myself unable to control the awful shuddering that had gripped me. There was pain, too, such pain. I translated the streaks of vermillion that scrawled my breast easily: mastitis. The fever rose and rose. I knew I should cancel my trip, request antibiotics from the doctor, and above all, rest … and yet. And yet. Paris. I filled my coat pockets with Ibuprofen instead.
I remember nothing of the journey that followed, but as soon as we arrived, I collapsed on the bed and fever-slept through the night. By morning the sheets were soaked, my breast was a rigid grey, and I could only walk for short bursts. I took to the stage at the Centre Culturel in a surge of espresso and painkillers, speaking my poems with all my remaining strength and stumbling straight back to bed.
The following morning, at my insistence, my husband helped me to the Jardin du Luxembourg. For so long, I’d daydreamed us here, strolling hand in hand, but now I was trembling on a bench, too weak to speak, while he ordered us coffee and pastries. I sipped and nibbled, knees quivering. Finding a clammy napkin crumpled in my fist, I slid it into the bin. Something of that gesture brought to mind the many tangible traces of myself I’d left in this city over the years: a napkin in a park bin, yes, but also the wax fallen from chapel candles left burning for my parents, my hair swept into a corner of a salon on Rue Monge, the warm maps of my fingerprints pressed onto so many windowpanes ... A word came to me, then. Pentimento. When an artist paints over a canvas, the ghosts of previous paintings still lurk there, concealed under the new layer. Exposed to the scrutiny of modern machinery and x-rays, Van Gogh’s “Patch of Grass” revealed the face of a woman, sitting, still, beyond the lush wildflowers that subsequently sprouted around her. The thought dizzied me on that park bench, where my husband and I sat side by side, watching our daughter wobble through the crocuses. How might this precise moment – the flowers, the silence, the pastries, the ghosts – paint themselves into my imagined Paris? With that, the beginnings of a new poem began to stir. Of my poems, some grow from bulbs planted deep in Irish earth, while others sprout from European soil. They grow and grow, these poems, but beyond their tall blossoms is always the face of a woman, lost in thought.
“How the Crocus Climbs, How the Roses Rise” grew from the space between this moment and a moment of my reading life. I had once happened on a personal reminiscence by the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova on her own remembered Paris, beautifully translated by Djemma Bider in the New York Review of Books.
“When it was drizzling (it very often rains in Paris), Modigliani walked with an enormous and very old black umbrella. We sat sometimes under this umbrella on the bench in the Luxembourg Gardens. There was a warm summer rain; nearby dozed le vieux palais à l’Italien, while we in two voices recited from Verlaine, whom we knew well by heart, and we rejoiced that we both remembered the same work of his … One day there was a misunderstanding about our appointment, and when I called for Modigliani, I found him out – but I decided to wait for him for a few minutes. I held an armful of red roses. The window, which was above the locked gates of the studio, was open. To while away the time, I started to throw the flowers into the studio. Modigliani didn’t come, and I left. When I met him, he expressed his surprise about my getting into the locked room while he had the key. I explained how it happened. “It’s impossible – they lay so beautifully.”
My imagined Paris is peopled by such ghosts. As soon as I read Akhmatova’s words, she appeared among them, striding along with her armful of roses, a small smile on her face. In Flâneuse, Lauren Elkin evokes a Paris “where something could happen, or had happened, or both; a feeling I could never have had at home in New York, where life is inflected with the future tense.” The ghosts of my Paris move neither in the present tense, nor in the past – only the past continuous will do; their actions, conversations, and gestures are ongoing. In my imagined city, it hadn’t simply rained, it was raining still. L’imparfait: il pleuvait. Among the damp ghosts there are several versions of myself, one of whom is ashen and weak, trembling on a bench in the Jardin du Luxembourg, while another presses an imagined bulb into imagined dirt. They are not alone, those ghosts; they live among the many who have daydreamed themselves back to Paris. Each in her own distance, we are looking towards that city, to find that the imagined city, alive and pulsing, is looking back at us.
How the Crocus Climbs, How the Roses Rise
Il pleure dans mon cœur
comme il pleut sur la ville.
- Paul Verlaine
In the Jardin du Luxembourg, we touch lips
to the lids of takeaway cafés au lait
and raspberry pastries. We don't speak.
Akhmatova and Modigliani sat here too,
laughing in the rain, while at their feet,
drenched petals bloomed.
Now, the crocuses are opening again,
all yellows and blues. Love,
I’ve kept a secret from you.
This morning, I snuck from our room,
hurried here and dug,
my hands fast in the dirt,
and into that hollow I sank
a bulb, whispering your name
as I pressed the soil snug.
Every spring, the earth here
will break and bloom, a single stem
hefting a crown of blue.
On another afternoon, Anna
stood outside Amedeo’s studio
with armfuls of red. No voice
answered hers; closed roses flew
from her fingers instead. Maybe
she smiled as she threw those stems
through his window again and again.
Maybe she knew what they would do
in the shadows of that locked room.
 Anaïs Nin, The Diary of Anaïs Nin, 1939–1944. (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1969).
 Anna Akhmatova, ‘Amedeo Modigliani’ (transl. by Djemma Bider), in The New York Review of Books, 17 July 1975.
 Lauren Elkin, Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017).