From Roberta Burnett's Trying Not to Look,Flarestack Publishing, Somerset, England, 2009.
"The guru is everywhere, if you listen."
—Robert Scholes, Iowa City, Iowa
First day in Paris and hot enough for pigs
to sweat vats in: on foot without a map we angle up
miles of terraced stairs through ten small neighborhoods
to find the white domes of Sacre Coeur,
in every postcard bright as Taj Majal.
What my gaunt son sees is never
known to me. I return always to not prying,
and disengage from wondering simply to enjoy
how cupped he is in his reality; now,
I look everywhere and sweat,
as he must too, and doubt only
if my own muscles and my grit will hold.
Even with ingénue eyes on Paris, even when
we see the neighborhood parks of the photographs,
the outdoor bistros, and remember who's
tromped these streets in winter rains—
Camus, Sartre, de Beauvoir, Baldwin,
Hemingway, my unknown friends, and
his, Balzac, Flaubert—our going's hard.
White brilliantine blaze: the church, locked in
by tourist metal—busses, bicycles, cars, bodies
with glitz from women's necks and cameras, dangling.
I squint my eyes and walk, trying to find the right
door. Inside, a sanctuary of cool air so dark
that feet only hope to find flat places
as we peer. Muted sparks like the night universe
light the cup of the Heart's sacred chambers, its
millions of chips in squares: its gold
makes promises like distant stars, the barely seen.
Focus takes strength: vague grays, greens, blues,
then Christ's face comes clear only if you
penetrate distances, use memory
of icons to complete Him. All else here
is out of eyeshot: overtones and shadows, hands,
feet, shoulders absorb into dense dark.
The weight of masses crushes, carrying us
on, an oozing, fearless, mindless, always
toward the dark, and into more and more gold reflections.
Banks of votives edge the aisles and corners,
every niche and sanctuary. Each five cent candle costs
a dollar-fifty now. I calculate percentages
for the intervening thirty years and light
one for us anyway. Even this flame keeps me
from seeing well. I move along and hope. My son's
lost among the All, the flood of other legs,
safely, on his own.
Up is the only direction. Seeing through what's become
the water of oceans, I am finally delivered to sea-
green patterns, the Christ with open arms—
as appealing as the Buddha at Kamakura—fills
the entire dome, the Heart, lotus-curved like Gautama's
palm. The lives who've prayed in millions here,
buzzing their hysteric tales
like bees whose nest has been destroyed:
those centuries swarm into me: why they came,
—their search for warmth, completion,
and, full of fear, for answers—hearts flailing open.
But the short priest saying service in satin
encrusted with gold suggests again
the cold dogma, prescriptions against
the panoply of life.
Still, I look up, the Christ commands
this space, the deliberate offering of his abstract blessings,
love, protection, care. Nothing's
better: Buddha and Christ could have talked.
Outside, swarms of people eat ice cream, lean
on waist-high walls, stare away into self-reflecting
smog, trying to see the Paris that disappears
in its own fumes: the contemporary sky,
its gray-white haze feathers into yellow-brown
gasses—all in a day's smothering.
The blue dome this sky's supposed to be
the fundament of heaven, a flawless wonder,
and it simply isn't. Stark and without birds,
it's worse than banal: it's ugly.
We trudge straight down the tongue of stairs
from the Sacred Heart into Montmartre: tourists
cram the way—the flow up, like blood,
hot, unstaunchable; down, a trickle. The Heart
eats its life massively, giving up
so little. We pick our way.
On its broad second tier
some street musicians with a sound system: swarthy
and exotic here, they play Peruvian idiom—joyful,
ebullient, and what people want: Guantanamera
and the syrup of the Theme from Moulin Rouge.
I let myself love them, anyway.
In this heat, they open up
my heart, my flesh, to what's there too—I lean
into the wall, listening till my legs and arms entwine
in chords and notes. I'm a net of memories, lilting
with images, breezes with white curtains,
the men I remember, a few blessed
moments on some Mexican beach, dinners
with margaritas, salt on the edge.
I am young for moments.
My self-reaching closes like a wooden door on
rusty hinges, large like medieval gates: heat and
stairs multiply into The Way Down. On the blessed
sunset side, shady and more crowded, hundreds picnic
on small strips of cool grass; children
run out and back to mothers on love's elastic
strings. My water bottle's empty,
and the dollar's down. A coke costs five dollars,
so we don't. My son hurries me: somewhere,
lost in haze and CO2, engine smoke and trash,
our sanctuary nests. Eventually, he says, we'll arrive––
he means in rooms, clean sheets and ice, and each a French
provincial shower in new ceramics, cool to touch,
unimaginable now, a promised miracle.
The next moment, a large dog pees forever
on that stuffed wire trash container, and this one man,
outstretched and too tall for his place on the grass,
a newspaper across his face, his legs signaling
obstacle, so I step over: his black pinstriped pants
are frayed, edges mud-smeared, dusty; his shoes
crossed, his fingers laced across
his belly as a flimsy shield against a falling
child, the one that chatting mother couldn't catch.
He seems given in, as if this moment is his destination,
his sole choice, to lie in shade looking toward
this Christian Mecca, his pilgrimage completed
almost daily, but always only half way there.
My feet find the flats of Place Pigalle, red
and black lingerie on mannequins, male and female,
in flirty, synthetic wigs: I stare at their shine.
Shy of my seeing him in this sex-as-bargain spot, my son
strides ahead, eyes avoiding the windows and the men
made up as women walking out. I think here too
about the distances: the outstretched arms
of Christ, His reach, His imploring hands pulling in
our acts as crystals and collective memories,
as designs in gold-plated stones, and that gives rise to just when
we might want them secreted away, does anybody need
to hear? How far extends
the magnetism in his soulful being there?
Even in this five o'clock
summer's still-bright light, Pigalle's cross-
dressers offer pleasures and delusions,
their leather miniskirts slit up to slick marble thighs,
the straps of tiny purses swathe bar sinisters across
their flash-cut, sweatered breasts. In the midday's early
hours, off work, their lives have cares and needs,
and so I ask how far and if, later and ignored, they'll meld
with others in that white dome's sanctuary above,
another white dove nested in that home.
I ask too how we each become
a one of many, so grateful for this unexpected place
after the overwhelming stairs, the leg cramps,
and the smog-stung eyes, who see a little something
sacred in the real? Absorbed by masses
I peer into this bright day's deep dark,
taking in small gestures, what's ignored,
and I underestimate all I can't begin to know,
but think I start to find the answer for myself
to that one, sure question: This far, this far.