Marseille: Construction

Piece by piece, Marseille is being ripped apart and rebuilt, just as it has been, time and again, for thousands of years.


Construction workers do more than labor: they have a hand, practical and direct, in the creation and recreation of a place. In Marseille, they build upon the work of the city’s founders and leave their own for future change.


It’s cosmic work, and it makes me think of this passage from Whitman’s Song of Myself:


I am an acme of things accomplished, and I am encloser of things to be.

My feet strike an apex of the apices of stairs,
On every step bunches of ages, and larger bunches between the steps,
All below duly travel’d, and still I mount and mount.

Rise after rise bow the phantoms behind me,
Afar down I see the huge first Nothing, I know I was even there,
I waited unseen and always, and slept through the lethargic mist,
And took my time, and took no hurt from the fetid carbon.

Long I was hugg’d close–long and long.

Immense have been the preparations for me,
Faithful and friendly the arms that have helped me.





Nice: Ecstatic Places

If I remember correctly, the first five minutes or so of François Truffaut’s film L’argent de poche (¨pocket money¨) follows crowds of schoolchildren descending staircases across the town of Thiers, France. The waves of children seem endless; the stairs seem endless. It’s an ebullient, hopeful expression of our perpetual passage from each moment to the next, tempered just a touch by an adult’s sober recognition, or dread, of the inevitable.
In France, it’s also a sight as common as spare change. Every weekday afternoon, the late afternoon bells ring and children emerge out of doors and stream down staircases, spilling onto the sidewalks and streets that were empty just a few minutes before.
The noise (le bruit) emanating from these schools before or after each bell is extraordinary. All of a sudden the neighborhood lights up, burns, and burns until the noise extinguishes itself. It reminds me of the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico, where thousands of blackbirds pack into trees and simultaneously call to one another, with overwhelming pitch and confusion, for a more or less precise period of time every evening.
The children all seem to be yelling; the only message to be taken from the collective din is some urgent need for action, although sometimes, especially in the mornings, one voice will rise above the others: ¨Maman! Maman! Maman! Maman! Maman!¨  
A special church can be found in a typical neighborhood of Nice: L’Eglise Sainte-Jeanne d’Arc, a church where even the non-religious visitor can experience a spiritual moment.
Its unusual architecture strikes the passerby from afar.


Passing from the sunlight to the candlelit interior, the visitor is drawn into a space both modest and grandiose, marked by a spare richness: two rustic organs, hand-carved wooden chairs, rounded stucco walls that sweep to the sky, punctuated at the ceiling’s mid-height by simple stained glass.
Prominent on the right side of the church is a painted sculpture of Jeanne d’Arc. Her face stuns. A paradoxical clear blend of emotions live within it, notably sadness (mourning) countered by hope, and modesty countered by courage.
Stepping back outside the visitor feels the depth of the church’s darkness and the depth of the sunlight; it is like having been washed with ancient water in shadow and then being released to the bright world to dry.


You sea! I resign myself to you also—I guess what you mean,
I behold from the beach your crooked fingers,
I believe you refuse to go back without feeling of me,
We must have a turn together. I undress, hurry me out of sight of the land,
Cushion me soft, rock me in billowy drowse,
Dash me with amorous wet, I can repay you.
Walt Whitman, from Song of Myself (22)

Nice: Style


Style. The word comes from the latin stilus, referring to a writing instrument or a mode of composition. Style is the visible or felt result of a fashioning, of a making. The Côte d’Azur is defined by its style, which is to say, above all, that it is defined by the human presence written upon natural landscapes. On every surface our imprint appears in its most basic and historical forms.




Because Nice is a major tourist destination, it takes time to settle in, to see the place for what it is, and to experience the quotidian. Nice, to me, really seems to be a city of workers and a city of simple pleasures, and it is in observing and seeking work and pleasure that a truer sense of the place—its everyday style—comes through.

In the quiet, diverse neighborhood where I rent a room I see many of the same people on a daily basis, most of them working. So much living happens at work. Day after day I pass by the owner of a pocket-sized pizza joint, a small, tattooed man, who sets up his sidewalk tables around 10:00 a.m., rolls out his dough, preps, cooks, and serves until at least eleven at night, Monday to Saturday. A younger guy, probably in his mid-twenties, works alongside him. Between orders, between lunch and dinner, they grab snacks from the supermarket a few doors down, sit down for coffee, joke and visit with friends and regulars.

It makes me think of Hemingway’s ¨A Clean, Well-Lighted Place¨:

“I am of those who like to stay late at the cafe,” the older waiter said.

“With all those who do not want to go to bed. With all those who need a light for the night.”

“I want to go home and into bed.”

“We are of two different kinds,” the older waiter said. He was now dressed to go home. “It is not only a question of youth and confidence although those things are very beautiful. Each night I am reluctant to close up because there may be someone who needs the cafe.”

“Hombre, there are bodegas open all night long.”

“You do not understand. This is a clean and pleasant cafe. It is well lighted. The light is very good and also, now, there are shadows of the leaves.”



In Nice, added to the necessities of stone, sun, and sea, are flowers. Many of these flowers, like the bougainvillea, are not native to the region; rather, they are decorative imports, enhancements.


Building upon the region’s natural beauty and tipping the light-washed walls of beaux arts and art deco buildings, they are city’s final layer of style.



Walking home one day, I got caught up in thinking about seabirds and American poets. The seabird analog to Wallace Stevens, I decided, is the northern gannet, since the gannet is a remote cliff-dweller (lonesome, hard to reach) and all about style.

Northern Gannet, Bonaventure Island, Near Perce, Gaspe Peninsula, Quebec

In Nice, the deco façade of Le Negresco calls up the gannet’s shape and colors, and set against it, the intermixing sky and sea invoke Stevens, especially¨Sea Surface Full of Clouds¨:

The sea-clouds whitened far below the calm
And moved, as blooms move, in the swimming green
And in its watery radiance, while the hue

Of heaven in an antique reflection rolled
Round those flotillas. And sometimes the sea
Poured brilliant iris on the glistening blue.

Here in this ambrosial latitude is the old domain of the gods, crowded with human bodies that still, in new ways, deify the sun. Sunbathing on the shore, I imagine the gannet dive from the sky and knife into the Mediterranean, passing with its blunt edges from fluid to fluid.  




Marseille: La Calanque de Sugiton and ¨Pines¨

The Maritime Alps look as though they are in the midst of being thrust off the land into the sea, destined to crumble, as they were formed, under the pressure of an earthly shift and to be swallowed.
The descent to the calanque of Sugiton invokes the sublime. If only it were possible to pan out and watch hundreds of millions of years pass in a minute; instead, the viewer can only grasp at a terrific motion that seems, in this one moment, to be frozen.
At the calanque, level views of the mediterranean invoke a different kind of awe—a reverence. Those simple, inescapable elements—sun, stone, sea—mingle on the water’s surface along with pines and human bodies, and the correspondences between them all, which seem so historical and enduring, offer a guise of reassurance that the vistas above do not.
Now, when I think of the calanque of Sugiton, I think of the poem ¨Pins¨ (¨Pines¨), by the WWII-era French poet Jules Supervielle, whose poems I happened upon in Marseille and have been translating, for fun and practice, while here in France. Here is an early draft of ¨Pines¨:   
O pines

Confronting the sea:

Why must you,

With your fixed gaze,

Demand a response?

I ignore the questions

Posed by your mute height.

Man listens only

To himself (and dies of it,

Like you.) We have never

Found enough silence

In which to meet, in which

Branches and dreams—

Our sands—might mingle.

Yet I turn from myself

To speak of them to you

In verse—for I

Am foolish, deaf friends,

More so than you, you

Pines confronting the sea,

You posers of questions

Confused and dense—

I draw down low into

The meeting place

Where our spirits join;

I am pulled under

And dissolve there

As a wave within a wave.
O pins devant la mer,
Pourquoi donc insister
Par votre fixité
A demander réponse?
J’ignore les questions
De votre haut mutisme.
L’homme n’entend que lui,
Il en meurt comme vous.
Et nous n’eûmes jamais
Quelque tendre silence
Pour mélanger nos sables,
Vos branches et mes songes.
Mais je me laisse aller
A vous parler en vers,
Je suis plus fou que vous,
O camarades sourds,
O pins devant la mer,
O poseurs de questions
Confuses et touffues,
Je me mêle à votre ombre,
Humble zone d’entente,
Où  se joignent nos âmes
Où  je vais m’enfonçant,
Comme l’onde dans l’onde.