January in Paris
by Billy Collins
A poem is never finished, only abandoned.
That winter I had nothing to do
but tend the kettle in my shuttered room
on the top floor of a pensione near a cemetery,
but I would sometimes descend the stairs,
unlock my bicycle, and pedal along the cold city streets
often turning from a wide boulevard
down a narrow side street
bearing the name of an obscure patriot.
I followed a few private rules,
never crossing a bridge without stopping
mid-point to lean my bike on the railing
and observe the flow of the river below
as I tried to better understand the French.
In my pale coat and my Basque cap
I pedaled past the windows of a patisserie
or sat up tall in the seat, arms folded,
and clicked downhill filling my nose with winter air.
I would see beggars and street cleaners
in their bright uniforms, and sometimes
I would see the poems of Valéry,
the ones he never finished but abandoned,
wandering the streets of the city half-clothed.
Most of them needed only a final line
or two, a little verbal flourish at the end,
but whenever I approached,
they would retreat from their ashcan fires
into the shadows—thin specters of incompletion,
forsaken for so many long decades
how could they ever trust another man with a pen?
I came across the one I wanted to tell you about
sitting with a glass of rosé at a café table—
beautiful, emaciated, unfinished,
cruelly abandoned with a flick of panache
by Monsieur Paul Valéry himself,
big fish in the school of Symbolism
and for a time, president of the Committee of Arts and Letters
of the League of Nations if you please.
Never mind how I got her out of the café,
past the concierge and up the flights of stairs—
remember that Paris is the capital of public kissing.
And never mind the holding and the pressing.
It is enough to know that I moved my pen
in such a way as to bring her to completion,
a simple, final stanza, which ended,
as this poem will, with the image
of a gorgeous orphan lying on a rumpled bed,
her large eyes closed,
a painting of cows in a valley over her head,
and off to the side, me in a window seat
blowing smoke from a cigarette at dawn.
From the author’s collection Aimless Love © Random House 2013
NOTE ON PHOTO: Jardin du Luxembourg, known in English as the Luxembourg Gardens, was created beginning in 1612 by Marie de’ Medici, the widow of King Henry IV of France, for a new residence she constructed, the Luxembourg Palace. The site, which covers about 56 acres, is known for its lawns, tree-lined promenades, flowerbeds, model sailboats on its circular basin, and Medici Fountain, built in 1620. Admission to Jardin du Luxembourg is free, with opening and closing times that vary, depending on the time of year.
NOTE: Paul Valéry (1871-1945) was a French poet, essayist, and philosopher. Nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 12 different years, Valéry is best known as a poet, and is sometimes considered the last of the French symbolists. In 1898, at age 27, he quit writing and didn’t publish a word for nearly 20 years. When, in 1917, he finally broke his “great silence” with the publication of La Jeune Parque, he was 46. Composed of 512 alexandrine lines in rhyming couplets, which had taken him four years to complete, the poem secured his immediate fame—and is considered one of the greatest French poems of the twentieth century. A collection of Paul Valéry’s work is available in The Idea of Perfection: The Poetry and Prose of Paul Valéry; A Bilingual Edition (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020).
PHOTO: Portrait of Paul Valéry by Henri Manuel (1925).
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Billy Collins, named U.S. Poet Laureate in June 2001 and reappointed to the post in 2002, has published seven collections of poetry, including The Art of Drowning; Picnic, Lightning; and Questions about Angels. He is a Distinguished Professor at Lehman College of the City University of New York (retired, 2016). Collins was recognized as a Literary Lion of the New York Public Library (1992) and selected as the New York State Poet for 2004 through 2006. In 2016, Collins was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. As of 2020, he is a teacher in the MFA program at Stony Brook Southampton.