Tony Baker

Lit-Mag #40 – Expatriations:  The expat edition

Two Places

(Impasse des Deux Sèvres, Niort)

Noel’s prepared dulcimer as good
a place as any is fresh
after rain on the tarmac warm
spats smelling unlabellable the same

way custard isn’t crème anglaise. Alleyed
lawns of noise kick in
like it’s a jigsaw of missing bits
mashed to mystify how come (by

Pierre’s white beard) beneath the sun
light bright snapped aluminium they
can ever come into their own
place in the first place.

Elle a eu une aversion complète à l’anglais
and we thought maybe its rhythm
a pathology, comme quoi
nos mots roar through the next

morning’s small asylum now.
By this canal any route
could be navigable and our house
a floating source without finish

that has blips in for the shadow
fish to flesh out against the opal-
escence of a hospitality they couldn’t
for one moment care the least

bit about. Between strings you traffique, Noel,
with scraps of paper, screws & stuff
strange sonorities fruit upon the instant
mulch that’s soul-fodder if it’s

anything much at all. I hear
l’envie de former des sons, de
se ranger pour que              “all
the little seedlings” (that’s

Pierre again) “puisse
transformer ceux qui sont au sol” (unless
I didn’t hear him saying
right) “again, since”, he sd,

“we need the occasional revolution.”
And this water picked at
by insects olivey
dark as old lubricant Castrol

GTX    “tu sais
les choses ne vont pas
changer d’un jour à l’autre
and this water’s a singing bowl even

a Saturday dulcimer, Noel, tu as raison.
Ten minutes from the centre ville
et on se croyait in a forest out
of homewardness, remembering

paths that crossed
limb from limb in a gingerbread
dream you’d say it’s difficult particularly
now to get language out of, clear

as clafouti for breakfast & beetle
leg-like in its movement.
This/ that/ white        table
from Conforama it crawls across—a guess

obviously, though it’s pretty
inexpensive plastic garden kit and self-
assembled like a form as not
of conversation dibbling & suddenly

full of noticeably singing birds.
This/ that            white
serin                pace of speech
particularly in evidence to the south where

a huge cloudlessness clings
to the air-hum blindé with text
messages I can’t imagine anyone
could ever orient by. This /

that           rings        a bell
of belonging, là où les saules
sont rooted to the spot
& the coffee’s a brisk

causeway to that whitish boathouse
two walkers are passing by, end
of story, going right
there, to where the day’s laundry starts.


(Rue du port, Douarnenez)

In the bookshopthat I mistook for a café that we’d been in ten years previously, I asked the salesman if he had any of Georges Perros’ books in stock. Booksellers don’t always know of Perros and often assume I’m mistakenly referring to Georges Perec, but Douarnenez, where even the public library bears Perros’ name, was surely the one place I had a chance of being understood. The salesman pointed to a shelf on which were three volumes of the Papiers Collés, which I already had, and the Poèmes Bleues which I’d seen before but bought anyway. Perros was ultimately a reclusive who adhered to Douarnenez because he had his four walls there, his unsteady towers of books, his motorbike, his Tania, and these were world enough for him. Lorand Gaspar tells in the introduction to an edition of the letters he exchanged with Perros that it was a nearly impossible task to prise Perros away from his home but on the one occasion he did manage to persuade him to visit Tunis where Gaspar was living, Perros, having disembarked after the journey, expressed complete indifference to a tour of the city that Gaspar proposed. Why on earth would he want to do that, he had come to visit Gaspar ?

The Poèmes Bleues is a slimmish volume printed on creamy paper with a fattish price.
So you won’t be eating tonight, says Liz.
Ah, but this is nourishment for the soul, says the bookseller.
I ask if Perros’ house was nearby, having placed it in my mental geography in the western part of town near the harbour. The bookseller says he doesn’t know, he hasn’t been living in Douarnenez long but he thought it was up the hill somewhere. And he waves with his right hand towards the mouth of the river and the little island with its improbably prestigious customs house, beyond which the only direction is out and further out towards a lot of sea.

Further along the portside we find a café. It’s early evening and the seats on the terrace are half-full and filling. The sun’s too warm to sit out under, so we find a bench under a canopy, order a beer and watch the serveuse go back and forth, chicaning through the customers carrying trays heavy with drinks, collecting money, confirming orders, calling to find out who it was asked for two ‘64s as she’s lost track. Nobody responds. She’s the only person serving and just managing to keep her fatigue under wraps. When some friends arrive she greets each one with an automatic kiss and exchanges a few words while simultaneously attending to a man with a newspaper at another table. It occurs to me that this town is nearly as far to the west of the capital as Marseille is to the south and that the rhythms of the place might be as they are because it’s too far from the economic centre of the country for the place to be squeezed into a shape that it doesn’t really want. Its western-ness feels to me like a physical sensation – geography in a metabolic phase. And it occurs to me too that I can feel that precisely because I don’t inhabit the place or serve drinks.

An empty glass shatters as it hits the ground and the serveuse goes off to fetch a broom to sweep up the fragments. In the harbour the water is sludge green and glossy as acrylic.

A man walks by with an over-bulky Labrador. Passing the café, the dog seizes up and refuses to go forward. We watch as the man tries to tug it along, dragging at it with its lead so that the collar pulls against the coat on the back of its neck but the dog has set anchor and stares immovably forward. The man abandons hauling against the dog’s resistance and walks to a table – the dog following without being urged – and orders a Perrier. The dog lies down, imperturbable as stone. We invent a history for this couple, deciding that the man must be a former alcoholic who once habitually drank in the café, always bringing his dog with him; and now, even though he doesn’t touch alcohol any more and would rather walk on by, he’s obliged to follow the old routine because his dog won’t be dislodged from it.

The dog’s given a bowl of water but doesn’t drink from it.


There’s a noise round here where I live              
how could I miss it the noise
of man     it’s the voice
I know
            it all too well,

enough. A noise
that comes not from men, men
are my companions         this noise
           it comes from nowhere it drives
me mad hearing it it’s like nothing human 


I’m just a man standing by the window  
the ocean           the boom         of its cannons
that roll over the horizon    I’m just
a man, maybe
the movement of a wave deferred that breaks
over me
that which the head leaves suspended beyond
all reason   
                                     where better     to hang.


the gulls were squalling overhead the narrow       walls like they were fetched
from old black and white films          immigrant            homes at least there was washing
strung the street      stucco fissured into maps         with some steps going up
a handrail       and all the windows shuttered while the air
all April it hadn’t rained             was smelling of diesel
from the cisterns in the depot below and damply, vaguely fishy      The boys

and the gulls

over them so the pavements were white it might have been gum or guano they played on
with a soft ball         the goal defined by the width of the street
and I made
to dribble past all four of them and kicked it over the bar
to the slatted door behind
and that was ok because I was a stranger in that place and they didn’t
know me from Adam and we weren’t
ever going to either
and there weren’t shops or cars even in that sheltered part      the school
holidays probably

and one was black and two were white and the other somewhere in between

and the gulls

while on the shore       a few hundred metres further down
a woman sat alone         on a few square metres of weedy rock
in shadow           directly beneath the road which bent
around the seawall she lay staring              up
at the sun with dark glasses on        as if doing yoga        we
hadn’t meant
to end up there             and it took
an age
until I realised
what I liked that part of town for         not the boats

or the way the land got knotted into the bay so it wasn’t clear
which limit was the others’          or how what the people were doing there looked
to go well with the buildings, or at least suggested the buildings
were lived in
as though ‘occupation’ in that place meant not to take over but to inhabit

and the gulls,

but it wasn’t this I liked especially so much as
I realised
it was the town’s,
the wilderness of its turnings away     its alleys and tightnesses,
it was that it had forgotten to arrange itself for tourists and you could read that
as an absence holding               over the roofs of apartments
in the wedges of sky
in a bike
painted green and hung with flowers outside a restaurant painted likewise green
read it in the tenements
that must have been from a decade or two back and were piled boxes literally screwed together because you could see the screws going through the struts along the corners of the walls and you couldn’t see how they’d ever stand for long

in a land of megaliths and gulls

and even if I was wrong         and even if that was all sentimental
and for god’s sake I was a tourist anyway and couldn’t be otherwise because to visit doesn’t allow a contact that adheres     or holds      under any grip

still, what held
there was the mosaic and rhythm, the commonplace
intrusion, the weeds
inevitable as conversation growing
at the foot of a fence which no-one’d grubbed up, or ever would

and they were there
right there where
the day’s laundry was starting and hanging and the boys were playing football

au dernier fil de la quenouille.

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