The Saint-Etienne Poems

Raphael Rubinstein




As I spoke, I watched her carefully. Her first movement was one of surprise, and of
consequent denial: it was as if my supposition seemed to her completely absurd. Then, as
I saw clearly, a sudden idea made her change expression. She answered slowly: "Well,
suppose it was that kiss. Now that you know, does it make you feel any better?

I feel . . . oh, it's hard to say.

Think of clouds above the white city

of windows smiling at you,

of a girl on a balcony in a colonial capital

hoping for one soldier to beckon.


I feel, when I still haven't answered your letter,

like a slimy monster.

I think I'll take a shower.

After the shower, I'm going to start translating

something for you.

I don't know what, yet.


Those clouds, they'll be pink at 7:30

and the white city will be grey and echoing.

Windows will close and others will open.

I'll be walking under one

on my way to start writing a letter to you

and then I'll have to ask the sweet pharmacist,

the one with the eyes of Natalie Wood

to help with the translation.


I feel like a sweet monster or a ghost at noon

I look like a person not invited to that particular party,

the one you have been looking forward to all spring.

Do I care? Do I care?

I'm writing the letter

I'm translating the most important words in it

into the language you'll concede to understanding,

the language that the windows turn to

when they have something they don't want the clouds to hear.




"Aren't you going to give me a kiss?"
"Not in here."
"All right. I'll have a sweet martini."
You're mad to drink those. Women haven't got the liver for them."
"Listen, are you giving me orders?"
"Yes, if you're my girl."
"I'm not anybody's girl."
"Okay, well in that case I won't get you anything. What's the point?"


In the cold outskirts

or in the pit of flames,

in the tundra of the banished,

in the heart of the capital of pain

are some of the places he prefers to hang out.

Postcards sent back make a lively display

on a tranquil wall.


Four girls walking by four floors below at 10:05 p.m.

I lean over to keep them in sight for an extra 5 seconds,

Japanese pop the soundtrack

to another high fidelity evening.


I caught a bus out of there

the year of Avalon

and only returned for a couple of flying visits since.

He's on a short leash to unhappiness

is how it looks to everyone.

Another love match extinguished

And now what will she do?

I try to remember what she was saying last time I saw them together.

She was very happy to be back in New York

a point on which they were clearly in disagreement.


It's a way of life, I guess,


"Why won't that man" (they point out the window)

"come in from the cold?" ask the children

gathered around the radio.

"It's a long story.

You'll understand when you grow older," the radio says.


For a minute I think: but I'm older and I don't understand.

Then I think:

But if I hadn't walked into that gallery on Via Tadino

one evening in January 1990 . . .


"Forget about the bad times that you've had"

sings the sweet voice

in the background of a song

you'll never remember.


I would have saved them if I could

is a nice thing to put on a tee-shirt.

Yesterday I remembered the vignette of Malcolm Lowry

across the bay from a blinking neon Shell sign

with the "S" burned out.

He was writing Under the Volcano.

Tonight I wrote this.




  I stood there for a moment after I had kissed her good-bye and she ran down the
walk. Perhaps I was wrong. I had to be wrong. I would be wrong. Until I was forced to
be otherwise.

What is it, precisely, that is so comforting

about those particular memories?

That they are so far away?

Suppose I didn't have them.

I'd have to still be attempting

to live similar adventures.


Now, there are two approaches:

the one labeled "2 AM, time for the truth"

and the other one no one claims as their property.

Let's see if I can put this in more understandable terms

(i.e., opt for Approach #1).

It's like . . . Garbo vs. Bardot?


We saw a movie together, a few weeks ago.

Made just after a war,

it had a message, oh-my-god, a moral.

You sobbed at the end

and I blinked back a few tears.


I have learned how to be a person who . . .

Well, no I was always that person.

Let's say (still hoping for precision

even if it's not precision

about the original subject)

that I was prepared to let that

50-year-old patriotic tear-jerker

overlay my memories of my one-time quest

for a worthless life.

What or who saved me?

It was still seven years before I met you.

It lingers only as an intermittent soundtrack

in a language I'm happiest not understanding.

Are they talking about Tarkovsky or Coco Chanel?

The beauty is in not understanding.


Woman's voice: Strange!


We're going to watch that movie again.

We're going to rebuild the ruined motherland.

We're going to consign the memories of 1982

to the dance music they always aspired to become.

There's an improvement on memory

and it answers

through glad tears

to your loveliest name.




The friend was a nice young man who had flirted with her

I have my rhythm, and it's another's

the summer before.

Today I remembered a jeans commercial from the last decade.

and how I used to look forward to it.

He had lost all hope and had accepted the situation manfully.

One hour per night can be devoted to catching up on the pop sound universe of 1995

and to poetry -- if it's the same hour.

The grandmother was maintaining a discreet presence,

Sooner or later I'll have to turn off the Walkman and slip back into formation.

allowing the children to play in the drawing room.

Last night I learned that in the summer of 1940

pairs were better than trios when it came to dogfights.

Today I read R.V.'s account of a weekend he spent in Rome

with two teenage sex goddesses.

They slept in the nude and didn't even kiss.

I'd like to film that episode

or compose an epic poem on the Battle of Britain

or paint a mural celebrating Jordache jeans.

Anything to put off resuming the story I've barely started.

A sweet afternoon full of promise.

When I left, Brigitte came out onto the landing with me.

When I first looked out this window, 15 years ago,

I fantasized I was in Berlin.

I still haven't been there

and now it’s too bright

just as these streets are too rich.

In front of the open doors of the elevator, she put her

lips to mine and I kissed her.

I'm trying to reconcile things

that only meet in the heavily draped nights

of a dead city.

Reassembling these bones is feasible, I suppose.

And I guess I could continue to flaunt all my own rules

like "leaving out the important parts is a filthy rotten thing"

but I'm not that prepared to set aside

some day or night in November, 1954,

a cry I still have to orchestrate.

She told me later that her grandmother had been worried about my clothes

and long hair and had asked the friend to watch me as I was leaving.

She was afraid that I might take the silver away in my pockets.




"Forget me when I'm Gone," she spelled out in her quick, blurred hand, underlined it,
and then proceeded to write out down the verses, punctuating with impulsive dashes.

In that strange, savage world of night people

he methodically destroyed all his private papers.

He was my friend.

He thought 27 was a good age for "an act of ambition."

This song makes me think of that French restaurant on California Street

next to a movie theater where a year or two earlier Terry and I

had walked out of a atrocious lesbian feature starring Maria Schneider.

Now I knew the owners of the restaurant

and liked drinking there in early evening.

For some reason I had a meal there with him and his mother.

Did we go to a movie? Which one?

I know immediately I'll never remember.

I'll never remember and I'm almost 40

and again at last no longer quarantine

what doesn't fit into the ambiance of a Mediterranean terrace.

I still have a few of them

and just had the image of an unwritten one

which I'm sad that I would have to invent much of.

Something like Four Absentees which I had lent to him

(and could never bring myself to ask his parents for),

poignant vignettes of those who died on the verges of their lives.

But I won't write it.

I was never interested in the glamour of death

or the heroin that washed through New York in those years.


I'm starting to rehearse

an absent chorus which only I can summon,

but which one day I'll join.


Yesterday was endless.

The title filling its screen might have been

Two Or Three Things I Know About Philip Guston.

The first line:

"There is just a moment when things cease to be a mere spectacle,"

and the second,

"when a man is lost and shows that he is lost."

The last one would have to be "Forget me when I'm gone."


The time of time is beginning.

See them?

The mysterious figures

riding around the edge of town

looking for someone or something,

a victim

ripe to be magnified

into a story for a stranger, a stranger story.