8.03.2005

A lovely poem by Ellen Bass

From Paulo's blog, I bring this poem by Ellen Bass:

Asking Directions in Paris

Où est le Boulevard Saint Michel?
You pronounce the question carefully.
And when the native stops,
shifting her small sack of groceries,
lifting her manicured hand,
you feel a flicker of accomplishment.
But beyond that, all clarity
dissolves, for the woman
in the expensive shoes and suit exactly the soft gray
of clouds above the cathedral, does not say
to the right, to the left, straight ahead,
phrases you memorized from tapes
as you drove around your home town
or mumbled into a pocket Berlitz on the plane,
but relays something wholly unintelligible,
some version of: On the corner
he is a shop of jewels in a fountain
and the hotel arrives on short feet.
You listen hard, nodding,
as though your pleasant
disposition, your willingness
to go wherever she tells you,
will make her next words pop up
from this ocean of sound, somewhat
the way a dog hears its name
and the coveted syllable walk.
If you're brave enough, or very nervous,
ou may even admit you don't understand.
And though evening's coming on
and her family's waiting, her husband lighting
another Gauloise, the children setting the table,
she repeats it all again, with another
gesture of her lovely hand, from which you glean
no more than you did the first time.
And as you thank her profusely
and set off full of doubt and groundless hope,
you think this must be how it is
with destiny: God explaining
and explaining what you must do,
even willing to hold up dinner for it,
and all you can make out is a few
unconnected phrases, a word or two, a wave
in what you pray is the right direction.

— Ellen Bass


I especially like the end of the poem. I do sometimes feel like God is explaining and explaining, and for the life of me, I can't understand. Sometimes I feel like that on a personal level, and sometimes I feel like all of humanity is more or less in that position.

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