A relaxed blend of plain and heightened language, this poem sets a contemporary spring day against the ghosts of literary heroes
This week's poem celebrates an urban springtime, a meeting of "ripe lovers" in an iconic Paris café, and the literary life re-civilised for the 21st century. At Lunch in Les Deux Magots by Lorna Goodison comes from her new collection, Oracabessa. A poet blessedly free of anti-metropolitan snobbery, she values both the city and the parish in this more-than-literary travelogue. Oracabessa is the Jamaican seaside village where Columbus might have hoped to discover gold, and near which Bond girl Honey Ryder sang "a ditty no Jamaican ear ever heard// about underneath the mango tree … " (Note to Self).
It may represent Goodison's soul-landscape but it's not her final stop – and she concludes that "The city of gold/ is everywhere you have ever been".
Technically, what's most striking about At Lunch in Les Deux Magots is its mixture of registers. In the first stanza, the journalistic plainness of "this very celebrated Paris café" cohabits with the biblically-flavoured idiom, "my dearly beloved". In the second, a new expressive pitch occurs when "tart leaves tonic our wintered mouths". The use of "tonic" as a verb is particularly unexpected, and how much fresher it feels that the conventional "tone". But this is the only point in the poem where the diction is so obviously heightened.
The different names the speaker chooses when referring to James Baldwin indicate a similar flexibility of register, nuanced by the shifts and rifts of relationship. "James" is appropriate to the opening phase of the association between the two novelists, Baldwin and Richard Wright. When Goodison, a Baldwin fan who was overwhelmed by her first encounter with the incandescent prose of Go Tell It on the Mountain wants to introduce personal emotion into her portrayal of the writer with his "glorious frog prince profile" he's given the affectionate diminutive, "Jimmie". Then, in stanza six, standing back to recount some cold facts about his treatment of Wright, the speaker refers to him simply as "Baldwin."
The diction swerves again, twice, in the following stanza, with the sophisticated pun on "room" and the contrasting colloquialism, "stab up". What seems like a brief but fierce convulsion of anger at this juncture subsides to be followed by an offhanded, less judgmental conclusion: "One rough business this writing life."
The poem's moral and literary strength lies perhaps in this refusal by a writer to be over-impressed by other writers. Although she's sitting outside a café that's a literary landmark, and associated with the forging of selfhood for earlier generations of black writers, Goodison elevates simpler values (love, springtime) and adds a final toast to "the passing of old gods". These deities surely represent colonial domination in various forms. The phrase suggests the hope that the Oedipal patterns of history, literary and otherwise, might be replaced by more generous, feminine and fluid processes.
There's a sense of balance in the poem which perhaps reflects Goodison's own career choices. She writes memoir and short stories as well as poetry. She started out wanting to be a visual artist, and still paints her own book jackets. The poetic voice she has found is assimilative and relaxed, able to accommodate various registers from the prosaic to the metaphysical. It's in their combination that she achieves her own original and tonic effect.
At Lunch in Les Deux Magots
For John Edward
Richard Wright and James Baldwin
ate in this very celebrated Paris café
where you and I my dearly beloved
hold these sidewalk streets in the sun
and order salads of spring greens;
tart leaves tonic our wintered mouths.
Here Richard bought a meal for James:
croque madame or croque monsieur
(Gallic cheese toast with ham or without)
Jimmy ate, and later he may even have –
here or elsewhere – sipped absinthe,
one cannot imagine that he did not;
he of the gorgeous frog prince profile
Toulouse-Lautrec would have fixed
on a poster in the age of belle époque.
Wright helped Baldwin to find a room
with room to wield the pen he used
to stab up the reputation of the older man
in an age-old pagan rite that demands
the son is duty bound to slay the father.
One rough business this writing life.
But love; this is Paris in late springtime,
the right season for ripe lovers like us.
Let us drink to the passing of old gods.