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  • John Diamond-Nigh

#Streets of #incense, streets of #stone

Updated: Mar 2



An old street in a #European city can feel a lot like the nave of a church. Breezy diagonal lines of wash hang high overhead like rib vaults, cross-streets look like transepts, and old men standing in doorways can appear like stained-glass depictions of Jeremiah on a gloomy day.


A sense of #routine pervades them both. Old women slouch along the uneven sidewalks with a small bag of supplies in hand and a short javelin of bread under their arm, regarding any stranger with the apprehensive eyes of a fox. You imagine that they’ve set that foot on that cobblestone at 7:35 most days of their lives.


I find this most affecting of all. Old people, barely ambulatory, aren’t moved from their homes to clinical villas with preposterous buffets; rather they still live here, on their street, sustained by the humane patterns of ritual and #camaraderie.


Can it be morning already? Looking though a scrim of shadows toward the monastery across the street, I watch a portly nun several stories up as she lowers a large plastic container by rope toward a woman who is standing by her cart on the cobblestones below. Each is telling the other what to do in a barking purée of Portuguese syllables. I go back to bed.


#Neil Diamond reminds us, it’s a beautiful noise coming up from the street. Even at seven.


The book that I packed for this trip is #Patti Smith’s Devotion. She talks at length about streets. Each has a #sanctity, a compression, a taste. A #metaphysic. For her, old streets on which beloved writers and artists once lived still carry the troubled incense of those lives.


There are hundreds of streets in Paris like that. I turn down Rue de la Grande-Chaumière, where so often I have purchased art supplies from an archaic shop. The brushes are like sex, they’re so voluptuous. A few doors down stands the crumbling Académie de la Grande-Chaumière, a private école for aspiring artists like Monet. Gauguin lived nearby, as did Modigliani. Here Modigliani’s beloved companion, having jumped to her death a few blocks away, was brought by a mason in his wheelbarrow to Modigliani’s door (after her parents had shunned her shattered body). Here Modigliani never recovered. Instead of turning left as so many times I have done, I turn right onto Rue Notre-Dame des Champs, where Ezra Pound lived, Camille Claudel worked and where the studio of the painter Fernand Léger may still be seen. It’s a tranquil, lovely street, off the beaten path. The facades are forthright, eight or nine stories high, perfectly varied from austere to slightly fancy, all adorned with those wooden shutters that time has charred into sleepy, tattered eyelids. Walking along, I inhale its incense of stories, its old lacquer of shadows.


What is this potent #nostalgia? I never knew Ezra Pound, much less Fernand Léger. And what makes a street like this such a singular compressor of that wistfulness, almost tipping it into something wholly imaginary, a Proustian walk outside of time, or what Keats called, so wonderfully, “a Delphic Abstraction, a beautiful thing made more beautiful by being put in a Mist.” Lynne would look for me in vain. There are streets I love more than any museum, theater, basilica or concert hall. Add #Mist and I’d rather be there than in heaven.


Notre-Dame des Champs ends with a much fancier, whipped-cream, belle époque building. Here stands the Closerie des Lilas, still a restaurant, and once the alcoholic rodeo of the literary avant-garde, where the suppers of André Breton, Paul Fort, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Tristan Tzara erupted into bedlam. Readings were a mortal risk, broken up as they frequently were with coyote howls and pastry grenades. #Literature once mattered that much.


The world is forgetting how to be #modern. The manifold saints of a street like this will remind us if we ask.

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