Friday, November 18, 2016

je suis comme je suis

. . . in which we discover, and find solace in, poetry

Discovering the work of Billy Collins, at a young age
Each morning when I bring le petit garçon to school, I stretch our10-minute drop-off window for as long as I’m able. I surreptitiously scour his classroom, searching for new drawings, writings, anything to get a sense of what they’ve been up to. I know that linguistic and cultural barriers inhibit my full understanding, but I think it’s also something about the way they operate, gates closed and locked except during these brief, monitored periods, that also lends a sense of opacity and mystery to school here. I know they dance on Tuesdays, and they draw a lot, and they’re learning cursive. I know the lunch menu. We received a note asking us to please bring a book about Egypt if we have one. But not a lot of detail, not the kind I’m used to from our old school, where we all had the code to the observation room and could watch for as long as we wished, or felt welcome to hang out and help in class any time.

So it comes as a complete surprise when, a couple of weeks ago as I’m standing at the stove stirring pasta and he’s talking playfully with The Frenchman, he asks — Can you tell me about Jacques Prévert? … and then like a magician starts reciting lines from one of his poems.

Did I just hear what I thought I heard? I ask for a little more, and then begins to spill, out of this 5-year-old child’s mouth, a flow of words …

En sortant de l’école
nos avons recontré
un grand chemin de fer 
qui nous a emmenés….

I am a lover of poetry, and especially memorizing poems, so that I have access to them at any moment. And here, my favorite person on all earth, has learned a poem! By memory! I had no idea he had this in him. I scramble to look it up, and then with just a few prompts he recites the entire fifty lines. It’s about children leaving school — maybe for the day, maybe more metaphorically to become adults — and all the strange and wonderful things they discover.

If you don’t know Jacques Prévert, well, Bienvenue au club. As I have quickly learned, the prolific Prévert, a poet and screenwriter, is a household name here, and every schoolchild studies his poems. FranceTV has a whole section on his work on their education site. You’ve probably seen his picture before, maybe in one of Robert Doisneau’s photographs. Prévert’s simplistic style makes him accessible for children — and, as it turns out, me. He speaks to their capacity to dream.   
Jacques Prévert, by Robert Doisneau

I discover other poems, this next one published in 1945, so short and sweet and fitting with its straightforward language, plus it involves coffee. An unadorned description of a morning routine... deceptive in its minimalism, no doubt.

Déjeuner du Matin
Il a mis le café
Dans la tasse
Il a mis le lait
Dans la tasse de café
Il a mis le sucre
Dans le café au lait
avec la petite cuiller
Il a tourné
Il a bu le café au lait
et il a reposé la tasse
sans me parler…

He poured the coffee
Into the cup
He poured the milk
Into the cup of coffee
He put the sugar
Into the coffee with milk
With a small spoon
He stirred it
He drank the coffee
And he put down the cup
Without speaking to me…

Turns out, le petit garçon and his classmates are securing other ditties to memory too. Another evening he recites a playful song consisting of people’s names, which rhyme with the activities they do. I catch him humming his favorite line as he’s having a pee before bed: “Brigitte — s’agit, s’agit”.

I listen and smile. It occurs to me that this bilingual thing is like having a bigger playground. You reach into your cabinet of tools to describe life’s myriad emotions and experiences, and you have so much more to choose from. In this case, how much better it sounds in French, how much more playful — “Brigitte, s’agit, s’agit” — versus “Brigitte bustles about, bustles about” or worse, “Brigitte tosses restlessly, tosses restlessly”. Well over twenty years after my time living abroad, I still encounter moments when a certain Norwegian phrase says it just so, in a way I’ve never found in English. There must be so many examples.

Admitting I had no idea who Jacques Prévert was is a little embarrassing. But how can you be something other than what you are? As another poem begins:  Je suis comme je suis / je suis faite comme ça. To be able to be this, imperfect — and the potential for such discoveries — is precisely what brought me to France. You don’t know Jacques Prévert? Really? Here. Here you go. Turns out you needed him.

We're so alike. J Prévert by R Doisneau.

1 comment: