‘Traversant les années …
Le mémoire de la mer.’
— Michel Houellebecq
Even the thought of a boat trip in the bay
to visit les îles de Lérins,
that was enough to get us both away
from the swarming faux amis
and routine in a Riviera holiday –
which is how it all began
as the thought alone would do to convey
promises of change in a casting off, a landfall …
which might have been prompted by that one passerby,
his portable disc-player’s blare
a background soundtrack on the air –
as if like a murmur, waves touching farther shores,
but distorted – Charles Trenet’s La Mer
2. The Scheme
Chalky sediments, bands of red earth,
some sandstone, and clay where a lime moss forms,
this is what first sighting shows;
then the turquoise of a sandy-pebbled seabed
with darker archipelagoes –
weed-growth islands in the stream …
were colour enough for one artist’s palate.
‘But look at that range of greens,’ you call,
where tipped, eroded strata
shape a natural harbour
through straits to a straightened berth.
3. La Mer
Sea, sea yellow in the sun’s reverberation
or at dusk, a pale yellow horizon
under the cap of cloud cover, it is
this onshore sailor’s counterweight
to all the over-trodden places;
and comes with birdsong through the pines,
the pine scent’s inspiration
and that perpetual murmur –
as if it were really Charles Trenet’s La Mer
Where more of this curved strata frames
a possible amphitheatre,
wind-bent and fallen pines,
tipped over umbrella or maritime pines
lie high-and-dry along the beach.
Their sinuous trunks were stripped, then bleached,
like bones among the rocks
or ivory tusks, extinctions, signs
of life, though, in a scrimshaw of love-names.
5. Crafted Waste
Stark Rückenfigur against a greyer sea,
‘Ornella…’ – one boutique sign read –
how you pick among the rocks
and down a fragile littoral
where pebble and driftwood sculpture
are also propped along this shore
like little Heart of Darkness totems,
political prisoner pastimes –
l’homme au masque de fer!
6. St Anthony
Rust-eaten, a wrought-iron railing
with its peacefully blunted spears
fences in St Antoine de Padoue,
his limestone plinth and body
gnawed thin by the sea-salt air.
He’s cloaked in darker iron,
his back a ferrous crust…
At the shrine’s foot are remerciements
for once mislaid things found,
this grace obtained, or in memory of
the loved ones they have lost.
7. For Other Birds
Another lagoon’s bird-watching hide
has for vista the Palm Beach side
and, above it, La Californie,
a hill full of guarded apartment blocks –
more stolen scenery…
See heron, tern and hook-beak gulls
pause, scan, twitch, take to the air,
as a military helicopter pair
passes guardedly above their isles.
8. More Defences
Though on these islands of the saints
– St Honorat, Ste Marguerite –
beyond the brave gens batterie,
a red-hot cannonball furnace
dated seventeen ninety-three,
the still, sad wreckage of humanity
emerges from its undergrowth
as Blockhaus-bunker architecture
of nineteen forty-four
gapes from its unmanned shore.
Above a clinker-built boat-hull’s remnants
all but buried in seaweed flakes
there tower the monastery’s battlements,
fortified against the Moor;
surviving those pirates, they’re being restored,
and from a dusty upper floor
you pick out the chapel with bell to toll,
more recent cloisters, planted palms –
like God’s own colonial outpost
with back turned to the Côte d’Azur.
10. Les Morts
This Crimean clearing station
has a broken-columned shrine;
though, sent here for recuperation,
not everyone survived…
Likewise, the Muslim cemetery
has many an unnamed grave,
their rings of plain, chipped stone
overgrown with arum lilies –
À NOS FRÈRES MUSSULMANS
MORTS POUR LA FRANCE
not LA PATRIE… and now
two boys hold driftwood guns
high across their chests
like that combat-clad patrol
amongst us, New-Year visitors,
beside the sea at Cannes.
What the plaques said, in Russian and French
(one on each side of its door),
was that the painter Nicolas de Staël
lived in this house, where he died
on March 16th of nineteen fifty-five –
a house in cream stucco, the shutters brown,
with third-floor balcony, a terraced roof,
from which he’d leaped to his death
in depression, as if a reproof
to the critic whose words had got him down…
Afar are the Fort Royal lights once more
up on their cliff-edge promontory.
You can glimpse them from the Antibes road.
They bring back those Algerian
prisoner ghosts, and General Bazaine
who made his famous getaway
as if from the pier where a catamaran
would grind at its moorings, like bed-springs.
We’d followed a red-and-white spinnaker
taking its craft across the gulf today.
13. Feu d’Artifice
At last, now, a firework display
blossoms in star-bursts above the palme d’or bay
from Cannes; each timed explosion
cannons in one-year-older hearts,
still fuller memories –
as does the shock and awe
of yet more fire-balloons or corks…
Then on the hand-prints of the stars
our locust soles would tread
as more of us swarm around crammed cars;
they sound their horns in celebration –
which is when the kissing starts.
14. End note
And the palms, as at Los Angeles,
transposed from overseas,
half bitten through, pollution-chewed,
they’re not a native species.
Along the central reservations,
garden variety cyclamen
flutter in neuralgia-starting breeze.
You tidied a palm tree’s bark-spread bed.
‘Righting the world!’ self-mockingly, you said
while I was reading signs and tokens,
writing the world, if you like,
or simply attempting to render it back
itself, the poem a forfeit for
the very idea of setting it to rights.
— 1 January 2016