by Jesse Lee Kercheval

The City Where--I’m Told--My Mother Was Young

Long ago
the lens of a camera
this city

from Sacre Coeur to the far suburbs,
pressed it between the heavy vellum of memory,
so to reach it is to cross a bridge
much longer, much steeper than the Pont Neuf.

In this paper Paris, my mother is a young girl
waiting for her lover by a stinking canal.
Or so I’ve been told by people who might
--or might not--lie to my face.

I pour over Atget’s photographs,
each street, each boulevard, each arrondisement
falling under his care,
falling into his camera and out of this world.

But photographs are illusions, devoid
of both pot au feu and the garbage
the cook leaves---though Atget photographed
laundries as well as bordellos.

I imagine my mother leaving me a message
by way of Atget. I close my eyes
and think I hear laughter
and telephones ringing--but I’m wrong.

I walk over the bridge Atget made
with his stiff little pictures
and find myself in the Gare du Nord,
all steam, white and gray.

And my mother, ma mere--
is standing on the platform waiting.
She has always been waiting.
Unless--instead--she never did arrive.

Long ago
this city

Triste, I imagine her saying, so goddamn sad.

Originally appeared in The Crab Orchard Review, 9:2 (2004)