Resistance Days

Derek Mahon

for John Minihan

Nous nous aimerons tous et nos enfants riront
De la légende noire où pleure un solitaire.

Paul Eluard

The sort of snailmail that can take a week
but suits my method, pre-informatique,
I write this from the St Louis, rm 14 –
or type it, rather, on the old machine,
a portable, that I take when I migrate
in ‘the run-up to Christmas’. Here I sit
amidst the hubbub of the rue de Seine
while a winter fly snores at a window-pane.
Old existentialists, old beats, old punks
sat here of old; some dedicated drunks
still sing in the marketplace, and out the back
there’s an old guy who knew Jack Kerouac.
Spring in January now, of course: no doubt
the daffs and daisies are already out
and you lot, in the serene post-Christmas lull,
biking the back roads between Hob and Schull.
Here at the heure bleue in the Deux Magots
where as a student I couldn’t afford to go,
a gauche and unregenerate anglophone
tongue-tied as ever in my foreign tongue,
still getting the easiest constructions wrong,
I inhale the fashions of the sexy city,
its streets streaming with electricity,
its swings and roundabouts on the go as ever,
the fly-boats echoing on the floodlit river
when a switch locks and the long boulevard flares
with a thump and flow obscuring moon and stars.

In flight from corporate Christendom, this year
I spent the frightful season in Tangier
with spaced-out ‘fiscal nomads’ and ex-pats
or bored by Bowles beneath the sheltering slats,
bucket and spade under high cloud and sail,
blue and windblown, a sort of vast Kinsale –
a travel poster as we fluttered down
changing at Casablanca in pouring rain;
then ocean contours, minaret and souq,
a dribbling fountain, swirling palms, wind-sock,
a postcard; camels on the beach, black sheep
routinely scattering on the tiny strip,
the flowing script of Royal Air Maroc;
prescribed odours of cedarwood and kif
in the moist oasis of the Hotel du Rif,
swifts diving over the gardens and the port
of course, for even there the birds migrate;
heat-lightning flash photography in the strait,
four lengths of a cold pool above a white
city at sea; keen carols on Christmas Day
with a lost tribe of Nigerian sans-papiers,
bright migrants from hot Sahara to cold EU
in the leafy English church Sam Beckett knew.
I’d uncles down that way in the war years,
a whole family of Merchant Navy engineers,
northern barbarians on the Barbary Coast
in their white ducks, a far cry from Belfast –
old-movie time of transit visas, bad cheques,
the Dakar fiasco, ‘everyone comes to Rick’s’;
but the proud Berbers of the west resist
the soul-stealing gaze of the ‘western’ tourist
to nurse the experience of a thousand years
beneath a crescent moon and evening stars –
al-’Dhara, al-’Debaran, al-Qa’id and al-Ta’ir –
peach-pink Arabian nights, the call to prayer
on Lavery’s dunes and balconies, austere
as antelope or ibex, a light as rare:
you with your Nikon would go crazy there.

A real barbarian, Wyndham Lewis, in flight
from daily mail, lawnmower and wireless set,
found there the desert ‘blue’ folks he liked best
in the days of the Rif rifles and Beau Geste,
far from fake sheikhery and the coast hotels
exploring qasba art in the lunar hills –
‘the best this side of China, I should say’.
Of course, most things are different since his day:
looking like Katie Tyrrell and the old folks
in your own ‘sublimely gloomy’ Athy pix,
as everywhere the filmable populations
have now been framed in shinier compositions,
the open prison of the corporate whole,
for even dissent has long been marketable –
even in the desert of legend and dark myth,
of drought and genocide, what Patti Smith
calls ‘the real earth of Rimbaud’, no daisies there.
Burroughs and Ginsberg – 9, rue Gît-le-Coeur –
who thought to undermine the monolith,
were building new sandcastles in the air.

Back now on the rive gauche and the Pont des Arts
rereading the works of Bonnefoy and Eluard,
a flâneur in the dense galaxies of text
yet somehow knowing what to look for next,
I resist Miller’s Quiet Days in Clichy
to browse among the picture books, cliché
and time exposure, the once bright machines,
the mirrored nudes like open nectarines,
high-definition fashion, Paris de Nuit,
copperplate silence, cranes at St Denis,
the soap and tickets, the oblivious snow,
a gargoyle musing on the lights below,
soft-focus studio filter work, the glow
and heartening realism of Robert Doisneau
(industrial suburbs, the great aerial one
of the Renault plant beside the Bois de Boulogne,
pensioners, tramps, young lovers in a park,
a kiss at rush-hour or a dance in the dark);
and on the history shelves the wartime books,
old coats and bicycles, old hats and specs,
old sniper rifles, Gloria and Etoile
ripping up tarmac in the place St Michel;
at the Gare du Nord a 24-hour clock,
clanking transports, faces wreathed in smoke
and the damned logo everywhere you look;
midnight editions, by Gironde or Loire
a distant grumble in the sky somewhere,
a shaky flashlight piercing night and cloud,
low voices murmuring like owls in a wood.
Days of resistance, un peu soviétique,
plain Sartre and Beauvoir dancing cheek to cheek!

Now our resistance is to co-optation,
the ‘global’ project of world domination,
the generative darkness hid from sight
in an earth strung with deterministic light
no more than a ganglion of wires and flex,
crap advertising and commercial sex.
Still sceptical, statistically off-line France
resists the specious arguments most advance,
the digital movies and unnatural nosh,
to stick with real tomatoes, real brioche
and real stars like Adjani and Binoche.
‘No art without the resistance of the medium’:
our own resistance to the murderous tedium
of business culture lays claim to the real
as product, no, but as its own ideal –
live seizures in the flux, fortuitous archetypes,
an art as fugitive as the life it snaps
tracing the magic of some primitive place
in the last retrenchment of the human face,
gossip and pigeons, close-ups by Kertész,
the young Diana in her London crèche.
Us snappers-up of photogenic details,
yourself a snapper of immortal souls,
resist commodity, the ersatz, the cold,
the schrecklichkeit of the postmodern world,
that the sun-writing of our resistance days
shine like Cape Clear glimpsed in a heat-haze.

After so much neglect, resolved anew,
creative anarchy I come back to you,
not the faux anarchy of media culture
but the real chaos of indifferent nature –
for example, my own New Year resolution
is to study weather, clouds and their formation,
going straight to video with each new release
untroubled by the ignorant thought police.
I wish you good light or a light in a mist
safe from the critic and the invasive tourist,
a Munster dream-time far from the venal roar
where waifs and strays can beat paths to your door,
unseasonal creatures, ears against the sky,
and timorous things that wouldn’t hurt a fly,
conceptual silence, the best place to live –
Que faire d’une lampe, il pleut, le jour se lève’:
real daylight keeps on breaking, in other words.
So, love to Hammond and the karate kids;
down silent paths, in secret hiding places,
the locked out-house that no one notices,
listening for footfalls by a quiet river
the sun will find us when the worst is over,
when everyone is in love, our children laugh
at the gruff bloke snuffling in the epigraph
and in the window frame a persistent fly
buzzes with furious life which will never die.