I spent my childhood in a small post-industrial town called Bouillon, in southern Belgium, that became more and more post-industrial as I grew up. That hyphen between the ‘post’ and the ‘industrial’ looks abrupt and short; it wasn’t. It was a slow thinning of the thread, a long unmooring during which the habits and reflexes of work remained as the work disappeared and the habits suddenly became noticeable because the life that had determined them was no longer there. The town had had a train station but it shut some time in the late 1950s. ‘Terminus’, they announce with a splash of pride at the end of rail and tram journeys in Belgium, and there’s nothing more terminal than a disused railway station. The end of the line? Better: it’s all end and no line, because the rails are long gone, along with the sleepers. Even the crunchy, fist-sized ballast-stones that bedded down the track, which as children we used to throw at cars from various hideouts around town, have now disappeared – buried or overgrown, or stolen in wheelbarrows and used for DIY. The station is now a parking lot for local buses, which graze there among the tufts of grass and weeds, while the snazzy hotel that once housed Bouillon’s first and last sauna/solarium has been demolished. There are no shops or cafés left, though the area is still called the ‘quartier de la gare’.
When I was a child the nearest proper station was Libramont, a squat, low-skied, slate-coloured, attritionally depopulating provincial-industrial town, so featureless and undetailed that it seemed designed to be seen only in passing, in the black gummy frame of a carriage window. But the ‘libr’ in there was enticing, though a huge exaggeration, and the ‘amont’ was poetic – en amont in French means ‘upstream’ – so the place had a promising swagger to it, in name at least. Rimbaud himself had come through Libramont many times when he was ‘en libre amont’ – in full, free spate, ripping his way upstream of the police, his debtors, his mother, Verlaine, Verlaine’s wife. We think of Rimbaud as the great poet of departure, and there’s a whole subgenre in French of poésie des départs, for which he acts as a mascot. But really Rimbaud was always arriving, crisscrossing the French and Belgian Ardennes, and often to be found where he was least expected to be: at home in Charleville, or ‘Charlestown’ as he called it, with his mum. In the old Rimbaud museum in Charleville, before its glitzy refurbishment with interactive exhibits and light shows, there was a solitary trunk, some shoes and a map of Abyssinia, none of which belonged to him, in a glass case.
Gallimard has published an anthology of ‘Poètes en partance’, which is a different thing from the poésie des départs. A départ is a brisk, clipped thing. Like many words with a ‘dé’ at the front of it, it’s over before you’ve read past the prefix: you’ve got to whatever it was too late, which is the whole point. A partance, however, is sticky and unemphatic and designates a state, perhaps a mood, rather than an action. You hear it in French station announcements, in which the distinction between départ and partance is respected with an old-world precision: when the tannoy tells you that a train is ‘en partance’, it means the train is readying itself imminently to leave, and that you should be too; that in your mind you should already be taking your seat, opening your newspaper, wondering where the restaurant car is.
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