Gardens for Poets
Place Benjamin Fondane
Across the street from Paris’ Roman amphitheatre is a place devoted to Benjamin Fondane, Romanian-French poet and philosopher who was murdered at Auschwitz at the age of 45.
Fondane lived a precarious existence in France, trying to conceal his Jewish heritage from Nazi occupiers and their French collaborators. He was arrested in 1944, sent to the Drancy transit camp near Paris, and from there to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
An excerpt from Fondane’s “Exodus”:
Whether they burn us up or nail us upfrom L’Exode, tr. Pierre L’Abée
whether our luck turns bad or good,
Why do you think we should give a damn?
The only true songs are human ones
Place Benjamin Fondane is, to my mind, one of the most moving spaces in Paris:
The paving stones define a profoundly spare place: a sunken circle at an impasse. Inside that recessed circle is a welling up, at once a refusal to sink as well as a persistence of memory.
A park for a Polish exile: Square Cyprian Norwid
Cyprian Norwid, a Late-Romantic poet, was part of the Great Emigration of thousands of Polish nationals exiled during political upheavals. Many, like Norwid and Chopin, took up residence in Paris.
What’s not to love about a park dedicated to a poet? . . .
Square des Poètes
. . . Or one dedicated to hundreds of poets?
Scores of plaques, each inscribed with a few lines by a French poet, are affixed to boulders along the park’s paths.
Below: Rimbaud recalls his carefree youth of summer, closing his eyes and smelling linden flowers and wine. I can’t think of this poem without hearing Léo Ferré singing it.
In his Testament, Villon regrets his wasted youth.
Alas, if only I had studied
during my foolish youth
and followed the straight and narrow,
I’d now have a house with a soft bed.
Chenier was guillotined at the age of 31, a victim of The Terror. The lines below speak of Auteuil, a neighbourhood where the literati of Paris gathered at their beloved watering holes, united in their poetic rivalry. I hope Chenier is still there.
Desnos, an active member of the French Resistance, was arrested by the Gestapo in 1944. After being sent to three different Nazi concentration camps, he ended up in Theresienstadt, a camp in occupied Czechoslovakia. He died of typhoid at age 44, a month after the camp was liberated.
The excerpt below, from his poem “Tomorrow,” speaks of hope in a suspended state of despair, as if one were waiting for dawn in perpetual darkness.
Now, from the depths of night, we still bear witness
to the splendor of the day and all its moments.
If we don’t sleep, it’s to watch for dawn,
which will prove that we’re finally living in the present.
Next: Land End’s Moments
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