Deux minutes

We called him “deux minutes,” two minutes.  We saw him at least once a week on the number 11 métro line, between Châtelet and our stop at Goncourt in the tenth arrondissement.  Line 11 is a short line that travels northeast from the huge crossroads at Châtelet, and its passengers were mostly working people going to work or coming home to the neighborhoods around Belleville and Popincourt. He was a shabby old guy in a worn brown jacket, always buttoned up even on the hottest days.  White stubble covered his pale face.   Sometimes his hands shook.

He stepped into the métro car and stood at one end, and as the train pulled out he began.  “Deux minutes de la poésie,” he announced in his raspy voice.  Two minutes of poetry.  It was always the same poem, “Le Pont Mirabeau” by Guillaume Apollinaire.  He raised his voice.  “Sous le pont Mirabeau coooule la Seine,” he chanted, drawing out the oooo.  After a few months in Paris I was able to understand the French, and I was startled by the poignancy of the poem, about lost love and memory, “L’amour s’en va comme cette eau courante,” “Love goes away like that flowing water.”  He recited the poem with great feeling.  As we approached the next station he took out a little leather change purse and passed down the aisle, slowly.  We always gave him a franc or two.  He got off the train and entered the next car, and we heard his voice “…. coooule la Seine.”

One week he announced he would be reciting a different poem.  A collective frisson went through the car.  I can’t remember the poem.  The next time he was back to “Le Pont Mirabeau.”

That was a decade ago.  When we were back in Paris last week, we rode the 11 a few times, but he never appeared.

Homeless man feeding pigeons near the Gare de l'Est, June 2011


Le Pont Mirabeau

Sous le pont Mirabeau coule la Seine
Et nos amours
Faut-il qu’il m’en souvienne
La joie venait toujours après la peine

Vienne la nuit sonne l’heure
Les jours s’en vont je demeure

Les mains dans les mains restons face à face
Tandis que sous
Le pont de nos bras passe
Des éternels regards l’onde si lasse

Vienne la nuit sonne l’heure
Les jours s’en vont je demeure

L’amour s’en va comme cette eau courante
L’amour s’en va
Comme la vie est lente
Et comme l’Espérance est violente

Vienne la nuit sonne l’heure
Les jours s’en vont je demeure

Passent les jours et passent les semaines
Ni temps passé
Ni les amours reviennent
Sous le pont Mirabeau coule la Seine

Vienne la nuit sonne l’heure
Les jours s’en vont je demeure

Guillaume Apollinaire (1880 – 1918)


3 thoughts on “Deux minutes

  1. jg

    There is another poem about the Seine by Nabokov, which interestingly related to the body of a (dead) woman, which was retrieved in the river in the laste 19th cy. There was a mask cast of the woman’s face, which was popular in France circa 1900 (I can’t find the poem now but I’m pretty sure it is by Nabokov).


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