Friday, January 24, 2014


Cour de Rohan (1922)
Photo by Eugène Atget

Heraclitus famously asserted that we can never step in the same river twice, for the river is constantly changing and so are we.  In short, everything is transitory, and no experience, however beautiful or transformational, can ever be truly replicated.  All that remains is the memory, but that alone, as the poet Jack Gilbert reminds us, may be more than enough.

                                        THE LOST HOTELS OF PARIS
                                                       By Jack Gilbert

                                   The Lord gives everything and charges

                                   by taking it back.  What a bargain.
                                   Like being young for a while.  We are
                                   allowed to visit hearts of women,
                                   to go into their bodies so we feel
                                   no longer alone.  We are permitted
                                   romantic love with its bounty and half-life
                                   of two years.  It is right to mourn
                                   for the small hotels of Paris that used to be
                                   when we used to be.  My mansard looking
                                   down on Notre Dame every morning is gone,
                                   and me listening to the bell at night.
                                   Venice is no more.  The best Greek islands
                                   have drowned in acceleration.  But it's the having,
                                   not the keeping that is the treasure.
                                   Ginsburg came to my house one afternoon
                                   and said he was giving up poetry
                                   because it told lies, that language distorts.
                                   I agreed, but asked what we have
                                   that gets it right even that much.
                                   We look up at the stars and they are
                                   not there.  We see the memory
                                   of when they were, once upon a time.
                                   And that too is more than enough.


  1. What words of wisdom George and well worth considering in so many situations.

  2. George! I've overwhelmed with this beauty. First the photograph by Atget (which is enough). Then the Heraclitus (which is enough). Then "mansard" and Ginsburg and Gilbert, and Paris, and memories, nostalgia, the having and then not having. Just your blog is enough, George. I feel all this so perfectly in this moment.

    I've been thinking about memory a lot having just finished Proust's Swann's Way, which ends with "The places we have known do not belong solely to the world of space in which we situate them for our greater convenience. They were only a thin slice among contiguous impressions which formed our life at that time; the memory of a certain image is but regret for a certain moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fleeting, alas, as the years." However, on the previous page, these astonishing lines:

    "But when a belief disappears, there survives it—more and more vigorous so as to mask the absence of the power we have lost to give reality to new things—a fetishistic attachment to the old things which our belief once animated, as if it were in them and not in us that the divine resided and as if our present lack of belief had a contingent cause, the death of the Gods."

    . . . as if it were in them and not in us that the divine resided . . .

    Isn't that wonderful?

  3. Wow, Ruth! I'm overwhelmed with the generosity and enthusiasm of your comment. Yes, the quotes from Swann's Way are absolutely wonderful, and I latched on to the same words that inspired you so much — "as if it were in them and not in us that the divine resided . . . " As to the Atget photograph, I have always loved the old French photographers, Atget among them, but also Cartier-Bresson and Brassai.

  4. Thanks, Pat. The wisdom of this poem comes easier, I think, after one has lived a few decades. Only then do we realize that every moment is unique and must be savored for what it is. And what would life be if we were not sustained at some level by the memories of those fragments in time that have been the building blocks to our lives?

  5. Yes, I like this. Can you, like me, feel a connection there with Bukowski in Gilbert's directness, clarity, unceremoniousness and hard nostalgia?

  6. Yes, Robert. There is a great deal of courageous honesty underpinning the works of both of these poets. Like you, I place a great deal of stock in directness and clarity.

  7. Each part of this post speaks to me, George. Do we long for what is no more, except in memory? Or, do we believe that " it's the having, not the keeping that is the treasure?" That's such a great photo - where do you find these gems?

  8. Thanks, Barb. Happy to learn that this post spoke to you. Through the years, I've admired and studied the black and white photos of the great French photographers of the early twentieth century, people like Atget, Brassai, and Cartier-Bresson. When I came across the Gilbert poem, "The Lost Hotels of Paris," I knew that there had do be many old photos that would illustrate the poem well, and I found this one by Atget in Wikimedia Commons.

  9. So True... the memories we carry that no one else can see...

  10. Thanks, Gwen, and yes, perhaps memories are especially precious to us because they are the only things we truly possess.

  11. "Everything flows, nothing stands still." (Heraclitus)
    At times I used to think that I hoped nothing would change because I was so happy in the moment, but there was always that background thought of it will change and such is life. And after all these years, I can say thank god things don't stand still. As Gilbert said, "It's the having not the keeping that is the treasure." I had a moment and now I can let it go. "That too is more than enough."
    When I first opened this post, I was fixated on the Atget photo for a couple of minutes. Of course I like any art that has windows (the watching you watching me kind of thing), but Atget captures something more, a kind of nostalgia I suppose.

  12. Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Rubye. While we may often deny it, life would be terribly boring if there was not always the prospect for change. The most we can hope for is that most changes will be for the better. Yes, I also admire this Atget photo, not only for nostalgic reasons, but also because it is so beautifully composed.

  13. The photo and the words all work so well together. The words that will stay with me: it's the having, not the keeping.... Thank you!

  14. Glad you liked this, Blissed-Out Grandma. Now if we can all practice the wisdom and remember that all things, including wonderful moments, are impermanent and beyond replication.

  15. I like poetic treatments of starlight. From Basil Bunting's Briggflatts:

    Furthest, fairest things, stars, free of our humbug,
    each his own, the longer known the more alone,
    wrapt in emphatic fire roaring out to a black flue.
    Each spark trills on a tone beyond chronological compass,
    yet in a sextant’s bubble present and firm
    places a surveyor’s stone or steadies a tiller.
    Then is Now. The star you steer by is gone,
    its tremulous thread spun in the hurricane
    spider floss on my cheek; light from the zenith
    spun when the slowworm lay in her lap
    fifty years ago.

  16. Thanks so much for this contribution, Dominic! The poems is terrific and right on point! And what a name — Basil Bunting Briggflattss. That's poetry in itself.

  17. "…it's the having, not the keeping…" Sigh. I adore this whole poem. Yes, the older one gets, and things "slip" from one's grasp - we realize it is so much more than "keeping" … for very few things if any remain the same - but become who and what we are on the inside…

    1. Well said, Margaret. Thanks for the comment.