Guest Writer/Stuart Dischell

   Looking for Robert Desnos:

 State of Alert: The Last Transformation of the Surrealist Poet 

Stuart Dischell. Photo credit: Cyril Caine

About the author:

Stuart Dischell is the author of Good Hope Road (Viking 1993), a National Poetry Series Selection, Evenings & Avenues (Penguin 1996), Dig Safe (Penguin 2003), Backwards Days (Penguin 2008), Standing on Z (Unicorn 2016), Children with Enemies (Chicago 2017), The Lookout Man (Chicago 2022), and the forthcoming collaborative chapbook, Andalusian Visions. His poems have appeared in The Alaska Quarterly, The Atlantic, Agni, The New Republic, Slate, Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, and numerous national and international anthologies, such as Best American Poetry, Good Poems, and The Pushcart Prize. A recipient of awards from the NEA, the North Carolina Arts Council, the Ledig-Rowohlt Foundation, and the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, he is the Class of 1952 Excellence Professor in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina Greensboro. 

The following text by Stuart Dischell was published in its integrity in Terminus 10 magazine, 2013

Robert Desnos. Source:

Walking along the Rue de Bagnolet near the eastern edge of Paris, I stepped into la Flèche d'Or, a club and café established in what had been a station of the Petite Ceinture, the old circular railway. Near the back windows, people at tables and chairs looked out over the industrial peace of overgrown tracks. A semi-circular bar closed off a serving area. The rest of the space was empty except for the black boxes of sound equipment and two low wooden stages. On the walls someone had sprayed totemic graffiti patterns similar to those in downtown clubs in New York in the early eighties.

La Flèche d'Or club in Bagnolet, Paris. LP/J.D. Source:

I stood at the bar and ordered a Belgian beer from the tap with an aftertaste initially reminiscent of varnish. 

The open-faced young woman serving drinks and coffee wore her hair up in a net-like cap the way a Rastafarian does. She had on a long tan skirt that concealed her legs and made her appear kind of like a mermaid in her embroidered white shirt. She used no makeup but a lot of silver rings pierced her ears and a small slender hoop went through her left nostril. Her pupils were dilated, and when she spoke I felt as if I could walk right into them. After being quiet all day it would be good to have a conversation with such a person. She was surprised that I knew a little about the old railway, the "little belt" that ran just inside what were once the city walls which are themselves referred to as enceintes, "belts". Only a few vestiges remain of its twenty-nine stations--one a swank restaurant across town in La Muette. 

Over the years, people have snuck onto the tracks. Ultimately, the route of the Petite Ceinture will be a green walk similar to the Parc Plantee or the High Line in Manhattan. 


La Flèche d'Or, named after a fancy nineteenth-century train, opened in 1995 in the former Gare de Charonne. This station, closed in 1933, nearly sixty years after its construction, provides an excellent if idiosyncratic example of how a café and club can prosper in a space unsuited to other enterprises. The open waiting room is perfect for performances, and the lower area track side is used for storage, private parties, and the overflow crowd on the weekends. At two thirty in the afternoon in the middle of the week, though, only a few people sat out by the glass-enclosed area drinking coffee and reading newspapers and books and no one was at the bar but me, a situation that would change but not drastically. I ordered another beer. 


I told the young woman how La Flèche d'Or reminded me of clubs in New York. This made her smile. She smiled a lot and spoke English well and with ease. When I had said New York, she got dreamy and I wondered if it were her desire for a different city or sorrow at the recent events of terror whose ripples could be seen in the current vigilance in Paris. Or maybe that's just how she looked. Her pupils enlarged as she spoke, and on the way in I swear I could smell patchouli. 

Former gare de Charonne, Rue de Bagnolet. Source:

I wanted to see where the sun wore a bucket for a hat, where the sun was like no other. It had been raining a lot and I would have been glad to see the sun at all. 

The rue de Bagnolet had for centuries been the main drag of the ancient hilly village of Charonne. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the original walker in the city, after taking his dinner on October 24, 1776 had "followed the boulevards up to the rue de Chemin-Vert then gained the heights of Menilmontant; and from there, taking the paths across the vineyards and meadows, followed as far as Charonne the smiling landscape which unites the two villages." On another occasion he was attacked by a huge farm dog. 


I had come to see the street I had read about in the Robert Desnos poem "Lines of the rue de Bagnolet" from State of Alert, the last book published during his lifetime. I wanted to see where the sun wore a bucket for a hat, where the sun was like no other. It had been raining a lot and I would have been glad to see the sun at all. 




The sun of the rue de Bagnolet

Is a sun unlike the others

It bathes itself in the gutter, 

It wears a bucket for a hat, 

Like all the others, 

But, when it rubs my shoulders, 

It is itself and not another, 

The sun of the rue de Bagnolet

Drives a cabriolet

Somewhere not the palace gates

Sun, sun not pretty or homely, 

Sun all funny and all happy, 

Sun of the rue de Bagnolet, 

Sun of winter and spring, 

Sun of the rue de Bagnolet, 

Unlike the others. 

The previous afternoon, on the other side of the river, I walked from our rental apartment near the Observatory down the rue Campagne Premiere, across boulevard Raspail, and to the entrance of the Montparnasse Cemetery on the Boulevard Edgar Quinet. These cemetery walls once stood just outside the Toll Wall of 1785, a sensible practice, dating back to Roman times, of relegating corpses to the outskirts of the city. My three year old son was with me. The drizzle did not stop him from running up and down the alleys of graves. The sign inside the gates of the cemetery showed the Desnos tomb located in the 15th section, but it took several passes to find it positioned in the fifth row not far from section 8 --good seating for a café in winter but less fortunate for eternity. 

The Desnos tombe. Source:

My son complained because he could not find our names on any of the tombs. He ran around but not on top of them, a bargain he made with me that involved a soft drink later. Earlier he had been out of sorts because of the rain. All the while he quarreled with his sister, I had been trying to translate "the sun unlike the others" on the rue de Bagnolet. 


The Desnos family grave is a plain black rectangle simply marked Desnos without specific reference by first name to Robert or any of his relations. Cemetery space in Paris was always precious and I wondered about the manner in which their remains were arranged there. Desnos had been an original Surrealist, a friend of Andre Breton, Paul Eluard, and Louis Aragon, and, like his fellows, an anti-fascist. Having been born in that remarkable generation of 1900, his great poetic periods were in the twenties and forties, the years of his own twenties and forties. 

Desnos had been an original Surrealist, a friend of Andre Breton, Paul Eluard, and Louis Aragon, and, like his fellows, an anti-fascist. Having been born in that remarkable generation of 1900....

He was a member of the Resistance, who may have smuggled news information out of the offices of the newspaper where he worked, and a trenchant critique of right-wing authors. He was arrested on February 22, 1944 at his home at 19 rue de Mazarine in St-Germain des Pres, delivered to the dread internment facility at Rue de Saussaies where many Resistance fighters were tortured, driven to Fresnes outside of Paris, and then transported to the Camp de Royallieu a Compiegne. Two months after his arrest the authorities sent him by boxcar to Auschwitz, Buchenwald, several prison factories, then marched him across the mountains into Czechoslovakia where he died of typhus at the Terezin  concentration camp on June 8, 1944, a few weeks after the camps were liberated by the Red Army. Not a Jew but, as Celine described him, a "jew-lover", he rests among the graves of Jews and Christians in the egalitarian Montparnasse Cemetery where people of all and no faiths are still being buried. In an earlier poem in State of Alert he writes:



Day after day, 

Plot after plot

Where do you go? Where are you going? 

The earth is bruised by so many errant men!

The earth is enriched by the corpses of so many men. 

But the earth is us, 

We are not on top of her

But in her since forever. 

Andre Breton purged Desnos from the Surrealist movement, supposedly for writing too well, but nonetheless believed he came closest to the surrealist ideal both in his work and spirit. From the start Desnos was the most idiosyncratic, Houdini-like figure, the oracle of their gatherings. He survived manifestos, automatic writing, opium, suicide parties, his first conscription--but not the Nazis. Not far from the Canal St-Martin in the tenth arrondissement near the Mountfacon where the gibet, the medieval gallows, stood, Paris has named a public square after him. 

Square Robert Desnos, 75010 Paris. Source:

Still a high spot but sort of a circular courtyard among characterless modern apartments, Place Robert Desnos is the meeting point now of streets named for Handel, Camus, Francis Jammes, and the Polish poet Boy Zelenski. It is place devoid of resonance, yet the product of the French penchant for honoring its intellectuals, somewhat fitting for the author of a book entitled, "Domaine Public;"

From the start Desnos was the most idiosyncratic, Houdini-like figure, the oracle of their gatherings. He survived manifestos, automatic writing, opium, suicide parties, his first consription--but not the Nazis. 

Desnos had no association with the Mountfacon neighborhood, however. He took apartments on the other side of the city--his wildest years were on the Rue Blomet in the fifteenth arrondissement. Afterwards he lived with his wife Youki on the rue Mazarine where he was arrested. He grew up near the markets in St-Merri, a neighborhood later razed as an îlot insalubre, an unhealthy enclave of densely inbred alleys and streets. In the middle ages it had been known for the alchemists who resided there. Desnos' father worked as a wholesaler of beef, poultry, or game at nearby Les Halles, a grill owner, a deputy mayor, or the operator of a café, in all respects a proper bourgeois. 

 Lucien Desnos's skill with the saw and knife may have made the poet adept at the dissociative as well as associative nature of surrealist art, the sharp mortal cuts. 



If you want, my beauty, I will make a bed for you

In the bloody decor of my boutique. 

My knives will be illusionary mirrors

Where the day clears, shines, and clouds. 


I will make a warm bed, hollowed

For you in the open guts of a heifer

And when you sleep you could be a young woman again. 

I will watch over you like an executioner guards the scaffold. 

"Lines of the Butcher" is the most macabre, terrifyingly sexual of the couplets. In many respects. It is, well, the most surreal of the poems of State of Alert and stands out as a vestige rather than an example of the book.

This poem along with the others published in 1943 is devastatingly simple. In the prose afterword to the collection, Desnos suggested that the poems began as automatic writing exercises composed in the thirties which he revised in the early forties as he was writing new poems that reflected his desire to use the rhymes of Spanish couplets, Cuban rhythms that had first enticed him on a visit to Miguel Asturias in Havana for la Prensa Latina conference in 1928, and American blues. I believe he was also aware of the ways that Federico Garcia Lorca, the first martyred artist of the War, had used these kinds of formal techniques to create a poetry that was both rhythmic and surreal. Desnos' work of this period had come after years of writing love poems, fables, verses for children, and more recently poems of resistance-- as well as writing thousands of publicity slogans and advertisements for the radio. 


State of Alert contains nineteen poems, the prose afterward, and ten engravings by the artist Gaston-Louis Roux. It was published on April 28, 1943 under the direction of Robert J. Godet and typeset by J. Group-Radenez in an edition of 170 copies, twenty of which were not distributed for reasons of imperfection. Desnos received the first thirty, the illustrator the next ten, 41-50 went to a certain but unknown AM Payot, and the rest kept for distribution by the publisher. The collection was meant to be distributed among friends during the Occupation and was not sold in shops. It is an underground publication aptly dedicated "a mes amis," to my friends. My version is a photocopy of number 60. There is currently one available on the internet from a bookstore in the rue St-Honore for 3200 euro.


The book opens with a bestiary, four fabulist poems regarding a camel, a bear, a bull, and a bee, followed by "Earth" and "Suicides," poems that concern the buried, "the hanged, the cut, and the poisoned." They are followed by "At Five AM" and "I Have Taken Myself Walking," a pair that reintroduces the urban landscape of the book that was suggested earlier and more fancifully in "Histoire de la Ourse" in which the bear enters the city to uproarious effect. But the poems in State of Alert that interest me most are the ones written during the Occupation of Paris. They roughly comprise the second half of the book, the group of six "couplets" that he thought of as little songs rather than couplets in the English rhyming sens and the concluding four poems he termed as classical in nature. 


Although Denos' poems had previously contained references to Paris, the poems of "State of Alert," and the subsequent poems, such as "The Watchman of the Seine," that would be posthumously collected in his last volumes most concern the physical details of the city. During the Occupation, place names became touchstones, and he imbued the very statuary and bridges with the Surrealist's hypnotic powers of transformation and the summoning of political resistance. Having grown in the warren of the St-Merri and St-Martin neighborhoods, his "Lines on the Rue Saint Martin" resonate not only because of the "disappearance" of Andre Platard, Desnos' friend and fellow Resistance figure, but also because of where the poem is set. It helps also to explain the repeated line, "I don't much like the rue Saint-Martin," a blues repetition which also sounds like something a hurt child might say. 



I don't much like the rue St-Martin

Since Andre Platard left it.

I don't much like the rue St-Martin, 

I like nothing, not even wine. 


I don't much like the rue St-Martin

Since Andre Platard left it. 

He's my friend, he's my pal. 

We shared a room and our bread. 

I don't much like the rue St-Martin. 


He's my friend, he's my pal. 

He disappeared one morning, 

They took him away, nothing is known. 

Not to be seen again on the rue St-Martin. 


No use praying to the saints, 

Saints Merri, Jacques, Gervais, and Martin, 

Not even Valerien hidden on the hill. 

Time passes, nothing is known. 

Andre Platard has left the rue St-Martin.

The neighborhood now exists in a one block fashion around the Church of St-Merri that was spared and in the narrow streets just south of the Pompidou Museum. You can get a feel for it by seeing a skillful macquette of how it looked in the Carnavalet Museum. 

Desnos also writes of the nearby Porte St-Denis and its lesser-known, somewhat shorter neighboring gate, Porte St-Martin. 





Porte Saint Martin, Porte Saint Denis

To see the moon light pass through the arch

Porte Saint Martin, Porte Saint Denis

North to south stretches the road

Porte Saint Denis, Porte Saint Martin, 

North or south follows its path

Porte Saint Martin, Porte Saint Denis

To walk under the arch in the little morning 

Porte Saint Martin, Porte Saint Denis

To drink black coffee with friends, 

Porte Saint Martin, Porte Saint Denis

When the sky becomes white in the little morning

Porte Saint Denis, Porte Saint Martin

In the dawn to drown the ancient troubles,

To leave singing toward a far away place

With our pals, with our friends

Porte Saint Denis, Porte Saint Martin

In lovely sunshine, on a lovely morning.

Porte Saint Denis. Photo courtesy of Ana Malnar

Although still a dreamer, Desnos no longer poses as the sleepwalker of his early work. The sens of purposeful displacement evident in his best poems of the 1920s such as "I have dreamed of you" or "Like a Hand at the moment of death" has been replaced by a heightened sense of the city, the City of Paris, its monuments, districts, and inhabitants the sense of place in the later poems is crucial. The voice in Etat de Veille is in both a state of walking consciousness and a state of being alert. The spare almost childlike constructions harmonize with their subject. That eternal linguistic joker might have also thought the etat de veille is very much like etait de ville--the state of the city during The Occupation. Therefore I have opted to title the book in English, "State of Alert" rather than "State of Walking."

The terrible resonance of the "far away place" Desnos would end up with his copains creates a palpable tension that informes every movement of these poems. "Lines of the Glass of Wine" written in 1942 is hard not to read through the lens of his subsequent arrest and deportation.




When the train leaves do not wave your hand,

Not your handkerchief, nor your umbrella, 

Instead fill a glass with wine

To throw toward the train whose ridelles sing.

The long flame of wine

Is like the same blood red flame of your tongue.

And parts like it

The palace and couch

Of your lips and mouth.

One is tempted to see box cars or freight cars and hear the songs of the deported on their way to disappearing or even flat cars. But the fourth line of the poem, "Et lance vers le train dont chantent les ridelles," is untranslatable in American English because we do not have ridelles, the type of open, metal, cars the SNCF used in its system. You might imagine flat cars with railings. The ridelles are frequently covered with tarpaulins: the song is in the wind. The pictures I saw detailing several types of ridelles varied by the height of the supporting frame and the nature of the product to be enclosed: from lumber to vegetables were determining characteristics. The best pictures were those of hobbyist sites for toy trains. To complicate things further vers means "toward" or "to" or "at" as in its literal sense in the line, but vers is also verse. At serious play, the wine and the mouth are then poetry itself, the tongue touch of eros.


So when the girl at the former station of La Flèche d'Or told me she was off until it was time to set up the club for the night and gave me half a smile and one eyebrow rose and asked me if we were remaining for another drink, my wedding ring nearly dissolved in alcohol. I never went to her place on rue de Pyrenees where we drank and smoked and I wished her housekeeping was better. I did not stay for a week and get a tattoo like the black rose on her hip. I did have a third Belgian beer, however, and I made a plan with myself to return some night to better check out la Flèche d'Or.

Guillaume Apollinaire created the term "surrealism" for a performance piece in which all the arts collided, a heightened aesthetic condition. Apollinaire himself of various confused and known ancestry was a collision of peoples, the modern man of the new century whose future was beyond cartographic frontiers. He named himself after a water bottle. The early works of the Dadaists, those precursors of surrealism, involved all sorts of antics-art shows in which the viewers would fall into a pit inside a gallery, plays in which gas filled balloons in the form of naked female breasts floated above the audience. In short, the origins of what the avant garde has been dishing up for nearly a hundred years. Its purpose was to shock, to amaze, to engage, to make the reader, the audience, the viewer, participate in the altered act of consciousness. Later the movement under the leadership of Andre Breton drifted towards séance, psychoanalysis, and ultimately Communism as the events in the world caught up with the practitioners. The landscape of the movement was the streets of Paris. 


When Paul Celan, who jumped off Pont Mirabeau and was not a surrealist, wrote, "they are digging a grave in the sky, there is room to lie down there" he was speaking literally as well as figuratively. The "medical" experiments of the Nazis went well beyond Luis Bunuel and Salvadore Dali's famous slit eyeball scene in Le Chien de Andalusia. The mass graves of the camps, the photos of striped prisoners and stripped skeletons, the mounds of teeth, heaps of pots and pans, children's shoes, and looms of women's hair are an overstatement that the onlooker can no longer comprehend. Mike, an English businessman at the hotel bar in Krakow, told me, "I had seen it all before but this time it was in color."

But even the color of the death camps was essentially sepia, lightened by a few pale green trees. 


The atrocities of World War II overshadowed those committed in all previous wars and the bourgeois culture to which the French surrealism had reacted in the years after the First War was shattered forever. Totalitarianism, however, was another matter. For the Europeans after the War, their upheavals and dislocations created the less light-hearted literature of Sartre, Camus, Celan, Grass and Levi.


In 2002 I would travel to Krakow and go to the Polish village of Oswiecim and walk through the gates of Auschwitz, the ugliest word in the German language, to see where Desnos had been early on incarcerated and where so many of the disappeared of Paris vanished and where my grandparents had they remained in France would have been incinerated. There are pictures from 1943 of the arrival of about 1700 Parisians who were tattooed with numbers, Desnos was given 185, 443. I did not see his face among them. He might still have been wearing the cape his neighbor gave him to keep warm on his journey. I would visit the crematoria and photograph the ovens for myself. 

Desnos was not cremated here nor was he machine-gunned on the train tracks of the adjacent Birkenau. Nor did he perish at Buchenwald or Flossberg although he had ample opportunity.

For months afterwards, I would become one of those people who wave horrible photos in your face. In the stillness of the stark camp with its filmed and staged displays, I would see how things are always less and more horrible than we imagine them. I was afraid people would openly weep here, that I might too, but the response I saw that afternoon was the stupefaction that comes with being overwhelmed.


Desnos was not cremated here nor was he machine-gunned on the train tracks of the adjacent Birkenau. Nor did he perish at Buchenwald or Flossberg although he had ample opportunity. The guards at Floha nearly beat him to death when he came to the aid of a fellow prisoner. A friend remembered Desnos joking that he wanted to visit all of the camps. He held out until just after the liberation when the typhus at Terezin killed him. Many prisoners died in the heightened squalor and neglect of the last days of the war. The story goes that two Czech students who had come to aid the survivors found him barely alive. 

They had seen his name posted on a list of the internees. When they asked if he knew Robert Desnos he told them "I am Robert Desnos." They were fluent in French and had read his poems in school. They treated him for his illness, but it was too late. Starvation had done its job. He was cremated and his ashes transported to Paris and buried in the family tomb in Montparnasse where his mother and father had already been interred. His co-surrealist Paul Eluard has famously written that "there is another world but it is within this one." When he wrote it between the wars he obviously did not know the form that this world would take. 


Throughout the Occupation, Desnos sought to remain hopeful, to remain engaged, to publish his poems and journalism under noms de plume, despite his demotion by the fascists at Aujourd'hui where he worked. Occasionally, he feared arrest, but for most of the Occupation he was in no real danger. Some say that his initial incarceration was the cruel joke of one Nazi officer getting back at a fellow Nazi officer who had professed high regard for Desnos' work. By this point of the Occupation many of the writers and artists had left Paris for New York like Breton or the South of France like Picasso. 

Guardedly he held out for a better future. One must always be alert for hope. "Tomorrow," one of the poems he termed "classical in appearance," appears before the afterward.




When I am a hundred thousand, I will have the same

Strength to await you, o tomorrow, shadow of hope.

Even Time, an old man twisted by his pain, 

May groan: "the morning is new, the evening new."


But for many months we have lived on edge, 

The guardians of light and fire, we keep alert. 

We speak softly and decipher as we can

The noises swiftly fading and lost like a game


Now, from the bottom of the night we witness

The splendor of the day and all that it gives

If we do not sleep it is to await the dawn

Which will prove in the end we live in the present.

Robert Desnos at the Theresienstadt concentration camp, 1945. Source:

There is a close up picture of him shortly before his death at Terezin. He wears the wide vertical stripes of the prisoner. He is bent slightly forward. His sleeves appear to be rolled just below the elbows. Stubble has returned to his shaved head and there dark growth spreads under his chin and at the edges of his jaw. His face is one of sorrow and exhaustion and sickness. I wish I could say that he still appears as he will read his comrades' futures and tell jokes--but he looks like a man who has lost everything, whose death can already be seen on his face. In "After Word to Etat de Veille," he concludes "it is not poetry that has to be free, it is the poet," a hideous truth his own life confirmed. 


Of the group of well known Surrealist poets, he was not among the most active in the Resistance but the only one deported by the Nazis and their collaborators. It was never clear what his role had been--possibly photographing news items from uncensored sources that were not printed by Aujourd'hui and passing them to the Resistance. By the time of his arrest in February 1944, he had been demoted at the paper and no longer was a lead reviewer. How much access he had to these articles at that point would be debatable. The other men that were arrested in this sweep were, like himself, mostly professionals and intellectuals, non-Jews. Even the Nazis at Auschwitz seemed surprised by the harsh treatment of this group. A poet of Paris, his ashes were brought from Czechoslovakia to his parish church, St-Germain-des-Pres, for a ceremony. They arrived in a silver cocktail shaker.

I never learned Robert Desnos' literal connection to the rue de Bagnolet. Maybe he had a friend or publisher here. His adult residences were in the fifteenth near Montparnasse and then from 1934-1944 at 19 rue Mazarine between rue St-Andre des Arts and the river. That building bears a very worn marble plaque above the entryway that confirms the address. Possibly he performed Resistance work in this working class quarter. It is clear in his poem that Desnos is punning off the name Bagnolet with the verb baigner, to bathe. He also alludes to the palace gates, those possibly being the gates to what was once the chateaux of the powerful Dukes of Orleans, the Pavillon de l'Ermitage, a vestige down the street from La Fleche d'Or. I e-mailed a leading American scholar of Desnos and was relieved to learn that she did not know either, so I put it to rest.

Plaque affixed to n° 19 rue Mazarine, Paris 6th. “Here lived from 1934 to 1944 Robert Desnos, French poet. Arrested by the Gestapo and deported, he died because he loved freedom, progress and justice.

During the War years Desnos' love for Paris grew more fierce. Not merely an urban poet, he became a true poet of the city, loving its pavement and human structures. Even more than Baudelaire, he became a poet of Paris. 

In "Lines of the Sidewalk in Summer," a poem that appears just after "Lines of the Rue de Bagnolet" in State of Alert, he again evokes the image of keeping watch or guarding. It is the flaneur at rest. 




We should lie down on the sidewalk,

Warmed by the sun, washed by the sun,

In the good odor of dust

As the day departs, 

Before the night comes on, 

Before the first lamp is lit, 

And keep watch in the gutter

For the reflections of clouds as they gather,

The red heat of the horizon

And the first star over the houses.

Over the years, the authorities have closed la Flèche d'Or because of problems on the premises, allegations concerning drugs and protection of immigrants and an angry confrontation with police. It has opened again then closed, then just as it was sold and about to reopen one more time a group of vandals destroyed the interior, causing the new owner to back out of the deal. It has since reestablished into a milder version of itself. Each year I check out its incarnation. I wonder what became of the girl who worked there and know in my heart I will never see her again, but the vaguest possibility of her interest in me ignited my daydreams. 


Although the Petite Ceinture continued to operate until the 1930s, from the 1870s onward it became clear that the city walls would need to come down, a process started just after World War I and not completed until World War II began. This area after the last city wall was envisioned by urban planners as a green belt around Paris, and in portions it does in fact contain sports fields and athletic parks. A confusion over who had rights to the property also created a hodgepodge of industry, residential apartment blocks, gas stations, prostitutes, drug dealers, and wholesale super markets.


These are still the poorer streets of Paris and the most densely populated. There are no museums here or fashionable shops or distinguished lycees. Rent and food prices are for now lower than in other parts of town. The Porte de Bagnolet, an active if characterless intersection with its crust of modern structures, hides the rue de Bagnolet from the automobiles at the terrifying juncture of the auto routes and Peripherique. Above it all, the former village of Charonne retains its village air. Like the Butte de Cailles to the south, it is a high place where people are cool. And it is also a typical neighborhood. Paris is always revealing itself this way. Up here what you breathe does feel a little cleaner, the sun has just a little brighter quality, maybe a sun in fact unlike the others, reflecting in puddles and even maybe in that bucket just after rain. 








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