Poetry: Gate of Lilacs 1: Origami of the Madeleine | clivejames.com
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Gate of Lilacs 1 :  Origami of the Madeleine

From the taste of the scallop-shell of cake
Made moist by the decoction of lime-blossom
It all unfolds inexorably, the vast
Structure of recollection — in his tongue
L’édifice immense des souvenirs
Though it’s a structure only in the sense
That Gaudi’s cathedral in Barcelona
And the weird Watts Towers in Los Angeles —
Eclectic stalagmites of junk — are structures,
Or the sandcastle you helped your daughters build
Before you sat with them to watch the sea
Dismantle it and smooth it out and take it
Back down to where it came from. Architecture
Proust’s novel really isn’t, though he sets
Great store by the idea of frozen music.
He claims to gaze for hours on end at any
Stone steeple that recalls the gothic spire
Of a Norman church near Balbec. We doubt that,
And then recall Reynaldo Hahn’s account
Of how, while touring a strange house, he left
Proust fixed in place, admiring a rose-bush.
When Hahn came back a long time later, Proust
Was still there. Was Proust posing? Hahn asked too,
But eventually concluded he was not,
And so must we. We can regret his wetness —
‘My poor, poor little hawthorns!’ he would cry,
Clutching them to him as he vowed his grief,
Astounding you that such a total weed
Could ever have become the wise and brave
Soldier for Dreyfus and brought his great book
To full bloom in the hot-house of his dying —
But never doubt his powers of concentration.
When Thomas Mann made notes about how Proust
Made notes, he was acknowledging an equal.
Proust, as Mann saw, was fascinated by
The way a beetle, laying up the food
For the children that would thrive after its death,
Bored through the central nerve of the wrapped body
Of a victim so that, though it could not move,
Still it would live. That was the scrutiny
That Proust could focus on the social life
Of the great world, describing its coherence —
The web that tied the Faubourg to the brothel —
In detailed reverence yet without the curb
Of rigid prejudice against the rise
Of demos and its verve. His grandmother
Had shown him the imaginative power
Of tolerance. She thought the local tailor
A true wit and a fine man. Proust took note,
And when the time arrived for him to gauge
The beau monde’s actual human sympathy
Behind its poised façade, he had the tools.
Those who believe that nothing really changes
In Proust, that he is just the belle époque
Affirming its longevity, a plush
Box at the opera like Renoir’s La Loge
In which sits a new face with an old title,
Have it exactly wrong. Everything changes,
And his whole world, the fashionable world,
Is on its way out even as he loves it,
Yielding its primacy to the upcoming
World of creative thought, for which he sets
A standard by including in his scope
The splendour of what was, but is no longer,
Unchallenged. And indeed he was a throwback:
The salons had given way to the cafés —
The new term demimonde was coined to cover
A milieu best reported by Colette,
Blessed by the fortune of her humble birth —
The gifted hung out with each other. He,
However, was condemned by privilege
To serve his sentence in a melting prison
Without parole, and see, inside the flow
Of time, what drove it forward yet appeared
To hold it still, with codes of style and manners,
The invitations on the mantelpiece
Lined up like the last guardsmen of an army
That had been routed by Napoleon,
A favour granted and a kiss withheld.
On both the smaller and the greater scale
His texture of perception testifies,
In every paragraph no matter how
Extended, to the pin-point penetration
Of his gaze. He said the literary merit
Of an author could be measured at a glance;
And said it while informing us that Swann
Could instantly assess a smart event
From one peep at the list of attendees.
Swann’s snobbery was Proust’s, and yet Swann’s love
For Odette, which included her bad taste,
Assures us of Proust’s seriousness, of how,
Within the limits of his birth, and class,
And poor health, and of being just one person,
He made the whole of life his stamping ground,
Even our jealousies and weaknesses —
A synthesis he introduced by linking
The paper flower and the little cake,
All his precision and his subtlety
Flaring to life from a mixed metaphor.