Stanley Plumly left behind a finished book of poems, Middle Distance, when he died at home in Frederick, Maryland, on April 11, 2019. One of the centerpieces of this masterful posthumous volume is a long sequence that alternates between short prose segments and single-stanza blocks of lyric poetry. The present piece of “Travel & Leisure” represents one of those pairings and demonstrates just how connected are Plumly’s rich memory and the easy elegance of his language. Here he’s mostly in his beloved Paris, as attentive to the “plane trees and pigeons” as to the statuary and long human history. These two parts show his skill at focusing-in—from the large square at Place St.-Sulpice to one of the small lanes nearby, Rue Ferou, with its shops and “deep green gardens.” It’s part of his mastery to watch as the “blue … and darker” evening leads him to this marvel of a final line: “No one died, nor was ever going to die.” The sentence beats like the ironic heartbeat of Plumly’s entire book.
Place St.-Sulpice, the square, in the twenties, about which Hemingway writes that if “you came out of the Luxembourg you could walk” to “down the narrow rue Ferou,” yet adds that “there were still no restaurants, only the quiet square with its benches and trees. There was a fountain with lions, and pigeons walked on the pavement and perched on the statues of the bishops. There was the church and there were shops selling religious objects and vestments on the north side…” When I was there, in the eighties, St.-Sulpice was still quiet, with benches and large plane trees and pigeons on the heads of the bishop statues and the heads of the lions, yet there were no shops to speak of though there were restaurants, at least one, where I would sit away the afternoon nursing a slow wine and slower coffee then once in a while walk over to pet the noses of the lions, which resemble, almost on scale, the lions in front of the New York City Public Library on Fifth Avenue.
Rue Ferou, one of the loveliest small
streets in Paris, perfect as a lane between
the grand church and the grander gardens.
At night, the City of Light, is defined in
sum by this square and its leonine silences,
save for the waterfall of the fountain. In
the autumn, the best time, the big sycamore-
size leaves drift down everywhere—onto
the slate slabs and cobblestones of the square,
onto the glass tables with their plates
of breads and cheeses and cheap white wine,
onto the heads and bodies of the bishops
and the lions, then the wind kicks up.
I’d have walked the late afternoon through
the well-ordered, well-kept deep green
gardens, have found a table near the front
of where the fountain was, and watched
the evening turn blue and dark and darker.
No one died, nor was ever going to die.
Stanley Plumly’s posthumous volume of poetry, Middle Distance, will appear this month from W. W. Norton. During is influential career, Plumly (1939-2019) published eleven other books of poetry as well as four works of prose about Romantic poets—notably John Keats—and Romantic painters. He served as Maryland’s poet laureate from 2009-2018, and as Distinguished University Professor at the University of Maryland, College Park.
David Baker’s Swift: New and Selected Poems will be released in paperback from W. W. Norton this month. He is Poetry Editor of The Kenyon Review.