If Livres d’occasion suggests you rent
these books to mark a singular event
or mood—to garnish an important speech,
to court with Ronsard, brood with Baudelaire—
before returning them and all they teach
about perception, passion and despair,
that is not so, of course. They are for sale.
The clerk who takes me through the wooden stacks
is slender, formal and austerely pale,
a Gallic governess with gemstone eyes.
The spines are paler too as we go back
and as the colours fade the prices rise,
the irony not lost on her or me
that the monastic look commands a fee.
It is when pausing with her over glass,
inches apart as other people pass,
to view a postwar letter signed Camus
—a plea for aid, Algerian relief—
and sharing sadness, intimate and brief,
to think of good men dying in their prime
that I sense how, in quite another time,
I might have built the moment into more,
begun the pilgrimage from vous to tu.
My choices made, I pay and leave the store.
Outside with Vigny, Verne and Mérimée,
my collar up in homage to Albert,
a taste of winter sharpening the air,
I smile, remembering I knew her once,
or one like her, in classrooms far away.
Seated between the lush pubescent glow
of girls named Margot, Jeanne and Isabelle
and, farther back, the jesters and the dunce,
she knows her grammar, French and Latin, well.
Her hair is long, her head is turned my way,
her eyes appear to frame a thought, or no,
which hangs, then rises in a spiral dance
into the cloud dispensary of chance
before descending, now again, like snow.