≡ Menu

Refrain

The history of my reading life (and I consider it a life, somewhat independent of my so-called “real” life) has been littered with strange and utterly intuitive encounters with what now seem, in retrospect, the very things I needed. And so, when I had just turned fourteen, and was well-built and morose, and spent long hours staring in moody silence at nothing in particular (perhaps a pimple), I came upon a poem by a dead French man (or maybe he was Polish, or a gypsy, or an alien come down from the stars) named Apollinaire. A cousin had left it on our kitchen table. She was “in college” and planning to be a nurse. She came back for it only at exam time– such was her disdain. By then, I had cached it away in my underwear drawer, and the pain of giving it back to this nurse pending was palpable. The book contained Apollinaire, and George Trakl and Rilke, and I think it was an anthology of 20th century European poetry, but that detail is lost. What caught me first, and last, and has stayed with me for 38 years is a poem by Apollinaire called Le Pont Mirabeau (Mirabeau Bridge):

Under the pont Mirabeau flows the Seine
Our loves flow too
Must it recall them so
Joy came to us always after pain

May night come and the hours ring
The days go by and I remain

Facing each other hand in hand
Thus we will stand
While under our arms’ bridge
Our longing looks pass in a weary band

May night come and the hours ring
The days go by and I remain

Love leaves us like this flowing stream
Love flows away
How slow life is and mild
And oh how hope can suddenly run wild

May night come and the hours ring
The days go by and I remain

May the long days and the weeks go by
neither the past
Nor former loves return
Under the pont Mirabeau flows the Seine

May night come and the hours ring
The days go by and I remain

I must describe the physical sensation this poem had on me. It was a hot and humid day, and the house was full of fans whirring, and flies buzzing, and no one was home. My mother and father were out shopping. My sister was with them. My brother was off somewhere putting hickies on the neck of his girlfriend. I lay on my bed, trying to find the cool spot on the pillow, sun burned, a little feverish, and goose bumps rose on my skin because I knew this poem was true. I did not know what the particular truth was, but there it was–in all its sad and whimsical, and undeniable glory–light, and yet heavy as a stone you have just plucked from the bottom of a river. What grabbed me was the way that, each time the refrain returned, everything had somehow changed, as if the laws of repetition led not to regularity, but had, instead, provided the pulse, the throb of what can never be fixed, made stable, made “whole.” I read it again, and on the second reading, I was even more excited. As is my habit, I just kept reading it until my mother yelled up the stairs for me to come down and help bring in the groceries. It was now as if I had a mistress upstairs, and everything in the universe was interfering with my hidden love. I knew I must behave myself, and the attempt to “behave” myself, triggered my mother’s intuition: “What’s wrong, Joseph? Are you sick?”

I guess I had that startled look, as if I had been caught at something (masturbation, grand theft auto, making moody faces in the mirror), I said: “I feel a little weird.” She said: “Lay down for a few hours. Don’t go in the pool. Rest up, Joseph.”

And so I had more time with the poem, all the time I wanted. I memorized it. I took it with me on my bike. I brought it with me down to the deserted train tracks glutted with chicory weed and Queen Ann’s lace, and old shoes, and used condoms. It seemed at home there. I waited for the Angelus to ring at six o’clock, from all the churches of Elizabeth, and I said the poem aloud. Poetic truth can not be pinned down, and I already knew that. It is a pulse under things– not the things themselves. Years later, when I spoke to my students about the use of refrain, I said it was all about “circular transformatives”– circling back to see how everything has changed, how the repetition gives a pulse to movement– not a stop, but a pulse. This is the power of song, and music. The return, if justified, creates rather than impedes suspense. I used this poem as an example, and I also used a song I first heard done by Johnny Cash called Long Black Veil:

Ten years ago, on a cold dark night
Someone was killed ‘neath the town hall light.
I wasn’t there, but they all agreed that the slayer who ran
Looked a lot like me.

And she walks these hills in a long dark veil,
She visits my grave when the night winds wail.
Nobody knows, nobody sees, nobody knows but me.

The judge said son, what’s your alibi?
If you were somewhere else, then you won’t have to die.
I spoke not a word, though it meant my life.
I’d been in the arms of my best friend’s wife,

And she…

Every time the refrain returns, it has a new significance. This is the true value of repetition in a poem. So here’s my assignment: Write a poem with a refrain. Don’t just repeat it for the sake of refrain, but use it for its force of suspense. Listen to Long Black Veil, or read this wonderful poem by Apollinaire, and keep reading it until you soak in how the same words can have a slightly different, yet profound effect each time they return. Good luck.