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Ellen Bass – Ⅰ

Asking Directions In Paris 




Où est le Boulevard Saint Michel?

You pronounce the question carefully.

And when the native stops,

shifting her small sack of groceries,

lifts her manicured hand,

you feel a flicker of accomplishment.

But beyond that, all clarity

dissolves, for the woman

in the expensive shoes

and suit exactly the soft gray

of clouds above the cathedral, does not say

to the right, to the left, straight ahead,

phrases you memorized from tapes

as you drove around your home town

or mumbled into a pocket Berlitz on the plane,

but relays something wholly unintelligible,

some version of On the corner

he is a shop of jewels in a fountain

and the hotel arrives on short feet.

You listen hard, nodding,

as though your pleasant

disposition, your willingness

to go wherever she tells you,

will make her next words pop up

from this ocean of sound, somewhat

the way a dog hears its name

and the coveted syllable walk.

If you’re brave enough, or very nervous,

you may even admit you don’t understand.

And though evening’s coming on and

her family’s waiting, her husband lighting

another Gaulois, the children setting the table,

she repeats it all again, with another

gesture of her lovely hand, from which you glean

no more than you did the first time.

And as you thank her profusely

and set off full of doubt and groundless hope,

you think this must be how it is

with destiny—God explaining

and explaining what you must do,

even willing to hold up dinner for it,

and all you can make out is a few

unconnected phrases, a word or two, a wave

in what you pray is the right direction.