In Montmartre Cemetery
In Montmartre Cemetery
The seated statue on Nijinsky’s tomb
Depicts him in the role he thought his best—
The gentle, solitary puppet whom
A jealous impresario oppressed.
In his clown costume with its collar ruff
And tasseled cap, he rests with chin in hand,
As if conceiving he might yet pull off
The sane and independent life he planned.
Admirers have left tributes at his feet—
Notes, poems, flowers, a pair of ballet shoes—
And if they could, the stray cats from the street
Might share with him the lives they have to lose.
A gardener makes his broom rake scratch and ring,
Absorbed by fallen leaves and litter, save
When tourists ask directions, hurrying
To visit this or that illustrious grave.
Poor Heine has his crypt just yards from here.
He, on his deathbed, hearing his wife pray,
“Father, forgive his sins!” said, “Don’t fret, dear.
The Lord will pardon me: It’s His métier.”
Though writers can, if need be, hide behind
Their works and wit, performing artists can’t,
As a young King of Pop in time would find—
A man who, like Nijinsky, danced en pointe
And grew obsessively dissatisfied
With a face and body others turned to profit,
Whose sexual energy on stage belied
Conflicted feelings he experienced off it.
His spirit could find comfort in this place
Which holds the Paris of bohemian dreams
And high above which, like a pledge of grace,
The Mount’s vast, many-domed cathedral gleams.
Death, in Petrushka, sets the puppet free.
By thirty, the great dancer had gone mad.
Here in the presence of his effigy,
Some say they feel the genius that he had;
Others, reflecting on his legend, trust
That any true achievement will endure
And will prove worth the anguish that it cost.
The statue, though, looks like it’s not so sure.
When Suzanne Doyle invited me to contribute to her Able Muse festschrift for Turner Cassity, I thought of his excellent poems of travel and cultural meditation. Among his many admirable qualities, Cassity was ceaselessly curious about different places, times, and peoples and about the ways in which their characters and predicaments connected with or illuminated each other. Writing about Johannesburg, Sydney, Istanbul, Amsterdam, or New Orleans—or John Calvin, the Krupps, Giacomo Puccini, John Singer Sargent, or James Jones—he was never touristic or glibly allusive. He always kept his sharp but sympathetic eye on the human significance of what he described.
The poem I’ve written for this festschrift attempts, in its way, to do something of the same thing. Whether it succeeds is another matter; but I hope that if Cassity comes across it while surfing the Internet on Parnassus, he’ll accept it for the spirit of admiration and friendship with which it was written.