Recalling Winter: The Poetry that is Lyon, France

eat: escargot a la bourguigonne in Maison Merle, Les Halles de Lyon

I like to spend weeks planning upcoming trips— reading book after book, falling down the internet rabbit hole searching for the perfect hotel, drooling over whatever other people are eating in the place that I can’t wait to get to. But following an unexpected move in February and an even more unexpected loss, I haven’t had time to sit still long enough to anticipate wherever my life’s itinerary insists on me going. It’s difficult to have a clear sense of travel when you are so resolutely unsure of home. Traveling to also insinuates traveling from, and lately I’ve had a really blurry sense of from. I’ve felt a lot like a tree frog whose every leaf keeps getting pulled out from underneath its feet.

I was hoping that, what with having to do so much travel, I’d be able to thoughtfully reflect on the many incredible places that I’ve visited lately: San Sebastian, Barcelona, D.C., San Francisco, rural Georgia, and Phoenix, even, which continues to surprise me. Instead, I’ve been feeling like I’m grasping, with tiny little disc-ed finger tips at whatever new leaf might be able to hold my weight. Everything has passed by in a flurry of green.

And so it is that I’ve found myself in the middle of summer— and in the middle of green, all around, green here in the southeast— reminiscing about a trip that I took last December to Lyon, France. It’s kayaks and lakes and barbecue in real time, but I can still somehow taste the overly sweet mulled wine and remember the slap of cold breeze on my face as I stood facing the Passerelle Saint-Vincent.

here and there
view from my window in the mountains of north Georgia; view of Saône River in Lyon

When the fourth of July fireworks frenzy began earlier this month, I was thinking about Lyon’s artistic and much less ear-splitting Festival of Lights.

View of "Lyon, Terre aux lumieres" installation by artists Gilbert Coudene and Etienne Guiol during the rehearsal for the Festival of Lights in central Lyon
The light shows in Lyon interact playfully with existing architecture; image via

Why do we light fireworks on the fourth of July, beyond wanting to scare the bageezus out of our dogs? If you ask one of us, we’ll probably mumble something about a striking image from our national anthem; or else we might refer vaguely to John Adams. As with many  festivals, a precise origin story of Lyon’s Fête de Lumière is difficult to articulate. All of the Lyonnaisse I spoke with mentioned the city’s devotion to the Virgin Mary and the coming of a plague to the city in the 17th century. It speaks to the spirit of the contemporary festival that it’s unclear whether or not the prayers to the Virgin Mary actually spared the city from plague; what is clear is that the city’s residents were intent on coming together and brightening the storm-darkened city:

On the 8 September 1852, as the city was preparing to celebrate the installation of a statue of the Virgin Mary in the Chapel on the Fourvière Hill, the ceremony had to be abandoned as the River Saône was overflowing. The festivities were put back to December 8 of the same year. But the climate did not favour the organisers – a violent storm broke out during the day, and the event had to be abandoned. Then seeing the weather improving as night fell, the population spontaneously lit their homes with candles and Bengal lights and hurried down into the street.

In addition to finding a single candle lit in each Lyon window, contemporary festival-goers walk through a vast array of national and international art installations–  light shows, sculptures, and video projections. The events are collaborative shows on a grand scale that interact playfully with the city’s architecture; the festival-goers are vibrant themselves, marching between scheduled displays in parade-like fashion, crepes/pommes frites/mulled wine in hand.

Mulled wine stall outside of the Monkey Club, Lyon.

Which brings me to Lyon’s other dazzling array: food, glorious food.

Display #1:

Parsley, butter, garlic, shallots, (+brandy?) pooled in escargot 

Our first night in town, we braved the tram from our Airbnb in Decines*, and walked a few long, cold blocks to the gourmet food haven, Les Halles de Lyon. We were on a Spanish schedule then, so we thought embarking on a dining adventure around 8:30 pm was perfectly reasonable. When we finally got to the famous Bocuse market, there were only a couple of restaurant-stalls still open. One had a few straggling customers, but the other was still alive with frenzied activity. We entered the frenzy, and I asked, in my really-not-even-elementary French, for the one open table.

Friends, we accidentally walked into one of the most incredulously delicious dining experiences of my life. Our Airbnb host had insisted that we get something, somewhere in the maze that is Les Halles, but so much of her amazing recommendations were wedged between languages. Me: “So, it’s like— garlic? and Green?” Marie: “Yes” [enthusiastic movement, suggesting just how delicious this green and garlic would be].

At Merle Huitre and Coquillages, our entire meal was scrumptious— huitre and coquillage, mmhmm, for sure (check out some of these photos; and yes, I’m drooling over here). But the highlight was the escargot: each snail was perfectly nestled in a shell full of herb-speckled ambrosia. My American understanding of escargot as a cheesy spoonable was, well, laughable: Here you have escargot à la bourguigonne— which, it turns out, was precisely what our host had been describing. Merci, Marie!

The belly-warm we got from the house white wine was multiplied by the excited commotion of the market-stall’s chefs, the fact that desert looked like this, and the sensation that overall, everyone was so proud of Lyon cuisine and culture that they were more than happy to share it with us.

Banner for the Virgin Mary at Lyon’s Basilica

See Displays #2-I Lost Count:

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Read: Fortino Sámano (The Overflowing of the Poem), by Virginie Lalucq  and Jon-Luc Nancy, translated by Cynthia Hogue and Sylvain Gallais


Maybe it’s because of my own tendency to wander, but I admire poets who can focus their lenses away from their home terrain and not botch it. And not make me itch inside with the dread that accompanies flattened appropriation. I like poets that want to try and understand worlds that go beyond their immediate experience, and perhaps, in the end, their own understanding. This is why I love Elizabeth Bishop’s Questions of Travel. And this is also why I’m drawn back again and again to Virginie Lalucq’s long poem, Fortino Sámano.

It’s an unlikely scenario. I’ve just spent three hours in rural Georgia revisiting: a French poet’s reflection on a photograph of a Mexican revolutionary, taken the moment just before his execution; an inquiry into those poetic reflections by a French philosopher; and all of this via the masterful translation of yet two more discerning intellects, Cynthia Hogue and Sylvan Gallais. Phew. But the pure ambition of this reach is why I love literature in translation. It aks me to consider the limitations of existing in a space and time while affording me the opportunity to try and overcome them:

How can he be absolutely in motion and

absolutely motionless at the same time?

Is it because, far from his place, he seeks

absolutely to return there? Or to occupy it


Lalucq’s serial poem makes me think of the border of a body and the way that border transforms when it’s being perceived; within that poetic inquiry, she also opens up a dialogue about how the act of writing and the poem itself might mirror those abstract delineations. Nancy’s reflection on the serial poem picks up that dialogue, returns it– rife with his own trail, of course.

Anyone who has ever been left dazed after reading a poem might feel like a fraud, a criminal. And that’s because the poem has taken you on your own adventure through it; you’re confused by your own presence there, rattling around in it like an American at the Maison Merle. In fact, Nancy writes very much as if he were a stranger in the land of Lalucq’s long poem–  which, in turn, admits its own voyeurism, having dropped in on a moment so intimate as another man’s death. Nancy writes:

“To read is the crime: it is to want to be like gods playing with the cipher of things. And to write this cipher myself is shameful; I’m confiscating the world.”

Librarie Lavirevolt

To read is the crime: By writing down his own experience of the poem, Nancy takes his own stake in the poem; he also takes a stab at drawing in absolute something that is always slippery, moving. Nancy reflects:

“I must understand that, in effect, the poem — and this is why it overflows — makes us speak more than it says. A poem glides onto the tongue and down the throat of its readers/listeners and makes us speak, takes hold of our jaws, lips, larynx and devours us from the inside out. A poem that does nothing but speak in front of us and at us, without forcing us in turn to speak, has not overflowed and has missed the mark.” 127

I think this magic quality of poetry is what intimidates some readers. If you’ve ever wanted to just eavesdrop on a literature professor’s secret conversation with himself while reading a poem that has dazed you, then Nancy’s The Overflowing of the Poem will feel like a momentous discovery. Re-reading it, I do feel like I am myself eavesdropping as I learn what Lalucq’s poetry did to him.  Did, transitive. And while Nancy admits that he can not contain Lalucq’s poetic vision in his own responses, it is in this very admission that he further underscores the dialectic magic of the poem.

Cynthia Hogue and Sylvain Gallais have also done a magician’s work in capturing this poetic dialogue in English. Translation can often seem like a process intent on containing, with a clear end-product in mind. Of course, it isn’t; it’s an act of conversation itself. And Hogue and Gallais have somehow managed to translate the un-containable aliveness of conversation: Their translation shows the intricate word play and philosophical back-and-forth between two incredibly perceptive writers, while also admitting their presence there, rendering it anew.

I wish I’d had this book in hand as I visited Lyon. It turns out that I had been eating escargot right by The Center for Comparative Research on Creative Arts (CERCC —  formerly known as the Center for Poetic Studies), which described Lalucq’s work as filled with a desire to experiment, “a desire that translates most clearly in the number of collaborative performance and writing projects in which she has engaged….”

I am exhilarated by this collaborative aspect, by art that invites spectators to engage and respond, driving further creation and meaning-making (much like the light installations, actually). The CERCC articulates, in their mission, what I was trying to get at above re: translation, the uncontainable:

The issue of trans­la­tion is at the heart of the defi­ni­tion of our objects of study and of our inves­ti­ga­tive metho­do­lo­gies. The evi­dence of lin­guis­tic diver­sity has led us to focus on the notion of « trans­la­tio­nal events » in a mul­ti­di­men­sio­nal and glo­ba­li­zed world. « Translation » is fun­da­men­tal to our research, because it is what hap­pens to lan­gua­ges in gene­ral, and makes us bear in mind that diver­sity is not simply inter-lin­guis­tic but also and pri­ma­rily intra-lin­guis­tic. No lan­guage is homo­ge­neous. No art is self-iden­ti­cal. Art does not emerge inde­pen­dently of its context. No « area » is strictly limi­ted.

Cynthia Hogue, one of the most generous and fiercely intelligent poets I know, speaks to Fortino Sámano’s context in this interview for Tupelo Quarterly. I’ll leave you with her words:

Reading this poem, you intuit the contextual connection, that for Virginie, there was a cognitive dissonance—spring fashions in Paris, and elsewhere, bombs falling in Iraq. It is so subtle that we didn’t notice the import of the juxtaposition for some time. Of course, poetry transcends its historical moment, looks close, gets a wound, steps back again to get distance, transforms the material, edges back up to source, reconnects to make the something that is the poem of attentive engagement, we might say.   What the poem says about our moment is that it is already a representation, which we recalculate with each reading.

for further reading and eating, see:

*My stay in Marie’s AirBnB is one of my all-time favorites. She went out of her way to make her apartment and her city feel like home to us. She even helped us find tickets for the Lyon-Sevilla football game, which as it turns out was happening just down the road from her.

*Thanks are due as well to my wonderful friend Syllia, who joyfully recommended many wonderful places to eat in Lyon.

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