Swinburne Goes to the Café Flore
The sun has poured through a mail-slot in the morning fog and is brightening the pavement where darlings sit at the Café Flore. The tables are mostly empty. A woman is reading a letter aloud to her friend, because "I need the sound of something to say!" At 10 o'clock the café-sitters are subdued. They pose, bent over their lattes as if there were words inscribed in the foam. A busboy strolls among the tables listlessly, picking up a spoon here, a coffee cup there.
A short, manic creature arrives on the scene. He strides through the front gate and scampers around the chairs in his path looking like a pale, blonde monkey. He proceeds at once to the counter, where he stacks his quarters like gold-pieces and orders a double cappuccino. Jim, behind the gleaming espresso machine, doesn't give A.C. Swinburne a second look. Neither his flurry of bright red locks, which dangle halfway down his back, nor his deep purple velvet blouse is half as showy as the hairdos and costumes of the regular clientele.
"How you doing this morning?" asks Jim.
"Day smiteth day in twain, night sundereth night," says Swinburne. "And on mine eyes the dark sits as the light. Yea, Lord, thou knowest I know not, having sinned, if heaven be clean or unclean in thy sight."
"I know just how you feel," Jim empathizes, "and you were right to get up and get over here. This double'll do you right." He pushes the coffee drink towards Swinburne. "Anything with it?"
"There is a feverish famine in my veins," says Swinburne.
"Then you deserve a Danish," Jim insists. "Sugar and cream by the cash register."
Swinburne takes his Danish and coffee outside and makes a bee-line to the sunniest spot. There, in the lick of the most beneficent rays, Swinburne laps up his coffee and experiences the agony of the café seat. The caffeine rushes his thoughts around, so that his focus is scrambled. Painted face after face passes by, distracting him. He cannot concentrate enough to read, his attention is a nervous fish, darting away from his pastel notebook to his chapbook of verse, then back to the notebook again. He can write but a few words before his fountain pen floats upwards from paper, a bubble of arrested ink distended from the tip. His gaze is drawn to the resplendent idlers. They pose with eyes braceleted by sunglasses, with all manner of metal and phosphorescent plastic dangling from ears and faces. Swinburne sits transfixed, in awe of the demanding page.
He stays so long it is nighttime at the Flore, winter solstice, the longest night of the year. The cars speeding by turn on their headlights, and the billboard overhead the café comes brightly, garishly lit. This week it promotes Grand Rémy, a giant gold bottle of champagne lying on its side, shining with the light of 1,000-watt kliegs. Swinburne ventures beyond the frosted-glass walls to the sidewalk, straining to see the image's vertical plane. He reels from the sight and limps back to the bar inside. He orders a pint of bourbon.
The poet sits inside the café building now, inside the shed built of corrugated metal and glass. He must share a table with strangers; they fix their chairs so as to be in least sight of him, and he in least sight of them. He is the prisoner of a crick in his neck, the gods' revenge for his worship at the billboard altar. His neck gives play neither left nor right. And so he is prey of the company at his table. They are bored with each other, and they turn to consider the strangely cultivated flower sitting bolt upright and captive in their midst. They train their appetite for entertainment on him, by staring not directly but all around him: the oblique yet penetrating glances of the furtively engaged.
Swinburne is aghast. The café-sitters are appraising him, as if the orchids were studying the botanist! They are two pale women, thin as cigarettes, and a gaunt young man wearing some amalgamation of aluminum foil and leather. The young man points his chin at Swinburne, and his hairdo follows.
This famed regular is Hedonist California, a dandy of 30 shades of eye-shadow and 100 attitudes. When Hedonist was 20 years old, he moved from Philadelphia to the Café Flore. It was a voluntary self-commitment, because Hedonist had fashion but not yet plans. Café-watchers remember Hedonist's finest hour, when a lion he had shave-sculpted into the side of his skull flashed briefly as a fierce cartoon, then grew, shaggy and amorphous, into his next 'do.
"You see that bullet-hole over there in the glass?"
Swinburne, arrested by the youth's forward address, obeys the directive and finds a coin-sized hole just beneath the café signature. He jerks his head in a rough nod, unable to move his neck.
"That's from the night they finally got Art Brut," says Hedonist, and his eyes draw closed behind their makeup. "USA, CIA, FBI, IRS all rolled up into one ball. Art was talking the truth too much of the time, you get the picture?"
Swinburne tosses his red mane with a painful jolt of the neck. This harlequin's words have stirred the poetry within him. "Behold now, surely somewhere there is death, for each man hath some space of years," he extemporizes, "a little space of time ere time expires, a little day, a little way of breath."
"You're dead right, no future!" says California. His eyes reappear from under their lids, to study the poet.
One of the women by his side stops smoking long enough to speak up. "Everyone knew when smack was hitting the city, because Art would be standing on his chair, then dancing on the table. You'd see him get higher and higher, and you'd know the government was flooding the populace again. He was sort of a barometer of smack, that poet."
"Smack that poet!" The other woman likes her own joke, laughs through volumes of smoke. "That's where he was the night he was b-b'ed down, standing on his table, shouting, 'God save the Bill of Rights!' Wow, what good scene. Of course it was gross when he started bleeding. But the busboy wiped up."
The women go back to their cigarettes. They are the Maxell twins, heirs to the fortune in magnetic tape. Swinburne learns his café lesson fast and turns his attention away, in an exaggerated roll of the eyes. Outside, the chill of the night has fogged with condensation the glass sidewalk dividers. Swinburne stifles a shiver. He cannot help himself giving voice to an impulse.
"Outside, it must be winter among men. For at the gold bars of the gates again, I heard all night and all the hours of it, the wind's wet wings and fingers drip with rain."
"That's good, man," says Hedonist. "You write lyrics?"
Swinburne says yea.
"You oughta make some vids for YouTube. I bet you could monetize it."
At this first appreciation of his great gift, Swinburne comes out from behind his reserve and speaks his first 21st-century words. "I [heart] your coif," he says.
"My hair is my art project." The smart young brioche affects a pose. "I qualify for grants."
"Really," says Swinburne, his admiration for this new society aglow. He is about to inquire further about the patronage of men of letters when a small carafe of a man passes by, followed by his entourage, carrying coffee.
"Hed-onist! What-ever have you done with your hair?"
The claque seats itself in a far corner before Swinburne's tablemate can give reply. Young California seethes sotto voce to the poet, "It's impossible to remain anonymous in this town. Sometimes I simply yearn to return to New York City." No matter that the closest the famous idler has come to living in New York was his semester at Rutgers, Swinburne is impressed. In a voice given to exquisite phrasings of universal truths, he asks whether there is a privy on the premises.
"You haven't lived until you see the outhouse," California assures him, pointing it out. Swinburne makes his way among the momentarily stalled and the truly camped out, squeezing between chairs in his dexterous chimpanzee manner.
And then the poet stands, amazed, behind the w.c. door. He has reached an earthly Paradise! First, to learn that this country's poets are amply rewarded. Then, to see public recognition of a regional poet at his very table. Not even in his headiest days as Laureate did Swinburne envision such a culture. And now this! A lavatory filled to the ventilation ducts with verse stylings, penned in every color ink imaginable. "Speed boys speed," "Dead flowers = Dead souls," "Social call in spandex," "Tight girls rule." The poet sways with the prospect of so many works-in-progress. No wonder are these wordsmiths so highly prized, they are so generous and public with their inspirations! The emissary from the 19th century uncaps his fountain pen and adds his own improvised lines humbly, above the paper-towel dispenser.
"And I came forth/ like a man blind and naked in strange lands,/ That hears men laugh and weep, and knows not whence /Nor wherefore, but is broken in his sense;/ So rode I, hearing all these chant and pray,
"And marveled, till before us rose and fell/ White cursed hills, like outer skirts of hell/ Seen where men's eyes look through the day to night,/ Like a jagged shell's lips, harsh, untenable,
"Blown in between by devils' wrangling breath;/ Nathless we won well past that hell and death,/ Down to the sweet land where all airs are good,/ Even unto Rome where God's grace tarrieth."
Refreshed, invigorated, Algernon Charles Swinburne walks out into the bracing Market Street fog.
All the poet's quotations are from A.C. Swinburne, Laus Veneris (1866).