Poetry Sunday: “Anniversary in Paris,” by Christine M. Gelineau

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor
June is for brides, and I’ve been on the hunt for some time for a poem like this one that so effortlessly and elegantly captures not just the beauty of those June weddings but also their poignance for couples whose own weddings are long past. “Anniversary in Paris” is free verse, 36 lines arranged into 18 long-line couplets with no meter or end rhyme. What drives this poem is the power of its images and the way they work together to reinforce, balance, and amplify one another. The poem opens with a view of a bridge in Paris where lovers go to affix all manner of padlocks to declare their love for and commitment to one another. Here’s a photo of Pont de l’Archevêché from Wikipedia:

Pont de l’Archevêché covered with ‘love padlocks’ (2012). Source: Wikipedia, Creative Commons

I’ve been captivated by this bridge since I first heard of it. What do they do with their locks, I wonder, the couples who break up—go back with a hacksaw? Most, apparently, do nothing, and I seem to recall a PBS feature describing the city of Paris having to pay to remove the locks due to fear of bridge collapse from their weight. Now there’s a metaphor! A bridge, itself a symbol of human relationship and connection, foundering under the weight of too many locks, themselves symbolic of vows, as if the very concept of relationship can become too freighted to bear the weight of human commitments. This complex metaphor of metaphors is the unspoken subtext of today’s poem.
“Anniversary in Paris” opens by grounding us in speaker and place. We are in Paris, the City of Love, and Gelineau’s use of the first-person plural makes us part of the scene even if that “we” actually refers to the speaker and her husband observing young lovers on le Pont de l’Archevêché. It invites us to see what the speaker sees, young lovers enacting the ritual of initialing their padlock and affixing it to the bridge before they will “kiss and toss the key into the Seine.” The image of the bridge festooned with padlocks is communicated actively—shown, not told to us—by means of strong verbs and nouns. “Squeezing” shows viscerally how very many locks are crowding the railing and is reinforced by “bristle,” introducing some discomfort into that crowding, along with “glitter” adding visual excitement.
The next series of images reinforce the dichotomy of young versus older lovers, as we learn that the speaker is “forty years into our marriage” and someone who “know[s] better than to think of love / as a lock.” Notice how that line break allows more than one meaning for that last phrase. On the one hand, the speaker is saying that she and her mate know better than to think of love at all, and it is only by reading on that we discover she also means they know better than to think of love “as a lock.” “Lock” works here as a pun, describing both those literal padlocks clamped to the bridge and also the more colloquial sense of a “lock” as a sure thing, a clinch. Older couples are warier, the poem says, less likely to assume love will be forever.
As if to highlight that new/old love dichotomy, “Anniversary in Paris” sets up, then switches, two perspectives. The first is the older speaker sitting on the bench and watching the young lovers. The second is the young couple’s “version of this day” in which they see the speaker and her mate as “an aging couple,” “part of the furniture of the world,” and mattering only in their role as an audience for the young lovers’ performative romance. Perspective then switches back to the one that opened the poem—“our version,” that of the older couple who do not see themselves that way at all. What they see are themselves at their own wedding, and the lovers as “familiars of our animate past.” I enjoyed the image of “unfaded memory of youth’s garden,” and the way it supports the overall idyllic setting of a park bench in Paris with a view of the Seine and Notre Dame. Paris is the City of Love, but it is also famously a city of gardens and memories.
At about halfway through the poem, in line 9, new characters enter the scene: a bridal party, or rather, several bridal parties, “the extravagant froth of their dresses bunched up into their arms // and spilling over.” That image contains some tension, a sense of compression that at some point will have to be released, and it sets up the images of floating that will become so important at the end of the poem. We see those brides as a sort of efflorescence—gorgeous, and doomed. We know the gown can’t be kept from touching the soil forever, just as we know that the brides and grooms—and this is if they are lucky—will dull down and age into a married couple, one day taking their own place on the park bench. For the moment, though, we can join the speaker and her spouse to simply enjoy the scene—bridal attendants bustling, dresses frothing, the setup of the perfect wedding photo against the “lock-festooned railing, with the silvered Seine and the elegant / bulk of Notre Dame a frame behind them.”
The speaker and her companion are outside the frame but still able to feel uplifted the way a wedding gown is “lofted” by currents of air, and here is where the poem works its magic in a series of images evoking suspension. Pont de l’Archevêché is not a suspension bridge, but it was built to replace one in 1823, and any bridge necessarily involves some kind of suspension, arched and poised across space, just as every padlock itself has a tiny arch at its top. Those bunched-up gowns will, we know, balloon and float once they are released. In the same way, the poem tells us, young romantic love becomes a “suspension in time.” For an instant, love is new and vows are forever, and the image exceeds itself into an archetype of romantic love, one that reminds the speaker of “our own” such moment forty years before. That metaphorical conceit of things held aloft and in suspension is completed in the poem’s last, lovely image of “the sail of the wafted bridal veil.”
What makes this poem delicious are its images, so vivid and alive that we almost feel like we are there in Paris or looking at not a photo but a video of the young couples on the bridge. The feeling of watching a scene while it unfolds is communicated by active, vivid verbs in the present tense and through cinematic technique like the perspective-switching described above. I enjoy, also, the subtle play of the soundtrack in this poem, how the s’s and k’s in “They kiss and toss their key into the Seine” mimic the sounds of kissing, along with several internal slant rhymes like “kiss” and “toss” in line 3 and “sail” and “veil” in the last line. A notable example occurs in line 15:

bulk of Notre Dame a frame behind them. With no camera trained.

Here, the internal full rhyme of “Dame” and “frame” and their slant rhyme with the first syllable of “camera,” as well as the assonance of “Dame” and “frame” with “trained.” In general, sense, sight, and sound work together to weave this poem’s pleasure, and I especially like the way Gelineau manages to put in a plug for romance at the same time she acknowledges the truth that it inevitably fades. This informed sensibility prevents “Anniversary in Paris” from tipping into sentiment and allows me to trust the speaker. It’s the reason I am willing for a moment to set aside my more jaundiced views about love and to participate, as the speaker and her companion do, in the joy of the moment. The poem makes me smile—with an ache—the same way I smile with an ache anytime I am in the actual presence of young, hopeful brides and grooms. Which I seem to be more and more these days, as my kids and their friends begin to plan weddings of their own.

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