Sunday, December 5, 2010



32 Snapshots of Marseilles by Guy Bennett
(Sacrifice Press, Corvallis, Oregon, 2010)

I was in Marseilles myself eighteen months ago, and I took a few snapshots while I was there, although I didn’t actually set aside any time for sightseeing during my single night’s stay: at the time, I was contending with deadlines that had me holing up in my cheap hotel rooms, swigging from litre bottles of Coke and Orangina as I typed and swore and typed some more, cursing the unholy tangle of calendars that had me plugging in my laptop instead of prowling the nearby cafes and restos. In Marseilles, the hotel room in question had one working outlet: it required me to unplug the fan and prop my machine against the side of the bed: I spread my supper next to me on the floor like a picnic. (At least the carpet was clean!)

Still, I was in France! The sheer, strange wonderfulness of that fact -- that I was there for the better part of a month, speaking and reading and eavesdropping in French as much as I could manage -- it delighted me no end, and it delights me still. I very much want to go back, but it will likely be several years before I can spare the time and Euros necessary to make the trip.

In the meantime, there are little gems such as Guy Bennett’s 32 Snapshots of Marseilles to peruse and pore over. I do not recognize outright any of the 32 places featured in the chapbook, although some do sound familiar -- possibly from travel guides, or perhaps places I passed by while hunting for my destinations (having walked several lopsided loops in the course of locating my hotel and, later, the stop for the bus to Aix-en-Provence). I’m not surprised that the places are unfamiliar: Marseilles is a large, crowded, messy city -- it reminds me quite a bit of Manhattan, in fact -- and I was, after all, there for less than 24 hours. So in some ways I come to these poems as much a stranger to the city they celebrate as someone who has never been at all, and the epigraph inside the front cover made me smile: “Literature about Marseilles has been written by foreigners and travelers headed elsewhere”(Richard Cobb).

It’s a simple but well-designed chapbook: the cover is of the same plain paper as the inside pages, with a close-up of a map of Marseilles as the lone illustration. Inside the back cover, the conceit of the collection is presented:
32 poems of 32 words on 32 places in Marseilles. Each poem can be read in 32 seconds or less yet contains thought enough for 32 minutes of reflection or more. The author accepts that only 32 people will ever read or see these poems but would not be disappointed to be proven wrong.

That’s almost a poem in itself, peut-être? (Although that particular block happens to be 54 words rather than 32…) At any rate, I found the snapshots to be as billed: short, impressionistic, and obligingly fleeting or haunting (depending on one’s inclination to linger with them, or not). I would enjoy receiving snapshots or postcards like these from abroad (or even nearby).

Some phrases, of course, are more arresting in their precision, or alluring in their suggestion. Among my favorites: “dim cinnamoned / pigeon” (in “place aux huiles”), “a / gush of hot / shoppers squire through / the / commerce canyon walls”(in “rue saint-ferréol”), and “books in tight / rows too hot / for poetry” (in “librairie des arcenaulx”).

I don’t think I’d be inclined to use these poems as a travel guide: they’re so of the moment and of the poet that it would be foolish to seek these places out in hopes of seeing what he saw. That said, I could see revisiting them after revisiting the city (or after reading the words of someone else who stopped there on his or her way to somewhere else). It would be fun to compare jottings and glimpses – to see, in particular, who is especially sensitive to which elements. Bennett often seems preoccupied by the movement of air – at least a dozen poems in 32 snapshots mention winds or breezes, including the first and the last. The very first line of the first poem, “place de lorette,” proclaims, “where wind is / good the wall”; it cannot be an accident that the final lines (in “place vivaux”) are “this wall / hot wind breaks / us down”.


Peg Duthie shares a house in Nashville with a tall man, a large dog, and a short piano. She blogs about poetry at Vary the Line and tweets about it now and then (@zirconium).

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