Postcard from a Dying Poet

—for my friend, Étienne D’Abattoir


Many years ago, about a year before he died, I received a postcard from a famous poet.

The front a legendary sepia of James Joyce and Sylvia Beach at Shakespeare and Co.

The young, rakish Joyce in bow tie, with a patch over his left eye.

Behind him, two posters about the “Scandal of Ulysses.”

Sylvia in profile, at a social distance, as it were, staring at James.

She has a mannish appearance, appears to be wearing a clunky wig.

But other photos I have seen of her suggest it is her actual hair.

Neither one of them looks very happy in the photo.

In fact, they both seem quite forlorn, melancholic, lost in their separate pain.

They look as if the world that was theirs is about to end with a whimper, that there’s nothing to be done about it; it’s happened with the speed of a box-shutter, and this is just dawning on them.

Like there’s a great plague in Paris, and everyone just keeps dying, because there is no reason nor God, nor past nor future.

Even as it’s just a Thursday, in 1922, in Paris, on a day when it is raining, and writers are merely solemn, as they should be, when posing for a photo.

It’s amazing, when you think of it, that in 1922 Ulysses, The Waste Land, Trilce, and the Tractatus are published, only a few years after the Great Plague, in which millions died.

One day, I found, in an antique mall in Freeport, Illinois, folded inside a tattered copy of Les Gazettes, by Adrienne Monnier (1953), a handwritten letter by her lover, Sylvia Beach.

It was a few years, I can’t recall how many, after the famous poet who wrote me had died.

A very polite, two-page letter that Beach writes in response to a young American student residing in Paris, who evidently has asked her for leads about a writer named Marcel Proust.

Sylvia Beach tells the student that she and “Mademoiselle Monnier,” alas, know almost nothing about Proust, but that her friend so-and-so, publisher at Gallimard, might perhaps assist.

It is so fascinating that Joyce will dine with Proust, at the Hotel Majestic, their only meeting, a few weeks after the photo of the postcard is taken.

And she kindly invites the student to visit her, for tea, tomorrow or Friday, between 4 and 6, in the afternoon, at 12 Rue de L’Odéon.

The letter is dated January 4, 1954, on fine, translucent paper, with a small, blue letterhead in the right upper corner.

A few years later, young Gerald Stern and Jack Gilbert, in Paris, will walk all solemn toward us, in the photo, handsome, hungry, rail thin, the red coal burning inside each of them.

They stare out at us, from their future into our past, knowing their world is about to end, that there’s nothing to be done about it.

They appear, it’s a mystery, to be both plague-stricken and in the very prime of their lives, like Proust, in his youth.

Ah, to be a young writer in Paris, in the 1950s, no better time!

To this day, I am astonished I had the gift of finding the delicate artefact, folded inside a broken-spine book, in what used to be, in 1922, a ballroom, in an antique mall, in Freeport, Illinois.

Finding it a few years after the famous poet wrote me that postcard, whose brief message I can’t now recall for the life of me, it was so long ago.

And which I never answered, and who knows why.


–Emily Post-Avant