Film directed by Jean-Luc Godard, 1960, starring Jean-Paul Belmondo
and Jean Seberg; also song recorded by Jerry Lee Lewis, 1958
Jean-Paul Belmondo, I'm thinking of you tonight
because I saw you walking down the Boulevard
St. Germain just this afternoon with a young woman,
and not a starlet, either, but a nurse, and you were
using a cane, yet you were as handsome as you were
in all those movies you made thirty, forty, fifty
years ago, or, if not handsome, beau-laid,
as the French say, or handsome-ugly, as we all are
in our way. My students don't know who you are,
but then I don't really know who my students are
or they me. Women love you
because you neither gaze too long into the mirror of your own
excellence nor deny your manifest charms,
for our self-loathing may be so great as to become
a kind of narcissism, as I see when I am
still in my own land and out shopping one day and pondering
the tall guy in the cargo shorts and black knee socks
in the food co-op sighing as he shelves bags of Garden of Eatin'
Black Bean Tortilla Chips while his shorter
and more stylishly attired friend is saying, "I just
didn't want you to be the laughingstock of Tallahassee,"
and the cargo shorts guy sighs again and puts out
more bags of tortilla chips and says, ''I'm afraid
it's too late for that," and I think, now that's giving
your unworthy self a certain stature, isn't it?
To claim to be the biggest jackass in your town,
even if it's a small one like Tallahassee? Hee, haw!
Look at me, everybody! A jackass and loving it.
A month earlier, I had given a reading
at Ohio University and was walking one evening along
the Ridges, the site of a deserted and terrible-looking
mental hospital, a Gothic nightmare that, though
empty, still breathed exhaustion and despair.
The buildings looked like the mind itself: well-meaning
but too heavy, and I was tired and had a plane to catch
and saw in the distance a couple driving along
slowly and possibly thinking, as I was, of the good
intentions associated with this place, of the pain,
and I wanted to ask them for a ride downhill,
and I think they would have given me one
gladly had they known I was an English professor,
but I couldn't see myself just then, and I didn't know
how I looked, and I don't think they would have
mistaken me for a mental patient—those had all been
gone for years—but they might have taken me
for an actor in a horror movie set on the grounds
of a deserted mental hospital, maybe somebody
who didn't know when to stop acting. How do you
know when to stop? In the movies,
Jean-Paul, you were cool before "cool"
came to mean "whatever," as when one person
says, "I can't stand the sight of you anymore,"
and the other person says, "That's cool."
And you were "awesome" before that word was used mainly
to describe pizza. You taught young men like me
not to be cool but to try to be, and if it never worked,
at least our efforts won us the young women
who loved us for trying, who forgave us
and let us think that they thought us awesome.
Jean-Paul Belmondo, you leave me breathless.
The Biscuit Joint
Louisiana State University Press
Copyright © 2013 by David Kirby
All rights reserved.
Reproduced by Poetry Daily with permission