An Abandoned Luncheonette Inspires a Sequence of Sonnets

Poetry is about saying one thing so essential the world can no longer be imagined without it. The rest-publishing and politicking – is just baggage.

Some poets avoid the roller coaster of public publishing – the rejections, the faint praise, the smug mission statements, the politics, conferences, networking – not because they have no stomach for it but because their instinct is to protect the flame from the very drafts others choose to ride.

I’ve always been deeply moved by such men and women. I’m not sure their exemplar is Emily Dickinson, although she’s surely one of them. I think rather it’s a matter of self-knowledge, of knowing what is good for them and what might change them in ways they choose not to be changed.

Luncheonette, cover photo by Paul Clemente via Djelloul Marbrook
Luncheonette, cover photo by Paul Clemente via Djelloul Marbrook

I became aware of such people in boarding school. I had a friend who spent his time in his room making superb paper airplanes driven by rubber bands. We spent hours together discussing the relative merits of the Messerschmitt 109 and the P51 Mustang. I knew an English girl, my first love, who spent her time serving air tea in tin cups to imaginary friends. I never received a more exciting invitation than to one of her teas.

I don’t know if Paul Clemente belongs in this group, but he’s the reason my thoughts turn to such poets. I found his little chapbook, Luncheonette, in Half Moon Books in Kingston, New York, and it reminded me of the private poets I’ve known and admired, most especially my friend, the late Catholic University Professor John L. Brown, also an upstate New Yorker.

The quest for recognition is a business unto itself and its pursuit changes us. John Brown understood this and chose to publish his work himself, a decision that made his life as a scholar, patriot, father and husband to his beloved wife Simonne immeasurably more tranquil. Paul Clemente is a scientist with the New York Department of Conservation and director of the noble Read For Food project, which enlists poets to help raise money and collect food for the poor.

Sonnets are of two kinds, Italian or Petrarchan and Shakespearean or English. But within those broad frameworks are many variations, and the form has proven to be durable and hospitable to innovation. The sonnets that comprise Luncheonette may be called a crown or sequence of English sonnets-three rhymed Sicilian quatrains brought to a close by a heroic couplet.

They are without guile or pretension. One never suspects the poet of having said to himself, This will wow them! His poems are trustworthy:

I will assume that you, my dear reader,

are unwilling to suspend disbelief

long enough to allow that fried liver

and giblets can cause their fair share of grief.

He ranges restlessly in subject matter, from rumor-mongering to television excitation:

The magazine rack, in my car mechanic’s

Customer Service area, is jammed with news

of today’s fears and tomorrow’s panics.

The TV taunts souls while they pray in the pews.

The sonnets, like Clemente’s Hudson Valley, are haunted. The luncheonette is abandoned, peeling away in the sun. Loneliness permeates their structural elegance the way sunlight haunts the empty piazzas of the painter Giorgio Di Chirico. There is a kind of perfection and closure to Luncheonette’s project. It shouldn’t have been part of a larger collection where it might be lost. It is what it is, well wrought, thoughtful, elegiac.

My friendship with John Brown was long and rewarding. He had been a loyal friend of my aunt, the painter Irene Rice Pereira. He had served with distinction in the OSS in World War II, and he was a Gallimard editor and Paul Eluard scholar. He taught at Catholic University, and there is a John L. Brown archive at Georgetown University on the other side of Washington, DC.

John published four collections of poetry of which I’m aware: Awakenings (1995, his last book), Weights and Measures (1958), Shards (1981), and Celebrating Simonne (1991), an homage to his French Canadian wife, Simonne, a nurse.

Weights and Measures, an exquisite chapbook, was published by Les Ecrivains Reunis in Lyon, France. I’ve read this little book many times and don’t know why John did not seek trade publication after it. I never asked because I always stood in awe of his intellect and believed it would become clear to me in time.

But there is something about his formal, refined sensibility and craftsmanship that touches me deeply, something about his decision not to publish publicly that exhilarates and reassures me, and, finally, something about Paul Clemente’s work that reminds me of John, although Paul’s vernacular usages are certainly not John’s dish of tea.

I’ve wept more than once reading Celebrating Simonne. Theirs was a great love affair. I find it hard to endure a world from which such love has been swept away. In the poem “Each Morning You Are Born Anew” he sings:

And lying there beside you, I proclaim

The blessings and the joy I owe to you;

I gratefully invoke your talismanic name –

“Simonne, Simonne, Simonne” –

Embracing you, my life begins anew.

Here there are the conventions and the cordiality of an earlier period-the line capitalizations and use of words like anew-things Paul Clemente eschews – but the two poets share a common decency, a humility and straightforwardness that invites the reader to welcome them into his mind without any concern for what the poet is up to.

When I consider these two poets, these eminently scrupulous singers – I’m reminded that poetry is not about prizes, competition, recognition, the praise of peers, it’s about our mysterious impulse to sing from the core of our beings for no reason at all, with no motive, no goal.

Del’s book, Far From Algiers:

New review of Far from Algiers:

His blog:

His mother’s art:

His aunt’s art: