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by James Graham 

Posted: 24 February 2008
Word Count: 874
Related Works: At the crossroads • 

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Quand nous chanterons le temps des cerises

I walk the Way of the Communards (taxi
from Quai d’Orsay to the main gates
of Père Lachaise - C’est l’endroit, ici.
Merci, Monsieur
.) This is the place.

At the tourist office, first station of pilgrimage,
I ask directions not to the tomb of Piaf (whom I love)
or Balzac or Delacroix, but to the Mur des Fédérés,
the monument to seamstresses and metal-workers.

The way is steep. I climb, and rest, and climb again.
This is the way of sorrow. This is the place.

Facts are incised stones. They stand against time.
A bronze-worker ran the postal service (efficiently, all
historians agree). Though eighty-five percent
of the Commune’s revenue was spent
on arms and men to keep their fragile city
safe for two months against the murderous hate
of the grand bourgeoisie, the Versaillais,

Still, children of Paris had school meals. This fact
of their full stomachs is built into the wall.

For two months there was no hunger in the city.
This fact is written in the enduring stone.

There are roses here, and a simple plaque,
Aux morts de la Commune - for here in the final days
seamstresses and metal-workers died; and widows
who came to claim the bloody corpses of their men
were machine-gunned here, their children too.

Je ne vivrai point sans souffrir un jour.

Every man and woman and child who lived,
or was found, in the Rue des Rosiers, was killed: a model
for our modern massacres of innocents.

Elsewhere, commanders of the Versaillais
had prisoners marched past them, and
‘à droite’, ‘à gauche’ they ordered:
death or hard labour. This is the place

of sorrow. C’est l’endroit, ici. I am not alone:
some are still climbing and others have already climbed
the steep pilgrims’ path, and stand silent here.

C’était un crime terrible, n’est-ce pas?
- Oui, contre la classe ouvriere

They were not blameless, the Communards:
their principal crime was their self-government,
but there were ordinary crimes: two generals were murdered
(in the same Rue des Rosiers) and a dozen priests;
and many a saint had a broken nose, and many a cherub
lay dismembered on the floors of churches;

But I declare, with Severine who wrote in the Cri du Peuple:
‘I am with the poor always, despite their errors,
despite their faults, despite their crimes’.

Et j’aimerai toujours le temps des cerises.


This poem resulted from a visit I made last summer to the memorial to the dead of the Paris Commune (1871). It was one of the most moving experiences of my life and one that will remain with me. The poem turned out to be one of those that need footnotes - but after trial and error I found it was the only kind of poem I could write on this subject.

My apologies to any members who know French history and language and don’t need to be told most of this. If any of my facts or translations are wrong, please correct me!

The Paris Commune. The Commune lasted from 26 March until 28 May 1871. In the course of the Franco-Prussian War, which had been started by the French in July 1870, the Prussian army reached Paris and laid seige to the city. The government retreated to Versailles. The years leading up to the war had been one of the most wretched in the city’s history, at least as far as the poor were concerned. A telling statistic is that about 60% of the dead were thrown into common pits because families could not afford a funeral.

After a popular uprising, the Commune was elected on March 26. During its short lifetime it introduced votes for women; set up canteens in poor districts and provided school meals; began paying pensions to war widows, including women who had lost their men but had not been legally married to them; ordered pawnbrokers to redeem goods without charge; and other measures.

The Versailles government saw the Commune as a serious threat. As soon as peace had been made with the Prussians, government forces were sent into Paris to ‘restore order’. The way they went about this can only be described as an orgy of killing.

Père Lachaise. The cemetery in the Paris suburb of Belleville where many famous people are buried. Belleville however was one of the most strongly Communard districts, and against a wall at the south-eastern end of the cemetery, thousands were more or less indiscriminately shot. The wall (the ‘Federals Wall’) now carries a memorial plaque, and nearby there is a memorial to French men and women who died in the Spanish Civil War.

‘Le Temps des Cerises’ (Cherry Time) was a popular sentimental song at the time of the Commune. The lines quoted in the poem are:

Quand nous chanterons le temps des cerises - When we will sing (about) cherry time.

Je ne vivrai point sans souffrir un jour - I will not live one day without suffering.

Et j’aimerai toujours le temps des cerises - And I will always love cherry time.

The Cri du Peuple was a Paris newspaper.

Conversation at the wall. ‘It was a terrible crime, wasn’t it?’ ‘Yes, against the working class.’

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Comments by other Members

MarlaD at 10:13 on 25 February 2008  Report this post
This made me shudder James..very poignantly written..I knew some of the history, but now I know more..thanks x

V`yonne at 13:52 on 25 February 2008  Report this post
It is a wonderful piece James. I stood there with you. Pere Lachaise is one of my favourite places. I never go to Paris without a visit. (can't type a grave accent on here).

The song interspersed throughout structures it beatifully as do the repetitions 'This is the place.' The punctuation works to concentrate the sence which is so important in this poem because it appeals to the intellect but the short sentences and the flat tone lend such a weight of measured pace to it that it feels heavy as death itself -
The way is steep. I climb, and rest, and climb again.
This is the way of sorrow. This is the place.

I am ashamed to say that though I have stood there often I didn't know some of those facts myself and if I ever stand there again I will think of this.

Thank you for sharing it.

Ticonderoga at 13:25 on 26 February 2008  Report this post
Really quite extraordinarily good, James; it puts me in mind of Tony Harrison at his best - savage indignation channeled into tightly structured verse. Full of echoes for the future - 'a droite, a gauche' in particular suggesting the random survival or slaughter of jews at the hands of the Nazis. Superb.



joanie at 18:54 on 26 February 2008  Report this post
James, I am quite late in my response, but it's because I keep returning! I haven't been to Paris very often but I still can't believe that I haven't visited Père Lachaise cemetry! I immediately googled and researched (before I read your foot notes, actually). I want to be there right now! This is just fascinating and I adore the French 'bits' - just enough, I think, to tantalise and allow the reader to have a taste of the place.

I love the pattern of it and the contrasting short, sharp sentences with the longer, descriptive, narrative parts.


I remember, quite a while ago, that I took one of your poems to read at an historic stone circle nearby. I feel like I want to read this in situ. Wonderful.


Tina at 09:03 on 01 March 2008  Report this post
Hello James

Poignant stuff this and powerful - needs reading with respect and dignity - so I have read and read again. Your words are strong and convincing - we hear the message - the 'facts' hewn from stone - buried in stone.

Facts are incised stones. They stand against time.

What always strikes me about French cemetaries - ( yes I am a person who likes to visit such places) - is the eleborate celebration of death with dignity and they do memorials very well.
I don't know this place but have visited a cemetary in PAris so maybe just did not know, (to my hsmae) that it was there.

I like the detail of the climbing you and other pilgrims are doing compared to the struggle of these people - for them a monstrous reality.

This is the place
of sorrow. C’est l’endroit, ici. I am not alone:
some are still climbing and others have already climbed
the steep pilgrims’ path,

Great choice of subject matter and I can undertand why this is the only kind of poem you could write about it.
Many thanks

Zettel at 11:09 on 01 March 2008  Report this post
Powerful and moving James. As has been remarked:

The way is steep. I climb, and rest, and climb again.
This is the way of sorrow. This is the place.

is and extraordinarily powerful couplet. My French is just about up to the job but I like that you gave explanations - I find it infuriating when a poem contains elements that close it to some readers.

Paris has a number of places peopled with ghosts of injustice - e.g. the tomb of the unknown soldier at L'Etoile is such a better tribute to war dead than our Cenotaph. Though just as much ambivalence. As most armies then and now are formed of people escaping poverty.

Many emotions swirling around in your rich poem but it touches me in this particular way:

I just bought my 23yr old son a DVD of a film I saw recently called Everything Is Illuminated. It traces a journey by a young contemporary Jewish man back to the Ukraine to seek the truth about his grandparents' early life. He discovers for himself just one of the forgotten atrocities of the war.

I bought the DVD for my son because if the expression 'duties of mankind' means anything, one of them is - we must never forget: the Native Americans, the Jews, the Communards, the Rwandans and sadly all the rest.

Fine poem. Thanks.


James Graham at 10:58 on 05 March 2008  Report this post
Thanks, Tina and Zettel. This poem does seem to have an impact. You never really know until someone tells you it does.

Several good thoughts here - in your comments I mean. The French do memorials well, and there’s evidence of this all over Paris. What struck me about the Communards’ memorial was its plainness; at first I thought, ‘Is that all?’ A rectangle of metal fixed to the wall, with just the inscription in plain Roman lettering. But it was more than enough.

Zettel, you say some things that some might dismiss as self-evident, but they are things that need to be said again and again. We must never forget - each new generation must learn about the fate of the European Jews, or the Native Americans. New generations, not least in Turkey itself, must learn about the Armenians. Merely to know about these things may not seem much, but that we should forget is a denial of our humanity.

And ‘Armies then and now are formed of people escaping poverty’ is maybe not universally true, but it’s very generally true. Another truth that bears repeating. It certainly applies to the French army that went to war with Prussia in 1870 - one of the most futile wars in European history, and that’s saying a mouthful.


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