That Happen When Reading Rilke
I read Rilke in the graveyard, the only place in town to avoid the wind from the mountains. I’ve found a sheltered bench by the neglected sepulchre of the Nomdedieu family. It has a vacant plinth in front of it, never garnished with flowers, even on All Saints Day. Taking the name of the Lord Thy God in vain is to tempt fate, and I’m not surprised to learn from the Town Hall that the Nomdedieu family has died out.
‘Struck by a thunderbolt?’ I said to Welsh who, like lightning, flashed back, ‘My friend Christophe, who teaches art in Nimes, is a Nomdedieu.’
So on All Saints Day I put a cyclamen plant on the steps, and sent Christophe Nomdedieu a photo with the Mary Coleridge poem, ‘On Such a Day’, in rhyming French.
Certains s’accrochent au dessus des dalles.
Certains pleurent dans les vides salles.
Moi, quand I’iris fleurit,
Je me souviens.
Moi, quand le cyclamen
Ouvre son bouton en plein,
C’est le bonheur. Amen,
Je me souviens.
The cyclamen flowered, but Christophe didn’t respond, and when asked by Welsh if he got my letter, denied any relation to the Bras de Venus Nomdedieu. ‘Going through a bad patch in his marriage’, Welsh speculated. ‘His wife has run away with another woman.’ I decided that commemorating the Nameofgod was a dead loss, and stopped watering the plant, which shrivelled into its empty plastic pot.
I’m haunted by the mausoleums of families presumed to have died out, which are then broken up and reconstructed to accommodate those still extant. I accept that to leave them to fall into ruins like Van Gogh’s Alyscamps would be institutionalised desecration. But I ask myself what happens if the dead’s long lost relatives turn up? A mix-up like newborn babies in hospital, only at the other extreme of life.
My question raises itself again because the distemper of the hitherto neglected Nomdedieu mausoleum has been refreshed in blue, and a statue of a swaggering angel erected on the vacant plinth. ‘Nom d’une pipe !’, I can hear my old friend M. Bols exclaim from his crypt shelf. ‘C’est un bordel.’ And Rilke would have to change his last written words, to Jules Supervielle:
that poor broken vase
whose shards remember
they once were clay
The clay that forgot it was just the poor earth’s debris
and put together the vase that it was meant to be.
Christophe Nomdedieu has clearly taken his responsibilities to his ancestors to heart. A recollection forward, always a good sign, says Kierkegaard. According to Welsh, his marriage is now a recollection backwards. It’s not that he’s now glad to have got rid of his poule de luxe. Since she took flight, Christophe has rediscovered his art, endlessly sculpting her bust. The statue of the assertive angel probably represents her.
The sign of family life came none too soon. Though the Nomdedieu mausoleum was nowhere near the Alyscamps point, in a year or two, with the extremes of weather due to global warming or an earthquake in the Pyrenees, who knows how it would have crumbled? It might well have been in line for demolition and recycling for the dead with living relatives, and the Nomdedieu dug up and dumped in the ossuary, along with all the other disowned dead. Although if the remains of the Nomdedieu could be traced by DNA in the mass grave, the mausoleum would have to be converted into a cenotaph, and the cuckoo coffin chucked out on its ear.
I doubt if a discrete relocation, or getting their money back, would satisfy the bumped family. Most likely they would sue the Town Hall for wrongful burial, or even breach of respect, and Bras de Venus, already up to its eyes in debt, would be bankrupt. The receivers, in order to avoid the cemetery returning to the wild, would have it sold off to ‘Le Corbeau’ Corbillard, who already owns half the town, including the funeral parlour and the maternity clinic, and so it could be said that ‘Le Corbeau’ possesses Bras body and soul, from the cradle to the grave.
I ponder the unquiet Nomdedieu grave, and wrongful burial. All burials for me are wrongful, a breach of respect. Dead bodies shouldn’t take up ground that ought to be cultivated. Cremation is more life-enhancing. The ashes can fertilise the soil. Like Rose Verdu (1907-1980). She had herself incinerated and scattered over her husband’s last resting place, now a flower garden.
‘We don’t know what’s beyond us. This ignorance is the human condition. Just as ice is not able to know the fire that melts it.’ Remembering my Jules Renard, I chuckle inwardly, and resume reading Rilke in a better humour.