This poetic essay makes multiple references to the instrumental composition and lyrics of Michel Legrand and Agnès Varda’s “Sans Toi,” as sung by Corinne Marchand for Varda’s 1962 film Cléo de 5 à 7. It also makes multiple mention of musician Rhiannon Giddens, solo artist and co-founder of the award-winning African-American string band the Carolina Chocolate Drops.
I spin around my stoic thirty square meters, ears ringing I’ve put the volume so loud.
I spin and spin and stop, stare into the religion of Corinne Marchand’s mouth. Opening, opening. Nothing changing between sans toi and sans toit.
I sing it myself, sock-footed, roofed, no city noise to harm me. My ears, they have stopped ringing. My ears await the sound of my voice. I stare into the religion of my mouth as it is opens, as nothing changes when I sing, sawn tuwoi and sawn tuwoit.
I listen more: je suis une maison vide (…and Legrand: chum chum chum). And then I let myself go in echo, seconds later, repeating, dumb as an acolyte, jah suiz eone mayzon viduh… And later, comeuh eel uh desertuh (…and Legrand: chum chum chum).
This morning my voice is a rasped wagon churning down the dirt road of my feminist Western. And here in praise of a man. I surprise myself. I do not. I search his name.
I search his name with Agnès Varda’s, with Corinne Marchand’s, with Cléo de 5 à 7. It was this film that brought me to a new picture of him. It was here I saw his music dancing in the mouth of Cléo’s vain character. It was here I saw him poking fun at his own compositions. Here, after giving his notes away, I saw him playing with a dark side.
I look at a picture of him on set, kitten upon his shoulder, thoughts arpeggio-ing behind his lenses.
I look at this picture of him, kitten upon his shoulder, and I think, this is not his dark side. I think, where in his body did it live. I think, the body must be a house. I think, an artist is always trying to empty that house of its dark side. I think, every single body is living a dark side. I think, every single body is a cachette, a hideout, for a dark side.
Here, I start Legrand and Varda’s song again:
mes plages se dévident. And me, nano-seconds behind Corinne: may plah-jah suh day-viduh.
I have looked up this lyric before, made my choice of translation (perhaps the reason my freelance contacts have recoiled): my beaches are unraveling. yes, or my beaches unravel. All of them,
My mother might call the line melodramatic. I might say, that’s Agnès, that’s Michel.
I translate for success the lush self-pity he portends for me. It’s irrationally poetic, it’s suggestive, and savage. I deneuve a sigh.
My voice sings this and sings this,
and even though the screen twinkles of the New Wave, even though my head is caught in what we’ve pixelated glamorous in such sombres récits, I peek through to last night.
Last night, I had been with Chelsie, she could be Corinne—blond, crisp features, animation of curve, intelligence timbré, femininity puckering of more than what is a woman’s fate façading before the lens. We had lost ourselves in our dark sides, sat in a room of others’ nostalgia and played our own.
Chelsie and I, two heart-aching American academics disturbed and delighted to be at another Parisian house party, had interrupted her husband and his best friend, two French men, rifling through the archives of Internet. More exactly the lyric of the French 90s. They had just found their youth’s poison, Boomerang, a green alcoholic beverage that the teens guzzled before, during, and after doing the tecktonik. We laugh.
Then, we are tired of laughing, tired of sharing the screen, we are tired of this maudlin avec des arômes de citron.
This night, the night Michel Legrand is taking his last breaths, we are not thinking of him.
Instead, on this night we want to turn the tables, take the machine into our laps, gallivant through our girlhood, so we youtube Sugar Ray, watch his blond tips and black wife-beater construe his masculinity. Without thinking, we click the next window, and Blink 182’s track jacket runs through one man’s joke of another man’s joke in a back-street-boyed hall. When Michel Legrand is dying, I am in my youth.
I am in a minivan fighting my brother for the dial, Jewel versus Creed. When Michel Legrand is dying, I am on family vacation, a beach, with a radio being tuned by my dad, my uncle, and an army of men bloom in my head. May plah-jah suh day-viduh.
When Michel Legrand dies, I think, it was his songs that brought me here. Along with others. Along with Varda’s French word games, along with crisp French blondes, along with heady French brunettes. Along with the worlds of Truffaut and Godard. Along with Duras and Perec. I think, I balanced my breath on somebody else’s emptying house, someone else’s nostalgia, packed my suitcase wanting not to go walking in stereotype when every move has been a step in it. I think, we do a lot for an image. I think, certain seductions work on certain kinds of hearts. I think, Michel, you seduced me. I think, how much seduction is contained within one cachette of a body, within the rolling dice of a dark side.
When Michel Legrand dies, I think, so many artists open their mouths and supplicate to no one in particular. I think, so many artists supplicate to no one in particular after a someone in particular didn’t really listen. When he dies, I think of all the mouths that open to beg and how it allows someone, somehow, that day or years later to open her mouth in supplication. Think, I shouldn’t write about this. Think, this man is not mine, think, this text is my own monster. Think, am I making him my pawn. Think, I always stop myself. Think, I musn’t stop. Think, I must unlock this cachette.
When Michel Legrand dies, I know I love a white man no matter my country. I am guilty, for loving him. I am guilty of loving his image and the place where the world gave him the most image.
When Michel Legrand dies, fours hours later I search for the banjo strings of Rhiannon Giddens. I am feeling guilty for losing myself in someone else’s nostalgia. I am feeling guilty for leaving, guilty for loving something beautiful and melodic and masculine and French more than I am, at this moment, living in the present, fighting for the present.
When Michel Legrand dies, four hours later, I have found the banjo strings of Rhiannon Giddens, and I think, nothing, nothing has changed in me between watching two artists in two different countries from two different times as they empty their houses.
Then, I think, America is not even awake yet. I think, they won’t mourn him much in America, think, they won’t mourn her much in her time in France. It is then, I want to go back to the cotton candy moment I first cried watching Les Parapluies de Cherbourg. It is then, I think, Demy’s Technicolor is antonym, to so much. Certainly to old-time, certainly to folk. I think, of the cachette of genre. Think, I must cry, think, must I?
On this day, I press play a dark amount of times.
I lie, listless, in the opening and the religion of her mouth and the fact that when she opens her mouth, she sings: toutes portes ouvertes.
Tootuh portesuh oooovertuh.
It’s difficult, this liaison. I get up; I must. I must live some present, some liaison. I try spinning again, around my stoic thirty square meters. I post a story on Instagram, to live in the present. It is just his picture on set, his image, his body, his cachette, the one with the kitten upon his shoulder. When Michel Legrand dies, I post this picture, and, because this act categorically enshrines yet another white man, and because I lick the wick, placing a proverbial candle at his feet, dutiful in my cisgenderhood, one of my queer friends sees it and skitters away.
Jah suiz eone mayzon viduh, sawn tuwoit.
I listen again to the end, to the brassy stairs of Legrand’s musical bridge, to Varda’s line that fascinates and disgusts me, all at once.
I sing it to feel the darkness of it. I demand access.
Ooh, jay pah luh kafar. My ears ring. I do not understand. I cannot feel these stoic three seconds.
I translate what I think I hear, what I think I sing:
Oh, je n’ai pas le cafard.
Oh, i do not have the cockroach.
I think, quite frankly, this word, cafard, is all too prominent in French for so few of them to be in the country.
For a moment I see them, les cafards. I surrender to a dark side, watch their bodies border the slick and aloof cabinets of my red cuisine. When Michel Legrand dies, I think, I do not believe in this section, these bars. I think, Varda I do not like your line. I question them.
I search “avoir le cafard expression in French”:
I choose a meaning that seems close to what I imagine the song could mean: Oh, I am not down in the dumps.
I think, I do not like this line. The poetry is gone. The New Wave muh day-viduh. I sit, frustrated in my stoic thirty square meters.
But the song does not sing this.
My ear did not listen to the dark side of the supplication; my mouth messed up Varda’s lyric, its cachette the spell of Michel. I go back to Corinne, back to the moment where I misheard her.
Rongée par le cafard.
Oh, là, ronjay pahr luh kafar.
I translate: nibbled up by cock roaches. I choose nibbled up because it isn’t right. I choose it for my imagination of the religion of their mouths.
I press play again. Just for these moments. And I apologize to Varda, to Michel, for having questioned their poetry, for having put them in a poem wherein I question their poetry. I apologize for having locked their names in one of my cachettes, in one of my emptying houses.
I watch the religion of Corinne Marchand’s mouth. I think, Corinne, you hid this line from me. I think of Chelsie singing last night, hiding her pain to make something happy in another’s house. I think of a woman’s whole mouth giving form to a man’s music. Michel, I love you, I think. I think, Michel, what you were hiding and how you were hiding it I love.
But I think, too, of last night, of Chelsie, of YouTube.
I think, I am writing this empty house of empty association. This text is my world united and unfair, united and destructive to all the other houses emptying their associations. I think, my beaches are unraveling.
And that’s when I see them—a beach of women, each emptying shells from her instrument, each instrument as if a net. Their mouths are opening, opening, mouthing their religion. I hear, distantly: (…chum chum chum). I start to spin, to spin more and again. My beaches are unraveling. My house is emptying.
And I sing because I can, because I want to, because they are singing. And I am not down in the dumps. And no cockroaches are nibbling me up. I am alive in my mouth, we are alive in our mouths opening and opening. I think, I love us all. I spin and spin and stop.
I stare into the religion of—
Corinne’s mouth curved open.
Chelsie’s cheek as she opens her mouth to bear her intelligence on landlocked ears.
Rhiannon’s fingers over her banjo strings before she howls of her heritage.
When Michel Legrand dies, I say merci, merci, while I stare out, out over our beaches unraveling, out over our houses emptying, out over our bodies unlocking nos cachettes, out, out, out over our mouths opening, opening.