Minden, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany
Continental Breakfasts—On McClintock's "Before
Croissants and Coffee" and a Poem by Fontane
Upon reading Michael McClintock's "Before Croissants and Coffee"1 I was instantly reminded of Theodor Fontane's poem "Würd' es mir fehlen, würd' ich's vermissen?," a mere fourteen lines, written in that casual way that reveals true mastery. What was it this poet wrote about in 1888 that struck me as being related to McClintock's piece? He wrote about the little morning scenes down in the street as seen from his window—not before breakfast though, but thereafter:
Early today, having slept the whole night,
I rose into the morning light.
Breakfast was ready and waiting for me,
The roll toasted fresh, and hot was the coffee,
I sat to read the paper then
(Promotions were being made again).
I stepped to the window and looked outside,
The city was starting to get into stride,
(At the butcher's) an apron hung over a stool
Little girls were out walking to school—
Everything friendly, everything gay
But if I had just stayed in bed the whole day,
Pretending to be unaware of all this,
Would there be something I'd possibly miss?2
Fontane was almost seventy at the time and had yet to publish, among others, his famous novel Effi Briest. From his original German poem we learn that he woke up again after a good night's sleep3 (not a matter of course at his age). In lines 7 to 10 we peek over his shoulder and witness the dawning of another day in the streets of Berlin, where he lived in an apartment on the third floor. Instead of a bakery there's a butcher. No dog across the way, but little girls walking to school. And part of "The city [. . .] starting to get into stride" might well have been a postman and some coach horses at a trot, to volunteer an explanation for "trabte" in the original line "Es trabte wieder, es klingelte munter,"4—one reminiscent of the German word "Trott," which stands for the daily grind.
The line defies close yet artful translation. Hence the cheerful ringing in "[. . .] es klingelte munter" is lost as well. Doorbells perhaps, jingling bells of horses drawing carriages, maybe early streetcars. Here we have the 19th-century counterpart of the Parisian morning commute and a queer link to the postman's alarm. Different eras, different settings, yet the same clarity and vividness in both works: "Everything friendly, everything gay" as we are told in line 11.
In either instance this liveliness is partly achieved by visual and auditory effects. Glimpses of work carried out and the reference of man and beast performing their daily routine add zest and drive. But while Fontane's view resembles a genre painting or an urban snapshot, McClintock's depiction is more vibrant, similar to a short movie that shows, in quick succession, scenes from several sets intertwined with a sketchy story line. That indeed is his method, and he applies it with a touch of the omniscient attitude Fontane adopted as a novelist. In his first paragraph McClintock evokes scenes his lyrical self cannot possibly have seen or heard. His persona can at best venture a guess based on prior or later observation. Oddly, we are inclined to assume the latter.
Both poets draw on these everyday scenes to convey something else. Fontane places them right at the heart of his poem, where they outshine the dim contours of his room. But lively though they are, he treats them parenthetically, as if he were preparing to turn away. Fontane doesn't repeat the street scenes like McClintock does so boldly; he contents himself with slipping in the word "wieder" (again). The old man has seen it all many times before, he need not watch, need not even rise to know what's going on. And so he asks: "Would there be something I'd possibly miss?" Is it tedium? In his conversational tone Fontane only lulls us into thinking so. The familiar hustle and bustle is central to him; as a writer he can't do without it very well, can he? Of course we may conceive of his question as a mere musing, also in its German wording
Aber wenn ich weiter geschlafen hätt'
Und tät' von alledem nichts wissen,5
which, relieved of the need to fit into a literary translation, may be paraphrased best as "But if I had slept on, unaware of all this." Here the initial "Bin ich wieder aufgewacht"6 (I woke up again) takes effect. On closer reading, Fontane's question represents his contemplating of the void of human existence and his quarrelling with finitude. He had lost loved ones, buried his eldest son the year before. Death, that dark brother of sleep, is on his mind. Read thus, line 12 doesn't introduce a note of coquetry or disenchantment but a pang of regret. Fontane didn't harbor illusions: he knew that people out there would do without him, the poet and creator of worlds.
McClintock on the other hand, has his lively scenes all over the place, except at the heart of his work, which he too saves for what is dearest: "You [. . .]." It's the most tranquil part of his tanka prose. Its quietude is heightened by a parallel, for just as the dream is only seen tiptoeing upon the beloved one's brow, the clouds are only seen on the "wet, shining pavements." There's an intricate structure to this short work and the second paragraph has the key role in it. It serves as a mirror axis and it can do so very convincingly because it is as tranquil and polished.
In harmony with the dream and the clouds, the morning scenes in the first paragraph are treated indirectly as well. The scenes we get aren't taking place yet, and whatever preceded them, coinciding with the rain, isn't mentioned. McClintock gives us a sneak preview. Then he goes back in time to the brief summer rain and the dream. He has his lyrical self step out on the balcony and watch the mirrored clouds. And then, in the tanka, the bread that was still being baked in the prose section is racked, the dog that waited the rain out in his basket trots from its door, the postman—sound asleep when introduced first—speeds by and the beloved dreamer awakes. We had been looking at a reflection; in the tanka we turn to see the real thing. Eventually, after still more befores, there'll be breakfast. The title suggests so, and as we may presume, a wonderful day is to follow.
Why this complex treatment of time, these shadows of coming events? It's obvious: the prose part of this piece is all anticipation, a slumbering world waiting to awaken with a kiss as in Sleeping Beauty. This kiss is the summer rain. The tanka however are about fulfilment and the last one ends on a wonderful note that holds a promise of even more to come. Fontane uses his scenes to point at death and tell us that life is beautiful despite everything; McClintock uses them to point at love and tell us that time is precious. His "Briefly" and "in needful haste" hint at evanescence and in this context the dream speaks for itself. The two poets aren't that far apart at all, are they?
Granted, Fontane's poem has melancholy overtones and depicts the daily routine of an elderly gentleman—if we read it with its author in mind. We might just as well imagine a young lyrical self and arrive at a somewhat different mood. And nothing is said about Berlin: it is background knowledge that takes us there. Still, our initial interpretation is by all means permissible. Some of its depth would be lost if we read the poem without reference to Fontane's biography.
McClintock's buoyant piece on the other hand seems to present a break from everyday life. Everything he describes is as fresh and new as seen with a lover's eyes—and a traveller's. The scene is set in Paris and we may well assume that the couple doesn't live there; else the fact would not have been mentioned particularly. And so we tend to picture them in a hotel. Is it the first morning of their stay? We can't know. But the freshness of it all makes us think that the first paragraph's scenes are deduced from later observation only. We may take the author to be the first-person narrator or imagine a younger female lyrical self; either way the overall mood of the piece stays about the same.
If we at long last consider the style of both works, we find that Fontane's original poem seems to rhyme by mere chance. Fontane, who excelled in causerie, presents these lines as a soliloquy. And as we have seen, their casual, chatty tone softens what lies behind them. In contrast, the prose of "Before Croissants and Coffee" reads like poetry. The tanka, backed by the heightened prose and with their very effective use of consonance, assonance and phrasing, echo the prose in a strikingly matter-of-fact way before they take things further. This odd twist is in keeping with the slumbering world before the rain and the city "starting to get into stride" thereafter. Throughout the piece, repetition with slight variation is a prominent stylistic device. Hence the tanka are close to the prose, more or less reproducing its development and getting to the heart of its emotion. Retracing tanka's history, we find that these five-line poems were called hanka when composed as envoys to mirror and condense longer songs called chōka. Given the poetic qualities of McClintock's prose, we may well say his tanka are really envoys. Their relation with the prose need not be more oblique; in this short work they can best perform their specific function as they are.
Oddly, we can imagine the beloved dreamer in McClintock's piece rise after the embrace and carry on like the lyrical self in Fontane's first few lines. Fontane sat down to share his impressions and thoughts with his readers; the couple in Paris will celebrate breakfast together. No doubt, the dreamer is going to hear all about the streets that were kissed awake by rain—and she will walk them with her love.
1. In Modern Haibun & Tanka Prose, edited by Jeffrey Woodward. Issue 1—Baltimore, Maryland: Modern English Tanka Press, 2009, p. 129.
2. "Would There Be Something I'd Possibly Miss?" [Würd' es mir fehlen, würd' ich's vermissen?]. Translated by Adrian Del Caro. In The German Mind of the Nineteenth Century: A Literary & Historical Anthology, edited by Hermann Glaser. New York: Continuum, 1981 p. 358-359.
3. "Heute früh, nach gut durchschlafener Nacht, / Bin ich wieder aufgewacht." From "Würd' es mir fehlen, würd' ich's vermissen?"—In Theodor Fontane: Werke, Schriften und Briefe. Edited by Walter Keitel and Helmuth Nürnberger. Volume 6. Carl Hanser Verlag, Munich 1978, p. 340.
Before Croissants and Coffee
Briefly, before the morning commute, before the bakery set out its morning bread to cool on the racks, before the postman's alarm rang beside his bed, and the dog scratched, wanting out, a summer rain fell on the streets and boulevards of Paris.
You slept—I saw a dream tiptoe upon your brow and would not wake you. I watched alone on the balcony the wet, shining pavements mirror the clouds.
I hear the bread racked
across the way a dog
trots from its door.
The postman's van
speeds by in needful haste:
the rain has ceased,
and we embrace.
First published in Modern Haibun & Tanka Prose 2 (Winter 2009).