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This poem is taken from PN Review 202, Volume 38 Number 2, November - December 2011.

from Hitting the Streets (translated by Rachel Galvin) Raymond Queneau
Taxi drivers, street sweepers, a bouquiniste, unsuccessful prostitutes, a menaced bicycle-rider, noisy children, an old woman shunted aside in a crowd, and some disgruntled animals at the zoo populate the poems of Raymond Queneau's Hitting the Streets. Unreeling like a series of clips recorded during a stroll through Paris, the book is wickedly funny, but it is also a bittersweet meditation on how 'the river of forgetfulness carries away the city'. Queneau's flâneur is a linguist with a penchant for the odd spoken phrase as well as a photojournalist with an eye for the telling gesture of the passer-by.Hitting the Streets, like much of Queneau's writing, records French as it is actually spoken, or what he dubbed 'néo-français': 'C'mon missus step on it we're in a rush'.

Beloved for his smart-talking, filthy-mouthed, nine-year-old protagonist of Zazie in the Metro, Queneau is also known for his novel Odile, which skewers André Breton and other Surrealists; and a book of sonnets that has been called the longest book in the world, One Hundred Thousand Billion Poems.In 1960 he founded the Oulipo (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle), a group of mathematicians and writers. It still meets regularly, making it the longest-running literary group in French history.

Hitting the Streets is Queneau's love note to Paris - a Paris that is always in the process of becoming superannuated. Even as Queneau writes of contemporary issues (terrible traffic, the Vietnam War, the disappearance of public urinals) he remembers Paris of the beatnik era, World War II, and the turn of the century: 'they fill the city all the dead / it's tough not to trample them'. The volume is packed with arcane knowledge drawn from Queneau's years of writing a daily newspaper column of Paris trivia called 'Do You Know Paris?' It features odes to odd street names and a ballad to a fine cheese from Saint Maure.

But the poems also describe the tricks of perspective that can occur when trekking through the urb - such as when one rounds a corner and finds a seascape instead of a cityscape, or discovers a street that resembles a ponderous bird.Hitting the Streets is a paean to Paris in which Queneau catalogues 'for poposs posterity' everything from 'one Louvre museum one Place Saint-Sulpice / some chaperoned children at the flower market' to 'the banks of the Seine / one vert-galant / and some raccoons gallivanting'.

Lutèce (Lethe)

The river of forgetfulness carries away the city
with its vacation departures and New Year's Day stalls
its tourist buses its springtime lily of the valley
its July Fourteenths and its caramels
the municipal water carts of its summer its winter snows
its autumn rains that give its dust an electric odour
its shopkeepers who buy or sell their shops the changing names of bistros
the re-baptised streets the torn-down posters
the river of forgetfulness whose mythological name one even misremembers
the forgotten Lethe does not cease to flow



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