The Place de L’Institut

The Place de L’Institut
i.m. Anne Redpath

When I pause (I always do) the place
is placid – no reason to pause – its blandness
a principle of the street that beelines
to the cute quay high and green
with bouquinistes above the gloomy river.
I sit down in the little square – its benches
for parked prams and dossers – glance
first at the fluted, broken fountain,
then at the large black grill – an echo
of portcullis – doubled by its shadow
that puts half a brass plaque in shade.
From here I make out two words only:
‘Institut de’… What? Institute of what?
I know it’s ‘France’ of course, but sun,
a slower current in the day, the need
to wring more from this banal angle of the city
prompts fantasy that doesn’t come.
Why not? Because it is the Institute
of What? That sound: the upturned
black space this place discreetly makes
of the universe we sit in eating lunch.
I could imagine but the blank walls,
high gate, the leonine knocker’s
gold down-turned mouth precludes
all speculation. This is the domain
where academics are classed and paid
as civil servants. Imagine! Could I
paint this? Geometry would be
its only subject unless – somehow – 
quintessence of blandness sugared
the picture suggesting an ironic
‘thisness’, a ‘hereness’ of the place.
This is the only canvas I have left.
War makes it scarce, me poor, doesn’t
seem to touch the Institute, unmoved,
unmoving, even when Resistance fighters
are put up against its back and shot.
I close my eyes in the lukewarm evening sun:
like pottery growing bigger on a wheel
it whirls its ball towards my lids
and as I open them I see for one split second
a double-decker Edinburgh bus, red and silent,
cruise slowly round the square.
Why is it there? It is a ‘what’ in every tone
of voice the canvas may conceive
and if I paint these civic walls I’ll sketch it
with equal gravity (more love) in chalk,
pink chalk upon the painting’s back:
the raw, red hidden heart of the Place de l’Institut.
David Kinloch

from Finger of a Frenchman (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2011)

Reproduced by permission of the author and the publisher.
David Kinloch

David Kinloch is a poet and teacher of creative writing and poetry.  

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About The Place de L’Institut

This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2011. Best Scottish Poems is an online publication, consisting of 20 poems chosen by a different editor each year, with comments by the editor and poets. It provides a personal overview of a year of Scottish poetry. The editor in 2011 was Roddy Lumsden.

Editor's comment:

Kinloch's latest collection, Finger of a Frenchman, is largely concerned with visual artists from the past and a second theme is the historical link between France and Scotland. This poem is like an as yet unsolved sum which 'shows its workings', as the poet mulls over ideas of blankness, silence, absence versus art, warmth and imagination. I'm particularly fond of 'in situ' writing at the moment, and can imagine the poet writing this in the square in Paris. I'm glad he hasn't neatened and resolved his thoughts too much when redrafting – I want to engage with the poem and make that resolution for myself.

Author's note:

‘The Place de l’Institut’ revisits a Parisian square where the Scottish painter, Anne Redpath, painted the imposing doorway of a very elite French academic institution known as the Institut de France. I saw this painting displayed at Kelvingrove Art Gallery in Glasgow some years ago. It was part of an exhibition designed to showcase quirky or unusual art objects, each of which had a ‘secret’ of some kind. It turned out that Redpath had painted a double decker bus in red chalk on the back of the painting perhaps because canvas was so scarce during wartime when the work was created. The painting of the doorway is as dull as the chalk sketch is vivid and charming although both are fine works of art in their own way. When I visited the actual square some time after this I was struck by its ordinariness and by the memorial plaque to resistance fighters who were shot near the building Redpath painted.