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Breton

July 9, 2013

Not far north of Place Raymond Mondon, you pause beneath the arch of Porte Serpenoise, a major city gate rebuilt in 1851, which is now free-standing. It had been destroyed, almost three centuries earlier, in 1561. Its function is no longer that of security, but rather that of aestheticized memory. Smooth, pale yellow blocks give shape to the arch around which row upon row of stone, the color of goldenrod, culminate in a balustrade-like pediment. Four turrets mark the four corners of the Porte. A low dome of grass covers the top of the gate.

The southern face of the gate, on either side of the arch, bears two inscriptions. That on the left reads:

“Le 31 octobre 1870 METZ trahie est livrée par Bazaine aux Allemands qui entrent par cette porte dans la ville.”

Unsurprisingly, that on the right provides the end of the saga:

“Le 19 novembre 1918 les troupes françaises délivrent METZ du joug allemand et après 48 ans de cruelle séparation rentrent en cette cité.”

You are struck by the symmetry of the inscriptions. The relationship conveyed by the sentence structure, the prepositions, the choice of verbs reminds you of an image in a mirror. The forms are identical, but, within these lines, the relation of activity and passivity are inverted. The Germans do not act in these lines; they merely subsist in an indirect relation to the city. A Frenchman betrays Metz, and the French regain Metz. Truth be told, the inscriptions deny a German Metz. The grammar itself precludes the consideration of such an identity.

A few days later, rummaging in a junk store in Rue des Jardins, you linger over an old postcard. The stamp reads “Deutsches Reich.” The postcard dates from 1900, the numbers evenly spaced in the upper left-hand corner. It is, however, the image that caught your eye. On a sidewalk, a nanny and her charge eternally make their way toward Porte Serpenoise, easily recognizable even a century earlier. Yet the city gate in the photograph differs from that of the present in one notable aspect. The gate’s dome of grass, which you had earlier remarked as out of place, is here part of a large earthen bulwark. Indeed, the earthworks rise half again as high as the gate itself and extend east and west, forming an even wall of grass and dirt, the surface of which is broken only by a number of strategic terraces placed at various elevations. A slight smile on your lips, you are reminded of a saying from a well-known author, also dead: There has to be a libidinous delight in finding things and stuffing them in your pockets.

Curious, you return to the Porte in the late afternoon. The clouds are heavy and grey, low. You note a series of dates beneath the words “Porte Serpenoise” that you had earlier missed: “transformations successives 1892-1902 – état actuel – 1903.” You find a bench in the adjacent park and have a seat. The numbers on the page seem significant though you cannot say precisely how.

Night comes on. The leaves of the sycamores become green tissue paper in the lamplight of the park. Soft white. Your eyes find the gate between the trunks. A set of blue lights illuminate the Porte as if the entire scene before you were now unfolding at the bottom of a lake.

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