Asides: Kenneth Koch, Serge Gainsbourg, Jane Birkin – trains and puns

NY Poets cover The New York Poets: An Anthology, edited by Mark Ford (Carcanet Press, 2004) includes a poem by Kenneth Koch (1925-2002) that drew my eye because of the connotations for me of its title. ‘One Train May Hide Another (sign at a railroad crossing in Kenya)’ begins:

In a poem, one line may hide another line,

As at a crossing, one train may hide another train.

That is, if you are waiting to cross

The tracks, wait to do it for one moment at

Least after the first train is gone. And so when you read

Wait until you have read the next line –

Then it is safe to go on reading.

In a family one sister may conceal another,

So, when you are courting, it’s best to have them all in view

Otherwise in coming to find one you may love another.

And so he goes on, shifting from this banal start to an increasingly surreal, meandering litany of concealments: one father, one wish, one dog, and so on. Read the text and hear Koch reading it here.


My photo taken at Bram, Aude, June 2016 - added to this post later

My photo taken at Bram, Aude, June 2016 – added to this post later

The connotations I mentioned? The song written by Serge Gainsbourg, ‘Un Amour peut en cacher un autre’, sung by Jane Birkin, his muse and former partner, released in 1990 on her studio album ‘Amour des Feintes’ – wonderful double entendres abound in his lyrics. There’s a link to this (rather over-produced) song on YouTube here. (Gainsbourg died in 1991 after a life of heavy smoking, drinking and general decadence and misbehaving.)

I first heard this song when I was on a 3-month work placement in France that year; a friend introduced me to the oeuvre of the joli laid Gainsbourg (he’s said to have invented that term), he of the languid, hooded toad eyes and omnipresent Gauloises. The lyrics are often cheesily punning, as here, where the title is presumably lifted from the ubiquitous train crossing warning signs that inspired Koch’s riff on the theme.

Here’s a section of the lyrics:

Un amour peut en cacher un autre

On est aveugle mais comment faire autr-

ement il faut payer le jour crash

C’est l’American Express ou le cash.

The mix of English and French is a recurring feature of the lyricist; Gainsbourg was a fan of American popular culture (hence his famous pop video of his song ‘Bonny and Clyde’, in which he sang with a sultry but strangely unconvincing Brigitte Bardot, another former partner of his; it’s so kitsch it’s almost good.) These lines sound better than any meaning implicit in them – especially as rendered in Birkin’s quavering, breathily untrained singing voice. The lyrics are full of Gainsbourg’s linguistic jouissance.

Birkin is in that long line of actors who ill-advisedly fancied themselves as singers (Bardot, Deneuve, Anna Karina etc.), but she usually pulls it off from a mixture of chic and je ne sais quoi.

Gainsbourg Gainsbourg loved to court controversy, as when, for example, he sang a duet with his 13-year-old daughter Charlotte on the dubiously suggestive ‘Lemon Incest’ (1984), accompanied by an even more dodgily erotic video. Neither of them can sing, and it’s a song so provocative that it makes the more infamous 1969 duet with Birkin ‘Je t’aime’ –banned by the BBC and condemned by the Pope – seem tame. It too showcases SG’s penchant for puns and wordplay (‘exquise esquisse’ – exquisite sketch — he croaks to the half-naked daughterl who shares his bed in the film).

Interestingly, Charlotte Gainsbourg, now something of a movie star, made her name in the Anglophone film world with the 1993 adaptation by her uncle Andrew Birkin of Ian McEwan’s first novel The Cement Garden. It deals, of course, with the theme of incest. The delight her roué father took in provoking outrage seems to have been inherited.

While I’d be the first to acknowledge that Gainsbourg is no Dylan or Jacques Brel, I can’t help finding something pleasing in his knowingly bad songs (‘Les Dessous Chics’ nudges and winks with winsome faux-naïveté) and his outré image (all these French chansons are influencing my vocabulary). He belongs to that tradition of moody chanteurs one associates with smoky cabarets and scandalous lives, but he mixed the image with a sort of pre-punk insouciant swagger. Such figures don’t seem to be around so much now. Maybe just as well…