The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Bypassing Rue Descartes” is a poem thirty-five lines long and arranged in ten irregular stanzas. The poem is written in the first person, as is traditional in lyric poetry. The poet remembers a walk taken in Paris, which occasions a meditation on history, exile, and guilt. The poem has the qualities of nostalgia and intimacy that insist the poem is autobiographical rather than a portrayal of a persona.

“Bypassing Rue Descartes” (which was tellingly retitled in translation from simply “Rue Descartes”) describes a walk the poet, “A young barbarian just come to the capital of the world,” took that initiated his life as an exile from Lithuania and Poland. The title establishes a place and a locus for meditation. The poet, however, bypasses this street and figuratively bypasses what this street signifies: Cartesian certainty, with its insistence on analysis and division. Bypassing Rue Descartes, the poet descends toward the Seine, hence proposing a traditional departure from abstraction and a movement toward nature.

The poem’s first stanza establishes the poet’s place and identity. In the second stanza, the poet considers himself one among many exiled nationalities, including Poles, North Africans, and Vietnamese. Implicit in his catalog is the history of empires and colonialism. The poem continues, describing the difference between the immigrant’s customs, “About which nobody here should ever be told,” and the...

(The entire section is 516 words.)