When The Metro Is Free

An Anthology of Contemporary French Counter-Cultural Poetry

One of the student demands of les événements of 1968 was that the Paris Metro should be free. 'Be realistic,' ran another slogan, 'demand the impossible!' If such utopianism sounds touchingly innocent today, it is a measure of how far the imagination has surrendered to the impossible conditions of 'the real'.

When the Metro is Free is an anthology of counter-cultural poetry from contemporary France, representing the work of a group of poets around Francis Combes and Le Temps des Cerises. These poets are the descendants of Apollinaire and Jacques Prévert, inheritors of the bohemian tradition of questioning everything, bearers of Marx's idea that nothing human can be alien to us. Although their approaches are radically different, they share the same existential charge, wrestling with the essential problem of modern life - the relationship of the individual to society.

Francis Combes, founder of Le Temps des Cerises, France's most famous radical poetry publisher, draws on history to demystify the absolutes of contemporary ideology. Françoise Coulmin explores the narratives of historical female sensibility. The veteran Jacques Gaucheron recalls past conflicts and old comradeships. Gerard Noiret fuses the banal and the extraordinary. David Dumortier takes us on a sharp-witted, amusing trip through the underworld of the Metro.

When the Metro is Free is a series of sketches from the Left-bank of the contemporary imagination, postcards from France's literary counter-culture, poems snatched from the maelstrom of the contemporary - urban, urgent and vital - engaging with daily life and with the struggle to humanize it.

Sample Poem

Metro Sketches

The cold drinks machines
Work 24/24
A useless service:
the metro is closed at night

	In a period of bomb attacks
	The first thing they protect is the litter bins

A woman makes the best of her reflection in the glass
To straighten her hair:
The world is a little more as it should be after this gesture

	The beggar
	With the golden teeth
	Feeds her treasure
	in her arms

A tramp with a litre of wine in his hand,
The police arrest him
Because if they leave him alone
He will plant his vine in the earth.

    Sitting on the folding seats
    You can look at the backsides
    Of the folk standing
    Without meaning to.

The peanut vendor
Has had the idea
That people will fancy peanuts today.

A pickpocket has his hands so much
In others' pockets
That his own are always cold.

    A man
    Has a beard
    An astrakhan hat
    An overcoat with a fur collar
    So much hair above his penis!

By looking at people's shoes
You can know what season it is
Without needing to go outside.

    The beggar's body
    Has a buttock missing:
    In the hollow
    The bomb exploded.

The escalators help us
To get ahead.

    When you've missed the last train
    You reproach it for being on time.

The bloke who had lots of hair
above his penis
Today is wearing shoes made from wild boar's fur
What a pig !

    The ticket inspectors will be happy
    When everyone is honest
    They will be able, at last, to no longer come to work.

It doesn't snow in the stations
The tiles are naturally white.

    Sometimes, on the platform, a man goes off the rails.

A veiled woman lowers her eyes
Like a woman naked in front of everybody

    A foreigner didn't have a ticket
    He had no identification documents
    That's how it is
    A simple check.

A woman is wearing gloves
Of blue leather
The animal must have been very afraid
When they cut its throat.

    At Louis Blanc
    They've built on the platform
    A glass shelter with three seats
    Although it never rains here.

Before the metro
there were moles
This memory is part
of prehistory.

    In the hermetically sealed tin
    A sardine beats its tail:
    A sign that there are still little spaces
    To wriggle in.

	David Dumortier


'Alan Dent's translations are out to give you more than just a free ride on the metro; they're showing you that maybe it's dawned on French poets, words need to hauled back from their metaphysical to their everyday use.'

John Hartley Williams

'It's refreshing to hear poets speaking directly… energetic and alert to their surroundings'


'a very interesting collection of intriguing, entertaining and sometimes challenging work.'


'a book I have revelled in and I have taken to like a newborn being slapped into life.'

The South

'a well produced anthology, this offers a welcome chance to explore and assess the radical poetry of France under M. Sarkozy's watch'

Other Poetry