Les Baillessats

for Emile


Sixteen panes in the cottage window—
one for each month of your life—
starting with bluest sky, top left,
reading across and down into the trees

where things get more complicated—
a stream that goes on and on about
where it’s going and where it’s been.
Pils the dog is sleeping on the driveway,

Mimi is tending her kittens somewhere
or perhaps they’ve been killed already,
seeing as their father is Mimi’s brother Raaf,
a raven, gone wild, grass seeds in his fur,

who crept past me on the hillside at 6 a.m.
on his way to steal something from the house
as I sat among scrub oak and wild thyme
watching the sun colour Canigou.




There’s so much to tell you. You see
everything, but won’t remember it,
even though, each day, you remember the chickens
and take me by the hand and lead me there—

the rooster, with feathers of polished rust
and Lily, your favourite hen, shy and white.
Dogs, cats, chickens. Goats go past the gate
twice a day, led by Ursula, her cheeks

bright red from the weather. Thirty
or forty goats, with beards and fine horns,
bells whose clank carries over the slopes
when they’re coming down for evening milking.

You stood at the gate while they filed past
one morning at eight—you were so excited
your arms pumped as if you were beating
the great big drum of life.




In the afternoon, while you sleep,
the goats come up into the trees
on the other side of the stream—
the buck with his long black beard

and devilish eyes—he’s the model of a devil—
goes up on his hind legs to chomp
whole bunches of bright green leaves.
The Cathars who lived here believed all flesh

the devil’s work, and that souls passed
from body to body until they received
the sacrament of Consolation—
what did they make of these butterflies—

the yellow-green, black-orange, orange, red—
drifting down, so many, all different,
as if somewhere in the wings, upstream,
a new soul hatched, each minute, with new wings.




Hard fields the Cathars worked
marked out with rows of stones:
they meant no harm. They’re gone. Butterflies
and damselflies: somewhere in your body,

after all, you will remember this—
lizards so small and still and quick,
warm gritty stones they loved
losing their heat little by little

as the sun moves across a sky
of medieval blue, and the stream
babbles, meaninglessly,
after all: some things that concern us

don’t concern us. One of the hens laid
a tiny egg, and Erin brought it to you—
miniature, perfect. Soon you will wake
in the present, which is full of consolation.

Andrew Johnston lives in Paris, where he works as an editor at the International Herald Tribune. His most recent book is Birds of Europe (Victoria University Press, 2000).

He comments: ‘Les Baillessats is the name of an isolated hamlet in the Corbières, the range of hills (a New Zealander wouldn’t call them mountains) between Perpignan and Carcassonne in the south of France. My wife and son and I rented a place to stay there for two weeks in July 2003, courtesy of Rick and Erin. (We’d heard about it from Jenny Bornholdt and Greg O’Brien, who stayed there with their sons in the summer of 2002; Jen wrote a poem about being there called “Peach, the Jam”, which is in her book Summer.)

‘While we were there we visited several ruined castles that had been refuges for the Cathars, members of a breakaway medieval Catholic cult. I was also reading about the Cathars while we were there, and the last Cathar “Perfect”, or elder, Guillaume Bélibaste, came from Cubières, the village just down the hill from Les Baillessats.

‘It was a magical place to have a holiday – time seemed to stand still, and surround us, in a way that made the Cathar history seem very close. I imagined that the dry-stone walls in the nearby field had been made by them, and perhaps they were. My son Emile was 16 months old at the time, and probably won’t remember that he was there. So I wrote the poem for him.’

Poem source details >



New Zealand Book Council writer file
Andrew Johnston’s website
Victoria University Press author page