Chris Tysh’s Our Lady of the Flowers, Echoic is, as the title suggests, a revision, or better yet, a re-sounding, a twenty-first century echo of Jean Genet’s transgressive and groundbreaking debut novel Notre-Dame-des-Fleurs, which he drafted in prison in 1942 and framed as a kind of playful, metafictional autobiography. Populated by a lively cast of drag queens, pimps, drug dealers, thieves, and hustlers from the fringes of Parisian society, Genet’s text is an autoerotic fantasy—Sartre called it “the epic of masturbation” and a “cabinet of a fetishist”—that is, by turns, pornographic and poetic, abject and reverential, scatological and sublime. Genet’s highly self-reflexive book centers on the figure of Divine (formerly Lou Culafroy), a prostitute who enjoys “the pleasure…of making identities overlap” and who has, in Genet’s suggestive phrase, the “disquieting air of being multiple.” Divine, in a marvelous travesty and trans-valuation of Catholicism, reaches apotheosis through perverse criminality and abasement.
Our Lady of the Flowers, Echoic is both a translation and a trans-mediation: Tysh renders Genet’s dense and sprawling prose into over 250 lightly punctuated verse septains, in which she occasionally converts its language of camp and slang of the late 30s and early 40s into more current American idioms. “Pimp,” for example, in Bernard Frechtman’s standard translation, is the humorously incongruous “mac daddies” in Tysh’s creative one; whereas Frechtman renders some of Divine’s pet names for her lover Mignon’s penis as “Little Dicky” and “the Babe in the Cradle,” Tysh goes with the fresher and more contemporary sounding “joystick” and “love missile.”
In an online interview about her conceptual trilogy Hotel des Archives, of which Our Lady of the Flowers, Echoic is the second installment (her rendering of Beckett into verse tercets, Molloy: The Flip Side, appeared in 2012), Tysh said, “I extend the concept of translation toward what we might call a transcreation, or a transcultural dialogue….In this type of relational poetics, I try to maintain the narrative spaces and affects, while finding a new set of porous networks – lyrical trajectories that pass through various signposts of the text.” Tysh’s “transcreation,” in the words of Les Figues’ press release, entails a “compressing” of Genet’s text into “cuttingly charged verse.”
This act of compression considerably—even vertiginously—speeds up the narrative as we metonymically move from signpost to familiar signpost: Divine meets Mignon; Mignon leaves Divine for Mimosa; Mignon meets Our Lady of the Flowers, who, in turn, meets Divine; and so on. If we think of Genet’s Notre-Dame-des-Fleurs as a film, we might imagine Tysh’s Our Lady of the Flowers, Echoic to be that film scrambled and on fast-forward. This is an audacious move on Tysh’s part since much of the pleasure of Genet’s text derives from its digressions and delays, from its complex flores rhetoricae which retard the narrative’s forward movement.
For example, when Genet describes in an early paragraph the narrator’s practice of pasting the faces of young murderers on his prison wall (for, among other things, masturbatory purposes), he rhapsodically dilates upon the images of the murderers’ vacant eyes through a series of interrelated figures:
it cannot be by chance that I cut those handsome, vacant-eyed heads out of magazines. I say vacant, for all the eyes are clear and must be sky-blue, like the razor’s edge to which clings a star of transparent light, blue and vacant like the windows of buildings under construction, through which one sees the sky from the windows of the opposite wall. Like those barracks which in the morning are open to all winds, which one thinks empty and pure when they swarm with dangerous males, sprawled out promiscuously on their beds. I say empty, but if they close their eyelids, they become more disturbing to me than are huge prisons to the nubile maiden who passes by the high barred windows, prisons, behind which sleeps, dreams, swears and spits a race of murderers, which makes of each cell the hissing nest of a tangle of snakes, but also a kind of confessional with a curtain of dusty serge. Those eyes, seemingly without mystery, are like certain closed cities, such as Lyons and Zurich, and they hypnotize me as do empty theatres, deserted prisons, machinery at rest, deserts, for deserts are closed and do not communicate with the infinite. Men with such faces terrify me when I have to cross their paths warily, but what a dazzling surprise when, in their landscape, at the turning of a deserted lane, I approach, with my heart racing like mad, and discover nothing, nothing but looming emptiness, sensitive and proud like a tall foxglove!
Rich with rhetorical analogies, Genet’s passage of clarification, amplification, and apposition is animated by what I take to be his privileged trope: the simile. In “Like,” a recent (and brilliant) essay from the Jan/Feb issue of the American Poetry Review, Stephen Burt says, “the obvious artifice in simile (this is not really that, this ≠ that: it’s only like that. this ≈ that) makes it akin to camp, and to drag.” The simile, then, in Genet’s hands is not only a trope of erotic deferral but one of literary transvestism; it insists on the always-present gap between this and that, on the importance of non-equivalence. In his brief but insightful introduction to Our Lady of the Flowers, Echoic, Robert Glück says, “The great queen’s mighty transformation into a woman must fail a little to allow the art to be witnessed.” Genet’s art succeeds not in spite of that fact that we are continually reminded that tenor and vehicle are not identical but because of it—it is like when we see an image of Divine, “the sinews of her neck visible beneath the feathers of her boa.”
“Although I am striving for a lean style,” says Genet, “one that shows the bone, I should like to address to you from my prison a book laden with flowers, with snow-white petticoats and blue ribbons.” Genet, in fact, shows us both: the sinews and the bone, the boas and the petticoats. On the one hand, Tysh, in her lean and compressed Our Lady of the Flowers, Echoic, risks divesting Genet’s text of the dazzling kitsch and the extravagant figures which make it so enjoyable to read. But, on the other, Tysh’s gambit is to foreground the artifice, the transcreative echo of her translation in an attempt to turn failure, “an enfeebled reproduction” (according to one definition of “echo” in the OED) into an aesthetic virtue.
At her best, Tysh—skilled collagist as she is—turns Genet’s “petticoats” and “ribbons” into an edgier style that pops on the page. In describing Ernestine (Divine’s mother), she says, “gun in gloved hand / She stages her son’s dénouement / The way others shoot up smack.” And from the productively defamiliarizing perspective of her “cuttingly charged verse,” we can, as Tysh suggests, apprehend surprising “lyrical trajectories” not apparent or apprehensible in the original version. For example, one finds a montagic fluency in the septains below:
I’m haunted by signs: circles, orbs,
Billiards, Venetian lanterns, soccer
Ball of the goalie in his orange jersey.
What’s the worse that can happen other
Than what will happen? And yet I’m scared
As if I were a cadaver pursued by the cadaver
That I am. Jackal, fox, the whole animal
Reign holds court down below
I need a dream, a poem to shatter
The walls of my prison. Swallows
Nest in my armpits; if you look away
For a second, a young murderer appears
A silk hanky in his buttonhole, he’s just
Come back from a night of dives with sailors
And whores, and doesn’t know it’s his crystal
Flesh my eyes probe as if all those points
Of light traced a pontoon, temporary bridge
To an elsewhere so real my naked feet slide
On the freshly washed deck (what deck? You
Must be mad, there’s nothing but flat stones
And the tears I mistake for roses). The end.
We know the story—the narrative signposts—but we still have the thrilling sense that anything can (and will) happen in Tysh’s translation: a young murderer can, for example, appear out of nowhere, an elegant magic trick waiting in his buttonhole. Tysh’s deft enjambments quickly and gracefully lead us to “an elsewhere so real” as she creates—or rather transcreates—a “temporary bridge” between our world and Genet’s.
Our Lady of the Flowers, Echoic is an “exercise in style” in the strongest, Queneauian sense of the phrase; Raymond Queneau’s Exercices de style [Exercises in Style] (1947 / 1958) retells the same short anecdote 99 different times in such styles as “litotes,” “metaphorically,” “couplets,” “cockney,” and “sonnet.” In Queneau’s work, the original story seems epiphenomenal to the production of its proliferating versions (Barbara Wright, Queneau’s English translator, remarks that “the story as such doesn’t matter.”) But Tysh’s choice of Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers for her restyling is not arbitrary: it is a text that, like its protagonist, tends toward “being multiple.” Indeed, in Our Lady of the Flowers, Genet writes of a “hundred Jean Genets,” and Tysh has given us a provocative glimpse of one of them through her bold, kaleidoscopic verse. Once complete, Tysh’s Hotel des Archives will no doubt constitute one of the most significant exercises in style of the early twenty-first century.
Chris Tysh’s Our Lady of the Flowers, Echoic (2013) is available from Les Figues Press.