April 28th, 2010
The third bit of this travelogue (part one here; part two there) was originally set aside for the visual-arts. I had an idea to assemble, in a loose narrative essay, some of the most beautiful things I’d seen in Paris, whether framed & hanging in museums, pedestalled in the Jardin des Tuileries, carved into old buildings’ facades, wrought from iron in door-knockers’ visages and gates’ dense scrollwork, sprayed in graffiti’s curl and code, or arranged in the symmetry of the flower-lined paths of gardens. But then I got to thinking about gardens, how not all of them are so symmetrical and arranged, and eventually decided to take part three and change tack.
A little backstory is in order:
My girlfriend and I were in Versailles, walking towards the Petit Trianon, in search of Marie Antoinette’s charming faux-medieval hamlet. We were on a lush path, winding along a snaky stream, surrounded by trees and growth that felt different from what we’d seen on the main Versailles grounds. We drank in the view, and my girlfriend made some remark appreciative of the surrounding “English garden” style. I asked her what she meant, and she explained it to me: how the English style’s scaled smaller than the grander French garden style, is more relaxed, sweeping, less constrained and formalized; more about abundance & burgeoning & little ornaments called “follies” (think fake grottoes and bridges and little temples). I thought a lot about that, about how many of the gardens we’d been in so far in Paris were beautiful because controlled, with highly-defined symmetries & geometries, low sculpted hedges, stout cone-tree topiary. But this part of the Versailles garden, this was different, less grid than ramble, and it seemed to me to be gain in beauty and soothing aura from being allowed to breathe, stretch out and sprawl.
There’s actual planning in an English-style garden of course — it’s not just a vegetal free-for-all — but the plan is to ensure one doesn’t notice the plan, or focus unduly on geometry & symmetry. The idea’s to create a calming simulacrum of nature untrammeled (this is just what I needed, having found myself vaguely disconcerted by the grand-scale formalities of the Versailles grounds: too much held breath and tense muscles, all those clipped branches straight plantings, like thousands of people ordered to stand perfectly still). Doing my own research later, I found there’s a subtype of English Garden know as the cottage garden, which is even more informal, featuring asymmetrical path-work and an encouragement of grass and shrubs to cross boundaries with flower-beds.
And so in the spirit of the English cottage garden, here’s part three newly-conceived, not so much essay as seed-scatter of distinct Paris art-impressions offered in loose meander, circuitously pathed together and hubbed at occasional follies, weedy and a little overgrown, thick with hiding-places and benches & rogue veggie patches:
how to stand in front of things,
busts, shards, plaques,
for long enough to focus?
ambushes by tour groups,
staircases that aren’t on the map,
And there she is,
proud as the figurehead
to the one true conquering ship
come home to port,
adored for being headless, inhuman,
for the terror and grace; for the war and sex
in the torque of your folds.
Delicious cathedralled perversion
in Parian marble,
don’t you have all my echoes already?
how strange for a lifetime of references
and song lyrics and paragraphs in schoolbooks
to converge before you like a reverse time-lapse
of mountain eroding to beach,
and become this sudden, noumenal mass
around which smitten people mill.
I felt embarrassed
to be so closely studying her face,
half expecting her lips to part,
catching her from every sight line I could,
marveling at all the ways
light and angle shaded her mouth
from smirk to seduction to forgiveness to beatitude
and so many beautiful unnameable aspects between;
marveling, too, at how prepared I’d been for
– and how absolutely thwarted
I was in pursuit of —
mostly of men,
of proud men, fat men.
Proud men with
huge periwigs ebullient in curl,
You stare at them
and know you’re supposed to feel, still,
some residual awe
before this statesman, or that demi-god,
or this architect
of some great war or another,
But centuries later you’re there in this foreign country, language-less,
pausing in a chamber in the Château at Versailles,
face to face with some double-chinned general
hewn from marble purple & mottled as beefsteak,
or some noble arts patron
severe, aquiline, skyward-gazing,
lining a balcony of the Opéra Garnier,
And you feel guilty, a bit ignorant, uncomfortable,
like you’re letting the sculptor down
with your failure to be filled with anything but detached curiosity.
All those sculptors who ached and toiled
to render the likeness of the rich and powerful in stone
(so much stone cut to commemorate human flesh,
one mass raised up to be chiseled to resemble another,
what if we did the same in reverse? to commemorate a cliff, a crag?)
– Their work fills me with dread
at the futility of our monuments to ourselves.
I know these artisans
didn’t struggle all their lives
so that I could walk by and feel,
in proportion to the power and drama trying to be conveyed,
a sense of the absurdity
at the human urge to immortality.
No, I am moved more
By an unassuming, dolorous woman
statued along a gravel walkway in the Jardin des Tuileries,
her skin etched and blurred by time and wind and rain and
the scratch of thousands of bird claws,
Looking down at me in the clouded afternoon light
With forgiveness and blessing,
Because that is what I want when I see history,
I want it forgiving me for being necessarily ignorant
of all the blood and death and struggle that’s preceded me
of all chapters of power and usurpation of power
of all the sagas — those spanning centuries, those spanning days –
that I’ll die unaware of,
Forgiving me, not haughty with fixed magnificence –
The luster of which evaporates as soon as rule & cruelty change hands –
Just forgiving me
for being in the presence
of so many effigies
to lives and deaths long gone,
carved things whose contours and hewn-textures
are the only things I have feeling for,
the way you read a poem and love, guiltily,
only the font or ink it’s set in.
a giant colorful ganglion of conduits,
And the big white weird periscopes on its squares’ perimeter
trained in on the structure as if set to —
when the museum reaches some magic proportion
of type and number and age of visitors and artworks
– Blast it with 1950s UFO-film energy beams –
accompanied by a booming, clipped P.A.
reciting Dadaist poetry —
So as to zap us all out
and leave that big, terrific pipe-tumor
clear of folks & frames:
a kind of built-in sci-fi reset-button for art.
Walking through the English Garden,
Aiming for the Petit Trianon,
our view of which becomes obscured
when the winding path we follow
curves us behind a tree or copse,
Then a sudden folly:
Small dome above trees,
now in full view,
round and columnated,
like a pearl or skull: bleached-out haunted
and tender-holy all at once:
The Temple of Love.
sitting with my girlfriend among its lindens
and its happy kid-scamper whose half-watchful parents
huddled, like we did, against early spring chill.
We’d just walked through the lovely haunt
of its vaulted arcades.
I sat and thought on the majesty
of the 36 watchers surrounding us:
36 homes, lived in by whom? And when? And now?
That stoic tribunal,
red-brick vertical stripes between their windows.
The facades so uniform, comforting, unforgiving,
prison bars as much as fence
to keep the world out
from the delicious peace you’ve stolen in being here
out of the windy bustle of Le Marais,
Stolen, like ripe fruit from a cart
and eaten in almost-secret,
surrounded by 36 faces.
His swarming, metal textures,
Their hard shelved teem,
Brooding, crumpled multiples,
Like the massed typebars of a typewriter
Gone melted, twisted, wild.
He died of the toxins given off
By his own sculptures.
Nothing else that day at Pompidou
Came close to the power
Of those desperate aggregates.
and drifting under the Pont Neuf,
Seeing all those goofy, snarling, leering faces,
mascarons, protecting the bridge
from harmful spirits, bug-eyed and bucktoothed,
wildly-mustached, horned and haired,
How I love grotesques of Paris architecture,
monkeys howling along the side of the Notre Dame,
Gargoyles dramatic against the sky as you look up
at the Basilique du Sacré Coeur.
I loved all flourishes of ugly
amid the classical Parisian beauties:
Art Nouveau Métros, the giraffe of the Eiffel,
the cake-like swirls, curls & scrolls
of the Opéra Garnier’s interior.
Beauty gains from monsters.
its languorous, opiate droops and curls,
they way the style can look febrile &
fantastically, deliciously creepy:
Take the the Abesses Metro,
or that at Pt. Dauphine, those insect-wing roofs,
ribcage roofs, the melty claws
of its support columns,
all those psychotropic,
Sonia and Robert, for the first time I saw them
in a museum side by side,
Robert made for the compass and straightedge,
with an eye for buildings, streets,
and their edgy, dense shape-mases,
Sonia less opaque,
more grounded, earthier,
celebrant of men and women
and beaches and markets and sleeping girls,
Both ritualists of color, in riotous love with it,
spreading it in interlocking raindrop circles,
scarlets and canaries and vermillions and blacks
all looping and blending in
pixels, ribbons, arcs, vectors;
these framed, barely-contained bouquets
so bold against white walls.
to stand before the Arc, much more massive than expected,
Like Jack Kirby beasts of the 1960s pitted against
The Fantastic Four, bearing names like SPORR and KRAA,
Or like a horse-shoe magnet stuck to the earth,
and the loop of which a god could slip
a pinky in and pull,
trailing mile-long roots of ore,
unskeletoning the planet.
This megalith to victory
was scaffolded and under refurbishment,
made slightly vulnerable by that fact.
I found myself wanting it to raise one of its two legs
and Sumo-stamp it through the pavement.
Its candy button seats,
seeming to smile, as my girlfriend noted,
variously-colored depending on the stop;
Its beveled tiles, its easy push-door exits,
Its cleanliness, its warning stickers of
this cute little yellow-clad rabbit person
getting its hand stick in the metro doors;
Its lovely automated voices
announcing the next stop twice in satisfying,
unexpected musical resolve — from
what sounded like subdominant to tonic –
giving every day’s commute
tiny default music to build on.
The almost ridiculous, baroque opulence of its interior,
The dense, high-relief scrollwork
and ornament of the ribbed-vaulted ceiling,
Lush as some jungle undergrowth, as vaguely unsettling —
what lives among those niches, folds and tucks? –
Chandeliers bright and ornate in the half-light,
hanging in the air with their glowing arms
like jellyfish in mid-propulse,
The peepshow aura of the Chagall ceiling,
sneaking in to box seats after tour groups to peer up and around
just to catch a joyous, swirled wedge of it,
Making our way among
epic staircases, archways, columns, gilt chambers,
then catching a break
from all that drama carved stone and marble
In a surprise room of night
painted floor-to-ceiling with close-set gold piping,
gold stars and sunburst on the ceiling,
mirrors echoing the space into infinity.
That narrow room gave us calm,
calm of escape into a jewelry box dimension
alive with glowing things & bright chimes,
of feeling around together while in the dark
in this midnight-river heart
of the dreaming poet of tigers.
Beauty gains from shadow.
(Somewhere in the Opéra Garnier.)
His thick-trunked, tube-limbed smiling clusters
of interlocking pipe-folk,
How refreshing it is to come to a room of his work,
how rare in an exhibit covering his era
to find pieces that have this joyousness
and celebration of the then-new machine age,
without excess of angst and fear and rot and perversion
(not that there’s anything wrong
with angst and fear and rot and perversion),
I loved the dance & smile in the eyes
of his mechanics, circus-artists, accordion players,
everyone floating, dense with life, solid,
unmelted into air.
its pouts, bubble-blowing,
mouths taking sips, taking drags,
gentle narcotic blurs,
why wouldn’t affection be more public here
(and it was)
with drowsy kisses incipient
in every sentence?
Rue of this turning to Rue de that to Rue of that
Every time a side street met it,
This being as perplexing as it was delightful,
Like a melody played by a different instrument every other bar
if you’re not used to such timbre-hop,
Suggesting a different way of relating to urban space,
honoring the least places and nooks with names,
Names, chisels by which
we select and mark
all things we wish to set apart,
from the uniform block of experience.
After lingering over the portal’s
deeply-recessed tympanum –
eight layers deep of carved Last Judgment –
Then inside, unthinkingly joining the thronged circuit
shuffling along like ghosts in the candled half-light,
And then realizing, foolishly, I can stop,
step to one side, and look:
The mandala of the giant rise window,
Petals pyrotechnic against the near-black,
The surprise of color of columns
behind the choir, each a spumoni cluster
of closely-nested, joyous pipes:
candy cables, circus leggings.
Then came murmurs and digi-cam snaps
and a procession of blue-robed men and women
entering the transept, and then the incense, sweet and familiar,
and then the organ, and then the singing,
the choir blossoming exalted into the all that space,
A shared richness of sound that put to shame
The sacred music I’d heard alone on cds,
Making me wish everything I listened to
could be like this:
tremendous but tender,
vast but specific, reverberant
but right-beside-you present.
Where, in certain chambers,
tapestries, brocade wall coverings,
lush gilt frames and multiple-marbled columns collide
to hit with you with such a dense barrage of texture
that you’re relieved when you step out
Into the royal gardens’ expanse.
It’s as if the one gave permission to –
or couldn’t exist without –
compressed kaleidoscope within,
vast geometric plan without.
(More Versailles textures.)
The butcher block in the basement
Of the Petit Trianon,
Scored with holes and cuts.
Just old, worn, smooth wood,
but as resonant as anything I saw in Versailles,
Calling up the sounds
of copper pots clanging
and game meat sizzling,
of laughing and gossip & spite,
of the men, women, boys, girls
that all opulence is founded on,
and breaks the backs of.
Beauty gains from suffering.
with tension, with sex, with hungry strain
of stretching limb,
How he groups his burghers and shades
and embracing couples,
how he commits two or more bodies
to forever cohabit space, with interlock
of imbalance, of wild,
strange angles and dynamics
of hand and arm, neck and back,
And his busts, gasping back at existence,
And the hatched crags of marble
from which some figures flow out of and into,
half-birthed, half-torsoed, gestative,
like rock was water and these are their moments
of half surfacing, of half-drown,
And how I loved his thick cords of neck and back,
the flex of dorsal muscles,
all that flection and wrench.
And those two supreme examples
of capturing the kinetic in substance:
L’homme qui marche, and Le Monument à Balzac,
Both graven in the spirit of lean,
of motion becoming,
of suspended chords refusing to resolve,
the former in abstract enigma,
the latter in earthy, commanding pride.
But then comes Camille,
given a room of her own,
and then you feel how deeply
you wanted a break
from all the brash force
of her lover’s lowered-shoulder aimed at the world,
of her lover’s bull-gore.
once you see works like
Les Causeuses & Le Vague,
Once you see her sumptuousness,
stone chosen for its beautiful grain,
her love of glassy curve,
bodies smooth, unknotted,
if not agonized then no less exquisite.
How necessary the work of one is
in appreciating that of the other.
Beauty gains by variance.
(La Pénsee, rear view.)
I loved its hilly, mouldering, mossy beauty.
Sudden secret declivities,
skinny little staircases steeping us down
as we hunted out Héloïse & Abélard’s grave.
Chopin’s tomb in the morning light.
Some crypts stove in,
littered with long-faded soda cans
and plastic water bottles.
Graves indecipherable from erosion
of wind, rain, trailing fingertips,
& then fresh mausoleums with corners sharp as knives
and family names in bright, modern font.
All this sealed nothingness in the gorgeous morning light.
The ones without flowers
or any sign of upkeep for decades
saddening me the most.
Some graves entirely shattered,
enormous slabs of rock in jagged upheaval.
An unafraid little tabby nosing out to see us.
Coming upon a kind of graveside mandala
made of acorn bits,
afraid I’d upset this glyph
by toeing a few of its pieces.
Failing to find Callas, Grapelli,
Finding instead the moss-studded back
of some statue half turned
in lovely weary hunch,
looking aslant over his shoulder
at pilgrims, at life hunting death,
squinty in the sun,
curious and incurious as a cat.
Wishing we had more time to be in this park’s
gorgeous, scruffy, abundant spread.
We were huddled against the overcast chill,
walking along the little lake
Where ducks and coots fought and pecked
or sometimes, in pairs, watched us.
Enormous ravens settled
down to the ground,
slowly hunting for food,
surprising us with their size.
Mistletoe perched parasitic
in trees’ bare branches
in big green orbs.
Then a lane of parked cars,
A little hatchback broken into,
all windows completely shattered.
When, and for how long?
We watched it awhile,
eating the last of our chocolates.
The Bois around us beckoned,
Beauty gains from danger.
All Writing © 2010 C. Way/ SnailCrow.com