“Printing Paris” is the blog of ArtSlant’s Georgia Fee Artist-in-Residence, Shoshana Kessler. Kessler is undertaking a contemporary resetting and retracing of Hope Mirrlees’ experimental poem, Paris: a Poem (1919), employing a combination of traditional and modern printing techniques. The blog will feature small essays following her research on the poem and Mirrlees as she resets this forgotten masterwork.
CONCORDE (2) / TUILERIES (3)
Using the poem as a map, we can make (I have made) the assumption that the poet embarked at the stop before Rue de Bac: Sèvres-Babylone. Disembarking at Concorde (“Vous descendes Madame?”), we move towards the Tuileries:
Mirrlees traces the route of the gardens. It is one of the many times within the poem that she uses language and the spaces between to communicate “visually as well as verbally,” to borrow Julia Brigg’s phrase. The influence of Mallarme and Apollinaire, amongst similar stylists, is perhaps most clear within these formal plays.
In 1919, Paris was recovering from a virulent outbreak of Spanish flu. It is estimated that around 400,000 people in France died during the epidemic; Apollinaire was one such victim, now buried in Père Lachaise. Paris became frightened, superstitious: an idea arose that the damage from the war had somehow poisoned the earth and caused the disease. Mirrlees, if aware, could not have missed the classical parallels:
In countless hosts our city perisheth
Her children on the plain
Lie all unpitied—pitiless—breeding death” (Sophocles, Oedipus Rex, II.2)
The poet casts her gaze around the gardens.
Louis Pasteur’s presence was very much alive in 1919 Paris. From late winter to spring, Sacha Guitry’s play Pasteur was being performed at the Vaudeville Theatre. Guitry: a prolific French actor and playwright. Pasteur (a play in five acts): a drama about Louis Pasteur, concerning one man’s struggle with science. The leading role was undertaken by Sacha’s father, Lucien Guitry. It was later turned into a film, in which Sacha took over the main role.
Sacha Guitry and Yvonne Printemps
Spring was busy for Sacha. In April, he married the international star Yvonne Printemps. The wedding took place on Thursday, the 10th, and was recorded in the local Parisian news. Excelsior Newspaper (one of the first French newspapers to regularly print photographs in its pages) took and published photographs of the event. You can find these pictures quite easily. Lucien Guitry was there, presumably taking a day off from performing.
(It should also be noted that Pasteur is the name of a metro stop on the NORD-SUD line A.)
Mirrlees’ succubae imagery projects a faint eroticism upon these stone women and their pigeons; Briggs has indicated that their “soft” mouths could similarly act as a reference to venereal disease. The aural pun on “Pasteur” as savior from their temptations can hardly be unintentional. The nymphs in the Tuileries, their bites rendered benign (perhaps the influence of inoculation), entrap pigeons, not people. Coincidentally, Spanish flu is now known to be a particular strain of bird flu.
Later in the poem, pigeons are re-called as part of a children’s game: Pigeon Vole (pigeon flies). The game works as such: a leader calls out objects or animals that may or may not fly (rabbit flies, house flies), and the rest of the players raise a hand when the object/animal does fly. You get it wrong, you’re out. The poem is full of little connections, tapping into to a wider framework of cultural symbols and signifiers. Pigeon Vole is also mentioned in Jean Cocteau’s 1922 poem, “Miss Aérogyne, femme volante,” which celebrates flying and flying women in general. Femme volantes were all the rage in the turn of the twentieth century, with the success of circus artists such as Mlle Azella, and George Melies’ 1902 silent film of the same name.
The poet passes swiftly over Arc de Triomphe (4), the “shabby and indifferent” Rue St. Honoré (5)—now home to Hermès, Ladurée, Christian Louboutin, bank Edmond de Rothschild—through the Bon Marché (6), and towards:
THE LOUVRE (7)
Edouard Manet, L’Olympe, 1863, Collection Musée D’Orsay
There is a certain particularity in Paris’ content and construction: it actively seeks to display “high” and “low” art in a manner free from intellectual hierarchy. In this way, it takes itself as visual experiment, exploring its own role in archiving this specific period of Parisian history.
After the First World War ended, paintings stored underground for safekeeping were re-hung in the Louvre. Mirrlees specifically notes five pictures as points of reference, including Edouard Manet’s L’Olympe. Controversial at the time, Manet’s painting reveals the naked figure of a (high class) prostitute in the guise of a goddess. And simultaneously, Mirrlees sets the city’s advertisements upon the page: posters for meats, apéritifs, milk. These adverts grow and shrink, changes in type mirroring how they would have been perceived in the street. The greatest, a widely spaced call to “consult the dictionary”:
(Interestingly enough, this line is also quoted in George Perec’s 1974 “Espèces d'espaces.” Perec was maybe best known for his membership in the oulipo movement, which shared conceptual features with the earlier French avant-garde. I am curious about this shared penchant for advertising, and the manner in which advertising lends itself to formal experimentation. Is it as an attempt to utilize “every day” language? Or the magpie nature of advertisements to attract a level of attention?)
Though presented syntactically in an objective “visual” format, these observations are personal: the narrator’s eye is clear and critical. President Wilson (visiting Paris for the Paris Peace Conference) runs around the city as a dog, eagerly smelling the “diluvial urine of Gargantua.” The Catholic Church merges with the Grand Guignol theatre, a former chapel. Devoted to performing graphic horror shows, the expectation on visiting the Grand Guignol was to be titillated, frightened, disgusted, horrified. Anaïs Nin, a regular patron, commented in her diary that all “our nightmares of sadism and perversion were played out on that stage.” Shows aimed to bring the darkest fantasies to life in as realistic a manner as possible, causing audience members to faint, walk out, or call the police. Actress Paula Maxa, the “most assassinated woman in the world,” was “killed” over 10,000 times whilst performing at the theatre. Deaths included being shot, scalped, guillotined, and crushed by a steamroller, amongst many others.
Later in her life, Mirrlees strove against the republication of Paris in its original formation. Having converted to Catholicism after the death of Harrison (“it is sad that Hope has become a Catholic on the sly,” noted Virginia Woolf), Mirrlees found some elements of the original poem blasphemous and offensive. The line aligning the Catholic Church with the Grand Guignol was one such victim of her self-censorship.
The poem picks up pace, and the dead, performed and actual, begin to overtake the living. Père Lechaise (8) wanders the streets, draped in a black curtain. War-widows, phantoms, and corpses flicker by. We catch snatches of conversations debating the trial of accused murderer, Henri Landru, concurrent with questions of learned seals at the circus, and the strike regarding the eight-hour working day. Banality alongside mortality in the wake of war: “messieuretdames, Le pauvre grand!”
Shoshana Kessler is a printer and publisher at Hurst Street Press.
Tags: Printing Paris georgia fee residency Hope Mirrlees Paris: A Poem printmaking