Our Lady of the Flowers, Echoic
Reviewed by Mark Kerstetter
Chris Tysh’s Our Lady of the Flowers, Echoic reimagines Jean Genet’s great novel Notre-Dame des Fleurs as a poem of seven-line stanzas. It is the second in her three-part project Hotel des Archives (Molloy: The Flip Side was first, and the third will be based on a text by Marguerite Duras).
As with Molloy: The Flip Side, Tysh has found a unique verse form to “echo” Genet’s text. The tercets of the former were superbly suited to evoke the Molloy voice, albeit somewhat more acerbic and drier of wit than Beckett. This time Tysh has chosen a form that is tight enough to keep the pace measured but loose enough to facilitate Genet’s narrative. As with Molloy: The Flip Side, something is lost in the process while something else is gained.
What we lose is some of the hypotextual quality of Genet’s writing, its transgressive nature in the form of perverse or evil substitutions for common standards of beauty and goodness. Our lady of the Flowers (as Notre-Dame des Fleurs is translated into English by Bernard Frechtman) does not take place at the high pitch of self-referential addresses to the reader (the “you” of mainstream society) of other Genet works. There are fewer passages of self-commentary or jibes at the reader in Our Lady of the Flowers than in The Thief’s Journal, for example, but there is perhaps a more vivid picture in Our Lady of Genet’s inversion of the normal moral order. The book is a constant challenge to common codes, not only of conduct, but also of perception itself. Genet, who celebrates these evil criminal flowers in order to bring enchantment to the solitude of his cell in the form of masturbation fantasies, is happy to flaunt these depravities before the reader. But in doing so, Genet preserves the serious tone of regard for the sacred that one would expect of the faithful in religious worship. One does not laugh at the sacred, he writes, declaring that the sacred is sad. Then, in a deft and subversive move, Genet asks if God is not therefore sad, if indeed He is not evil.
The serious tone of transgression in Genet’s transference of piety to crime and perversion is softened in Tysh’s version. She has allowed the parallel image of the author as transgressive creator to remain invisible, allowing his values (transvalues) to speak for themselves in a focus on (and therefore a heightening of) the authorial voice prime. One might say her poem is a condensed and streamlined version of the novel. However, in transferring Genet’s voice into an American vernacular she may rely too much on clichés (“white as a sheet”; whole nine yards”; “tickled pink”, etc.) that, while contributing a breezy quality to propel the narrative in verse form, lose the more lugubriously tangential flavor of the prose.
We gain by this a taut, measured and beautiful poem constructed from the symphony of black, poisoned and rejected flowers that make up the living body of Genet’s novel, that are indeed the reason for its very existence. It is perhaps fair to say that Tysh has arranged the novel to play on her own contemporary instrument.
One need not read the novel to understand or appreciate Tysh’s poem (although it is highly recommended for its own sake). Indeed, her poem is the novel transcreated into the idioms of American English while sung in a style formal enough to preserve the mystique of the original—that is, as far as I can discern it. I am obliged to point out that Tysh, a native French speaker, worked from the original French text, while my knowledge of that language is not sufficient to fully assess her accomplishment. It’s rare to find a poet working in an adopted language, and that rarity adds to the unique beauty of this book. It is a double echo of Genet’s French and Genet’s prose into contemporary American stanzas.
Chris Tysh and Les Figues Press of Los Angeles have produced a very beautiful book in textured paper covers measuring just over four by nine inches. Two stanzas appear on the bottom half of each page, leaving the top half of each page clean and blank. The design provides a great deal of air for Tysh’s breathless flow, facilitated by enjambment and Tysh’s rejection of all but the most essential marks of punctuation:
The long syllables of her boyhood name
Forever coiled in the maiden space that starts
Her knowing: an imperceptible trace, a cube
Of silence wild enough to blow up the church
God is hollow like Marie Antoinette’s plaster
Bust that sat on the mantle in the blue slate house
Or the little lead soldiers my cellmate Clément
Paints, miniscule warriors hard as corpses
That sometimes tie me down with their Lilliputian
Sad stories and then to get loose I have to offer D
In exchange. Thus I live with the mystery
Of infinite holes in the shape of men.*
The upper spaces of the pages also remind us of that greater space making echoes possible.
Mark Kerstetter steals time away from restoring an old house in Florida to write and make art. He has exhibited artworks made out of wood salvaged from demolition sites and has published his poems in Evergreen Review, Connotation Press and other journals. He is the former poetry editor of Escape into Life. Visit him at markkerstetter.com