Our Lady of the Flowers, Echoic is not only a translation, but a transformation. It is a translation of Jean Genet’s novel Notre Dame des Fleurs, transmuted from prose to poetry. Originally written in prison as a masturbatory aid (Sartre in fact called the book “the epic of masturbation”), Chris Tysh has taken Genet’s work and made something completely new out of it.
“On the news Weidmann, his head
Like a nun in white or a wounded
Pilot, falls down in silky rye
The same day Our Lady of the Flowers
Stamped all over France dangles his crimes
By a golden string—nimble assassins mount
The back stairs of our sleep”
The poem follows the life and death of the drag queen Divine, chronicling her (or his) misadventures and tribulations with the pimp Mignon-Dainty-Feet and the young murderer, the eponymous Our Lady of the Flowers. Throughout the narrative, there is love, hate, crime, passion, sex, and death. The story is told in the form of seven-line stanzas (two per page), broken up in a way to confuse any internal rhythm, just like the characters confuse traditional assumptions about gender. The last line of one stanza may appear to be one thought, but when read with the beginning line of the next stanza, it creates a completely different idea. The text is emotional and evocative, transgressive to both past and present audiences while never seeming to use shock for shock’s sake. It paints a scene of Gay Paris and the criminal underbelly those deemed immoral or unnatural by mainstream society were forced to accompany.
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
I wish Tysh’s word alchemy were practiced by more translators. Turning a prose novel into a poem is a brilliant literary move, especially when coupled with talent like hers. According to the translator’s bio in the back of the book, Our Lady of the Flowers, Echoic is the second work in a three-part project, called Hotel des Archives, “inspired by the French novels of Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, and Marguerite Duras.” I can only imagine that those other poems are just as marvelous as this one is.
Overnight, Our Lady
Becomes a sensation
His name a household
Item across all of France
Under the rubric of thefts
Rapes and assaults with
A deadly weapon [. . .]
One last remark I would like to make is on the back cover art. Drawn by Alice Könitz, it depicts a room containing what appears to be modern sculpture, along with the handwritten text “An international team of well known doctors brings chemical remedies along with herbal solutions, and tangible devices to alleviate the suffering.” The meaning here is not precisely clear, but the art’s mystery, along with its starkness and sketch-like quality lends an atmosphere of ambiguity to the text that is warmly embraced by author and translator alike.
“Rambling Jack—what’s that?”
“A novel. Novella, I guess.”
“Yeah, it looks short. What is it, a hundred pages?”
“Sorta. It’s a duel language book, so really, only about… 50 pages total.”
“And this—what. . .
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