Monday, October 31, 2011



It's Halloween!  So Marianne and I went down to City Hall to donate  a case of water, a box of granola bars, and some M&Ms (for the seasonality) to the Occupy Philadelphia people.  Then we went to XIX and ordered martinis and raw oysters for lunch.

A rich life defies convincing synopsis.

And if you're in NYC tomorrow . . .

I'll be making yet another public appearance, this one not to promote myself but to pay homage to the late, great Will F. Jenkins at A Tribute to Murray Leinster, part of the New York Review of Science Fiction reading series.

Among the celebrities present will be Billee Stallings, the daughter of Jenkins/Leinster. With her sister, Jo-an Evans, she has written a memoir about her father titled Murray Leinster: The Life and Works, published by McFarland & Co.  (Copies of the book will be available at the reading.)

I'm assuming you know that Leinster was probably the single most important SF writer between H. G. Wells and Robert Heinlein.  But if you don't . . . well, here's your chance to find out why.

At the Soho Gallery for Digital Art, 138 Sullivan Street  (between Houston & Prince St.)  Seven dollars suggested donation.  The doors open at 6:30 p.m. and the event begins half an hour later.

Above:  This year's pumpkins, huzzah!  I like a bit of plot on my porch at this time of year.


Friday, October 28, 2011

John Mortimer Remembers the Sixties


I was reading John Mortimer's memoir, Clinging to the Wreckage the other day, and right there near the beginning I ran into the following passage:

The end of the sixties, Flower Power and Children's LIb, the Underground Press and the Alternative Society seem as remote as the Middle Ages; 'Make Love Not War' as dusty an apothegm as some saying of the Early Fathers of the Church.  Childhood requires no effort of memory, but it is hard work to recapture the feeling of 1971, a year when Richard Neville, a young Australian writer, asked some vaguely liberated children to help him produce a 'Schoolkids' number of his magazine Oz, thereby promoting an obscenity trial which lasted for six hot weeks of that summer at the Old Bailey.  As the trial started the children demonstrated in the street, carrying, as I remember it, banners bearing the legend 'An Orgasm A Day Keeps the Doctor Away'.  The front row of the public gallery contained girls whose T-shirts were decorated with a portrait of the Inspector in Charge of the case.  He stared up from his position of power in the well of the Court at a repeated view of his own flushed features strained between the small breasts of teenaged girls.  The adult editors of Oz, Richard Neville, Jim Anderson, and Felix Dennis, wore, for their first day in the dock, gym-slips and long blonde wigs, treating the proceedings with an apparent levity far removed from the respectful stance and deferential silence of the more acceptable prisoners at the bar.  Among the witnesses called was the comedian Marty Feldman, and I remember him whispering to me, on his way to the witness-box, 'Great to be working with you at last.'
     What, I now wonder, did everyone think was going on?  A children's revolution, the dawn of a new world when long-haired headmasters would chant Bob Dylan songs at assembly and an adolescent House of Commons would rap away in perfect love enveloped in a pungent smell like slow-burning Turkish carpets; and war, shamed by a poem of Allen Ginsberg's, would vanish from the face of the earth?  The dream, whatever it was, has faded more rapidly than most, and the schoolkids of the Oz age are no doubt now paying their mortgages and driving their Ford Cortinas with a nodding dog in the back window, and holding down tough jobs as chartered accountants.  Even the trial became calmer after its dramatic beginning, and the great majesty of the Criminal Law of England bent itself to a careful consideration of, among other things, Rupert the Bear, an animal long beloved for his docility and innocence, who was unusually portrayed, in Oz magazine, with a gigantic erection.

Which is the best summation of the Sixties I've ever come across.  When the old-timers joke that "If you can remember the Sixties, you weren't there," we're not implying that you were doing massive amounts of drugs -- though you almost certainly were -- but that the reality of what we were doing and the subjectivity of what we thought we were doing were so strange as to be almost unfathomable today.

What were we thinking?  I despair of coming up with a logical answer to that question.

And incidentally . . .

Did you notice how well-written that passage was?  How every sentence was inherently interesting and how smoothly it all read?  That's very fine indeed.  John Mortimer has received oodles of praise for his writing.  But, honestly, he hasn't received a fraction of his due.

And you may remember . . .

I was on a panel about Ursula K. Le Guin at the Center for Fiction in NYC recently.  It was a good panel -- everybody participated equally and we all had intelligent and interesting things to say.  But what struck me most was the crowd.  It was a more "mainstream" group than I usually speak in front of, so a great deal of this information was new to them and they were really interested.  It's not hard to do a good job in front of an audience like that.

In the crowd, as it turned out, was Ryan Britt, who wrote an account of the panel for

You can read what he had to say about the panel here.


Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Blogging Vs. Facebook


I've got this blog and I've also got a Facebook account, and they couldn't be more different.  If I say something serious on Facebook, I rarely get any response whatsoever.  But post a photo of my breakfast?  Twenty to thirty responses.  Not to mention the fan letters.

Seriously.  I get fan letters.  For my breakfasts.

They're good breakfasts, admittedly.  But still.  I think we can all agree that there's a certain . . . gravitas that's missing from the Facebook experience.

Lately, I've noticed  that, increasingly, people are making and posting humorous photo posters, like the above.  (Is there a name for them?  Thumbnail posters, maybe?)  Sometimes they're serious, and when they are, they're usually political.

Here on Blogger, things are the exact opposite.  I don't think I'll be posting very many political messages here.  But if I do, they almost certainly won't be serious.

Above:  Case in point.


Tuesday, October 25, 2011

More Stories!


I'm in print again -- both virtual and trad.  The virtual reprint is my story "The Dead," which originally appeared in Starlight 1 and which is now available on  Click here to read it.

Every time "The Dead" is reprinted, I think back to a conversation I had with the late and sorely missed Jim Turner, editor at Arkham House and later Golden Gryphon Press, which he founded.  He called me, as he did from time to time, and said, "Listen, Swanwick, I don't have the time for any of your nonsense.  I just have a quick question to ask you."

"I just finished a zombie story, Jim," I said.

"That's nice.  What I have to ask you is --"

"I'm really pleased with it."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah.  The reason I called is --"

"Aren't you going to ask me what the title is?"

A long silence.  Then, testily, "All right.  What's the title?"

"I called it 'The Dead.'"

In tones of pure outrage, Jim said, "You can't use the title of the single most famous short story in the English language for a zombie story!"

"Well, it was a really good zombie story, Jim."

And so it was.

And on the trad front . . .

"A Midwinter's Tale" has just been reprinted in Alien Contact, edited by Marty Halpern and published by Night Shade Books.  A very cool anthology, with stories by the likes of Robert Silverberg, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Stephen King, among others.  You know.  My peers.


Monday, October 24, 2011

Kyle Cassidy Rides Again!


My favorite Philadelphia photographer, Kyle Cassidy, is at it again!  Kyle, for those of you who don't know his work, lives to photograph people.  There is a basic decency to Kyle's photos.  Whether he's photographing science fiction fans or gun owners sitting in their living rooms holding guns, he manages to show the human being behind the essential eccentricity (the fans, mostly) or normalcy (the gun owners, in the main).  So when I heard he'd gone up to New York City to photograph the Occupy Wall Street protesters, I thought it was a really cool idea.

And it was.  You can see a selection of his photos at the Huffington Post here.

And, as always . . .

I've been on the road.  But I have hopes of spending three or four days at home before the month ends.  Which is good because Autumn has arrived and I have work to do! 

Details as they happen.


Friday, October 21, 2011

In Tribute to Ursula


Well, the month has passed the 2,000-mile point and has shown no signs of slowing down.  But before I hop in the car again, I should mention the Wave in the Mind: A Tribute to Ursula K. Le Guin panel on Friday at the Center for Fiction in New York City.  It was supposed to be a forty minute or so panel, but we pushed it well over an hour and nobody in the audience complained.  There are so many good things to be said about Le Guin's work!

We were all articulate and interesting.  Nobody hogged the mike and nobody shrank back into the shadows.  The audience, being mostly mainstream, were amazed at how much we all knew and a lot of them took copious notes.  So I think I can say it was an unalloyed success.

Afterwards, I realized that the key to Le Guin's artistry lies in one passage in The Word for World is Forest.  In the novella, humanity colonizes a planet with a native race that is almost infinitely exploitable because they are absolutely peaceful.  But one day, a native named Selver who has been mistreated beyond endurance does something unthinkable, and kills a human being.  He flees into the forest, where his kind treat him with absolute respect and obedience, because he is a god.  And he’s a god because he’s taught them a new word.

Le Guin wrote:

“If a god was a translator, what did he translate? ... Was [he] one who translated the language of dream and philosophy, the Men’s Tongue, into the everyday speech?  But all Dreamers could do that.  Might he then be one who could translate into waking life the central experience of vision: one serving as a link between the two realities considered by the Athsheans as equal, the dream-time and the world-time, whose connections, though vital, are obscure.  A link: one who could speak aloud the perceptions of the subconscious.  To ‘speak’ that tongue is to act.  To do a new thing.  To change or to be changed, radically, from the root.  For the root is the dream.
     “And the translator is the god.  Selver had brought a new word into the language of his people.  He had done a new deed.  The word, the deed, murder.  Only a god could lead so great a newcomer as Death across the bridge between the worlds.”
Le Guin is a more benevolent translator/god than Selver.  But that's what she's doing.  She's in the god business.  As, to the limits of our abilitities, are all we who labor in the vineyards of literature.

Above, l-r:  John Wray, me, Ellen Kushner, N.K. Jemisin, and moderator David G. Hartwell.


Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Ancient Engines


I'm online again!  The Drabblecast has just posted their podcast of my story, "Ancient Engines." 

I've always felt particularly fond of this story because of the following passage which lies at the very heart of its argument:

"I remember an incident happened to my late father-in-law, William Porter.  He was a fine fellow, Bill was, and who remembers him anymore?  Only me."  The old man sighed.  "He was a bit of a railroad buff, and one day he took a tour through a science museum that included a magnificent old steam locomotive.  This was in the latter years of the last century.  Well, he was listening admiringly to the guide extolling the virtues of this ancient engine when she mentioned its date of manufacture, and he realized that he was older than it was."  Brandt leaned forward.  "This is the point where old Bill would laugh.  But it's not really funny, is it?”

This always makes me smile because it's a true story and one which my late father-in-law, William Porter, used to tell on himself with great zest.    The old man in the story was completely right.  Bill was a fine fellow.  He's greatly missed.

You can hear the story here.  Or you can go the podzine and poke around here

And if you're in the Big Apple tonight . . .

Why not help me celebrate Ursula K. Le Guin at the Center for Fiction?  I don't think the great lady will be there.  But there'll be a panel moderated by David Hartwell, with Ellen Kushner, me, John Wray, and N.K. Jemisin.  How could it fail to be entertaining?

Details here.


Tuesday, October 18, 2011



You've probably seen this already.  How could you not?  But even if you have, you're most likely not adverse to seeing it again.  And if by some perverse miracle you weren't aware of Theo Jonsen's Strandbeests, then the universe is about to become a better place for you.

Jonsen is one of those people, like Andy Goldsworthy, whom I believed I would grow up to be, when I was a boy.  Completely mad.  But in a benign way.

And in case you're wondering how Capclave was . . .

Terrific fun.  I got to hang with friends like Brenda Clough and Bud Sparhawk.  I glanced at the schedule and saw there was a panel on Murray Leinster conducted by notables like Ted White and Lawrence Watt-Evans and wound up getting drafted onto it, was on a number of well-received panels and one (on flash fiction) where every single one of the panelists was brilliant.  And I came home happy and exhausted.

But you want to know about Terry Pratchett.

Yes, the Great Man was there, for all of an hour, during which he spoke to a kneeling-room-only crowd (the room was so crowded that toward the end you had to crawl in through a sea of legs).  Most of which I missed because it was held at the same time as one of my panels and I am nothing is not faithful.  Still, Sir Terry was recognizably himself, a man who not only takes great joy in his intellect but in setting standards for intelligence.

And at this point, I hardly know what to say because, as we all know, the man has contracted early onset Alzheimer's.  Luckily, however, Pratchett dealt with the topic of his mortality head-on.  You can find out what he had to say in the following video, kindly taken and posted by Scott Edelman.

Thank you, Scott.


Monday, October 17, 2011

Annotating Paris, Part 2


The first half of the annotations for Paris, a Poem went up Friday.  You can find them here.  The second half is below.

Page 12

Cloacae: Sewers.

Hot indiarubber:  The smell of automobile tires.

Poudre de riz:  Face powder.

Monsieur Jourdain, Ballet Turque, Mamamouchi: In Voltaire’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (The Bourgeois Gentleman), M. Jourdain dresses up and joins a Turkish dance, in order to become, he thinks, a “mamamouchi,” or paladin.

Zouaves:  The Zouaves, known particularly for their colorful uniforms, were light infantry regiments in the French Army, originally recruited from among the Berbers of Algeria.  In the early months of WWI, their uniforms made them easy targets, and so in 1915 they were forced to adopt a plain khaki uniform.

’Ya bon!:  “That’s good!”

YANKEES:  It is not certain whether these are the Americans in Paris for the Peace Conference or the African Americans who, finding an acceptance in Paris they could not at home, stayed there after the war and became a vibrant part of its creative life.

“and say besides that in Aleppo once...”:  From Othello’s speech which includes “Say that I loved not wisely but too well.”

Mardi Gras and Carême Prenant:  Mardi Gras is Shrove Tuesday, the day before Lent, and Carême Prenant is Shrovetide, the period before Lent, both a time of Carnival, here intermingled with the Peace Conference to become a “Peace Carnival.”

Elles se balancent sur les hanches”: “The women rock on their haunches.”

The tart little race whose brain, the Arabs said, was one of the three perches of the Spirit of God:  Julia Briggs suggests this may be a reference to the Armenians, victims of the recent Armenian Holocaust.

Ouiouioui, c’esi passionnant–on en a pour son argent.  Le fromage n’est pas un plat logique:  “Yesyesyes, it’s passionate – a good deal for your money.  Cheese is not a reasonable dish.”

A a a a a oui c’est un délicieux garcon.  Il me semble que tout femme sincere doit se retrouver en Anna Karénine:  “Ahhh, yes, he’s a delightful boy.  It seems to me that any honest woman must recognize herself in Anna Karenina.”

Page 13

The first of May:  Mirrlees noted:  “On May 1, the Mois de Marie, lily of the valley is normally sold in all the streets of Paris; but on May 1, 1919, the day of the general strike, no lily of the valley was offered for sale.”  The general strike was a common tactic of Communists at that time.  Putting “There is no lily of the valley” in a vertical line suggests a parade of strikers.  May 1, 1919 is also notable for marking the end of the first World War.

Page 14

The wicked April moon:  In her notes, Mirrlees explains that “The April moon, la lune rousse, is supposed to have a malign influence on vegetation.”  Here it is set in opposition to the Virgin Mary in a year-myth battle between Christianity and Paganism.

The silence of la grève:  La grève is French for the shore or bank, rather than the grave, making this a bilingual pun.

the Place du Carrousel:  A public square located at the open end of the courtyard of the Louvre.  Carrousel was a form of dressage or equine military drill.

The Seine, old egotist:  Again, the poem descends into dream.

king-fishers:  A reference not only to the birds but to the fisher-king, damaged and in need of healing, both spiritual and sexual.

Page 15

The Eiffel Tower is two dimensional:  In this section, aspects of the physical Paris are reduced to art, the soldiers with their Terre de Sienne (burnt umber) packs are turned to chalk sketches to be sold in the rue des Pyramides as souvenirs. 

Poilus:  French soldiers; literally “hairy ones.”

Désoeuvrement:  Idleness

Vronsky and Anna: Anna Karenina, beautiful and married, and Count Vronsky, wealthy and an officer, were the adulterous lovers in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.  Mirrlees was studying Russian at the Ecole des Langues Orientales with her companion, the classicist Jane Ellen Harrison, at the time she wrote this poem.

mujik: Variant spelling of muzhik, a Russian peasant.

Clio:  The muse of history.

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego:  Just as the three pious Jews are saved by God when Nebuchadnezzar throws them into a furnace, so too Art preserves them motionless and unharmed from the violence of the flames.

Manet’s Massacres des Jours de Juin, etc:  This painting, David’s Prise de la Bastille, and Poussin’s Fronde, all portraying violent episodes in French history, do not exist. 

Page 16

Waxen Pandoras:  A Pandora was a kind of mannequin.  Mirrlees’s note reads “During Lent life-size wax dolls, dressed like  candidates for Première Communion, are exposed in the windows of the big shops.”

Catéchisme de Persévérance:  This catechism was written by Jean-Joseph Gaume, a Catholic theologian who blamed the ills of his day on the Renaissance, which he felt had resurrected classical paganism.

the Seven Oecumenical Councils:  The first seven Ecumenical Councils, starting with the First Council of Nicaea  in 325 established the orthodoxy of the Catholic faith.

Bibliothèque Rose:  The “Pink Library” is the juvenile imprint of the publisher Hachette aimed specifically at girls.  Hachette also had a Bibliothèque Vert (Green Library) imprint for boys.

Première Communion:  In English, First Holy Communion.

Petits Lycéens:  Little high school girls.

Little Saint Hugh:  The story of Saint Hugh of Lincoln (c. 1246 - 1255) is one of the more grotesque examples of medieval hagiography.  The Jews of Lincoln were said to have scourged the child, crowned him with thorns, and crucified him in mockery of Jesus.  The earth refused to accept his body and so it was thrown down a well, where it was later discovered. 

THE CHILDREN EAT THE JEW:  The sacrament of Communion, of course.

PHOTO MIDGET:  A photography studio or service in Paris.

Périgord:  A rural region in southwestern France which, like all the regions cited throughout the poem, evokes the suggestion that the city of Paris contains all of France within it.

masks and dominoes:  Masks and dominoes serve as carnival disguises.  The domino is a large hooded cloak.

A l’occasion du marriage de Monseigneur le Dauphin:  Julia Briggs explains that this is the marriage of the future king of France to Marie Antoinette, during which a fireworks display caused a stampede leading to several hundred deaths.

Page 17

rue de Beaune:  The Hôtel de L’Elysee, where Mirrlees and Harrison stayed while in Paris was located at 3 rue de Beaune.  The narrator has once again fallen into a visionary trance.

Triptolemos:  A significant figure in the Eleusinian Mysteries.  A son of Keleus, king of Eleus, Triptolemos welcomed into their palace the goddess Demeter when she was mourning her daughter.  In return for his kindness, she gave Triptolemos corn, and he became a teacher of agriculture to the whole world.  He was often represented on amphorae and vases, an area of interest to Jane Ellen Harrison.  An important votive relief in Athens portrays him as a small figure standing between two Demeter and Persephone.

Ovid, an unwilling thrall in Fairyland:  Here, Mirrlees has conflated the Roman poet and storyteller with Thomas the Rhymer or possibly the wretched knight of Keats’ “La Belle Dame Sans Merci.”  This passage may conceivably serve as a tantalizing first glimpse of her fantasy novel Lud-in-the-Mist.

Ile Saint-Louis:  One of two natural islands in the Seine.

Place des Vosges:  The oldest planned square in Paris. 

Page 18

[music]:  From Handel’s Rinaldo, “Let me weep for my cruel fate, and let me sigh for my liberty.”

Saint Thomas d’Aquin:  A church very close to Mirrlees’s hotel on rue de Beaune.

l’impasse des Deux Anges:  An impasse is a dead end.

Sebastopol:  This Black Sea port was besieged by French and English forces and captured in 1856.  The Zouaves distinguished themselves during the fighting.

MOLIERE, etc:  These are commemorative plaques for Moliere, Voltaire, and Chateaubriand set up at their places of death.

Page 19

les Champs Elysees!:  Les Champs Elysees, the most famous avenue in Paris, has a name meaning “the Elysian fields,” the land of the dead. 

Sainte-Beuve:  Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve (1804-1869) was France’s first major professional literary critic.  His affair with Madame Victor-Hugo, wife of the famous writer, his best friend, inspired a semi-autobiographical novel.  However, he considered his greatest work to be Port-Royal, a history in six books of Jansenism and a whole section of 17th-century French society.  Jansenism, a rather dour Catholic sect, informed Mirrlees’s first novel, Madeleine: One of Love’s Jansenists.

the Pont-Neuf:  The New Bridge, completed in 1604, is now Paris’s oldest.

the duc de la Rochefoucauld:  François de La Rochefoucauld was a seventeenth century writer, famed for his Memoires and Maximes. 

salon d’automne:  A reference to the Salon d’Automne , created in 1903 out of dissatisfaction with the conservative Paris Salon, which displayed art  by such artistic giants as Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse, Paul Gauguin, and Pablo Picasso, at least two of whom Mirrlees knew. 

Madame de Lafayette:  Marie-Madeleine Pioche de La Vergne, comtesse de La Fayette was the author of La Princesse de Clèves, France’s first historical novel and one of the first novels in literature.  She was close friends with François de La Rochefoucauld.

Il fait lourd:  The weather is heavy, sultry.  Again, the narrator is slipping into lassitude and trance.

Benediction:  A short Catholic ceremony, not involving Communion.  This is the second and last use of the first-person plural in the poem.

Notre-Dame-des-Champs:  Our-Lady-of-the-Fields, one of the oldest churches in Paris.

Seven Stages of the Cross are cut in box:  There are fourteen stations of the cross.  It is not clear whether these are carved in boxwood or are boxwood topiary.

Page 20

votive offerings From a converted Jap:  Julia Briggs has identified the donor as Léonard Tsugouharu Foujita, who was at the time in the early stages of his success.  He was to achieve fame as a painter of women and cats.

troubadour:  Many of the songs of the medieval troubadours, exponents of courtly love, have been absorbed into the cult of Mary, particularly for. May Day celebrations.

venial sins:  Minor sins, which do not automatically damn one’s soul to Hell, as do the deadly sins.

fret:  To gnaw at, or eat.

The plums of Paradise:  Again, the color of Lent is evoked.  It should be noted that Lent is a time of waiting for rebirth, and that during the time between Good Friday and Easter, God has withdrawn His presence from the world.

La Liberté La Presse!:  These are the names of two newspapers, here being hawked by vendors.

le Petit-Palais:  A museum built for the Universal Exhibition in 1900.

the Algerian desert:  French Algeria, which lasted from 1830 to 1962, was one of France’s longest-held possessions, though never considered a proper part of France.

shouting the Koran:  The muezzin’s call to prayer at sunset, not actually a quotation from the Koran itself.

The sky is apricot … celestial apricot:  Possibly just a carefully-observed color.  However, it is worth noting that traditionally, the apricot is a symbol of female genitalia and that in medieval France, abricot was slang for the vulva.  The apricot was also considered to be an aphrodisiac.

Pont Solférino:  A Napoleon III construction, destroyed in 1960.

fiacre: A hackney coach, named after the Hôtel de St. Fiacre in Paris.

tippeted pelisse: A tippet is an ecclesiastical garment, a band of silk or similar cloth worn around the neck with the ends pendent in front.  A pelisse is a short, tight-fitting jacket.

silhouettes of Louis-Philippe:  During the reign of the Citizen King, black paper silhouette portraits were in style.

the Quais:  The streets along the banks of the Seine, where the bouquinistes ply their trade.

bouquinistes:  Second-hand booksellers, famed for their small green stalls on the quays of the Seine.

Page 21

the VIIme arrondissement:  Paris is divided into 20 districts.  The 7th is on the Left Bank and includes Mirrlees’s lodgings on the rue de Beaune.

The winds are sleeping in their Hyperbórean cave:  In Greek mythology, Hyperborea was the land of perpetual sunshine beyond the North Wind.  In the Aeneid, Aeoleus kept the storm winds captive in a cave within his floating island – but that was in the Mediterranean.  In La Sepmaine, the 16th century poet Guillaume de Salluste du Bartas wrote (as translated by Joshua Sylvester) that "Gray-beard Boreas / (As the most boistrous and rebellious slave) / Is prisoned close in th' Hyper-Borean Cave."  Which is a possible source but not a necessary one.

ramparts:  In its first iteration, the Louvre was a fortress with literal ramparts.  A distinction is being drawn between the Apollonian high art inside the museum and the low Dionysian realities outside.

Freud has dredged the river and, grinning horribly, waves his garbage in a glare of electricity:  Freud and electricity were emblematic of modernity.  Freud’s theories and analysis relied heavily on the interpretation of dreams.

Taxis … in rut:  It is, as male travelers to distant cities quickly learn, one of the primary functions of a taxi driver to know the location of whorehouses.  That the taxis appear in a row suggests there is a great demand for such specialized information.

like lions ... seeking their meat from God:  A paraphrase of Psalm 102: 21, The young lions roar after their prey, and seek their meat from God. The Biblical verse refers to the lions as nocturnal hunters, as are the whores.

An English padre tilts with the Moulin Rouge:  Don Quixote, evidently, has arrived at the notorious Red Windmill in the person of a Catholic priest.

Crotchets and quavers:  Quarter-notes and eighth-notes in musical annotation, their black circles imagined as “the heads of niggers.”  In the bowdlerized version of the poem, this is one of the few non-religious bits to be cleaned up.  The association of jazz with houses of ill repute was quite strong at the time, hence the reference to “obscene syncopation.”

Toutes les cartes marchent avec une allumette!:  A reasonable stab at a translation might be, “All the cards work with a match.”  The meaning of this phrase, possibly slang, has yet to be parsed.
A hundred lenses:  Fifty pairs of spectacles, worn by Americans as they gaze at the sinful splendors of Paris.

Masque of the Seven Deadly Sins: This may be Spenser’s Masque or Marlowe’s or, more likely, a jaunty reference to a risqué stage show.  Or it may simply be how the lusting Americans view all of Paris.

“I don’t like the gurls of the night-club – they love women”:  During the nineteen-twenties, Paris was the center of the lesbian universe, to such a degree that at least one biographer of Harrison takes her moving there with Mirrlees as absolute proof that the two women were lovers.

Page 22

Verlaine:  Paul Verlaine is equally famous for his poetry and for his stormy affair with Arthur Rimbaud.  After firing two pistol shots at (and lightly injuring) his lover, he was arrested and jailed, which led to his conversion to Catholicism. 

Alchemy:  In addition to the obvious alchemy of night turning into golden dawn, this is likely a twin reference to the alchemy of words turning into poetry and of words turning into love.  It may also refer to “Second Delirium: Alchemy of the Word” in Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell.

Absynthe:  Absinthe is an anise-flavored spirit whose heavy concentration of wormwood may, depending on which source you believe, cause hallucinations.  It was popular with the decadents, such as Verlaine.

Algerian tobacco:  Algerian tobacco was not only from Northern Africa, thus continuing the poem’s thematic involvement with that part of the world, but cheap as well, and thus associated with the poor or louche.

Manuring the white violets of the moon:  To manure is to fertilize.  This metaphor appears to be original to Mirrlees.

The President of the Republic:  Raymond Poincaré was a conservative and disapproved of the results of the Paris Peace Conference, believing that France should receive the Rhineland as part of the reparations.  He seems to be here as a heterosexual and respectable counterweight to Verlaine.

the Abbaye of Port-Royal:  The Abbaye featured prominently in Mirrlees’ first novel, Madeleine: One of Love’s Jansenists.  Mirrlees’ own note reads, “The Abbaye de Port-Royal is now a maternity hospital.”

le Crime et le Châtiment:  Dostoevski’s Crime and Punishment in French translation.

The sun is rising:  The climax of the Eleusinian mysteries was seeing the sun rise at midnight – though no one today can explain exactly what that meant.  The climax of the Catholic liturgical year is Easter when the Son rises from the dead.  There can be little doubt that both readings were intentional.

les Halles:  The wholesale food market for Paris.  Poetically, a return to the everyday world.

the two towers:  Possibly another coded reference to the narrator and her lover.

JE VOUS SALUE PARIS PLEIN DE GRACE:  “Hail Paris, full of grace.”  A play on the first line of the Hail Mary.

[the sign of the bear]:  Hope Mirrlees ended Paris, a Poem with a representation of the constellation Ursa Major, the Great Bear, as she did all three of her novels.  She and Jane Harrison often signed their letters to each other with this symbol, and most of Harrison’s biographers take this to represent their symbolic marriage.

Page 23

[notes]:  It was highly unusual at the time for a poet to annotate her own text.  This and other elements of Paris, a Poem have led scholars to suspect an influence on T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland.  All research to date, however, has failed to produce any direct evidence one way or the other.

Above:  I forget who it was who recently pointed out to me that this iconic image of Mirrlees was originally a photo of her and Jane Ellen Harrison together.  So it has been obtained by literally removing Jane from the picture.


Friday, October 14, 2011

Annotations for Paris, A Poem


The life and works of Hope Mirrlees have been something of a passion and a hobby for me for quite some time.  Mirrlees has two separate claims to fame -- the extraordinary fantasy novel Lud-in-the-Mist and the poem that Julia Briggs called "modernism's lost masterpiece," Paris, a Poem.  Each is totally unlike anything else she ever wrote.

Mirrlees's fans break into two camps, admirers of the book and admirers of the poem, without a great deal of crossover.  Part of the reason for this is that the poem is extremely daunting . . .  On my first reading, I will confess, I could not make heads or tails of it.

Still, after many readings, I came to the conclusion that the academics were right.  It's a major work.  So I've written a set of annotations to help the reader encountering the poem for the first time.  You can find a PDF download of of at Hope Mirrlees on the  Web (click here) and my complete annotations below.

After I posted this, I discovered that the annotations exceed Blogger's maximum.  So I'll post the second half of this on Monday.
A Pilgrim's Guide to Paris

Of necessity, I make no claims of completeness or depth of insight for these notes.  They are provided only for the reader’s aid in comprehension of a poem which at first glance can be dauntingly referential, to say nothing of bilingual.  A more comprehensive set of annotations was provided by the late Julia Briggs in Gender in Modernism (Bonnie Kime Scott, ed.), to which the scholar and completist are referred.

Dedication Page

A NOTRE DAME DE PARIS EN RECONNAISANCE DES GRACES ACCORDEES: Roughly, “To Our Lady of Paris, in gratitude for graces accorded.”  Whether you read “Notre Dame de Paris” as being the titular church, the city proper, the Virgin, a particular individual, or some combination of them all depends entirely upon your interpretation of the poem.

Title Page

1919:  The original chapbook of Paris, a Poem was published by Hogarth Press in1920.  Given the extreme care taken with the typography, including Virginia Woolf’s hand corrections of the typos, this is not likely to have been a mistake.  Rather, it was an artistic decision and an indicator that the poem takes place at a specific point in time.

Page 3

holophrase: Literally, a single word that expresses a whole phrase or combination of ideas.  By extension, this poem is a holophrase of Paris itself.  By further extension, it is a statement that the physical city of Paris is a poem.  Hence, the title.

NORD-SUD: An underground railway connecting Montparnasse and Montmartre, and also the name of a Dadaist journal edited by Pierre Reverdy. 

ZIG-ZAG: A brand of cigarette papers.  This, Lion Noir (shoe polish), Cacao Blooker (cocoa), and the many Dubonnets (aperitif) are posters on the walls of the underground station.

Black-figured vases in Etruscan tombs:  A particular interest of Mirrlees’ companion, Jane Ellen Harrison.  Brian Attebery points out that they represent traces of the past beneath the surface of the present, a thematic concern of both Harrison and Mirrlees.

RUE DU BAC:  A station stop near the rue de Beaune, where Mirrlees had rooms with Harrison.  Solferino and Chambre des Desputes are also Metro stops.

Brekekekek coax coax:  Part of the chorus from Aristophanes’ The Frogs, here meant to evoke not frog-song but the sound of wheels on rails.

we are passing under the Seine:  The first of several passages across water or into the earth (here, both), indicating the beginning of a spiritual journey.  The pilgrim’s unnamed companion is referred to directly only once more in the course of the poem.

The Scarlet Woman:  A scarlet woman is, of course, a prostitute; but the identity of the Scarlet Woman in the Book of Revelations is the cause of much speculation.  The conventional reading is that she represents corrupted religion, and many Protestants interpret her as referring to the Church of Rome. Since Mirrlees did not alter this line after her conversion to Catholicism, it is doubtful she had the latter interpretation in mind.

BYRRH:  Founded in the 1860s by the brothers Simon and Pallade Violet in Thuir, France, Byrrh Vin Tonique (a blend of red wines and quinine, aged in oak) is one of France’s best-known apéritifs.  It was heavily advertised on posters with a picture of a woman in red beating a drum and shouting its name in large capital letters.

St. John at Patmos:  St. John supposedly wrote the Book of Revelations while in exile at Patmos, and the image of him drawing inspiration for his writing from the ruins of ancient Greece became a Renaissance commonplace, one with which many classics scholars, Mirrlees included, identified.  This is an early indicator of the visionary nature of this poem.

Vous descendez Madame?:  “Are you getting off here, madame?”  Here, the poet is invited to descend into the underworld.  The rest of the poem can be read as a contemporary enactment of the Eleusinian mysteries.

QUI SOUENT SE PESE BIEN SE CONNAIT/QUI BIEN SE CONNAIT BIEN SE PORTE:  Roughly, “Who weighs oneself often, knows oneself well; who knows oneself well stays healthy.”  The motto on scales found in the Metro, and a possible rationale for this voyage of self-discovery.

CONCORDE:  A station stop and, I believe, the one nearest the Louvre.  It fits well with Mirrlees’s thematic intentions that its name means “Peace.”

Page 4

The Tuileries:  A spacious formal garden surrounded by the Louvre to the east, the Seine to the South, the Place de la Concorde to the west and the Rue de Rivoli to the north.  It was designed by landscape architect Andre Le Notre in 1664.  This introduces the notion that the entire poem occurs during a trance, a vision.  The spacing of the words here is meant to suggest the layout of the garden.

Little boys ... ride round and round on wooden horses:  They are on a carrousel in the Tuileries.  The merry-go-round recurs in Lud-in-the-Mist, where the Crabapple Blossoms are held captive on one in Fairyland.  The most common reading of this line is that it is an evocation of the boys-turned-soldiers who were lost in the first World War.  Which would make this image an evocation of the Medieval concept of the Great Wheel and a comment on the eternal recurrence of war.

Le départ pour Cythère:  The Embarkation to Cythera (sometimes translated as The Pilgrimage to Cythera) is a painting by Watteau.  Cythera is the Island of Love, for which pilgrims embark but never arrive.  Again, the poet equates the crossing of water with the start of a voyage of discovery, this time explicitly evoking passionate love.

Pasteur:  Louis Pasteur developed a vaccine against rabies.

Against the bite of Nymphs:  Julia Briggs rather brilliantly writes, “The Nymphs’ soft mouths also suggest female genitals (‘nymphae,’ labia minora); their ‘bite’ may refer to venereal disease.”

Gambetta:  A grandiose monument to this French political hero stood in front of the Louvre, with his statue, surrounded by allegorical figures, standing at the foot of an obelisk top which was a nude figure riding a winged lion, representing “the Genius of France.”  The bronze elements, including the lion and the nude, were melted down by the Vichy government in 1941 and the remainder disassembled in 1954. 

tutoiment:  The use of the informal tu and toi rather than vous, usually as a form of endearment.

Mais c’est logique:  But it is logical, it makes sense.

The Esprit Francais:  The aforementioned Genius of France.

Page 5

plastic:  Not the material, but the adjective, meaning “alterable.”  The plastic nature of life, under the ceaseless drip of event was an underlying theme for all of Mirrlees’s work.

the XIIIth Duchess of Alba:  This was Goya’s Duchess of Alba.

Fathoms deep in haschich:  This is Mirrlees’s second evocation of a dreamy, trancelike state in the poem, and it will be far from her last.

Pointing invisible Magi to a little white Maltese:  The purpose of this blasphemous slight-of-hand, substituting a dog for the Christ child is not immediately clear.

Lysistrata:  Eponymous heroine of the comedy by Aristophanes, who ends a war between Sparta and Athens by convincing the women of Athens to withhold sex until peace is achieved.

the Arc de Triomphe:  This famous monument honors those who died for France in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.  In the year following the poem’s composition a Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from WWI was created beneath it.

Julius Caesar:  When Caesar conquered Paris in 52 B.C., it was a fishing village on the Île de la Cité. Under the Romans the town spread to the left bank and grew considerably more important.

Salle Caillebotte:  A room in the Musée de Luxembourg containing impressionist art.

the Etoile:  A large intersection, the meeting point of twelve straight avenues (which is why it is called "Star Square") including the Champs-Élysées.  At the center of the Place Etoile stands the Arc de Triomphe.

The Bois:  The Bois de Boulogne is a park on the western edge of Paris.  It was created under Napoléon III in the second part of the 19th century, and is a favorite destination of walkers, bicyclists and equestrians.

Page 6

Tortoises with gem-encrusted carapace:  A reference to Huysman’s  A Rebours, where a tortoise expires under the weight of its jeweled decoration.

A Roman boy picking a thorn out of his foot:  A bronze sculpture, and one of only a few to survive from antiquity.  Very influential on Italian Renaissance artists, it was later confiscated by Napoleon.  After his defeat, the Spinario, as it is called, was returned to the Capitoline Museums of Rome.

discalceated:  Shoeless.

Madame Récamier:  Madame Récamier presided over the most fashionable salon in Paris during the Napoleonic era.  She was widely admired for her beauty, intelligence, and character.  David’s portrait of her is perhaps the most famous, but there are many more. 

the Chateaubriand de nos jours:  The Chateaubriand of our times. François-René, vicomte de Chateaubriand, is considered the founder of Romanticism in French literature.

rue Saint-Honoré:  An old street running parallel to the Seine, on which Chateaubriand lived.

Grand Seigneur:  Great lord.

Brittany:  The westernmost region of France.  Auvergne is the mountainous region of central France.

Do do do miii:  A cock-crow in musical notation.  The rooster is a symbol of France.

Hesiod:  Greek poet, best known for the Theogeny and a work of didactic advice for farmers, Works and Days

Acheron:  Literally, “river of woe,” one of five rivers in Hell.  In Greek mythology, Charon ferries the dead across the Acheron, though the Romans had him plying his trade on the Styx.

Spirit of the Year:  In mythology, the Goddess’s son and lover, whose life, death and resurrection are continually being enacted.  This poem can be read as an enactment of the year-myth.

Page 7

Pigeon vole:  “Fly pigeon,” a French children’s game, similar to Simon Says.

AU BON MARCHE ACTUELLEMENT TOILETTES PRINTANIERES:  At Bon Marché, Spring Outfits Available Now.  Le Bon Marché is a department store located at 5 rue de Babylone.

jeunesse dorée:  Literally, “gilded youth.”  Fashionable and wealthy young people.  Here, the trees’ buds.

mauve veils:  During Passiontide, the latter two weeks of Lent, the statues and crucifixes in Catholic churches are covered with purple cloths.  Mirrlees is here evoking Christ as another exemplar of the Spirit of the Year.

Chionodoxa:  Not really the Princess in a Serbian fairy-tale, but “Glory of the Snow,” a flower prized by gardeners for its early blooming.  Serbia is, it goes without saying, where World War One began.

The goldsmith’s chef d’oeuvre – lily of the valley:  A chef d’oeuvre is, of course, a masterpiece.  In a playful twist, Mirrlees has here figuratively gilded the lily.  Note that the lily of the valley is in French Mois de Marie, “month of Mary,” thus continuing her thematic evocation of the Virgin.

Dog-roses:  Rosa canina, a prickly wild rose native to Europe, the stylized rose of medieval European heraldry.  In the language of flowers, “The pleasure is worth all of the pain.”

wanes:  Variant spelling for wains, wagons.  It’s worth noting that the constellation of Ursa Major, the Great Bear, is also known as Charles’ Wain, after Charlemagne.

Page 8

Ingres:  According to Briggs, Ingres did not in fact paint Madame André.  Edouard André and his wife Nélie Jacquemart bequeathed their mansion and art (including one of the finest collections of Italian art in France) to the Institut de France as a museum.  The Museé Jacquemart André, billed as “the most sumptuous residence in Paris,” opened to the public in 1913.

The Pieta of Avignon, etc.:  The Pieta is a medieval oil of Christ in the arms of his grieving mother, variously attributed, from Villeneuve-lès-Avignon; L’Olympe is Edouard Manet’s Olympia; Giles as Poirrot is a painting by Antoin Watteau; Mantegna’s Seven Deadly Sins is properly titled, Minerva Chases the Vices from the Garden of Virtue; and the Chardins are works of Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, a painter renowned for his portraits of domestic life.

unetiolated:  Not drawn and pale.

one by one from their subterranean sleep of five long years:  The paintings mentioned were restored to the Louvre in 1919, after being stored underground to protect them during the Great War.

Like Duncan they slept well:  A reference to the murdered king in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

President Wilson:  Woodrow Wilson was in the city for the Paris Peace Conference, which established the terms for the defeated Central Powers.

diluvial:  Of or related to a flood.

Gargantua:  A giant, here representing Old Europe.  Rabelais’s The Life of Gargantua and of Pantagruel chronicled the satiric adventures of Gargantua and his son.

Page 9

the cyclic Grand Guignol of Catholicism:  This line was removed from the expurgated version of the poem reprinted in the Virginia Woolf Quarterly, the only reprint during Mirrlees’s lifetime.  The performances at the Grand Guignol theatre are still famed for their sensationalistic representations of violence.

Shrieks, Lacerations, Bloody sweat:  Ritual self-flagellation was a feature of Good Friday processions.

Le petit Jésus fait pipi:  “Baby Jesus made peepee.”  This line was one of several cut from the poem after Mirrlees’s conversion to Catholicism.

SPRING IS SOLOMON’S LITTLE SISTER; SHE HAS NO BREASTS:  Almost certainly a reference to the Song of Solomon, 8:8:  We have a little sister and she has no breasts.  Earlier in that same book of the Bible, 2: 11-17, is the passage:  For lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone.  The flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.  The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance.  Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.

LAIT SUPERIEUR DE LA FERME DE RAMBOUILLET:  Quality milk from the Rambouillet Farm.  Julia Briggs points out that the Queen’s Dairy in Rambouillet was where Marie-Antoinette and her ladies played at being milkmaids and also that the Hôtel de Rambouillet in Paris, the first great French literary salon, featured in Mirrlees’s novel Madeleine.

ICI ON CONSULTE LE BOTTIN:  “Consult Phone Directory Here.”

CHARCUTERIE:  A charcuterie lies somewhere between a butcher shop and a delicatessen.  “Comestibles de Ire Choix” translates as Best Quality Cold Cuts

APERITIFS ALIMENTS DIABETIQUES:  Aperitifs (and) Food for Diabetics.

DEUIL EN 24 HEURES:  Mourning in 24 Hours – clothes dyed black in 24 hours.  A frequent necessity for those who had recently lost loved ones.

Messieursetdames:  Gentlemenandladies.  Later in the poem it is established that this is the plea of women collecting money for victims of the war.

Little temples of Mercury:  A temple to Mercury once stood in Montmartre at the highest point of the city, where the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur (completed in 1914, but formally dedicated in 1919) now sits.  It seems likely Mirrlees is using the term as slang, however, for something else.  Briggs suggests either the kiosks or the public pissoirs.

templum:  Latin for a holy space.

Page 10

A golden drop of Harpagon’s blood:  Harpagon was the title character of Moliere’s play, The Miser.  Hence, a golden drop of his blood would metaphorically be a coin, money.

Great bunches of lilac among siphons, vermouth, Bocks, tobacco:  The color of Lent is omnipresent, among the seltzer, drinks, and smokes of the bars.

NE FERMEZ PAS LA PORTE S.V.P.LE PRIMUS S’EN CHARGERA:  Please don’t close the door, the Primus [an air device] will take care of it.

ouvriers:  Workmen, craftsmen, or mechanics.

La journée de huit heures:  The eight-hour day, a favored cause of labor unions.

Landru:  Between 1915 and 1919, the infamous Henri Landru profited greatly by marrying and then murdering ten separate women he met by advertising for a wife in the newspapers.  He disposed of their remains by incinerating them in his kitchen oven.  For his crimes, he was guillotined on February 25, 1922.

the learned seal:  The Nouveau Cirque was a circus specializing in lavish water pantomimes.  The tireless Julia Briggs managed to track down a program dated May 2, 1919 and determined that the learned seal was named Bichette and her trainer was Capitaine Juge. 

Cottin:  Six weeks before the poem takes place, an anarchist named Louis Emile Cottin attempted to assassinate Georges Clemenceau, the French president and chairman of the Peace Conference.

Bossuet:  Jacques-Benigne Bossuet (1627-1704) was a celebrated bishop, a prolific writer, and a pulpit orator who was, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, “greater than Chrysostom and greater than Augustine; the only man whose name can he compared in eloquence with those of Cicero and of Demosthenes.”  He was, moreover, closely associated with Jansenism, a Catholic heresy (though Bossuet is not considered a heretic) of particular interest to Mirrlees at that time.

méticuleux, belligerents, hebdomadaire, immonde:  Meticulous, aggressive, weekly, foul.  Snippets, apparently, from newspaper headlines, possibly about the Landru case.

The Roman Legions:  Julius Caesar famously came, saw, conquered, and, like the more recent Germans, his occupying forces eventually departed.

Page 11

Père Lachaise:  A cemetery, opened in 1804, on land once belonging to Louis XIV’s confessor, Father Francois de La Chaise d’Aix, known as “Le Père de La Chaise.” Molière, La Fontaine, Abélard, and Héloïse were reburied there, but it is best known today for containing Jim Morrison’s grave. 

the Letter H:  In French, pronounced ash.

Rousseau:  Henri Rousseau, at that time a newly popular artist.  Since he worked for the Paris Customs Office, he was often called Le Douanier, the Customs Official. 

The unities are smashed/The stage is thick with corpses:  Here the Grand Guignol theatre is evoked to describe the horrors of World War One.

gaillards:  Big fellows.

eidolaImages, spirits, ghosts.  Also a reference to the common practice of placing a photograph of the dead in a frame on the gravestone.

MORT AU CHAMP D’HONNEUR:  Died on the Field of Honor, killed in action.

Le pauvre grand!:  “The poor man!”  The use of grand, like galliard, suggests a big man.

petits bourgeoises:  Lower middle class women, here collecting money for war victims.

the ruined province of Picardie:  Picardie lies in northern France and was the location of the Battle of the Somme, which resulted in over one million casualties.

the Marne:  The Battle of the Marne resulted in half a million dead or wounded, and stopped the German push for Paris, after which both sides settled in for four years of trench warfare.

the Grand Boulevards:  A favorite locale for strolling.  From here to partway through page 13 is a description of the Grands Boulevards.