Nikita Biswal reviews Hope Mirrlees

Paris: A Poem published by Faber & Faber (2020)

First published by the Hogarth Press in 1920, Hope Mirrlees’s Paris saw a print run of 175 copies, each of which was hand-sewn by Virginia Woolf, whose Street Haunting pursued the ideas that Mirrlees had foreseen a decade ago. ‘Standing out in the street, one may build up all the chambers of an imaginary house and furnish them at one’s will […] one can dismantle it in the twinkling of an eye, and build and furnish another house with other chairs and other glasses,’ Woolf wrote. In Mirrlees’s eye, Paris transforms into a house, each of its chambers dazzlingly detailed.

This Faber & Faber edition reintroduces the poem in an era where the way cities are experienced, read and written has, in one way, radically changed, while in another, remained tethered to the past. To read the poem today, is to travel back in time to the Paris of 1919. The city, with its exuberance of post-war life, commerce and romance, comes alive on the page in a veracious outpour of imagination. Mirrlees sees:

Little boys in black overalls whose hands, sticky with 
play, are like the newly furled leaves of the horsechest-
nuts ride round and round on wooden horses till 
their heads turn.

The image of young soldiers sitting on a carousel is almost brutal in its innocence. The carousel in Tuileries, which was left defunct during the years of the First World War, becomes one of the many magnificently told moments that locate Mirrlees’s poem in time, place and feeling. This is Paris in pictures with ‘Little funny things ceaselessly happening.’

It is only fitting that this esoteric portrait was written by Mirrlees, one of modernism’s great lost figures. Mirrlees moved in circles of the twentieth century’s literary bourgeois, which included the likes of Gertrude Stein and T.S Eliot. For a large part of her life, she lived in Paris with the classicist, Jane Harrison, where she completed the poem in the spring after the War. But none of this luminescence finds its way into Paris – as Mirrlees herself told the French intelligence, ‘Moi je n’ai pas de vie intérieure,’ I have no interior life.

Paris follows the account of a single day in the city, slowly giving way to the night. This is a time when electricity, jazz and the Eiffel Tower were still young. Mirrlees records passing glimpses of the city: ‘ZIG-ZAG / LION NOIR / CACAO BLOOKER’, advertisements for cigarette paper, shoe polish and drinking chocolate. Elsewhere, ‘Hot indiarubber / Poudre de riz / Algerian tobacco’. The commodities capture the pulse of life in a city at the heart of Empire, where all kinds of pleasures were on sale. Mirrlees documents history from the ground up, layering the city in a palimpsest so its many past and future lives could intersect. Over the Seine, Sainte-Beuve, a bouquet in hand for Madame Victor-Hugo passes Rochefoucauld crossing to the opposite bank to see Mme de Lafayette. But, ‘They cannot see each other.’ – they are centuries apart in time.

Paris engineers a language of its own – polyphonic and markedly reinvented. It too, carries a sense of genealogy. Mirrlees writes, ‘Hatless women in black shawls / Carry long loaves—Triptolemos in swaddling clothes:’. The loaves are both bread and babies wrapped in clothes. ‘Le petit Jésus fait pipi.’ suggests at once, young Jesus, a pretty child and slang for a boy prostitute. Mirrlees turns language on its head and watches us gape at her linguistic and stylistic bravado. Her catechisms displace any conceited expectations, and doubly raise Peter Nicholls’ question of the modernist poem, ‘Is it poetry?’. People flitter in in exquisite flashes:

                             Crape veils, 
Mouths pursed up with lip-salve as if they had just said: 
                             Cho – co – lat . . . 
            “Elles se balancent sur les hanches.”

The mouth, like a tongue, must work out the intricacies of a poetry so tart. Generous despite its cryptic quality, Paris lets the reader participate in its discoveries, giving one the sense of having arrived at something truly great. The commentary, rich and titillating, welcomes these multiplicities and raises it own.

The rule carries over to the use of space: lines are written horizontally, vertically and even in square sets. The meandering indentation replicates the experience of strolling through Paris. Perhaps, the most quotable of these is:

Taxis,
Taxis,
Taxis,

The subtleties create carbon-copies of Paris on the page: the Tuileries spaced to depict the orchard-like layout of the garden, pigeons perching on statues locked in alignment as if the lines themselves were frozen to stone, ‘Messieursetdames’ spelled to mimic waiters on Parisian streets. As vast multitudes collide, language turns into a careful trot of ellipsis and dashes, culminating in a scatter of asterisks that light up like stars on the page. Paris’s typographical innovation is seductive. It presents an active search for a way of narrating a rapidly industrialising and pluralising city. Mirrlees encapsulates how something ‘Very slowly / Is forming up / Into something beautiful—awful—huge’. Though sweeping in its sketch, Paris has a microscopic gaze. Mirrlees looks at:

                        Hidden courts 
    With fauns in very low-relief piping among lotuses 
             And creepers grown on trellises 
Are secret valleys where little gods are born.

There are visions of ‘Busy dogs: / They come and go. / They are very small.’ There is a ruefulness underneath the charm of all this bustle. A nun chants masses for the dead, another in blue habit sits alone in a garden. Mirrlees observes ‘A flock of discalceated Madame Récamiers / Moaning for the Chateaubriand de nos jours.’

It must take some kind of sorcery to conjure a city as vividly. A century later, Paris still has Mirrlees written all over it. Its intelligent manoeuvres offer something to both familiar and new readers. My copy is now full of marginalia that remind that this is a book to read and reread. Disruptive, stylish and collectible, Paris does what only the most accomplished writers can achieve – it makes you long. I believe it will be impossible to see Paris, or any city for that matter, in the same way again.

Nikita Biswal is a writer based in Delhi. Her criticism has previously appeared in The Times Literary Supplement and Review 31. She is on Instagram @nikitabiswal.

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