Chris Tysh newly translates Notre-Dame-des-Fleurs, compressing Jean Genet’s disturbing 1943 novel into cuttingly charged verse

Chris Tysh, Our Lady of the Flowers, Echoic, Les Figues Press, 2013.

In Our Lady of the Flowers, Echoic, Chris Tysh newly translates Notre-Dame-des-Fleurs, compressing Jean Genet’s disturbing 1943 novel into cuttingly charged verse. In the blue hours of the Parisian underworld, pimps, drag queens, and butchers in bloody aprons are joined by Divine, Mignon Dainty-Feet, and the young assassin Our Lady, three saintly figures in a forbidden realm of the senses. Tysh cuts Our Lady of the Flowers, Echoic into a ghostly song that traces the path from prose to lyric where Divine switches gender and names “as if passing under a scarlet awning.” Suturing sexual otherness to an aching of gendered expectations, Tysh’s cadences embrace postmodernism’s emblematic penchant for all manner of appropriation, and recycling finds a radical iteration in the fashion of fairies, queens, and stool pigeons.

“…like Genet, Tysh is something of a snake charmer, or the snake itself? — lyricism unfolding kaleidoscopically, extending emotions and meanings, fastening this mouse/reader to the spot.”  - Robert Glück

 ’In the game of self-contempt / I’ve become a master.’ In 1967 the middle-aged married men of the Australian Customs Department seized my copy of Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers and burnt it to cinders. Nearly half a century later, US poet Chris Tysh has brought it back from that incineration, petal by petal, stained and transfigured. She has taken the French prose of Our Lady of the Flowers and retranslated it with all its monstrous selfishness into a pale and glowing poetry. There is no philosophy or politics in Genet, just specific acts of thievery and brutality, as well as cupids and altars and betrayals and masturbation made luminous by conversion into metaphor. Tysh has transubstantiated even this. This volume of verse, played over by a flickering ghostly flame, is perhaps the book that Genet meant to write, had he the gift for verse, before the Parisian intellectuals got to him…From pulp novels to the angels in heaven, from sodom to the royal family, from “gloom’s infernal ruckus” to a silent field of flowers, Tysh drags her wounded poem.”  John Tranter

As the second installment of her three part project titled Hotel des Archives, Chris Tysh took up the bold task of versifying Jean Genet’s hallucinatory first novel, Our Lady of the Flowers. The original novel, as Jean-Paul Sartre implies in his introduction, is already on the brink of being poetry itself: “Are we so far from poetry? Can it be that poetry is only the reverse side of masturbation?” Tysh, whether knowingly or not, explores this very question through the creation of this work.
The structure of the poetic translation restricts itself to two seven lined stanzas per page, a form with traces of the sonnet. And like Wordsworth said in “Nuns Fret Not at Their Convent’s Narrow Room,” those who “felt the weight of too much liberty/Should find brief solace there,” in the confines of the sonnet. It was, after all, in the ultimate form of confinement—prison—where Genet, left all to himself, found the inspiratory pressure to extricate the original work out of his mind and onto brown prison paper. However, the original, in all its poetic imagination did not have the compressed punch that regulated poetry is able to deliver, at least not throughout the entire work. Rather, the original novel reads as if trudging through the muck of Genet’s subconscious desires in order to find anything worth building metaphysical meaning out of. What Our Lady of the Flowers, Echoic succeeds in doing is adding further restraint onto the original text in order to pull out the skeletal story of the original novel, which is the story, metaphorically—through a constant changing and killing off of self—of becoming an artist.
The characters in Genet’s original version are nearly empty figures (with the exception of Divine) who allow the reader to input his or her own projected experience of others into them. As one of the earliest attempts of modern queer debauchery, its form is ephemeral, hazy, experienced in the realm of spirits more so than in convention. In Echoic we get more of a straightforward narrative of events, aiding a reader of the original through this poet’s perspective on the novel. The original is, after all, highly open to interpretation, and like the scene where Genet lies in his prison cell and imagines “the hundred Jean Genets glimpsed in a hundred passers-by,” this poetic translation acts, as suggested in the title, as an echo or reflection of the original work. So naturally, some aspects may be left out, altered, and perhaps even heightened.
One particular triumph of Echoic is the calming pace verse imposes on the novel. The same haunting imagery is present, but now in a format that allows for easier focus and digestion of potently translated scenarios. This sharpening of the original sometimes makes for more accessibility, but, of course, leaves out some of Genet’s personal quirks as narrator. Let’s compare the standard Bernard Frechtman translation to Chris Tysh’s new one.
Let us say now that her carnal pleasures never made her fear the wrath of God, the scorn of Jesus, or the candied disgust of the Holy Virgin, never until Gabriel spoke about them to her, for as soon as she recognized the presence within her of seeds of these fears (divine wrath, scorn, disgust), Divine made of her loves a god above God, Jesus, and the Holy Virgin, to whom they were submissive like everyone else, whereas Gabriel, despite his fiery temperament, which often makes his face turn red, feared Hell, for he did not love Divine.
This paragraph gets condensed and altered into about four lines in Tysh’s version:
Let’s say she never feared God, Jesus
Nor the Holy Virgin, not like their wrath,
Contempt for her brand of loving
Until Gabriel makes the scene. I see him
Walking down a street, almost running
Bumping into D as the doorbell rings twice
Above the little candy store he’s ducked into
Rather than getting dismissed by the term, the original Our Lady of the Flowers is one of the few texts aided by the description ‘masturbatory’ toward an understanding the author’s intentions. The intricacies of Genet’s revealing and fetish-filled details in this conversion to poetry take a backseat to a more fluid, less tangential moving of action. The mania of the original gets smoothed into a tamer, tauter replica, as if the original were the muse itself, and Echoic its chiseled offspring.
Our Lady of the Flowers, Echoic acts as a great complement to the original novel. It provides just as good a reason as any to revisit an aging classic that confounded and disrupted the form of the novel by not so much refusing, but radically ignoring standards of beauty that lied outside the sordidness of a confined individual psyche, one illuminated by Genet’s rabid imagination. As a supplement, it highlights, using the restraints of verse and Tysh’s dedicated familiarity with the text, the sequence of actions that go muddled and perhaps overlooked on a first read of the original text. -


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