Capriccio of Ruins

by Eric Byrd

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Perhaps unique among France's many colonies, possessions, dependencies and departments outré-mer, Lisle has no foothold on the French Parnassus. Baudelaire's “dame creole” was Mauritian. Leger was born under the palms of Pointe-à-Pitre. And this mulatto isle never produced a polemicist of Négritude – we're obvious bastards, dark enough for chains but not black enough for pride. Lisle's sole literary monument is the work of the American Charles Wharburton, author of Alphonsine; or, The Siege of Saint-Christophe (1846). Wharburton was a didactic novelist of pastoral dilemma, of scrupulous parsons. Following a tour of the Antilles he published Alphonsine, his only novel set outside New England, assembled from notes, and from the Romantic demonism that lay all about his era. Wharburton's readers were affrighted and doubtless titillated by this tale of a Protestant missionary stranded on the nightmare isle, where he and the titular ward, dusky but redeemable, are caught between the bloodthirsty maroons and the depraved Creoles, between savage idolatry and the complicit Catholic church, with its gleaming black saints. Wharburton's surrogate desires only Alphonsine's salvation, deplores the mixing of races, and denounces plaçage as “a foul practice that supports a languid class of concubines in attitudes compounded of Gallic hauteur and Negroid indolence.”

Such silly, bigoted old books are easy to come by, and help me to travel in time. I can see in Wharburton's half-novelized notes the exhibitory balls and parasoled promenades of quadroon courtesans: they're slow-moving, pouty, spoiled – and bred for pleasure as horses are bred for racing. Lisleans are now said – are proclaimed! – to have evolved beyond the béke and his Black Venus; are supposedly “overjoyed” – emotion for murals! – to abide as sexlessly interchangeable comrades in a puritanical police state ruled by a fatigue-clad guerilla chieftain. El Caudillo is decades removed from comradely struggle, displays a vestigial sidearm amid praetorian Kalashnikovs. For a time I was keeper of his looted pictures. He billeted his fighters in palaces whose fleeing owners had carried away nothing but trifles – a string of pearls, a monogrammed cigarette case destined for the pawnbrokers of pauperish exile. Soon the sensibility of imperiled revenue interrupted the desecration. Merciful Mehmed called off the pillage, and rescued or confiscated the private galleries. He sold abroad the great collections, as well as my father's modest, incipient portfolio of eighteenth century dessins (the heads of young girls and the lute-strumming fingers, disembodied, delighted one by the economy of their manifestation, the few swift strokes of their being). The strictly regional remainder, a rump gallery of touristic sunsets and forgotten worthies, was grandly christened the Musée Lisle. I was its curator before I was a conscript, a deserter, and a fugitive.

*

Resigned to the plunder and riot of a rebel army, infested by the disbanded soldiery, their camp followers and livestock, and all manner of fugitives, the most opulent precinct of Saint-Christophe was quickly degraded to that condition of quarantined wildness in which indestructible slums are tolerated. At times I will sound like Gibbon. I occupy an alcove in a partitioned palace. The makeshift walls are low, and when I stand I greet other tall men, and up on the high echoey vault cloud-throned figures still soar above our stinks. I have an entire window, a Louis Quinze commode, and a salvage of books. I share a plump putto with a couple that quarrels loudly and makes love silently, or not at all. In spite of the noise, and the pervasive preparatory fumes of peasant staples, this cell has moods I cherish. There are afternoons when a ceiba branch filters viridescent leaflight, and evenings in whose forgiving gloom I am a gentleman, the warped books plucked from garbage piles a manor library; and the photographs clutched in my wanderings are not the debris of an accidental family but a succession, dynastic, serene, the image of estate.

A carnival camera caught my courting parents, cloche and boater, bobbing in a painted dinghy, on playful billows. I am the boy contemplating a bard's bust – though as a child I did not read verse. My father's library, alma mater studiorum, contained massive furniture, voluminous histories, a great wheeled globe. I dreamt of writing a universal folio, Liber Chronicarum Mundi, with Lives of the Great and views of cities. It wasn't until my final year at university that a tattered motley of paperbound poets, the mother country's great syphilitics, suicides and opium-takers, showed me that a mere lyric – a footnote – could be made to hold worlds in the compress of its order. “A suggestive stanza is a narrow room painted trompe d'eoil,” said Viktor Vladimirovich Seroff, in conversation. “Distant peaks, an infinite garden lane.” Seroff is a forgotten poet. I knew him. He's an old clipping, jaundiced and brittle beside the studio mounts of my other memories.

The picture was taken the day I first saw him. A very bright day; slitted eyes, a squinty smile, crooked incisors. There had been a reading. It was summer of 1950. Despite the abyssal unresponsiveness of editors I was still versing, and conscious of contemporaries. El Caudillo's captured Shermans, vanguard of a thousand donkey carts, had entered Saint-Christophe in the spring. The poets and the audience were mixed groups, transitional, tense together. Old bohemians had come out to hear a caped graybeard declaim Theosophical visions, a crowd of soldiers to answer and repeat the semaphore slogans of an ersatz Mayakovsky. The rump of the bourgeoisie was also present. These naively patriotic professors and immovable matrons would come out for any Parisian, and the painted flock of well-brought-up girls, “the daughters of educated men,” already knew of Seroff's glossy actorish looks. The one at my side nearly jumped when he strode on stage. He was a head taller than the others, darkly tanned, a fine-boned, sleek-skulled whippet of a man suavely balding at the temples, his hair wet-combed back from a magnificent brow. Seroff mentioned his forthcoming book (it would never appear). Tristia was the conventional, Ovidian title, a title belied by the serenity of the poems. When an exile lyrically laments his fate, we expect a plunge into the alien. Ovid was compelled to leave his tiled villa for a Scythian hut, Mowbray to case up his melodious English. But Lisle, or at least its capitol, was no desert. Saint-Christophe is an encyclopedic evocation, an erudite pastiche, consolation of fortune-seekers and second sons; a mirage of regretted domains. Seroff said nothing of weird natives or cruel skies. The poems of Tristia are about architecture and philology; the fantasy of innocent transmissions; the migration, not the imposition, of ornament. The World of Art. When he finished the young ladies looked disappointed. “Translation is that Greek pavilion / set in a banyan park” – mine was the only journal into which that was copied.

Seroff's home was France. He was too young to yearn with his parents for the birch alleys and pastel palaces of Baltic Russia. In Saint-Christophe he lived among other leftover refugees in a distant and dilapidated neighborhood, Frontière. It had been wild in the 1920s. “Frontière” recurs in the scratchy gramophonic cabaret wails. I see a Stenberg poster: the massive disembodied head of a pale-skinned, cold-eyed, scarlet-lipped and black-bobbed femme fatale, in the glow of whose sinister lunar perigee smaller figures dance tango, sip absinthe, and duel with daggers in red-lit streets. After the war Frontière was dusty, quiet, a perpetual siesta of shuttered houses and blazing, empty streets. The pavement was patchy and the vegetation eruptive, a resumption of jungle. Not-quite overgrown streetcar tracks alluded to a city. The Musée Lisle and its sole custodian had been deposited in the municipal library outpost. The librarians were loutish spoilsmen of a minor cultural commissar. They threw dice and swigged from a shared bottle while I read on the roof, or took my notebook to a table at a proletarian bar turned café litteraire by the refugees gathered there. They were all single men taking long lunches in the café's courtyard, lightened with wine or charged with coffee, gossiping in a federative French, enjoying the burble of the fountain and the shade of the trees in an exalted slacking from subsistence clerkships, from bleak digs. I came to be on nodding terms with quite of few Viennese satirists and untranslatable Poles, as we nursed our cups of plonk or rooted in the library's rubbishy collection, but I did not see Seroff until he turned up in one of the rare tours I was roused to lead. I found him standing among a troop of Boy Scouts or Young Pioneers, puerile paramilitants unnamed in that tentative Year One, before El Caudillo had selected his superpower patron. A talk I had only sketched in my head, on the novelty Negroes in noble and royal retinues, instantly replaced whatever it was I usually droned.

In the French portraits sitters command a variety of exotics (giantess, dwarfess, turbaned Moor), while the planters of Lisle have only slave boys in tiny jerkins holding or scampering after bits of garish fauna. Derrière elle un petit nègre tenant son éventail et sa perruche — so Gautier equipped his Muse. From the worthies I led them to the Black Venuses. These concubine generations were virtually monotonous, room after room of bare brown breasts and bright kerchiefs; to the boys' chagrin the only work I deemed worthy of considerate pause was an eighteenth century mulatto house boy, the domestic pastime of a girlish dilettante. The portrait is attributed to the teenage mistress of an inland plantation, European-born, a flower of finished poise imported by a wealthy slavewhipper and installed in the airy upper rooms of his whitewashed manse. I imagine her shut-in, constantly fanned, more ward than boss of the dollhouse staff, more alibi than wife to the master, who has been out there for so long in the society of his hounds, his horses, his slave wenches and their beige broods. When she tires ofClarissa and Chansons madécasses, or whatever composes the little library shipped with her, she takes a fancy to this kitchen boy, only a few years her junior. She adopts him as a playmate, grooms him as a page, strokes him as a pet – comme aux pieds d'une reine un chat voluptueux.I see hours of dress-up and playacting, a burlesque of the manners she was freighted to convey. She poses him in a pristine justaucorps – her husband's imported, nominal finery – and paints a mock-heroic portrait, perhaps after the memory of an ancestral gallery hung with the grave makers of her father's merrily squandered fortune. The gilet's intricate embroidery was too much for her drawing (one day, very suddenly, it was all so long ago: those lessons had given her a quiet hour of supervised sketching, Chardin-tranquil, between the harpsichord and the hiss of the dancing master), but her command of oils was equal to the probably rather simple intensity of his face: cold and superb, a boy pharaoh, his skin a smooth, even, very light brown, his eyebrows shapely streaks above the downward-looking, unmoving melancholy of his large brown eyes. When neighboring planters trek in for raucous stays the games stop and he is a servant again, though, with such beauty, the indignities of his station become marks of princeliness. At the banquet of cronies – the canaille of Europe become the lordly terrors of this wilderness, bawling and red-faced, “slowly dying of gluttony and the heat” – his required silence is a noble reticence, his servilely averted gaze a dreaming detachment from the gurgled wine and soiled bibs of his betters.

*

Thereafter I frequently visited Seroff's apartment, an oriel room in the House of Arts, née Palais Alberti. The House was a “university of the arts” established by the Ministry of Culture. Scholars lectured in a ballroom filled with folding chairs. Workers versified in literary labs. Resident composers traveled into the countryside and held microphones under the feebly singing lips of ancient ex-slaves. Everyone was eager to join these projects, exalted schemes dreamt up in the lull between tyrannies. Against the lofty clubbiness of the place, Seroff kept to his room. He received select callers, on a single day. I could infer the previous mardiste from an empty bottle, or a redolence of perfume. His things lay lightly on the monuments of a maid's chamber; his few books took chance gaps in a wall of popular romances. He did not pile the table with his manuscripts. I imagined a hidden bundle.

If I were the last visitor, we would stroll out into the evening and talk. We didn't mug friendship or orchestrate the marionette motions –supercilious surprise, nodding approbation, the steady gaze of unflagging interest – but roamed the city side by side. Tristia showed Seroff intimate with city's pompous vistas, and all the gardens and statuary, so I was surprised that he preferred the oldest warren of the old city, a sunless labyrinth of narrow alleys seemingly unchanged since the encamped chaos of first settlement: the dirt footpath beset by livestock, the fruit and fish stalls, the beggars clutching at your ankles.

“I'm tired of broad boulevards…fountain Neptunes…Versailles-vistas,” he once shouted over his shoulder, an upset wagon having squeezed us into single file.

“Next you'll be composing in patois!”

“I have begun to study it,” he said, facing ahead.

Quae faciam paene poeta Getes!”

He glanced back, and conceded a slight smile from which I understood that however much the poems of Tristia meant to me, however much they dignified this tropical sea speck, they were but exercises, spells of dawdling before he got on with his work. He had written of Europe because he was not yet prepared to write of America.

For supper we would get fishcakes and a pint of rum from the fragrant portals of sagging shacks. Slightly less reserved, Seroff might describe his life in and escape from France, or his internment in Lisle – until we were enveloped in the din of a musical gathering, the kind of spectacle that entranced him. Drums made passerby into dancers; and there were the old men with guitars, their hoarse country woe accompanied by the spare sadness of a few plucked strings. An evening's trudge through such prosy ephemera would end at the outskirts, at the base of one of the ringing hills from which settlers used to descry English pirates. Even after greasy food and ardent spirits I would urge our climb. “Learned Poggius and a friend ascended the Capitoline hill” – and his second tolerant smile. From the heights we would survey the city on the plane of aspiration, a vista of copula crosses and dome-standing patron figures. At sunset this “sacred and festal” skyline would be awash with the gold of apotheosis, and the clouds – softly majestic, sun-fired cumulonimbi – had a static, painterly grace.

*

Cryptic thought in arch, drawling tones – I have composed this memoir without the hope of readers. But do not think me a hermit, or an underground man raving on the lower frequencies. Though at middle age, I have the physical strength and venereal torment of an active man. I still linger in the banyan murk of cruisy plazas, and lie seminude on the beaches. I found my Juana near the shell of the Yacht Club where, fifty years ago, my parents were pathfinder Jews. Her cohort, that pack of stray bitches, the bain turc of my poignant fantasies, was spread out on a blanket, comme un bétail pensif sur le sable couchées, and she was the only one awake in the nuzzling litter of brown bodies. Her price included a half-hour room. Flimsy shutters, gappy from rot, were all that shielded us from the glare and bustle of a market street, and the dim little room was loud with haggling voices and the creak of cart wheels. She removed her floppy-brimmed hat. Blue eyes in a brown face, kinky reddish locks. It was not unusual for single families on remote farms to melt into the clans of their chattel. Her smoothly muscled curves were soon slick and shining, bending, squatting, clenching and contorting on my lead, a world of muscular incident beneath an unwincing mask.

At first an object, briskly used; with persisting patronage, something like a companion. She accompanies my walks (or I hers) and I play the cicerone, evoking the builders or old owners of her rubbly trysting-places. Inside their storm-lashed hovels our forefathers nursed a mania for grandeur. Fantastically enriched by cane-cutting slaves, they commissioned a city. Fontebelli confected an entire Baroque district, frosted lemon and power blue. Benois found the Governor's residence a low house and left it, after thirty years, a sprawling compound of palaces with a Champ de Mars at its heart. Boughton was here as a young man; amid the erotic riots of Rococo he raised cool Palladian temples.

Juana's most lucrative beat is the Promenade, a stone concourse along which palaces rot. The weathered facades crawl with life – tiers of teeming balustrades. There are many women, some Juana's elders in the trade, others ready amateurs. Look too long at one and she'll beckon. I'm never tempted. I like the threadbare frocks drying on parapets. The meager wardrobes of our poverty mean that felinely sleek, coppery nudes lounge alert or sprawl napping in the dim recesses of flats.

Urbane boughs the shade civic stone, and the residents of this tropical city have comfortably paraded in silken breeches, in high collars, in heavily botanical Merry Widows. Juana strides on sexy stilts, her dolphin tautness sheathed in tangerine lyrca; the fabric follows every protuberance, the fleshy shelf of her buttocks, the hard hillocks of her unmammary pectorals. A recent incident will stand for our days. A shirtless old man, skeletal shoulders and a bombé belly, approaches and hands the presumed pimp a few coins. He points to the Italianate pile where he has a rat hole. We part at the grand staircase. The inner court, once a coolly delicious retreat – Leger's l'eau-de-feuilles-vertes – is thickly overgrown, and pungent with goats. Monte Caprino, Campo Vaccino. I re-enter and climb the stairs. In what must have been the music room, a maimed piano wallows on its belly, and a quartet of chairs, once grouped for delicate chamber entertainment, lies hewn for stovewood. They must be taught to revere what they can so easily destroy. Looking down from the gallery, the patio is a leafy pit, a humid crotch. Our ruins are nothing like those of Poussin or Lorrain – those ornaments of the campagna, wreathed with grasses, gently pervaded by great trees. The békés retained vigilant gardeners. They also painted the baseboards with turpentine to keep out cockroaches, and slumbered damply, fitfully, under gauzy hoods of netting. The enmeshed amour, teasingly veiled from a curious slave or a stalking spouse, was a durable trope of their curiosa.

Suddenly stepping into the corridor, her sheath peeled up her tits, Juana beckons for my handkerchief and, with knees turned out, demi-plié, daubs up the dribble. Her earthy manner is a necessity of business; she blushes at aesthetic nakedness. A cordially rivalrous bricoleur had me to see his latest assemblage. At first Juana bumped into things, but after adjusting her stilted gams and parade stride to the confines of the small musty room, the life-enclosing vitrine, she looked on quietly while I inspected the dueling pistols and the Childe Harold octavos, petted the stuffed monkey and mastiff. She began to sigh and fidget when I opened a portfolio of naughty prints: the rape of Europa, by various hands; Hokusai's fishwife, entwined with an octopus, her entrances simultaneously ministered; the muscular, male-modeled legs of Michelangelo's Leda; Petrov-Vodkin's Pasiphaë, just a red cow in a gold field – but of course I was overwhelmed by the image of the naked queen arranged inside, down on all fours in the dark, mashing her rump to the mounting hole. At Rembrandt's abduction of Ganymede – a crying baby pissing in fright – she buried her face in my arm and moaned, “Why does he show us?”

After a few weeks together she disappears, leaving me in the bereft pet owner's confusion – did it eagerly bolt, desperately free, or was it accidentally run down on its faithful way home, now panting its last in the ditch it crawled to, curled in? At first I believe the former. Of course she's fled. We are not Niccoli and Benvenuta. She's an orphan whore who doesn't know her age; I am a clinging customer who prizes rubbish. But after a few days sulking in my cell I go out into the streets, where I see the urchins running in their packs, feral and ribbby, suffering and healing while always on the move, always exposed to others' rage or desire – and then I know she's dead. The truth is some of both: she flees, but violent vagaries wash her back. I hear her whimper on the other side of the parterre and there she is, wobbling on weak legs, jaw clenched, eyes bulging but dry, one hand staunching a wound or indicating one, the other holding out a book – a book heavy to her shaky arm, a random, battered thing she found somewhere, a gift, an offering to quell rage I never feel, to secure succor I gratefully give.

*

After a year's carnival interlude El Caudillo introduced his tyranny. His first decrees were said to have to do with agriculture, the land – with the controversies of ownership and division of our fair country's legumés sanctifiés. El Caudillo is the son of a wastrel planter, so I thought he might consume his revenges in the stupid realm of cereals; but he did come for us. Under the old regime journalists were a suspicious and persecuted class; the attitude of new was no different, and it expanded the Fourth Estate to include anyone who attended university or wore spectacles – even apolitical aesthetes harmless in picturesque sinecures – and I was drafted into the army. My conscription was not unique, I was herded with the herd; but unlike the other men Shanghaied for slave labor in the countryside, I trailed a chain of illegal dependants, a shadowy family of civic nonentities being fed out of my ration book. These included a number of fast girls and parasitic boon companions, resourceful lowlives who could fend for themselves; but Seroff had no means of support, no other useful friends. He had been expelled from the House of Arts when it became the Writers Union – a barrack of court scribes. Offered membership, Seroff refused, and remained up in his room – serenely smoking while breaking and resetting a sentence – during the inaugural banquet at which rum was raised to Revolution by foreign clercs who shortly returned to safe homes in the democracies they had denounced here. I put him in an obscure flat – and went to the army worried it was not obscure enough.

*

A Chelyabinsk tractor, a puny puffing contraption dwarfed in the great forest, shows off for the cameramen, chins a tree and nudges it from a hundred-year grip. I saw this performed but once. After the cameras were packed away we cleared the jungle as the old slaves had, with machetes for the undergrowth, and two-man teams tugging toothy blades through fragrant trunks. Whipped oxen dragged out the stumps. Memorized poems, including some of Tristia pictured in slim columns of italic Garamond, were the Ju-Jus around my neck, the gris-gris in my pocket.

The aerial cross and untouchable goddess,

a standard for inheritors, teach us

that beauty is no mythological grace,

but the gruff carpenter's severe rule-of-eye.

Allusion, layered landscapes, “dreams from the field of culture” – I needed this out there, press-ganged with illiterates, wandering the primeval forest. We looked up from what we had cleared to a carcereal prospect of infinite bark. News of the world came as twisted fables blared by the lectors who ambled among us with bullhorns and satchels of party papers. El Caudillo's epic sermons took up the mornings; we spooned the midday slop to foreign reports of brotherly embrace or capitalist menace; and as the light dimmed we were read the proceedings of the tribunals then active across the land, summoning and condemning. They read out offenses and long lists of the guilty. We worked as quietly as we had under the dictator's harangues – until someone collapsed or cried out. For a few minutes after we heard each name as a name, a life and a fate, a being and its eclipse – and then the names would blur, bleed together, and melt back into the megaphonic drone. When Viktor Seroff flashed on the rolls of the dead I did not drop my axe.

I know now that my battalion labored from March 1951 until April 1952 – though out there I lived a dateless delirium occasionally relieved by rustic time telling. A young peasant's noting of avian migrations was the lucid order that kept me from charging the gunmen who slouchingly picketed our toil. For May Day we were trucked back to Saint-Christophe and drilled and taught parade order, wooden sticks held rifle-wise on our shoulders. It was not long before I escaped into the slums – never to goose-step past El Caudillo in the martial ballet, the fearsome prance of an official review.

Of Seroff I found neither trace nor testimony. The landlady had been arrested too. Neighbors, cowering in their holes, remembered nothing, or would say nothing. His books were gone – even if he had been able to take them he couldn't have kept them. He had told me, on one of our strolls, that during the war internees were forbidden to have books; and the new gang is surely as cruel as the old. He went on to say that, bookless in prison, he fell back on the ineffaceable schoolboy recitations, and on recent enthusiasms, to supply himself and his fellow inmates with song. I choose this image of his last days. Upright and unafraid, nourishing haggard spirits with the cultures he carries. I ignore the scenario of torture and madness. If his parents had remained in Russia he would have been that Petersburg professor whose vapory Onegin stanzas cheered an Arctic barrack. He is the unconquerable captive, chanting a perfect song in a savage place.

*

Every Sunday morning I watch three coarsely wigged, grubbily painted young men, clad in old dresses, tramp through the heat and dust of my street, bound for the Promenade. The Belle Époque mondaine in a driving ensemble of goggles, headscarf and duster; the flapper with aigrette in his sham coiffure; the shimmeringly gowned grandee lifting his skirt with pinching fingertips before a rivulet of sewage. El Caudillo's men had belted their bandoliers across looted finery, but long after that insolent festival these slum boys, brothers of whores and thieves, ignorant and uninstructed, on their own recover and revive these clothes, reanimate this regalia, and pool cosmetics the individual ration of which can never completely mask the bumps on a brow or the coarse grain of a razored cheek.

If the békés seem ridiculous because they wore neckties at the Equator, or because they collected opalescent Fragonards though beset by Rousseau's dark fronds; if they seem foolish in their surprise that the wretched of the earth should rise and possess their palaces, and the salt wind abrade the festive facades; then I will remind that, in building anything, we dare nature to resume her rights. The békés were glorious for a while. We know their care by the stateliness, the gaunt handsomeness, of their remains. Their coastal jewel is now not only despoiled, but defunct. El Caudillo is building a new capitol in the frondy hinterlands, a concrete, Corbusian utopia far from the syncretism of ports and the ornate civic structures of the past, so many badges of servitude to those insensible of their symmetries. In the new city the new man will be consoled by an apparent uniformity of habitation, will have a volkswagen for illusory mobility, a television for illusory communion – and, perhaps this is most important, he will be free from any culture not devised in the monoglot Marx paraphrase that is his master's brain. I sound vehement but I do not care. Go, and build, as you must; chance your monument in a jungle – but let some of us remain and read forgotten poets, and gather old frocks, and muse amidst the ruins.


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