David-Baptiste Chirot

(A tale of my early life.
From the ongoing “After Rimbaud’s Illuminations”)

      For Drew, Amber & Silas Kunz

“ . . . interstellar, thunderous, projected from final human designs, very far from being our contemporary, someone we could only see burst into a sparkling cloud, creating a crown that fits no one now, meant for centuries hence. He is indeed that exception: the absolute literary case.”
—Stephane Mallarme, “Edgar Poe”.
Written for Portraits du Prochain Siecle (Portraits of the Next Century)

Even on days when a chaotic glare of light stuns the sky, a flash of illumination strikes, diamond hard, through the surfaces and hits the focal point of being.

Walking along the Boule Miche in full afternoon glare, his eyes found mine, flashing signals as with a knife’s reflections straight into my consciousness.

I walked to the table where he sat and pulled up a chair. He looked at me laughing—“selling booze under the table,” he said, nodding for me to look underneath the tablecloth to see a bottle of bourbon from which he would siphon drinks at lower prices for various of the café’s patrons. He was vastly amused with himself. Suddenly grabbing his head in his hands he twisted his neck, making a smartly whipping cracking sound. “Speed, man. Eats the bones.”

We talked for a while. Turned out he was an American soldier just done his tour, the last months stationed in Germany. “Don’t ask me about Nam, man,” he said in a drawl. “Only thing I got good out of it was high and my book of poems.” These were to be appearing eventually with New Directions he claimed. “I called you here with my eye, man. Seen you are a writer and drug connoisseur, too. It’s in the eyes man. I hear them like radios. Through all this static”—gesturing at the crowded café, the loud Boulevard, the intense city glare—“I could read you, loud and clear. My kind of spirit, man, you’re my kind of spirit. Besides, you’re part Indian, I can tell.”

I didn’t bother to agree or not with his cool assessment of me from a distance. All I knew was I had felt the sudden slashing of his eyes through the chaotic glare, and gone over to find out what it was about.

He did a brisk business selling the booze. Meanwhile he ordered us sparkling water with a dash of mint mixture, thick and green. Through the sugared water, the Gauloises cigarettes’ harsh black shag tobacco tasted especially good.

He handed me a small chunk of hash to suck on and talked away, flirting with his customers and raking in cash. The afternoon wore on. The hashish slowly took effect, mounting in waves of colored sensations along the spine. His constant patter and repartee with the clients merged into the flow of sounds, flowing themselves into the flowing Seine visible at a short distance. The city took on a glowing golden aura. Time rose in the mind and before the eyes as immense banks and cliffs of sun burnt rock in the most astonishing and intricate formations. A visible language of stone and dust charted obscure memories out of a science fiction past. Sinking into the burnished glow, an impersonal vision read inscriptions among the cliffs.

Centuries later, my mind grasped his reaching out with antenna to touch my attention. “I got a place on the Isle Saint Louis man. Haunted. Spirits, man, you talk about spirits. A white woman ghost that walks the halls. Meet me in front of Shakespeare and Company at 19 hours man. We’ll go over there. You can stay with me there, man, burn and crash, dig. I got loads of hash even better’n this. And a white ghost woman all set to meet you, kid.”

Before splitting up, we walked along aways. He gave me some more hash. “Write poems with your eyes for me, man. Tell me what an Indian sees in Paris.”

Shakespeare and Company was pleasantly dim. Out of the glare, trying to focus on reading some books of poems. Suddenly it seemed strange to me to be reading in English. A lot of the poetry and prose in a journal of “new writing” seemed already out of date, a science fiction already superseded, in up-to-date phrases strangely anachronous. I tried to find some French writers I liked. Then I thought of Whitman. Whitman had the right tones for hash. His words opened up and played, immense organ fugues towering into the light suddenly streaming through the bookstore from the pages. Again the cliffs of Time arose in my mind’s eye and I heard the voices of ancestors talking in a language I understood without directly apprehending. A young woman’s arm bushed me back into the scene. “Oh excuse me,” she said in French. “You must be an Anarchist bomber.” I looked out at her from the depths of a smoking memory of a bomb recently thrown. Did she, too, read minds like radios? “Non, non Mademoiselle. Je ne suis qu’un passant,” I smiled. I kept thinking I was inside Nerval’s Aurelia. Everything was symbolic, and each symbol part of a constellation writing a poem of a journey, a search. The young woman laughed pleasantly. I noticed the clock on the wall behind her. Almost seven o’clock. Time for the American soldier poet to show up.

Sure enough, he did show up, too. He’d been drinking more since I left him. He was in a voluble, expansive mood. Talking on incessantly about poetry and Army life, stations in Germany, selling dope to soldiers, carrying it across borders . . . his adventures ran on without any horizon or background. The river was shining with reflected lights. Crossing the bridge, I felt the warmth of the waters rise in the soft evening air. It was already quite dark by the time we reached the place on Isle Saint Louis. Time seemed to have suddenly leapt forward. We stood in front of an apartment house as tall and straight as a geometrical form shading an empty area in a de Chirico painting. The deserted square was in darkness except for a street lamp and the form of one window whose light created a sudden square within the square.

Looking up, I felt the angularity of the forms around me. The sky itself had an abstract shape. The building we were mounting the stone stairs to felt and smelled faintly like one in the process of being renovated.

“Dig man,” the soldier poet giggled, unlocking the immense heavy door and revealing an inner darkness shocking as a sudden chasm. “No electricity. Fixing it up, they say. You ever been a boy scout? ‘Be prepared.’ So I am. Got my Army flashlight, boxes of matches and candles. “ He put down the knapsack he carried his bottles and notebooks around in and pulled out a candle and lit it. An enormous and very steep stairs appeared before us, climbing along a freshly whitewashed wall. Dimly, for a moment it seemed a figure appeared at the top of the sharp incline. A figure all in white.

The ascent was vertiginous. At the top was a wide hallway of freshly waxed and oiled orange wood. The hall way led into a distant dimness, passing by several very large heavy looking doors like the one at the entrance. A sepulchral silence, coupled with the huge presence near by of Notre Dame Cathedral, gave the place a monastic and theatrical air.

Our footsteps echoed heavily as we walked until he chose one of the unnumbered doors to open. Going inside, with the one candle flickering, one had the impression of an immense, airy space. Three huge ceiling high windows could be made out, one of them with its curtains streaming, open to the night. Incredibly, almost no sound or sign of the city outside found its way into this room.

After a moment of looking around and adjusting the eyes, I could see a frail looking very pale woman sitting propped in a corner of the room. Next to her sat a small plastic tourne-disc with a little stack of French EPs and LPs. She was dressed in a white dress with layers of veils swirling about it. Even seated the woman gave the impression of being in levitation, hovering above the floor in a state of tension. A Poe heroine, trapped like Roderick Usher’s sister between life and death, her bloody fingers scratching at the coffin lid.

“Eva, we have company.” The soldier poet made some cursory introductory remarks and pulled out a bottle of sparkling water and a bottle of the green mint syrup. Setting them on top of a sideboard, he poured us all a drink. “Hey man—see the mantle over there? Go light the candles on it. In the middle you’ll see some cigar boxes. Open up the black one, man. It’s full of some sure sweet ass hash man. Black opiated hash, man. The best.”

Lighting the candles, I saw the boxes and also the room behind me reflected in a huge mirror. I wondered if there were vampires lurking among the ghosts said to be haunting this building. The whole place seemed outside of time and space, strangely disassociated from the city. Vampires wouldn’t be out of place here at all.

The soldier poet had set up a rough camp at the corner opposite the woman’s. He had arranged a blanket on the floor as for a picnic and laid out some bread, cheese and fruit. Besides the sparkling water, he had also brought along some fine sparkling wine and clear, pale ale. Pillows were propped along the walls and some on the rug. Ceramic carved and painted ashtrays stood like Tibetan stupa among the three lit candles in ceramic stands on the blanket. The woman had put on a Mozart symphony, very low, its notes moving among the swirling curtains and the layers of her veils, her dancing bodices. Holding a fruit delicately poised in a long, thin hand, she seemed to be reading it, like a chiromancer. When she bit into the fruit, her mouth moved with distinct high cheek boned elegance. Ignoring me, she picked up a paperback book and read in it as closely as she had read the fruit.

We ate and smoked in silence the black hash with its consistency of licorice. After some introspective time, each slumped figure staring into the darkness, I moved away into my own corner, taking hashish and a pillow with me. Triangulating the room from our three corners, the woman, the soldier poet and I sat gazing into those things seen in darkness at which the detective Dupin looked, by which to see what lies hidden in plain sight during the day.

The door opened and a few people, young men and women both, entered the room. Friends, evidently, of the soldier poet and woman. I watched them as through a swirling, dim mist, shadowy figures speaking in low tones and gesturing angularly, the gestures themselves making a shadow sign language caught by the flickering candle lights. At one point a woman approached me, bent over, low to the ground and whispering in French. She, too, was obsessed by the idea of a ghost haunting the halls of this building. “The American,” she hissed, motioning at the soldier poet, “says you see spirits. He even says that you yourself are a spirit. As a spirit you must see and converse with the ghosts. Tell me, what do they say?”

I saw her intense dark eyes boring into me, as though they would find there a surface on which was written her answer. From very far away I saw her spirit, electric, glowing in the flickering light. I saw a ravenous anger pacing, a caged animal haunted with hate. My voice had left my body some time ago. I made a sign with my hand: “there is nothing to say to you.” “Your friend is a stone Indian, a carved head,” she barked over her shoulder at the soldier poet. “You mean a stoned Indian,” the solider poet said laughing. “Forget about him. He walks with the spirits. He’s gone, babe, gone.”

All the words were now left far behind me. I was inside a fair ground; come alive from a 19th Century American folk painting I had seen somewhere. There were wild cries of delight and bright lights, a whole fairway lit up and garish in the overarching darkness of a Fourth of July sky. Old American signs, themselves a picture language of rebuses, hung about, dancing in the night air. Figures themselves allegorical moved about, figuring elaborate tales of “the grotesque and arabesque.” Periodically a rocket soared into the high night sky. From somewhere I heard the Ancient of Days voice of Walt Whitman conversing with an Indian. “My voice goes after what my eyes can’t reach.” They spoke of tongues and ears and how they are so intimately conjoined. A rocket’s rent in the sky revealed a tossing, nightmarish ocean. A schooner fled across it, ominous as Whitman’s vision of Poe. In the fiery rocket glare lurked Mocha Dick, the whiteness of the whale and of the figure seen by Pym that arose white as the whiteness of snow at the South Pole. Moons and terrible suns hurtled in succession across carnival painted backdrop horizons. An out of control chaos lurched drunkenly about. Yet all the same children were singing and people winning prizes at the shooting galleries.

At some point I realized all the figures in the room were slumped about, talking of the ghost. The conversations were all in Parisian French, with only the soldier poet’s hash hacking voice croaking forth in American slang, as though addressing a room full of GIs. He was holding forth on paranormal phenomena and poetry, how UFO language sends signals to the poet who receives them and makes them into all sorts of machines, like assembling very quickly a machine gun.

No one but I noticed that the woman in white had left the room. She was out in the hall, pacing. I followed her and saw her put on a strange crown to which she had affixed candles. She went back into the room, her fiery head terrifying the others. I watched her as she approached the mirror and stood there, transfixed by her burning reflection. Her back turned to the room, she began chanting and making signs in the mirror with her long thin arms, arms so white they merged with the white of her dress. Her long blonde hair, too, had turned white. The white veils and bodices swirled about her undulating, chanting figure. The crown held in place the fiery candles, their reflected light dancing on the walls of the room. Swaying and chanting hypnotically, unexpectedly she began shrieking and tearing at her eyes, at her body, at the dress and veils. The sudden eruption into furious action of her long white hair flung the tresses into the candle flames. Her head burst into fireworks, throwing off sparks and flaming arrows made of the disintegrating crown. Shrieking and chanting, she began a Dervish dance, scattering torn flaming shreds of the dress and veils, of her hair which was now a white inferno.

Only the soldier poet had the presence of mind to seize a blanket and rush at her. From my side I grabbed a pillow and flung myself at her. Crashing into the fiery figure, our blanket and pillow attempting to stifle the flames, it was in shock that we saw one scorched hand reach out with a lighter and set to work torching the dress. Hurtled backwards, we fell away from the now burning woman, shrieking through the inferno in a white noise cascade of pure, tortured sound. Like Artaud’s actor gesturing through the flames while being burnt at the stake, to do away with all that separates one from an ultimate reality, the woman in white in flames flung curses down in a soaring language of pure sounds, devoid of the dregs of useless meanings, sublimed into pure Illumination.

As the towering figure of flame consumed the whiteness, I heard suddenly through the white noise the sounds of the others screaming out in the hallway. “The ghost!! The ghost!” they cried. Even the soldier poet by now had fled the scene of fiery martyrdom and taken up position in the corridor. He, too, was loudly acclaiming the long awaited appearance of the apparition.

As I took leave down the sharply descending stairs to fetch the police, I heard them all marvel that the ghost was but a guest late for the party, and one all clad in white, with swirling veils and long tresses she had made glow eerily by the use of a concealed flashlight. The sudden intrusion of electric light in the candle lit building as a ghostly “body electric” indicated that the source of mystery lay in the lack of wiring. Without wiring, the free floating form produced an image of insubstantial whiteness frightening to behold. To discover that it was a battery lit body made it all the more certain that the absence of a ghost was indeed the very sign of its presence. Meanwhile in the heap of white ashes in the abandoned room a ghostly absence began to take form, stirring and moving, white particles whose presence palpably moved with each gust of air through the swirling white curtains.

previous page     contents     next page



Post a Comment

<< Home