By Tyrone Williams
The absence of a circumflex over the o in Hotel is only one index of the radical alterity Chris Tysh investigates in her most recent book of poetry. Here, it is the translatable but remaining distance between the English “hotel” and the French “hôtel,” a distance replicated in the bilingual title—even if the only French term is the possessive des—of this trilogy of poems. As a French native long fluent in English (she teaches creative writing at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan), Tysh has always concerned herself with questions of distance, alterity, and difference at every level. In her life and in her writing, Tysh has enacted the circumflex and its absence, bent over the modernist French literature she reads and rereads. In that sense, her relationship to English is not unlike that of Samuel Beckett’s to the French language and so her book title mimics his most famous trilogy: Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable. In Hotel des Archives, Tysh “transcreates” three classic works of modern French fiction into English: Samuel Beckett’s Molloy, Jean Genet’s Notre-Dame-des-Fleurs and Marguerite Duras’ Le Ravissement de Lol V. Stein. Even this act of transcreation follows Beckett’s strategy: he deliberately wrote the trilogy in French and then rewrote it in, rather than translate it into, English. Beckett’s French/English dynamic informs Tysh’s project, an attempt, she writes, to translate these modern French texts into “an American vernacular.” Thus, the first question you might ask is, does she succeed? To which I’d respond, only partially. The colloquialisms she occasionally drops into an otherwise literary text can sometimes jar the sensibilities. The second question pertains to genre: how successful is Tysh in translating these experimental works of fiction into accessible verse? To which I’d respond, very successful. Hotel des Archives is a readable, pleasurable and, most important, arresting trilogy even if one is completely unfamiliar with its source texts.
The central link among these three stores is transgression, the unleashing and celebration of desires that all cultures, argued Freud (and others), attempt to suppress in the interest of social order and stability. In “Molloy: The Flip Side,” Beckett’s peripatetic narrator’s indifference to the social world through which he journeys is both trivial (“I write ‘mortar’ for ‘mortal’ / Without wanting to correct / My mistake…”) and significant (“If I’m not mistaken / I’ve known him, my son, that is, / Crap! I’ve forgotten his name again”). In Beckett’s world, where the differences between humans and nonhumans are “Only A and B in an empty field,” nothing—least of all human relationships with other humans—can be taken for granted. Although Tysh faithfully reproduces some of Beckett’s most iconic scenes in the original story (for example, Molloy carrying and chewing on pebbles and stones), she reminds us that Molloy’s journey home, back to his mother’s house (womb and grave), reverses the religious and social injunction that from birth onward “life” entails an ever-expanding distance between child and mother. One of the “said imperatives,” this commandment is not easily transgressed, which explains, in part, Molloy’s desire for, and repulsion from, his mother. Tysh captures perfectly Molloy’s Prufrock-like timidity and disgust:
From the get-go I say yes to
The grub and the other tango
Of her clever plot and yet
A shudder escapes me like
A fallen log or shoelace
Free from its tongue
At the same time, he expresses concern (“And my mother, could / She still be waiting for me?”) even if that concern is fleeting and quickly reverts to self-disgust (“Shouldn’t I instead slip // A knot on a branch / Or better yet just slash / My throat?”). Molloy’s misogyny (“Ah, the bitch, she sure as hell / Passed me them rotten genes”) has been analyzed to death, but Tysh is less interested here in a feminist reinterpretation of Beckett’s text than rearticulating another subtext of this story: Molloy’s own sexual insecurities which are inseparable from his crippled manhood. When his “good leg” goes “numb and stiff,” he can only understand this joke on his mobility within the limits of dialectics. His impediment is simply the flip side of “manly” self-reliance: the good leg mimics the bad leg so as ‘not to be in debt / To the other limb which / Takes the rap in stride.”
Taking the rap is at the center of Tysh’s recreation of Genet’s Notre-Dame-des-Fleurs in her “Our Lady of the Flowers, Echoic.” Thanks to John Waters’s breakthrough cult-film sensation, Pink Flamingos, this is the one story in the book that many readers may be somewhat familiar with as it loosely follows the brief but flamboyant life of the transvestite Divine. Told from the point of view of a prisoner who retells Divine’s story the day after her/his death (“they” would have always been the wrong pronoun for Divine whose sexual and gender pleasures depended on shuttling back and forth between fixed identities) to enhance the pleasures of masturbation, “Our Lady of the Flowers, Echoic” reproduces Genet’s fantasy in which no taboo—including betrayal and murder—is forbidden if it serves to intensify sexual pleasure. The most transgressive of the three works here, “Echoic” is an apt title since Tysh plays with sound, with names (and especially nicknames), in homage to Genet. Huddled together “under the black canopy / Of tiny umbrellas, Mimosa I, / Mimosa II, Mimosa half-IV, / First Communion, Angela, Her / Highness, Castagnette and Regine” comprise Divine’s little band of merry/troublemakers, especially after Mignon, the ironically nicknamed “Our Lady of the Flowers” and eventual murderer arrives on the scene.
As in “Molloy: The Flip Side” the mother, here, Divine’s, is a manipulative exploiter of her son. A has-been who’d “ransacked a thousand and one/Roles from pulp novels,” she, not unlike Judy Garland’s mother, stages her child’s “denouement / The way others shoot up smack.” At the same time, Tysh makes clear Divine’s own desire for “fame” among the homosexual bohemia, to have her / his name scrawled in a john alongside “Martin the Faggot / Bob the Queer and L’il Meadow / The Swish,” drove him/her. Above all, the intoxicating mixture of repurposed Catholic ritualism (e.g., the repast as secular communion), the alcohol, the nicknames, the flirtation with authority (here, the pimps), served to create a world alongside that of straight society. Proximity to the “other” is the key to desire and pleasure of taboo, which is why the man “born” a homosexual is less a draw than “the one who blows / A hole in his bridal bed after six moons / For fun…” It is only the heterosexual who rebels against his own heteronormativity, not the polymorphous perversity of the homosexual, who has access to “the immense / Aura of scorn for all square things, bonds, etc.” Nonetheless, Tysh never lets us forget that this “biography” of Divine is being narrated by a prisoner (in fact, Genet himself) whose masturbatory self-interest (“I need a dream, a poem to shatter / The walls of my prison.”) inflates Divine into a god and goddess. But fantasy, of course, is of a greater value to the prisoner than any factual chronicle.
Tysh concludes Hotel des Archives with that most traditional sexual fantasy, the triangle, in “Ravished,” her minimalist reading of Duras’ Le Ravissement de Lol V. Stein. Intertwining the marriages and affairs of characters Tatiana (perhaps an echo of Titania from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream), Lol V. Stein and Jacques Hold, the story, like Shakespeare’s, involves a revolving set of romantic triangles, separated, in the Duras story, by a decade. As in the previous two works, this verse drama is narrated through the transgressive desires of a male figure. And, as in “Our Lady of the Flowers, Echoic,” the multiple desires of the three characters cross marriages, sexual orientations and genders within each triangle: “Roving eyes he ferrets / the teeming square // mourning every woman / in advance of the one // who doesn’t exist yet / for whom he could // at the last minute ditch / the very lover they both await.” Jacques’ desire for what he doesn’t have is mirrored by Lol’s; she needs his affair with Tatiana as much as he does: “’I’ll stop seeing her” // ‘I forbid you,’ Lola orders, / says it must be as before // I am to keep my rendezvous/on Tuesday…” Jacques’ linear male desire coincides with the function of all first-person narrative but what is unsaid, what falls outside his monotonous perspective, is the homoerotic dance of Tatiana and Lol, an eroticism heightened by their respective male spouses and lovers. And this suppressed homoeroticism extends to Jacques, which is why both women insist that he meet their husbands. In short, the “other” for each character is not only another person but also their own alter egos, the hidden selves who can only speak through the language of the forbidden, can only articulate unhinged desire as social and moral transgression. Hotel des Archives is thus a provocative reminder of those tumultuous forces in the underworlds of both the ego and the social, forces that, somewhere, are always erupting through facades and surfaces, tearing apart private and public lives.