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.
This paragraph gets condensed and altered into about four lines in Tysh’s version:
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.