Friday, 4 February 2011

Book Review ~ "The Paris Poems" by Suzanne Burns

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The Paris Poems
by Suzanne Burns

Blaze VOX [books] 2010
ISBN 9781609640460

Book Review

Should I declare my own interest in this little collection of words, before talking about the words themselves? Or wait until the end?

I was about to do the former when I thought that would be a terrible waste of a useful suspense device, so I'll wait a little.

There's just been a death in the family, not someone close to me, but someone who was close to those who are, and I'm now inhabiting some sort of emotional wilderland, aching by default, as it were, but not quite close enough to be part of the official hurting party. This sweet guy visited the family and gave my 13-month-old son a football and a soft toy yesterday and played with him a while and he loved it, my son and the guy. The dead guy.

I am, literally, left holding the baby whilst the others get on with their grief, not mine.

Just what does this have to do with an innocent little collection of poems about Paris, you may ask. Well I make no excuses for this opening, because poetry is about feelings of one sort or another, sometimes light and often heavy, and poems don't make excuses either. In the end it's for the writer to have the courage to put these feelings, for that is what they are, down in a form which can be experienced by others, and then for others to make of them what they will. I do something similar with images and, yes, with words too.

Suzanne Burns contacted me having seen the photo above which now, as she kindly puts it, graces the cover of her lovely book 'The Paris Poems'. As something of a Paris poet myself you can appreciate that I feel doubly pleased about this. And what's more, I like the poems too!

I open the book at random, and read, unthinkingly:
The day Paul Newman became a ghost
was cold, then too hot
as we strolled
towards Notre Dame
my body
keeping time
with the cadence of this place
more than teenage wishes for bread and berets
or childhood longing to befriend
that little boy and his red balloon.
(from Our Lady Of Paris Bids Adieu)

Suzanne's poems are accessible but not facile. She calls on all her senses to get her meaning across. She has an enviable way with the lyrical phrase, which seems to spontaneously skip across the page with a deliciously wicked lightness...
They tongue wine and cigarettes in the basement
of Brasserie Lipp where even Jean-Paul Sartre
might slip a hand up your old dress
to sense the irony of royal unrest.
(from Let Them Eat Cake)
I'm caught unawares, and wryly amused, in the midst of an entrenched and bitter battle against the relentless onslaught of the on-line mararoon munching bloggers, to see that Suzanne's last dedicatee is the French mararon [sic]. A real low body-blow, that one, but I'll soldier on, head up and stomach in...
The pert Clara Bow pout of my mouth
sank into macarons
the way teeth might sink into flesh
this is not a guess.
(from Angeline's Patisserie at 28 rue Vignon)
These are The Paris Poems, and if it's evocative, melancholic, enigmatic Paris you're starving for, the author has made sure you won't be resting on your hunger, as the French would say. The references to the city are everywhere, not subtle but natural; we expect them, they are there, and they run through the poems and the book like, dare I say it, the Seine through... you know where.
Always arrive in Paris
on a Sunday afternoon
         the skeleton of this fastened city
         will become your bones
there will be
nowhere to sip café crème
no one to sell you postcards
no statues exchanging cash
         for their eternal striptease
no one knows
but Mona Lisa laughs
when the Louvre is closed
and even the flea market has sold
its final Eiffel Tower of the week
         get ready:
it's just you and these abandoned streets.
(from Arrival)
A vast cast of characters inhabit The Paris Poems, waiting to welcome us in like long-lost friends. America meets Europe is a constant theme, the New World being represented by, amongst others, Jim Morrison and Elvis, Michael Jackson and Marilyn, Ken and Barbie, Hemingway and the omnipresent Paul Newman. The Old World is brought alive by real and fictional personages from all ages, including Marie Antoinette and the Mona Lisa, Louis Vuitton and Agnès B., Victor Hugo's Quazimodo and Edith Piaf, and many more.
This poem
is not about Père-Lachaise
         Jim´s final sleeping place
there are too many other poets
trying to rhyme Lizard King
         with anything.
(from Jim Morrison at the Place des Vosges)
The more I delve into The Paris Poems, the more I feel justified in my rather over the top introduction to this piece. She is not taking us to the superficially beautiful Paris of our imaginations; in fact she is leading us into an emotional world of confoundedness and turmoil, created by the connundrum that makes up this perplexing and unsettling city. She doesn't deny the beauty nor the enchantment, but this is not at the core of her work. It is more the effect of these perceived ideals on the human condition that intrigues and drives Suzanne, I feel.
Now there is graffiti on the right
         at the bottom stair
a bracelet man of Sacré Coeur
bullies thread around my wrist
braiding my life to his
the saints and suckers
switching places with each knot.
(from Montmartre Snapshot)
Nevertheless, reading these verses is a moving and paradoxically uplifting experience, and will often tease a sly smile from the corner of your mouth. Suzanne's favourite piece is Paris Can Never Be Our Poem, she says, because it was the first one she wrote about strolling along the Seine. "You are so lucky to live there," she sighs, and this myth of a city comes drifting through her words in a way that anyone who has ever fallen under the spell can understand and appreciate. She may well believe me to be lucky, but through her words I hear someone who has captured, in an intensely personal way, much of what this place is about, in a way that makes my camera eye weep.
Paris can never be our poem
it belongs to
Gertrude Stein and Alice B.
Henry and Anaïs
the filaments of a million lights
totemic in the tourists' eyes
         it's an ailment to mythologize
         this European host
its allure
a history of beheadings mixed
with Champagne toasts floating
in a boat down the River Seine
(from Paris Can Never Be Our Poem)
For some of us, Paris can be our poem and, living it, to see someone writing about these streets in this way brings both a slight tug to the throat along with a renewed desire to truly appreciate it all the more, if only for those who would like to be here but can't be.

© 2011 Sab Will / Paris Set Me Free - Contact me directly with suggestions, questions and requests, thanks.


Lynne Rees said...

There's such a lovely tone and phrasing in these excerpts. They really make me want to read more.

Jean said...

Superb cover photo. Compelling way to demonstrate how dramatic and intriguing the use of backlight can be. The crop above the waist is bold, but this draws the attention very efficiently on the errand and the cobblestones.

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