Simone de Montmartre

…..

For Francis Carco

…..
I

…..
A light has flowered
in the shadows of Rue des Saules
like a daisy
on the corner of Rue de Mont-Cenis
Is it a neon advertisement in agony?
The mouth of a metro where, beneath the earth,
pass, between two short circuits,
the Parisian birds’ silent rounds?
It is Father Brunet’s lantern
And the man pisses against the palisade
where the heart, arrow-pierced
gives a glimpse of his destiny that ends at the point of a switchblade.

Brunet was a plumber with seven children
before his service in the Colonials
in the Oursine Reserve,(1) in 1914.
Now he is a taxi driver
and at night, he prowls on foot, near the marital home
for reasons that belong to the night.
He clings to his memories
because he can’t find anything better.

“Ask:  Beneath the Bridges of Paris
………….Marjolaine
………….La Mariolle

THEY SELL IT FOR TEN CENTIMES!”

A crippled accordionist
Lends a literary quality to his memories.
The night is still drenched in faded light
Below, a dynamo hums
With a Cossack spirit from Kuban
a threadbare tcherkesska,
boots marked by sadness…
And that song that runs along the wires of the telegraph…(2)

Brunet has taken up his lantern once more.
He returns home still drunk.
A toy fox terrier in the shadows stirs
a melodramatic rubbish bin
where images fallen into obsolescence
are hardly worth a bone to gnaw on.

*

On the corner of Rue des Saules
the supple and fragile silhouette of Simone
has off-handedly set out into the night,
alone in the middle of the humid walk
delicately watched over by the streetlights
placed like policemen above the melee…
the “cops” of the moral police,
at two in the morning, in the hoarse song of the dawn!…
The young woman has her hair cut
and curled like that of the Shulamite.
Her black felt cloche is pulled down like a helmet.
She walks, and behind her
she carries with her the night, the odor of cabbage from the suburbs,
the sinister streets of an evening of memorable plague.
In the photogenic angle of the street corners
On the watch for a nocturnal attack with legs steeled.
Mademoiselle Simone fears nothing
for she has friends
who momentarily prevent her from the slightest bit of dying
at least in that manner.

…………“Ask…ten centimes…

…………There’s Maria
…………
the Panther of the Batignolles…”

Place Pigalle, garden of tamed lights
the women, eyes lit by advertisements
run on the carousels as mice from disaster.
A fabulous armada casts off
through the frames of galvanized iron.
Above the luminous bubble
which shows the exact place where the night
ceases its self-perversion,
paradise lights and extinguishes its neon sign.
A flat-assed porter, his hair up in wings
sells “dope” to the saints of past days
whose white robes reek of the Directoire harp and lavender
and of the plebeian’s sweat of the great Latin circuses.
The party cannot, given the current state of science,
climb any higher than theological paradise
where the highest of thoughts
comes to burst like a bubble and flourishes
like a Hawaiian guitar chord.
Place Pigalle snores like a woodstove where a little bit of everything is burning.
Sensitive heads feel a rifle burst on the nape of the neck
but the plaster pipe falls no further
with its jangle of silver.
A phonograph with the voice of a priest
sings Now and Then for the initiates.
Black caravans hide the rolled up skirts of a child.
And the mother surveys the shadows, her face anxious,
hands on her umbrella, eyes on the drawers of her child
in the golden stream that snakes between two cars
all the way to Place Pigalle
Which a conquering flame devours a night at a time.

Simone has paid for her spot.
She climbs like a leopard up onto the rearing carousel
Her two legs sheathed in cream silk
dangle the length of a unicorn’s flanks
A clown lost in the crowd
gives his hand to an officer.
Simone is white like a clown.
She pulls from her handbag
A cigarette which she lights.
She throws the match away
and from her nose releases the smoke
Which climbs into the sky with the others.
Simone full of enthusiasm
lifts an arm towards the sky, waves a hand
and, like the young whistle of a factory, at dawn
she amicably greets her little girlfriends.

II

…..
The crow, behind a tree
at the entrance of a seedy copse
plays poker dice alone.
He surveys the road
with a vicious eye, the fields and the river.
Thus Georges, Simone’s lover,
the tip of his nose livid, pressed against the window of the “Electric Bar”
softly shakes the dice in his left hand
and distorts his mouth melancholically.
He too surveys the inestimable chance that files
…………between the trams and the taxis like a woolen puppet
…………with a plain face.

Behind the windows, Rue Lepic is peopled
by a crowd slow of gesture
fish in a somewhat dim aquarium.
The shadows of the passing men and women
grow and disappear
and are swallowed up all at once
right and left
by the nocturnal halls of the ‘Electric Bar’.
By the bar a mulatto in a gray cap
plays the banjo
and inspects his strangler’s fingers with care.
Georges has pulled out a cigarette
and looks mechanically
into the wonders of his soul,
as the eye plunges into a bowl of goldfish
seen from a ways above.
He makes out a washstand
where last evening’s charcuterie grows iridescent under the poor light;
three dance tunes whose names he ought to know
the face of a famous friend
Simone’s old laundry, in a bitter bundle, in the night table
and Fernand, from Auvergne, the chamber boy
who lends money and sells tainted “snow”
to buy land in the Nièvre
and to retake, in his turn, the hotel from its owners.
These images, Georges leafs through them each night
at the same hour.
He had tried hard to learn English
but these everyday images are his daily bread.
He lives above the fishbowl full of little lights
where Simone turns, in circles, like a crucian.
This young woman moves her lips against the crystal walls.
And that is the picture of the Montmartre night
as George turns his too beautiful eyes towards the street.

*

“I’ve seen your wife,” says Leon the Marseillais.
“Ah?” says Georges, raising his eyebrows.
“She’s at the Olympia, with some American sailors…”
“Leon, if you’ve nothing to do,
I’d like it if you came along with me.
I feel uneasy, suddenly, for Simone.”
“I was going to suggest it, my friend,
And, if you like, we’ll go and get Battling Paulo
Who is refereeing this evening at the Wagram.”

They have closed the door behind them
and stare a moment at their preoccupied silhouettes
reflected in the green glow of a forensic pharmacist’s bowl
……………………..open ALL night
Hands jammed in their pockets,
playing negligently with the sweat-rusted Browning,
Leon and Georges crossed
the multihued gases of the Montmartre festivities.
From afar, Place Pigalle smokes like the Fort de Souville hammered by 420 mm shells
…………slamming into the earth
and spreading their green carnival ride smoke.
Up from the Rochechouart sector
where the party rages and whistles
in the no-man’s land of Carrefour Drouot
Leon and Georges go alone into the clamorous night
both preoccupied by this lukewarm night’s outcome
for the blood is already at street temperature.
The mauve glow of an arc lamp
momentarily lights up Leon’s face
where the cocaine makes its swollen arrogant blister
a humorous glint in one eye
and in the other all criminal possibilities.
Georges, mouth open and yielding,
cigarette dried to his lip,
cautiously grips his professional courage
in the pocket of his coat.

*

All the luxury of man: lingerie, hosiery
lies in windows lit by the reflection of the boulevard
behind grills of iron.
And the scent of the day from the elegant boutiques
is halted, now, before their doors,
like a faithful pup beside his master.
The scent of the luxury shops is in the street.
It will go back inside with the first shop girl in black
awaited by the cashier who taps the time on the watch in his waistcoat.
Leon and Georges pass alongside the café terraces
– already the chairs are in stacks –
A winged queer strolls along the boulevard
His myopic eyes search for a furtive look
He notices the pair and dissolves into the night.
But Georges and Leon rummaged through the shadows
where the featherbrain’s teeth chatter.
“Clear off,” says Leon.
The traditional gleam shines in their eyes,
They are both ready for combat
and already they calculate their odds
for that moment when the bell will ring to dance, quietly enough,
beneath the moon, around the sobered sailor.
They enter the tavern
which, all warm, red and gold,
swarming with a strange larval life,
resembles, upon entering, an open belly
searched by flashlight.

“You’re looking for your woman,” said Marie the Flamande.
“She left with an American
for dinner… She said you would know where…”
“Thanks,” said Georges.

A jazz band, drop by drop
let a fox trot seep out, so romantic
that Marie put her hands on Georges’ shoulders
and, for two seconds, flowered like a delicate, leaning rose.
“Off we go,” said Leon.

They re-crossed the deserted roads towards the Butte
But this time, they ran as if they were agents.
They arrived at Place Pigalle, and stopped to catch their breath.
The party was dead
and smoked, now, like the wick of an old burnt-out candle.
The wind swept the plane tree leaves
under the sleeping caravans.
And all you could see was bared ground
the gray asphalt, extraordinarily drowned in piss.

III

…..
On the band of his cap sparkled letters of gold;
A blond lock fell between his eyes.
He wobbled seriously as he walked
his legs at ease
in his blue bell-bottomed pants.
And with his hands in the pockets of his marine’s jacket
large black buttons
he looked down from his Antinous-the-gunner head
upon the lost young girls of the Olympia.
They chattered about him like magpies at the break of day,
and they called him, by his name: Herbert Barreta.
He lived in the #1 turret
of the battle cruiser: Washington
next to the greasy rags of the 15-inch
and in the soft sliding hum of the enslaved electricity,
the insidious movement of the turret
turning like a gramophone record
a record turning on slow speed.

Simone was monopolizing him as best as her small stature allowed
and as well as she could, explained to the others,
“He says he wants more to drink…”
Herbert’s clumsy hands wandered all over the girls.
“Oh!” let out Simone, with a charming pout
“Not nice, Herbert! Oh… Not nice!”
The sailor chuckled, his back against a column
with the attitude of a brevetted gunner.
He was alone in this foreign storm
alone in an extraordinary country
where a simple sailor could afford anything.
He never took any change back
and he got drunk on the bliss
of throwing away, come as it may,
those dollars harshly earned among the sharp trills of navy whistles,
in that military machine
launched onto the salt water after a thousand precautions.

*

His blond head and his flat cap,
sitting to the side like a dish
towered over the small swarm of ladies of the night.
Simone brought him back towards her
with the cautious movement of a pauper
who clutches a scarf to her chest.
She drew him away from her friends,
piloted him towards the exit,
made him understand that she was his woman,
half-sincere, in spite of the subtleties of her profession.
All this because of her friends,
envious and yammering.
The two of them made their way towards Montmartre
and saw before the door of a sparkling hotel
a group of sailors talking with some women,
as photogenic as the “stars” of Los Angeles.
Herbert raised his arms to the sky
“Come,” ordered Simone.
She was tapping her foot with a somewhat determined look
and, motioning to her mouth with a finger,
she pretended to eat, to attract Barreta
who pulled away from the group
much like a dinghy frees itself with help from a boathook.

*

Herbert went forth with great strides
And Simone trotted along at his side
quietly as a mouse in the ruins
en route for ‘the business’ so maligned,
and the black arteries of exsanguinated Paris.

IV

…..
On the corner of Rue des Saules
sat a little cabaret, dilapidated
and dismembered.
From the cracks in the roof
escaped the old smoke of pipes and cigars;
a large, bare table seemed to await
in front of the door
the permanently laid out body of Herbert Barreta

Simone knocked on the closed door.
Herbert wavered near the acacia.
“Everything is closed,” said the girl, “come to my place.”
She removed her cloche and shook her short hair.
Barreta silent was putting into motion a practical idea
born of early morning, alcohol and regret
for having spent too much money on the girls and on Simone.
Simone head bare seemed to him a beautiful treasure
entrusted by ancient gentlemen of fortune
– faces red and wrinkled –
to the black and blue décor of a tropical and nocturnal island
of which nothing more remained than the fabric of a shawl.
He stretched out his hand towards the girl’s bag
a hand alive and nameless
a hand that glowed with a life of its own
and no longer belonged to Barreta
Battling Barreta to the sailors.
The hand flowered before Simone’s face
like a livid octopus, slow to move…
Simone understood all of a sudden
that a staggering and secret activity
would tense up the four fingers with their chewed nails
and the thumb, that obese commodore.
She was already opening her mouth before that hand
stretched out in the night like an amorous larva
when the ground resonated, like the warped skin of a drum
for Georges had found his woman.

And the action was but a game of quick eclipses
an enchanted quadrille of dancing assassins,
of shadows with stretched chests
with little mischievous legs
projecting an unreliable performance of this tragedy
onto the house at the corner of the street.
A thin jet of fire and the crack of pyroxyle powder
dispersed the shadows of this rubber murder.
Simone, hat in hand,
ran like the Athenian Victoria;
on the other side of the street, Georges and his pal
fled in a race without boundaries.

The sailor collapsed in the shadows breathed no more.
His blond hair gleamed beneath the moon
and his large feet, toes turned skyward,
revealed death, so quickly
and so in conformity with the laws of the picturesque.

The brick church was heard
ringing four o’clock in the morning
inopportunely.
This clock that understood nothing of the situation
Chose an unbelievable time to let loose its bells
And when it was finished
the wind blew among the lindens of Saint-Vincent cemetery
a long sigh of relief
for the dead and for the living.

…..

*             *             *

…..

As I was in no mood,(3) one rainy morning,
for all human eccentricities
a friend showed me a photograph:
that of a woman naked and dead
stretched out on a hotel bed
beside a man clothed and dead
who, seen on that smaller scale, resembled a stiffened seal.
Simone hadn’t changed her hairstyle;
her cloche rested on the mantle
beside a golden pendulum clock without hands.
Simone was unquestionably dead next to her friend.

They had committed suicide to the sound of the phonograph in the neighboring house:
………….Some suny day… Swaa-nie… Elenor!…
And on the bare belly of the woman,
before dying,
in a supreme evocation of the Month of Mary,
the man had written, a finger dipped in the ink,
these words:

…………………………Pray for us!

*

This photograph came from a remote police station.
Passed from hand to hand, it wound up in mine
And the ridiculous and demoralizing image
I have kept it in my memory
up until the day I decided to write this story,
to have it printed and to reread it later on
with eyes that will no longer be mine own
but the eyes of an impervious wanderer
sitting at dusk on the guardroom bench
at the gates of Paradise.

(February 1924)

_______________________________________

(1) Variant: the Lourcine Reserve regiment

(2) Variant: the cables of the tramway

(3) Variant: rather intolerant towards

Bios

Pierre Mac Orlan

Pierre Mac Orlan (born Pierre Dumarchey; 1882-1970) was a French novelist, poet, and songwriter. Mac Orlan spent the years that straddled the new century in Montmartre and Rouen, befriending the likes of Guillaume Apollinaire and his crowd. Author of over 75 works of fiction and nonfiction, Mac Orlan is perhaps best known as the author of Le Quai des Brumes (1927), filmed by Marcel Carné in 1938. From books of adventure to tales of the down-and-out in Paris, songs sung by Juliette Gréco and Monique Morelli, erotica, journalism, essays on army men, pirates and Toulouse-Lautrec, Mac Orlan’s literary career was as varied as his output was vast. The selection featured here, “Simone de Montmartre,” was originally published along with another narrative poem, “L’Inflation Sentimentale,” in 1924 by Gallimard.

Chris Clarke

Chris Clarke was born in Western Canada in 1976. He studies French literature and translation studies in New York City. His translations include work by Raymond Queneau (forthcoming) and Eric Chevillard (in progress).

First published as "Simone de Montmartre suivi de L'Inflation sentimentale" by Gallimard/N.R.F. in 1924. Current copyright under the title "Poésies documentaires complètes," Gallimard (Poésies), c. 1954 (1982). English translation copyright (c) Chris Clarke, 2012.