Friday, 6 May 2016

from Blackwater Quartet, selection 94

The Folies-Bergères, 1879
(after JK Huysmans, from Croquis parisiens)

The usher grins through red moustaches, bonhomie
and guile. A veteran of this place— amputee
survivor of whore
politicos, war
with Prussia in the fodder infantry—

he pegs past boot-blacks, touts and hawkers, to the stalls
of crowds, the gas-light spatter on the mirrored walls
of circumspective
images: the spiv
with blue-smudged eyes and brilliantine, the scrawls

of feathered hats, of carpet dust though cigar haze,
the looks inviting looks, reflections through the maze
of petticoat foam,
brass, the torch-lit gnome
above the pit, the band that plays and plays.

The maestro hunkers over horns, taps time. Effete,
striking the baton to a beer-pump, polka beat,
he squints, his pince-nez
overlooked, the sway
to each refrain a nonchalant conceit.

What is worse, fools in vice, or virtue with a fool’s
convictions? The prostitutes go by, trains and tulles
immaculate, face
to face, sateen grace
of belly, back, and thigh, chignons in jewels;

in the playbill, piano hire adverts, palmists,
the future in coffee grounds, sou’s-worth hypnotists,
domestic milieu
in exploded view:
in extremis. A waltz of Liszt’s

at circus tempo revs the crowd. An English tar
shouts, “All right!” above the orchestra, a patois
the others mimic,
laughing. The gimmick
drapes part. Two figures step through peau-de-soie.

Across the stage, a net, hauled into place by red-
cuffed navvies, jangles on copper ringlets, knotted
at balcony height
between the droplight
chandeliers. The floods focus overhead.

The woman bounce-walks the net, climbs to her trapeze,
and waits. The man pulls at his waxed moustache, and frees
a nearby rope. He
climbs, climbs. Balcony
crowds catcall. He hangs, upside down, his knees

twist-locked as he swings, and traces a pendulum
arc through air. The music stops. The woman, a drum
roll behind her, snags
the curving path, sags
caught, hands to heels, then falls into the scrum

of cymbals, cheers, and rapping canes. The ovations
draw her from the net, standing in indigo, puns
of pigtail sulphur.
The dull light marks her
profile, the sweat bead as it plumps and runs.

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