Monday, 26 October 2009

Lartigue: Bichonnade

- that we may wonder all over again what is veritable and inevitable and possible and what is to become whoever we may be - Diane Arbus

The Mystic Barber teleports himself to Mars. Another carries
a noose and a rose wherever he goes. A third collects string
for twenty years. A fourth is a disinherited king,
the Emperor of Byzantium. A fifth ferries
the soul of the dead across the Acheron. There's a certain abandon
in asking, Can I come home with you?

like a girl who is well brought up, as she was, in a fashion,
who seems to trust everyone and is just a little crazy,
just enough to be charming, who walks between fantasy
and betrayal and makes of this a kind of profession.
It takes courage to destroy the ledge you stand on,
to sit on the branch you saw through

or to fly down the stairs like Lartigue's Bichonnade
while the balustrade marches sturdily upward, and laughter
bubbles through the mouth like air through water,
and the light whistles by, unstoppable, hard
and joyful, though there is nothing to land on
but the flying itself, the flying perfect and new.

(from Blind Field, OUP 1994)

That is Bichonnade in the photograph, that is the balustrade marching sturdily upward, there's the laughter, the light that whistles by, unstoppable, hard and joyful, and there is the flying itself, perfect and new. I wrote this as a set of four Diane Arbus poems, after I had read a biography of Arbus. So the Mystic Barber who teleports himself to Mars, the man who carries a noose and a rose and the man who collects string are all in Arbus's real life: they are some of the outsiders she followed and gathered in. As for the disinherited King of Byzantium and the character who thinks he is Charon, I made them up, thinking, why not? It is however Arbus who politely asked the outsiders if she could come home with them, who was well brought up and charming and, surely, a little mad; Arbus who destroyed the ledge she stood on in killing herself.

Each of the four poems carried an epigraph from Arbus, who could certainly think and write and said some wonderful things about photography that are just as true of poetry. I sometimes imagined Arbus as my own photographer mother, with the same penchant for standing on edges and destroying them.

The photograph above is not by Arbus but by Jacques-Henri Lartigue, whose life was as different from Arbus's as it was from mine, or, I dare say, yours, reader. It was not wealth that separated Lartigue from Arbus since Arbus (maiden name Diane Nemerov) also came from a rich family - a family of furriers - and was the sister of the excellent and underrated American poet, Howard Nemerov. The difference between Lartigue and Arbus is the differencce between light and dark, both of which are true states. Lartigue offers an overflow of delight. His family does crazy, playful things. They play straight in funny clothes, in new fangled, not quite domesticated machines, all the time killing themselves laughing. We could play it stern with them. We could disapprove of the Lartigue tendency to frou-frou and high spirits, but we know the sternness would turn us into killjoys. Exhilaration has something of innocence about it, and Bichonnade leaping down all those stairs for a dare is simply an object moving through space, a laughing respectable human object weighing as much as any other human being. And it is such a simple thing leaping down stairs, you don't have to be rich to do it. You can wear anything you like and the stairs can be any size, shape or colour. Classical balustrades are not obligatory.

So she flies down the stairs in the same way as Arbus asks to follow home the man with the tattooed face or the nightclub performer who could smoke cigars through his eyes (he existed, he's documented in the Arbus biography). They both take a leap.

I like the leap. At least I like to imagine the leap and land among words. Some time after Bichonnade appeared in the TLS, Anthony Thwaite said to me: I have just noticed that the last two lines of each verse rhyme with each other: abandon / stand on land on, you / through / new etc. Well, yes. The rhymes are, I suppose, a kind of leap between stanzas.

Both Arbus and Lartigue fill me with the welcome strangeness of being alive and moving through the world. One moves through both dark and light. It is inevitable.


Mark Granier said...

I've always had mixed feelings about Arbus's work, but yes, she can be marvelous. One of my favourite photographs is one of her simplest, a seemingly deadpan portrait of a middle aged man holding his hat as a parade goes by.

George S said...

The doubts about Arbus are perfectly in order, in fact I share them, although I think they are partly doubts about ourselves. It is a question of propriety, isn't it? The propriety of positing someone as the opposite of 'normal'.

Yes, but one could argue that the people she photographed actually existed in precisely the circumstances in which she shows them, and that otherwise they might have gone unrecorded.

'Those with two heads know something you don't' she wrote. It is, I suspect, as much about knowledge as propriety: knowledge, that is, of below and beyond.

I used the two heads line above as the epigraph for one of the Arbus poems. It seemed to me key.

dana said...

Lovely. Thank you.