on orphic paris

American poet Henri Cole’s memoir of his life in Paris hybridizes text and image, poetry and prose, in order to paint a vivid and moving portrait of the city.

A series of seventeen short personal essays, Orphic Paris alternates between studying the seasonal happenings of the city, recounting the history of its art and literature, and considering the author’s personal connection to it. The essays of the 175-page book, published this year by the New York Book Review, first appeared in The New Yorker‘s Page-Turner section throughout the Obama years, under the title Street of the Iron Po(e)t. Each essay places meditations on poetics and philosophy against the backdrop of Cole’s daily life in the city, all the while gesturing toward the city’s intellectual triumphs and cultural achievements. A discussion of the history of La Grande Roue, the big wheel, in the Place de la Concorde gives way to reflections upon meandering the Louvre with Jenny Holzer; a visit to Susan Sontag’s grave precipitates a critique of the ostensible link between suffering and sensitivity; a hazy memory of maternal separation as a child in the city follows an analysis of Marc Chagall’s ceiling mural at the Paris Opera House.

I do not want to say goodbye. Come back, I cry, though I know she cannot. “Remember to put more commas and semicolons in your life,” Mother says. And I tell her I will. “Remember to reveal the soul’s capacity for compassion, sacrifice, and endurance,” she says, and I promise to strive to do this. Then she disappears, like smoke from a train, or oblong rain clouds. (153)

Interspersed throughout the essays are black-and-white photographs and lines from the work of famous poets. The poems and photos tend to function as illustration of the main text, reinforcing its argument without complicating it, but many of them are so aptly selected that they still leave a powerful impact. While the photos initially appeared in full color in The New Yorker, their altered form fits well Cole’s muted style of writing: these essays are nothing if not tranquil, even when recounting moments of great pain.

On her deathbed, Mother told me that she had been lonely all her life. Her twin died at birth. She lived through poverty and war. Her first baby died. Her husband left her. She worked hard but never seemed content. She had chronic back pain and became addicted to painkillers, which led to a mental break and suicide attempt, forcing her to be hospitalized. Still, she had a sense of humor and we laughed often when we were together. (35)

Time and time again Cole returns to certain topics, from his mother to his friend James Lord, his lover Octave to his poetic idol Baudelaire. The repetition lends the book a cyclical quality, while its impressionistic focus strips it of any claim to a cohesive thesis; the logic at work here is associative and unconcerned with linearity.  While the style sometimes can read as a bit scattered, Cole at his best is entrancing and tender: his work is memorable not for its complexity of thought but for its sensitivity of style.

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