I had a crush on the navy.
Two officers made their annual
visit to my fourth form
excited the class
with high deeds westward ho
starboard ahead until
the Rear Admiral said, ‘Girls
can’t become naval officers
but you can wear a uniform
and work in the office.’
I abandoned the sea for the harbours
of art history, and in a darkened lecture
theatre in 1989 Gertrude Stein peered
at me from her portrait by Picasso.
Somewhere outside the frame
Natalie Barney served tea to Baronesses
of the Empire, lady cousins of czars,
illegitimate daughters of grand dukes
and aged horse women of the Austrian
aristocracy, in high collars and monocles
and Sylvia Beach opened the doors to
Shakespeare and Co. and another day’s
trading. Women suddenly populated
the world. And in the privacy of
art history lectures we held hands.
In the menswear shop
with eggshell blue walls,
I admire an exhibition
of moustaches attached
to postcards. The Spanish
say a man without a moustache
is like an egg without salt.
What would they make
of Alice Babette Toklas’
moustache, the most often
recalled upper lip of
the Parisian nineteen twenties.
In the photograph Alice strokes it
at her typewriter. In the next one
she rubs her gypsy nose. Gila
could pass for Alice. She took
her handsome moustache
to Sydney in the mid nineteen
nineties where it oversees
her career as a maker
The dark suited young man
in the eggshell blue shop
boxes up a moustache for me
and bows at the waist
with a nod to the belle époque
At some point words stopped
collaborating with rules.
They organised themselves
into new grammars. In 1900
a girl in a suit could find herself
at the door to a cellar bar or in the cells
for the night. Words waited with
the gendarmes to ambush her—
clothes were a matter for the law.
Yet surprise keeps us young,
Colette would write. For her,
clothes were better off, better
just off. Natalie Barney abhorred
cross-dressing. ‘Why try to resemble
our enemies’ her nasal voice
would ask. Radclyffe Hall or John
as she preferred, always sported
a monocle. The Marquise de Belbeuf
(Uncle Max to her friends) dressed
as Napoleon and Gertrude Stein
looked some days like a Roman
emperor. At Pacifica Day in Waitangi
Park the fa‘afafine in the fringes sang
‘We are family’ and most Saturday
nights you can see Ribena lip synch
at Mal and Scotties in her enormous
‘Let us pray’. In the grey Sunday
mornings of my childhood
Catholic priests sparkled
in golden frocks.
Courtenay Place is full of itself.
My phone buzzes. ‘I’m at the Velvet Club.
Come quick—there’s a kissing couch.’
I walk through the Place like I’m in the woods
of the Bologne. Laddered tights squawk
from doorways. I’m striding from Nicolini’s
to the Mermaid Bar. Girls leaflet the opera
crowd [nice work if you can get it …]
Sugo the Juggler closes his eyes.
Like I’m off to make a conquest in carriage.
How long does a conquest take?
I’m not good at waiting. Will her
smile be as lovely as yours.
Natalie Barney loved women—
who doesn’t? One wide tree-lined
afternoon in the Bois de Bologne
a woman of glowing beauty
passed by. Who was she?
‘Liane de Pougy’ the trees whispered.
By the 1920s Liane had swapped
her clients for an exiled prince,
sequins for an apron and
a chopping knife. Her cooking
would be informed by the oldest
profession in its generosity
and philosophy. ‘Tapioca’ she wrote
‘is a beggar that slowly thickens
on the side of the stove. But a soufflé
is a cardinal who must be waited on,
admired and welcomed.’ There
was asparagus soup and risotto
for her friend who’d pleaded
to be cooked for. And joy over
the flower vendor who became
a famous singer and the shepherd
who became an artist. Natalie
appeared at her door as a page.
There would be more writing
—about their affair, and the truffles
cooked in the brown casserole
stewed for two hours over a low
heat with ham, a fillet of beef,
vegetable stock, good white wine
and rashers of bacon. Even her
shopping lists made a good story.
Not to forget the play at the Moulin Rouge in 1907.
The Marquise de Belboeuf is an Egyptian mummy
awoken from eternal sleep by the lips of her lover Colette.
Some kiss. Do you snore in eternal sleep? But I digress.
There was an uproar. Someone called the gendarmes.
Colette and the Marquise fled out the backstage door.
Caution and the wind would later be considered.
And this in the city that called itself tolerant.
Renee Vivien’s drapes were always closed.
In the dimness she wrote another city, a city
of women, an island. Later Colette would discover
the diaries of Lady Eleanor Butler describing life
in the Welsh countryside with Miss Sarah Ponsonby.
There’s the province of fact and the state of fiction.
I write the word homotopia.
How we laughed—
you were sentimental,
odd, a bit intense,
too Athenian, languid.
Or your mother had always
wanted a girl or was it a boy
(she never knew whether she was
Arthur or Martha)? And there
was the brick you were always
on the verge of dropping.
Waxy brown parcels tied with string
are delivered and collected from the house.
Tea and molasses, tubes of haemorrhoid cream
and lozenges go to Italy for Romaine Brookes. A scarf pin
and brocade handbag stuffed with ten pound notes
to England for Dolly Wilde and her rehab. Death comes
to the Archbishop and The Glass Harp are on order.
Katherine Mansfield’s Letters arrived today.
They say you are the heroine of all
the outstanding books this season
The women of the Left Bank
hide in bookshops and library stacks
excite my fingertips with their smudged
spines, intoxicate with sinuous bibliographies
and heady references. They are cited
in documentaries, plays, films and web pages
for the Jewish Museum. My search results
are seldom disappointing, often mixed
with bed bugs and thick rubber condoms,
anxiety and the tedium of so many buttons.
My Left Bank bounces with nouns and verbs
elation and pain, the stride and newness
of trousers and the notion that grammar
is derived from glamour.