LOUISE FROM MEMORY

 

This poem was written by Craig Keller in 2007, and originally appeared in The Masters of Cinema Series DVD release of Diary of a Lost Girl. Copyright 2009 Craig Keller. Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author.

In memoriam Nika Bohinc / Alexis Tioseco.

She was an original but

One does not discover her.

She came to my attention

— That’s how it’s called —

By way of another’s homage,

And later I learnt of the

Itinerant nicknames attached

To each mention of her lore —

The “Brooksie” and the “Lulu” that announce her as

Anyone’s good-time girl,

Such that she arrives already-known,

Prix fixe, thirty-secondhand

Intimate. No, even before I saw

The films, I knew the names would not do,

Because I had seen the photographs,

And collective myth does not become her.

(The face that imparts a need

For more quiet-time than the suitors

Could likely conceive . . . ) —

The photographs become her,

They seem enough like the mirror;

And it would be concise, I think,

For two or three to remain

In place of the films,

As the photos attest to imperative silence

And exist on a private scale

Apart from Democracy and En-Masse.

To spin one of these images

Wrongside-up with the fingertips

As though guiding the ouija planchette

And to peer, then, into the eyes —

That is to discover. There lie

Invocation and hazard and dare,

All the coalescings that

Forestall caricature at essence

And figure the life as lived,

L-O-U-I-S-E at last.

----


Louise Brooks was born in Kansas

With a forename-surname pair

Dignified and regal as Gwendolyn Brooks,

Another Kansan name with a rich ring

That conjures the fiction

Signed “George Eliot”

(To Louise so familiar, I do not doubt).

But what do they indicate, names like these,

To the ample corps of the nation’s interior,

The women who sit at cafés

Outside of the major metropoleis,

Or scan the aisles, or make engagements,

Coming, going, knowing nothing

Of women like Louise Brooks,

Maybe because . . . . Maybe because —

All I can say for certain, since the States are my home, is

Municipalities branch, at some point,

Off of the polis, are at their utmost

Wary of this “cultivation of the self.”

Brooks is free American hypothesis,

(America itself hypothesis),

And many exemplars of many designs preside,

Equal in that they preside,

None in their boldness presuming,

Yet all calling for polis again, —

And to speak of Louise Brooks

Is to speak of a certain lost accent

Lateral to that of the Beales,

Of girls’-schools and French-tutors and

Piano-lessons in the home,

Dizzying-games and concussive tumbles of

Those wind-hewn few who in class pull

Sort of middling marks,

And after, dance with their sisters,

Crowd round Zelda and Ella and Scott in the parlour,

Destroyers of sheepishness

In young women given to bloom,

— To speak, distinctly, of

A civics of the soul,

The stately riposte to

The Methodist, Presbyterian,

Baptist and Episcopal pot-lucks

And prescriptions and dicta.

It’s the staging of a twilit playlet,

Eloquent answers to Bengal-lancers,

Tilting the head to take in magnolia, linden, and every scent at stake;

It’s the priming for exile of

The one who, in living, says,

“Philomath is where I’ve been.”

 

----

 


By ‘27, those locks were already

Razor-sharp, attracted the attention of

Hawks — Howard, and the others

To whom “one thing” always leads,

And, next thing, Louise was shuttling off with trunks,

Leaving behind those evenings

Trapped in chambers by drunks

For other drunks, financiers and heirlings

In Berlin — all of course by circumstance.

Her business was Pabst, who had

In the near past launched Garbo to fame.

But when Pabst would ask Brooks to dance

Five or six times in front of the lens

Across the following months,

He found himself “extracting” —

From all the moments he’d imagined or

Witnessed his star enacting

In the taverns and districts

Two years before Ellington’s

“Mood Indigo.” And here in the present was Pabst,

All indigestion and cough-drops,

Having to contend with the distracted child.

So he braced himself, became the barest

Of disciplinarians, grumbling this or that to

Louise, that she’s too beautiful to damn herself

To this particular side of the Straße;

Meanwhile taking the chance

(And a risk, make no mistake) to

Harness via defiant Louise

The Twenties’ grand aptitude

For facilitating fiction,

(Note this as the decade

When no setting in cinema,

No matter how fantastical,

Looked fake — looked, instead,

See Nosferatu or Der Golem,

Like magic) — his “Lulu” a retrieval bird

Returning with wings singed.

Pabst, having a world to project,

With this world inside Brooks and Brooks in the world,

Bit down on his cheek and — not exactly acquiescing —

Contemplated in cinema terms

The phrase from Fitzgerald that locates in

Germany, and so, necessarily, in Pabst,

“The direction of tremendous licentious force.”

Not even a whole year passed

And Pabst had calibrated two films

To Louise (and Louise to the films).

The first, Die Büchse der Pandora, or Pandora’s

Box, establishes the pattern of

Diffracting Brooks into three or four

Stations, identities — like flashes in glass that

Breaks into shards. The last reel, in fact,

Recasts the light into numens

To ready drifting Lulu for death.

— “Lulu”-the-role, that is, as inhabited by Brooks,

Reincarnated in “Thymian” for Diary of a

Lost Girl (Tagebuch einer Verlorenen

Title unwieldy for Germans too).

Here the lighting is harsher, falling more evenly

Over scenes staged against unscored walls

Shot head-on, bodies the only relief, —

A kind of scrub-planed subtraction, a lessening.

The scenario, Pfennigroman melodrama,

Parallels the spatial scheme, and

Together they form the armature, or rood, of

The new incarnation, still the same body,

And I have the sense of willed re-enactment,

That Pabst, in moving Brooks once more through

Stations of “whore,” “damaged goods,” “pitiable savior,”

Activates analysis, initiates mimesis, is

Scouring symptoms for the childhood trauma that

Once located and “worked” can begin to heal.

But who can ever know a life, after all,

A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleur.

(How fitting was “Rosebud,” when Welles

Named the sleigh.) Maybe it takes the

Genial bearing of the good doctor

To diagnose on-screen what x-rays do not reach.

An ashenness, in the films of Papa Pabst —

He could smell death, yet he chose

Not to turn away or resist. Countenance

The impulses of the family man,

The host of the jocund front-room,

Big in bulk, fully flanked,

Arteries hardening before — suddenly, —

Sexual lust, rational wife,

Children who in later years

Still cannot acknowledge one turn of

Papa’s mind . . . that the double

Chin and belly hillock could conspire

Toward a forward force that might have

Broken headboards. — An obscure business,

The arts. And in his Diary, Pabst records Brooks

Both as being, and not being,

“There.” Sometimes his camera looks right past her,

The girl who needs attention and has learned to live without it,

To forage and scrap for substitutes, folderol.

It’s really a statement about freedom,

This decentering,

This filming of capitulations, of a human being

Who attempts connections, who premonitors

Rejection, such that when it plays out

She is ready, cool, able herself to adopt an

Anthropological view.

(Was it Godard who said the ultimate movie

Will come when the camera,

Aimed at a mirror, films itself?) This is why one is moved to

Watch Louise in slow-motion:

The presence of an intelligence beyond oblivion,

A ratiocination, a searching that pervades the smile

Similar to that of Dita Parlo

Advanced by “step”

On discs of L’Atalante or The Grand Illusion. —

O nation-states and histories, that such lives could

Always be in abundance.

 

----

 

Before Xanax, Zoloft, Lithium,

Louise, acope, was determined

To make an impression. One sees as much in

The mass-produced production-still

From Pandora’s Box: she’s lifting a mourning veil,

And in so doing tells of Death and its thresholds;

Is so like a spider at work on its web

Or, cornered, rearing up to attack —

Is complicit with Pabst who helps destroy her,

Brings her back, in three films total

And one photo-shoot booked at the start

That proves with emulsion the death-shroud of Turin.

Brooks dreamt what freedom might be, while

Pabst had his notions of what freedom was.

Fate draws up for starplayers

Its contracts in advance, and Pabst, knowing what he knew,

Feeling it useless to turn away or resist,

Bestowed upon Brooks the one thing he thought he could:

Eternal resurrection. So even as he pens with Clair

The Prix de beauté script, he ensures an ending that

Will recall the close of Pandora’s Box, and

Open the route to circled return.

But there exists also a fulcrum

Within the middle picture,

Within the middle movement of that film, to be exact;

The prefigurer Pabst places Brooks in a dance

Blitzed asleep from liquor, essentially unconscious,

And her suitor turns her round and round and round

As the formulation recurs.

This film Diary recounts weird spiritualism,

Some presence in that pallid, tranced maneuver of

The second act; while earlier in the first, transmits

An intimation electrickal and cross’d.

To set the scene, backtrack — Brooks pivoting, bare-heeled,

As the voice of Pabst, one day, on-set, intones:

“Louise, meet Sybille,” — three syllables,

To which the American later adds a threadbare sibilance

The first or second time she says it. This name,

In later years, registers as lullaby, or butterfly

That’s shed its specifically Latin descriptor,

When Louise replaces on her nightstand The Gift

Or, bottle in bag, takes a spot on the bank of the Genesee;

Either time, recalling Sybille Schmitz

In off-hand lumina of patience and pain.

Immortalised by Fassbinder in

The Longing of Veronika Voss,

The real Sybille play-drowns in Diary,

Her appearance high-tension tangent

To the fate-line teased out by Pabst for

Thymian’s course. As Elisabeth, Wirtschafterin and mistress

Spurned, disconsolate, Schmitz is hauled to the family,

A body freshly dragged from the river,

And Brooks’ hand accesses the frame,

Draws back the sheet —

She gazes onto the visage vampired of life, and mirroring —

In ‘55, dead; opiate suicide.

 

 

----

 

Close to three decades into my subject’s movie exile,

Godard, who had seen the films of Brooks

At the Cinémathèque as programmed by Langlois,

Related to the world Anna Karina, by then his wife,

And in Vivre sa vie, film en douze tableaux

Gave her Louise’s bob for the role of the whore Nana,

Named after the painting by Manet,

The novel by Zola,

The film by Renoir.

Godard would return to the matter of prostitution and all manifestations thereof

Relentlessly throughout his work,

In Alphaville, in 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her,

In Weekend, in Sauve qui peut (la vie),

And so on. But helmeted Nana in Vivre sa vie

Remains the concentrated portrait of a

Soul both “there” and “not there,”

Fluxed envelopments of the interior life in the exterior,

And vice-versa; Godard puts forth not only an allusion to

Brooks, but also a gesture of accord.

Recall the phrase quoted by André Labarthe to Karina

While she fidgets blank-faced at the pinball machine:

“The hen is an animal made up of an inside and an

Outside. If you take off the outside, there remains the

Inside. If you pull back the inside, then you see the

Soul.” Of course here and elsewhere one recalls

Brooks’ own predicaments in Pabst, and can see that Godard even

Adapts the off-kilter quality of the former’s spatial vision

So that anagrammatic Nana is realized as object, commodity,

Or, in the case of the final shot, refuse, detritus.

 

(The closing downward camera movement, of obscenity and

Grace, eliminates the boundary that separates Out from In,

Camera-brain from subject, so that at the moment the

Apparatus bows its head to mourn the death of Nana,

The film itself dies and comes to an end.)

Godard once said that the history of cinema

Is the history of boys photographing girls; and that

The history of History is the history of boys

Burning girls at the stake. Sometimes I think about the

Tragedy in deliverance, of Nana watching Dreyer’s

Passion of Jeanne of Arc in Godard’s film, and of how the

Same year — ‘62 — saw the premières of Vivre sa vie and

Bresson’s Trial of Jeanne of Arc. And these points remind me,

So much of the sadness in Brooks’ films with Pabst

Helped generate the undercurrent of Godard’s

Lifelong dialogue with Bresson.

What started in Pickpocket was transformed by Vivre sa vie,

Then reconfigured again by Bresson in Au hasard Balthazar and

Mouchette, before being re-resolved by Godard in the

Histoires(s) du cinéma and Eloge de l’amour.

Thus, as though by magic, Martin LaSalle metamorphoses

More than forty years later into street-cabalist,

And the hands that once picked pocketbooks

Now levitate a cigarette which, in a flash, vanishes —

Transubstantiation of the quotidian, that which is “always seen,”

Before a return to the invisible:

This is the power of Cinema.

And when Anna Karina wears a bob cut

Illumined by light from the face of Falconetti —

O, Louise, to reach us at last, what a strange path you had to take.

Such was the life of Louise Brooks;

Sometimes one thing changes into something else.

 

----

----

 

An American adrift in the epoch of Big-Pharma,

A copy of Typee crammed in his back-pocket,

Feels a route down dark halls, rugs acrunch underfoot,

And taps an exit just as he reaches to ignite the candle

Kept in the courier-bag slung hip-side.

Why’s the candle in the bag?

For not many reasons but its scent evokes a season past;

This American is Nietzsche-bound;

And the scope of chaos figures vast.

To sniff at its redolent wax is to

See backwards in time through a lens of apology,

One that can set the minutes aflame like

Spiders descending from ceilings over gas stoves,

Unceasing. Yet in this concentration of time preceding,

The promise or possibility in Future becomes detectable:

An expansion-contraction of life as the dream of art,

A sick feedback resonant with the baby-changing station

Unlatched in a men’s-room stall and used for the purpose of a

Cocaine surface; with the nightmare that might be titled “Boy, Meet Girl,”

Wherein the one spots the other,

Door ajar at the Hotel Terminus

In a room filled with music indiscernible,

Either Billie Holiday or The Fall,

Or The Beatles doing “Clarabella,”

And looking into his eyes while some lithe expatriate lies

Smoking at her side, she fastens her straps and declaims:

“I’m a girl with a groin to enjoy;

I get my nucleus right with any member.”


On that reveal, she walks out of the room

The same way Sarkozy parades through the dung on a bull farm.

Yes, the candle invokes Hazard, but it also poses Dare,

And to follow through on this might lead to the bliss of escape, and new integration.

So at last he emerges, not in the wake of daylight,

But of something noctilucent,

And maybe here he can sigh,

In the exemplary borough

Where he imagined remembering

Life on 7 N. Goodman. —



Stay strong, Citizen.

Responses

2 responses to this post.  Join the discussion

  • j r

    well done, Keller! I love it.

  • K L

    Breathtaking! So befitting!

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