Monday, October 18, 2010


This vid is only one of many on YouTube that refer to the “poete maudite” as a category. They range from the classic French decadents to Jim Morrison. I’m working at making a case for a certain kind of Native American writing, for instance, Jim Welch’s two early novels (“Winter in the Blood” and “The Death of Jim Loney”), as belonging to this category, now thrown to the side. I’m going to claim that, partly because of that despairing darkness, rez Indians form a doorway between Barrus and Scriver. How do I dare do that? Especially since Barrus got into such trouble for pulling what he knew about the rez into his own story? Now I pull Barrus into my story? (We’re both white.)

This is a “conceit.”

1. A favorable and especially unduly high opinion of one's own abilities or worth.

2. An ingenious or witty turn of phrase or thought.

3. a. A fanciful poetic image, especially an elaborate or exaggerated comparison.
3. b. A poem or passage consisting of such an image.

4. a. The result of intellectual activity; a thought or an opinion.
4. b. A fanciful thought or idea.

5. a. A fancy article; a knickknack.
5. b. An extravagant, fanciful, and elaborate construction or structure.

Tim Barrus is a poete maudit Americaine. His aesthetic is the Doors: edges, riots, and beach decadence alternating with luxury hotels. He is a cultural dissonant, using outrage and transgression to criticize in ways that demand attention He endures constant torture from shattering bones. Some people are not displeased by that.

Mary Scriver is an impressioniste du prairie. She doesn’t care about conventional people or national boundaries, but relates to the land, living humbly and thinking grandiosely. It suits her (me) to be friends with Tim, to match his stories with my own tales. I like analysis and theory, connections not seen before. I despise sentimentality.

poète maudit,  (French: “accursed poet”), in literary criticism, the poet as an outcast of modern society, despised by its rulers who fear his penetrating insights into their spiritual emptiness. The phrase was first applied by Paul Verlaine in Les Poètes maudits (1884), a collection of critical and biographical studies that focused on the tragedy of the lives of the then little-known Symbolist poets Tristan Corbière, Marceline Desbordes-Valmore, Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, Stéphane Mallarmé, and Arthur Rimbaud. Verlaine may have taken les poètes maudits from Baudelaire’s “Bénédiction".

There is no pre-existing category of “impressioniste du prairie.” I’m making it up right now. But I am not like the French Impressionists who are so floral and pretty. This is a place of dung, dust and grass, the chiaroscuro of frozen winter darkness and then unbearably hot summer dazzle laced with ultraviolet that will mutate DNA as though it were radioactivity.

Where is the point of intersection between the urban counter-sophisticate Barrus and this stubborn tubby old female village philosopher? I had a student in Heart Butte who looked so much like Jim Morrison that people did double takes. He’d lived with a relative in Denver and gotten into the rock ‘n roll life enough to have handcuff scars on his wrists. I admit that Jim Welch was never Jim Morrison. But I will assert that Welch was (at least in part) a poete maudit Amerindien, captured by the Missoula crowd of white bourgeois academics.

In his earliest books, Welch writes of horror, fantasy, and guilt with as much energy as Edgar Allan Poe. From one angle he is Montana Gothic, a tiny genre also from Missoula. (Peter Koch, who was at the foundation of Montana Gothic before his career with his fine letter press in Berkeley) suggests “Montana Maudit.”) By Welch’s latest books (after Richard Hugo had gone; Hugo being also interpretable as a poete maudit but, as Koch might agree, actually more “Seattle gris,” my phrase.) Welch was captured by the consumerist Native American romance, the Rousseauian nobleman with white bourgeois ethics. (Annick Smith’s sons are filming “Winter in the Blood.” I am waiting to see what two white boys will made of Jim’s dark and frozen early rez books. Russian genes should help.)

I found Peter Koch when I began to trace back to find the origins of “Montana Gothic,” once a poetry triquarterly in Missoula as well as the little paperback of the same name that I’ve packed around for years. The following url will take you to a discussion of the letters of Peter’s great-grandfather, also Peter Koch, who came up the Mississippi and then the Missouri to Fort Benton where he confronted along the bank a row of stakes topped with grinning rotted Indian heads, guarded by the massive, red-bearded Liver-Eatin’ Johnson wearing only a red flannel undershirt too short to cover his genitals. Koch was a highly educated (meaning tough-minded) man who took loss after loss until finally he was established in Bozeman, Montana, among the cowhands, a founder of Montana State University and owner of one of the finest book collections in the nation.

When Barrus and I began to correspond via email, we were mostly matching stories about boys destroyed. His had AIDS and were stalked by pimps and drug traffickers. Mine were Blackfeet trying to survive alcohol and violence. We matched each other, dark story by dark story, and at first that was the idea of the shared book we call “Orpheus Pressed Up Against the Windows of the Catacombs.” Also, I had the notion that I could back down the smartass overeducated bi-coastals who were always on Barrus’ case. (Maybe Koch among them.) But then other ideas became bigger. I still have an enormous amount of reading about the poetes maudites to do -- and the films. (I just began watching Pasolini.) Oh, the films! What exactly is the relationship between Gothic and maudit?

If the story of the high prairie is about how sophistication meets raw frontier, then there might be another story something like the raw frontier of war smashing into the sophistication of post-WWII Europe, creating a broken beauty full of hidden horror that continues to play out in terrorism and genocide. Always everywhere there is a constant effort on the part of those who came out more or less on top (here on the prairie and there in Paris) to hide their origins and deny the forces that still pull them into the same patterns in spite of all the efforts of the deconstructionists.

The common theory is that Unitarians (to some degree I remain one) have no theory of Evil. But Presbyterians (which I was raised) certainly do, plus an iron commandment to do good works. As always, the marginal barely survive, but in the process we form knots of new culture, new ideas, resistance to the same old terror. It’s worth doing.


1 comment:

Cowtown Pattie said...

Good stuff, old tubby lady philosopher!