The poetry brothel in Paris

Chapter 4 of my Paris project

Paris is blowing up, a young man says to me. There is something — he pauses — happening here.

He gestures with his drink to underline his point.

We are standing under an archway between two of the three main rooms of a dungeonous bar with a perfect name, Le Fableux de Cabinet de Curiosities. The rooms are made of stone punctuated with ornate columns of carved wood. There are terrifying metal implements hanging from the walls and imposing animal statues scattered about. In each of the main rooms, there are several low, long tables decorated with flickering candles that melt elegantly down the sides of golden candelabras.

Standing near me is a beautiful black man wearing a well-tailored tuxedo. He has long, faux eyelashes that have been brushed with gold. They sweep up and down like Spanish fans when he blinks. His lips shine and he stares into the distance as he waits his turn at the bar. In one corner a woman with a shawl draped around her shoulders carefully applies paint to canvas. Barefaced people keep disappearing into a shadowy corner only to reemerge with their entire faces covered in animal print. Others reappear with dramatic flowers painted up and over the skin of their neck. Everyone is dressed extravagantly. Some have donned top hats, others are dressed like pirates, others are strapped into corset and lace. Stephanie, the brothel's madam, is warmly greeting friends and showing her mother around. Her voluptuous hourglass figure has been poured into a tight sapphire-colored dress. Jutting from her mass of deep rich red hair are several peacock feathers.

A man named Tennessee Pink is moving between the rooms while taking deep plugs from a bottle of Jack Daniels. A beautiful androgynous woman in pleated trousers and a bowler cap walks by holding a bucket, while a woman with wild blonde curls and a floor-length red gown follows. She is holding a black notebook. People are walking between the rooms waiting for the poetry brothel (Le Bordel de la Poesie) to begin.

I am waiting too. But I'm not sure for what. I tell myself not to have any expectations. Though I realize I do. I expect to remain apart from it all. I expect to be bemused. I expect to be mildly disappointed.

When Isadora Duncan, the American dancer and choreographer, first arrived in Paris, she expected great things. It was 1900. The summer was drawing to a close, and she was just 23. That year the Universal Exposition was up and Paris was crackling. A century of ideas and discovery was on display in rooms and pavilions around the city's center. The biggest attraction at the exposition was the Palace of Electricity, an entire space devoted to inventions that harnessed the thing. Room after room was devoted to sculpture and art. There was an entire stage for dance. The city was punch-drunk and Isadora was, for a short time, besotted.

This was still early in her career, so early, in fact, she was still wearing shoes when she danced. She was in Paris chasing la vie boheme and seeking a teacher, someone who could show her how to fully inhabit her art. Instead, what she found "was all stupid, vanity, and vexation." She said that in Paris "[t]hey do not dance for love — They do not dance for the Gods." Young Isadora expected great things from a burning Paris. The ancient city only disappointed.

Tonight the poets will be whores.

Though, of course, it hadn't. The city had awakened something in her that had hitherto laid dormant. According to her biographer, Peter Kurth, Isadora's first Parisian mornings were spent dancing "through the Luxembourg Gardens on her way to the Louvre." The city had distracted Isadora from the "the holiness of her art.”

In Paris, Kurth writes, "she 'yearned,' 'burned,' 'ached,' [and] 'longed.'" Though she was still a virgin and, reluctantly remained one throughout her stay, Isadora's body was waking up to sensation. While she waited for her turn at sex, she was "eager to learn, anxious to please, and disillusioned at every turn." It was then that she began to understand her body as "something other than an instrument to express the sacred harmony of music." Her body became the instrument to convey emotion, an extension of her spirit. This sensation imbued her routines with a daring earthiness that delighted and aroused the Belle Époque of Parisian society. One day, tipsy and laughing from too much champagne, Isadora couldn't get her dancing shoes on, so clothed in flowing Grecian gowns, she gave up the footwear and danced barefoot for the first time. The audience raved over the beauty of her feet and the freedom of her movements. She never wore shoes to dance again. Some years later, her dance was immortalized as part of the bas-relief that adorns the façade of the Champs Elysees theatre.

In spite herself, Isadora had conquered Paris.

My friend Kevin, an American poet who invited me to come along to the brothel, tells me the evening is about to begin. We follow the bodies as they move into the next room. There Stephanie, bedecked in blue, is joined by an Italian pimp, his face painted like a tiger. The two are surrounded by their Francophone and Anglophone poets. Tonight the poets will be whores. They will sell private readings to the audience members for five euros a piece. There is much hollering as each poet is introduced with a nom de plume and teases a few lines of his or her work. Then, with the introductions complete, they file off the stage to ready themselves for their clients.

A delicate burlesque dancer comes on next. She has a heart-shaped face and matching heart-shaped lips. She is dressed all in white. She playfully wriggles and dances; she undresses in time with the music, unsnapping her impossibly tight corset as she goes. Then comes the man with the golden lashes. On stage he is transformed. He is electric — the consummate performer. Underneath his tux, he is also wearing a corset. The audience goes mad for him.

It feels delicious; it feels contagious.

Perhaps, I think, there is a creative renaissance tearing up this town. I am falling for the night completely. I'm seduced by the unabashed artistry, the complete lack of irony, the cheek of it all, and the naked sexuality. The whores are all gorgeous and I am on my third or fourth drink.

Kevin wants to buy us a reading to share. He hires the woman with the wild blonde mane. Her full lips are painted red and her name, for tonight at least, is Laura Palmer.

Like in Twin Peaks? Kevin whispers.

Laura leads us back into the shadows where it is quiet. She tells us to sit down on a narrow bench that someone has covered with soft fur. I can hear snatches of poetry coming from around us. Our space is dark as pitch. We're hemmed in on two sides with drapes. Laura holds a candle over her notebook to read. It lights her face from below. She reads to us in French. One poem. Then another. And another.

I watch her lips move over the words and listen to the sound of her voice.

Read Neda Semnani's entire Paris project here:

* The quiet thrill of writing as a foreigner in Paris

* How to not write about love in Paris

* Between the bookstore and the gun: Life in a rattled Paris

* The poetry brothel in Paris

* Dark days in the city of light

* The kick of rejection

Adieu, Paris


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