This week’s Google Doodle reminded me that in 2013 I wrote a poem about Georges Méliès, one of the first film-makers, the father of special effects and author of the first political film: L’affair Dreyfus (1899). I had known nothing about Méliès until, in the course of my work as a translator and language coach I was working with Dr. Barbara Grespi, a professor of cinema and visual culture. Now, Barbara is one of those insanely intelligent, sophisticated, and stunningly beautiful Italian women who makes someone like me feel somewhat ‘less than’. So, I was thrilled that she had asked me to work with her on an English language presentation about tarot iconography in the films of Georges Méliès. When she first talked with me about the topic, I said George who? She graciously replied, “He’s famous for the film of the Moon with the rocket in its eye.” Sure enough, I wiki-ed and then Youtube-ed and came up with the familiar images.
In the process of finding out about Méliès I also got a bit of information stuck in my head. Five hundred of his films were confiscated by the French army in WWI in order to recycle the celluloid into heels for soldier’s boots.
When I started writing the poem that had been poking and shifting in the back of my head for over a year. I wrote 10 lines of blank verse and then I sat still and started again. It all came in rhyming couplets (which I rarely use and then never one after the other) and it turned into the first eight lines of this sonnet:
Gare du Montparnasse: Sonnet for Georges Méliès
What kind of boot heels do you think they made
Five-hundred films for la deuxième armée?
Celluloid soles France’s poor bastard sons
It is difficult to avoid the puns:
“Attrition: boot(less) battles lost when won.”
“Headline: (well)heeled dead sink in sanguine mud.”
Harder yet, the dramatic phrase hold back:
“Verdun: Europa’s epic fade-to-black.”
The cinemagician’s vanished oeuvre leaves
me, stumbling barefoot through 1916.
Fumbling across mounds of nameless bones;
Agape – Agape, from this place no train goes home.
Dancing couplets I misstep and massacre the waltz,
Lost within the sonnet’s frame, I’ve borne their witness false.
I ended up adding the last 3 couplets because I couldn’t help asking myself: “why are you writing about a toy maker and a special effects man when the ground is full of the blood and bones of the people who died wearing those boots?” Somehow, I don’t suppose we’ll be seeing a Google Doodle about Verdun any time soon.