Burns gives us the Paris of pilgrimage, the Paris of cliché, the Paris of déjà vu, even. The first page begins a list of instructions as to how to arrive, spelling out, in jagged rhythm, the ideal encounter of the Paris in all its concrete and flesh, though noting that this original reality has already been mapped by “Vista Vision Technicolor trompe-l’oeil,” by Hepburn and Astaire, the Nazis, Marie Antoinette, the Mona Lisa. Paris, Burns says, looks “like scenery in a play about PARIS,” and this iconic familiarity is a key concern of her poems.
Paris is an idea, the city of Jean Valjeans and those heirs to Napoleon, emperors of fashion like Louis Vuitton and Karl Lagerfeld, the city itself thus inspring “all my blonde nieces / praying at the altar of Diet Coke / and iceberg lettuce.” This is the city, too, where Michael Jackson “dangles his baby / from a Parisian balcony,” the city of “1,000 Notre Dame snapshots / Sacré Coeur pencil tops / an idolized Montmartre where Amélie / tape the top of her crème brulee.” This is a city known, in some way, since childhood, a passion as much of a place, the focus of a lifelong romance. Here even “being pick-pocketed” is “almost okay / as long as we call it an epiphany on Facebook.”
Writing is Paris, these poems often say, as is art; Paris is as much “the grey bowel / the grey underbelly / the isolation” of Brassaï as it is the literary work of Miller and Nin, Hugo, or Rimbaud. This is the town where Sylvia Beach sold books and Edgar Allan Poe’s reputation as resurrected by his words being read.
The central artistic presence in these pages, however, is Jim Morrison, “the closest thing we have to a saint.” Morrison’s tomb, that international pilgrimage point, is described as an altar to something all poems aim to achieve. The admiration of Morrison is linked, on a personal level here, with adolescence, with growing up, and yet this childhood idol has become, now, something more. At the graveyard, “Someone lit a red candle on Jim’s grave / to collect the wax tears: / souvenirs,” Burns tells us, and, later, a “dark man dressed like he stepped / from an avant-garde film / springs his switchblade / to slash the heart line of his palm / bleeding himself onto Jim’s final home.” Such devotion speaks to the meaning of Morrison, however inchoate. And, moreover, this figure who so palpably matters to so many people is am American, a foreigner merging his own legend with that of Paris, becoming as Parisian—at least in Burns’s reading—as Hemingway.
The best moments here reflect frankly on the juxtaposition of the American and Paris, particularly the poet’s own Oregon. If Oregon is a place of dreaming, Paris is the dream, as magical for its own incongruous “Big Macs / within walking distance / of the palace where a queen / once debated bread vs. cake” as for the more characteristic “denouement of a baguette.” Paris, in these poems, is presented as a holy place, a sacred precinct in which, for “2 Euros per wick” one can light candles to the vibrant afterlife of artistic creation. “Is it sacrilege to pray to books?” Burns asks at one point, rhetorically. The answer, in these pages, is that we do it all the time, and that there is perhaps no chapel more frequented, for that purpose, than Paris.