I remember precisely when I started the project all those years ago. I was sitting at a terrace café in Madrid, after a morning at the Prado, where I had seen angels, virgins, soldiers, saints, and martyrs, as one usually does in a national museum in Europe. Over a glass of wine, I found myself thinking about the four elements: earth, water, air, fire. Suddenly, I was full of questions about life and death, and at that moment, I knew there was a new book inside me.
This was not unusual. Museums have long played a role in my writing. They ignite ideas and prompt me to write down brief sentences. I might be responding to a painting’s title, a small detail, or an entire epoch. As I walk through the galleries, I create dialogues between myself and the artifacts I see. Somehow, the exciting paths lead to print, as with my poetry collection Installations: Avec et sans pronoms and my novel Hier, which I set in the Musée de la civilisation, in Quebec City.
I first published the book of poems that came to me in Madrid, Musée de l’os et de l’eau, in 1999, one year before the millennium celebrations and two years before September 11 and the devastation that would follow. It was a time of philosophical disenchantment, when our vocabulary, gestures, and values were slowly transforming — even as life itself seemed in the mood for speed. Our minds were making space for a digital world, getting ready for the creativity, flexibility, and alternative facts that were coming. Even as my virtual body of nerves, electricity, and vibrations was preparing for a different sort of intelligence, art, and trickery, my dear physical body — made of bones, water, and lesbian skin — was talking of joys, fears, women, music, and landscapes of a time before.
Perhaps in a way, this was my last work to come straight from a humanist atmosphere, from that “once upon a time” when books were simultaneously safe and risky places to question the universe and its cruelty, to look both inside and beyond oneself. When we could long for light and truth. Even after twenty-plus years, I can still feel it move between the abstract and the real. I can still identify with the lines that are full of tension, the references to beauty and disaster, the way time and language shape meaning. I still relate to the tone — intimate, philosophical, affirmative, sometimes melancholic — because it speaks to the fluidity of being.
I still like how “The Throat of Lee Miller” and “The Silence of the Hibiscus” and the other poems refer to Paris, Dresden, Dublin, Key West, London, Buenos Aires. I still enjoy how they mix ellipsis and snippets of narrative:
/ above the city and the museum
huge intelligent lips signal
in a red that calls everything into question
and as we translate
I restrict myself to the top part of the work
That being said, there’s something about the collection that now strikes me as enigmatic, as I watch the thoughts of my younger self pass through matter, objects, animals, flesh, dawn, clouds, and landscape. Of course, time and space ticked differently — back before I published this book in French, before it appeared in English, in 2003, before we truly entered the new age.
After Musée de l’os et de l’eau first came out, someone told me that a place of bones really does exist, in Portugal. When I eventually made it to Évora, in 2017, I visited Capela dos Ossos, its walls covered in the bones of 5,000 bodies, like a crossroad of civilization and death. “Nós ossos que aqui estamos, pelos vossos esperamos,” reads the sign above the chapel door. “We bones that are here wait for yours.”
Like Greco-Roman languages, bones and water are fascinating knots of etymology, mixed with an incessant shifting of meaning. They create both the thought of emotion and the emotion of thought. And so, even all these years later, I eagerly wait to hold the latest edition of my book, which remains as alive as a root. Reading it again, perhaps at a terrace café, will be a chance to renew what I described all those years ago as “the pulse of our veins.”