The​ Turkish language has a tense for gossip. Officially known as the reported past, it’s also the ‘hearsay’ tense, in which it’s possible to say things without its really being you who says them, or even exactly you who knows them. In Turkish, statements such as ‘they were lovers’ or ‘she had the child adopted’ have a ghostly ‘apparently’ or ‘I heard that’ hovering around them, muddying the distinction between the active speech of a subject and the speech of the community. We might think of hearsay constructions as late linguistic survivors of what the classicist Jane Harrison called the ‘holophrase’, expressing a state of being in relation to the world. A phrase before subject and predicate, before signs and selves.

Hope Mirrlees’s Paris: A Poem, recently reissued by Faber (£9.99), was first published a century ago by the Hogarth Press. The original manuscript was typeset – the mistakes hand-corrected – by Virginia Woolf. It opens with the line: ‘I want a holophrase.’ Mirrlees wrote Paris in the spring of 1919, when she was 32 and living in a hotel ‘on the Left Bank’ with Harrison, who was nearly forty years her senior. Mirrlees had been Harrison’s pupil as an undergraduate in Cambridge between 1910 and 1913, when Harrison had first used the term ‘holophrase’ in print. Her work Themis: A Study of the Social Origins of Greek Religion (1912) argued for a more ancient, Dionysian and matriarchal religion that had been stamped out by the pantheon of Olympian gods. In it, Harrison pointed to the Fuegian term ‘mamihlapinatapai’ as proof that man was once ‘utterly involved’ with both his environment and other people. The term, Harrison explained, means ‘looking-at-each-other-hoping-that-either-will-offer-to-do-something-which-both-parties-desire-but-are-unwilling-to-do’. The last look that passes between Thelma and Louise, perhaps? Or the first? It’s a look familiar in playgrounds, as children attempt to divine how much of their own desire chimes with what’s inside other people. Harrison offered the term ‘holopsychosis’ as a description of humanity’s lost familiarity with collective experience, a state of being before existence was divided into subjects and objects. When Mirrlees begins her poem ‘I want a holophrase,’ she is sending just such a signal. I desire, she says, and I lack; I desire to speak from inside the world that is outside me.

Great claims have been made for this little read poem. Julia Briggs, who produced a set of exhaustive and illuminating glosses reproduced in Faber’s centenary edition, described it as a ‘lost modernist masterpiece’. It has been called a precursor to and possible model for The Waste Land (in Paris the dead of the First World War people the city alongside the living, and it experiments with numbered explanatory notes); it has been called an example of the mythic method before Ulysses (it fuses classical ritual with the contemporary everyday); it has been called a model for Jacob’s Room (in its experiments with white space on the page), for Mrs Dalloway (as an account of a woman’s journey across a city in the course of a single day) and for Orlando (in its coded lesbian poetics). It has been celebrated as the first Cubist work in English, the first introduction for English readers to the typographic experiments and fragmentary collage of Cocteau, Cendrars and Apollinaire, and the prototype for modernist psychogeography. Since its first print run of 175 copies it has repeatedly been ‘rediscovered’ and on each occasion critics and readers have made claims for its exemplary significance. The difficulty has been how to square assertions of Paris’s influence with its marginal status. As Sandeep Parmar puts it in the afterword to this latest reissue, it ‘evaded a majority of readers’, including some of those who are supposed to have been influenced by it. Part of the trouble is that it was anomolous not only for English poetry generally but also for Mirrlees herself. It isn’t just that she didn’t write anything like it again (her best-known work is the fantasy novel Lud-in-the-Mist, published in 1926). But nothing she wrote beforehand anticipated it either. It’s an experiment that led to nothing – an orphan.

The poem, dedicated to ‘Our Lady of Paris, in recognition of graces granted’, begins as a journey through the underworld – from south to north, or from the Left Bank to the Right Bank, on the Nord-Sud metro line (now Ligne 12):

            I want a holophrase


                        LION NOIR
                        CACAO BLOOKER

     Black-figured vases in Etruscan tombs

            RUE DU BAC (DUBONNET)

Brekekekek coax coax we are passing under the Seine


The Scarlet Woman shouting BYRRH and deafening
St John at Patmos

                        Vous descendez Madame?



Today’s reader has no difficulty decoding the fragmented style and experimental layout. Indeed, we’d probably be disappointed to discover a poem composed in avant-garde postwar Paris laid out in neat quatrains. If we can digest Eliot’s ‘mon semblable, – mon frère!’ then Mirrlees’s ‘Vous descendez Madame?’ (‘Are you getting off here?’ at the metro stop) will give us little pause. Mirrlees herself included a footnote explaining that ‘Dubonnet, Zig-Zag, Lion Noir and Cacao Blooker’ are posters. ‘Rue du Bac, etc are names of stations.’ She chose not to gloss the message on the weighing machine, nor the quotation from Aristophanes’ The Frogs (in a translation by Harrison’s friend and colleague Gilbert Murray). ‘Brekekekek co-ax co-ax’ is what Dionysus yells to the frogs (aka the French) to shut them up while Charon ferries him across to Hades – a detail I learned not from Briggs’s notes, but from an account of the poem by David Trotter.

No doubt conscious of the fact that Paris has been reissued several times and failed to gain a wider readership, the new edition arrives with reinforcements. The Briggs commentary comes in at about three times the length of the poem itself. There’s also an afterword, which offers historical context and some account of the poem’s original reception; a foreword by Deborah Levy, which doesn’t know what it’s doing but is determined to show support; and a little crowd of jacket puffs. We learn that Harrison and Mirrlees knew Gertrude Stein but weren’t part of the avant-garde set; that there are buried references to Georges Clemenceau alongside the description of Woodrow Wilson, who ‘grins like a dog and runs about the city’, signalling the Paris Peace Conference; that the TLS reviewer in 1920 dismissed the poem as a ‘futurist trick’; and (from Levy) how Mirrlees and Woolf might have felt about writing and printing the poem (‘Woolf must have enjoyed this splash of cosmopolitan life’). It’s all interesting but none of it really helps. The poem doesn’t gel.

The most successful passages are the most holopsychotic, as the boundary between the individual and the city dissolves into a kind of collective unconscious, which comes complete with its own interpreter:

                        From the VIIme arrondissement
                        Night like a vampire
                        Sucks all colour, all sound.

             The winds are sleeping in their Hyperbórean cave;

           The narrow streets bend proudly to the stars;

         From time to time a taxi hoots like an owl.

But behind the ramparts of the Louvre

Freud has dredged the river and, grinning horribly,
waves his garbage in a glare of electricity.

Early on the speaker ‘wade[s] knee-deep in dreams’ but the waters of the Seine rise during the course of the poem until ‘the dreams have reached my waist.’ These are dreams in which the casual sights and sounds of the city act like portals into the past. A homesick chestnut seller carries ‘all the mountains of Auvergne in every chestnut that he sells’. Paris is a ‘stage … thick with corpses’, peopled by ‘little widows moaning … and petites bourgeoises with tight lips and strident voices … counting out the change and saying Messieursetdames and their hearts are the ruined province of Picardie’. Literature, art and history exist in simultaneous time, as the ghosts of the 17th and 19th centuries pass one another on the street:

Sainte-Beuve, a tight bouquet in his hand for Madame Victor Hugo,
Passes on the Pont-Neuf the duc de la Rochefoucauld
            With a superbly leisurely gait
            Making for the salon d’automne
            Of Madame de Lafayette;

            They cannot see each other.

The present tense does a lot of work to keep the past going. Paris owes a clear debt to Henri Bergson’s theory of time as ever unspooling duration (rather than something with a destination). The past, in Bergson’s gorgeous image, is always ‘leaning over the present which is about to join it, pressing against the portals of consciousness that would fain leave it outside … memories, messengers from the unconscious, remind us of what we are dragging about unawares’. Harrison interpreted Bergson’s theory idiosyncratically, indeed holophrastically – he meant, she thought, that ‘each of us is a snowball growing bigger every moment, and in which all our past, and also the past out of which we all sprang, all the generations behind us, is rolled up, involved.’

Paris was Mirrlees’s attempt to prove that poetry could articulate people’s ‘membership’ of one another. The past is rolled up in the city’s unconscious, there to be accessed in the poet’s dreams. But the poem itself doesn’t seem to care much about Paris – its past or its future. It’s an admirably democratic tourist trail, in which advertisements and street signs share equal billing with the paintings in the Louvre, but they are all equally flattened, like the ‘two-dimensional’ Eiffel Tower, ‘etched on thick white paper’. The endless present tense lends the poem a peculiarly static feel, as though something is always on the cusp of being said. That may not be entirely Mirrlees’s fault. The poem begins with an invocation to Harrison; it ends with a private message to her, in the constellation of the Great Bear, picked out in asterisks. The two women referred to each other as the two wives in a ménage à trois with Harrison’s teddy bear, which they carried with them when they travelled. That the poem is a coded love letter is fair enough. But ‘I love you’ is a message which is all about parts of speech, about subjects and selves. If, as Harrison believed, ‘we are all of us members of one another’ in a world without subjects, a declaration of love from ‘you’ to ‘me’ is impossible. Hence, all the nonsense with the teddy bear.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences