Grimacier: A Poem

“peter mandelson, right, went mad”

The best piece of video ever captured did the social-media rounds again recently. It takes place in a corridor in a club somewhere, sometime during the mid 2000s. Mike Skinner of The Streets is gurning his way through an interview, extremely obviously under the influence of loads of pills. 

“Peter Mandelson, right, went mad”, he says. “In the ’80s, Peter Mandelson lost it, big time.” The interviewer here tries to get a word in edgewise; tries, it seems, to make some kind of pun on ‘Mandelson’ and ‘Mandy’. You can’t blame him for the effort, but it’s just not happening. 

“Nah, nah, he started, like, hearing voices in his head and shit, telling him to, like, kill Tony Blair, and shit”, Skinner goes on, his face a druggy-as-fuck picture of concentration and conspiratorial focus. Bass thuds through walls, and we hear the screeches of a string sample. Skinner’s face then subtly perks up, more magnanimous, coolly triumphal: “But he came back from it!”

Let’s press pause for a second, here, and acknowledge that Peter Lord Mandelson has once again, unfortunately, ‘come back from it’, re-established into a position of some power by a floundering Sir Keir Starmer. On the 11th of May, in the Guardian, Mandelson claimed that Labour can win back voters by ‘looking out, not just in’, before going on to thinly veil his instinct for self-promotion within unconvincing Starmer-support, and also (probably deliberately) display an extremely loose grasp of what ‘hard left’ means and how Trade Unions work, among other things.

Whatever the voices in Mandy’s head are telling him (and it seems, as ever, to result in a political theory and praxis that is at a distant, convoluted remove from the real world), we can thank them for the phrase ‘looking out and in’ in the current context.

Looking out and in at once is one of the few things poems are good at doing (and, incidentally, something people who’ve taken a bunch of ecstasy are very good at doing): an overshared, performed introversion. The whoosh of a good poem or a good, gurning, pilled-up monologue is an aspect that seems to have more than one face, to perform ‘seeing’ from various vantages, to define interiority by glancing it against the everything outside, but to distill all of that into one focussed runnel. It’s like seeing twice at once, an over-actualisation of the self. Who knows how much it means, but we’re left with a sense that it does, at least, mean. This kind of simultaneous looking is important, and I’m convinced it’s something that art and poems can teach. It allows us to face trying circumstances, tragedies, futures with acuity and understanding, exercise judgement and fellowship in moments of historic transition. Am I saying quite what I mean? Maybe not. It’s been a long year(s).

The UK is undergoing a transition, of sorts, from interior to exterior. July 19th 2021 has been dubbed ‘Freedom Day’. It marked the government’s lifting of almost all measures that had been put in place to fight the spread of coronavirus. It’s a move that’s sent some people back out into clubs to gurn and grimace their way through their ecstasies, while leaving others gurning and grimacing in disapproval behind their stolidly still-worn face masks (presumably, those who buy into the concept of ‘Freedom Day’ now see the United Kingdom as having joined the long (and potentially lengthening) list of countries who can celebrate their independence from the United Kingdom).

In its many-faced, multidirectional, divisive, historical, obfuscatory, post-colonial, late-stage-of-the-capitalist-empire weirdness, Freedom Day got me thinking about the figure of the Grimacier. Paris at the start of the 19th Century, after the Napoleonic wars, suddenly turned around to find itself a cosmopolitan city of many peoples, a hub for culture and the sciences, at once the world-dominant power and experiencing a sort of ongoing crisis of identity. Scientists flocked from around the world to catch the lectures of Alexander von Humboldt before he escaped again on another expedition. Artists from across Europe hurried to the Louvre to sketch the various cultural curiosities reaped from Imperial plunder before they were all strenuously repatriated. Old money promenaded amongst the bourgeoisie and rubbed shoulders with a boomingly cosmopolitan populace. It was, in short, a time of furious inward-outward movement, and a period of self-reflection at the end of an era, much as we find ourselves in now.

The ambulating, self-reflective Parisian populace were a primed audience, which saw the rise in popularity of a large class of street performers, one of which was The Grimacier. As Colta Ives puts it, when discussing Louis Léopold-Boilly’s grimacing self-portraits (one of which is seen at the top of this page), “The Parisian population, which grew enormously in size and diversity during the nineteenth century, delighted in examining itself from every angle. The “grimacier”, a popular street performer of the day, mirrored the appearance and emotions of the city’s inhabitants.” The job of the Grimacier was to make faces.

An aside: visiting France at the outbreak of the Revolution, Madame Tussaud, of wax museum fame, was imprisoned after being denounced as a royalist by a Grimacier. The revolutionary performer spotted the Tussaud family in the audience of a small theatre and alerted the gendarmes. Madame Tussaud narrowly avoided execution (she even had her head shaved ready for the chop), and spent some time thereafter making waxy death masks of Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, and other victims of the guillotine. Was the face of this Grimacier in her mind thereafter as she moulded the visages of her sculptures and founded her famous London museum? Making faces is often adjacent to making history.

Another aside: ‘making faces’ is a sort of tautology – ‘face’ probably has roots in the Latin ‘facere’, ‘to make’.  So, like Sahara Desert means ‘desert desert’, ‘making faces’ means ‘making making’. Or reflecting reflecting. The same thing twice in two ways. Tautologies are interesting in the current context because they enact a collision between sameness and difference, another kind of ‘simultaneous looking’ that’s important to the poem which follows this sort of intro/essay/thing.

The job of poems, like that of the Grimacier, is often to reflect the reader, or the world, back at themselves. But slant, askance, dialogically. From many angles at once. And, also, to ask readers to participate in a moment of performed history, creating a tiny theatre where revolutions can be enacted. 

The speaker in the poem which follows is a Grimacier. He’s in Paris at the start of the 19th century, but also somehow in a contemporary city. Let the setting be fluid. He takes into himself a heady mixture of stimuli – the sounds and sights nearby, the distant frontiers of contemporary colonial activity, the feeling of his own blood inside him – and crunches them together into the lines of his face. He then begins his performance, making a series of complicated faces, hoping to catch the eye. He’s aware that history can happen in his clowning, but he’s also just trying to get by.

As the UK unlocks itself this summer, it risks plunging the world into even greater covid despair. The visible effects of climate change are becoming impossible for even the most committed skeptics to ignore. Fascism is spreading its combination of inward-looking xenophobia and outward-looking Imperial thirst throughout, at least, “The West”. The whole world’s making a face right now. Things look bad. The poem hopes, looking outward and inward through a fog of words, looking up into a weird kind of sky, to find some kind of reflection or response.


“But he came back from it!” Mike Skinner says. “He fucking came back”. Then, without breaking his rhythm, he lifts a second microphone we now realise he’s been holding all along, and delivers, as though it were simply the next sentence of his Mandelson story, the opening lines of ‘Turn the Page’: “That’s it. Turn the page on the day, walk away. / Because there’s sense in what I say. / I’m 45th generation Roman / but I don’t know ’em” – which we’re confused to find that we are now over-hearing, amplified from somewhere else, behind a wall, mingling with and puncturing through the background beat we’ve already grown accustomed to. Skinner walks past the interviewer and moves, both out (of the corridor) and in (entering a vast room), through a doorway, into the sound of his own magnified voice, suddenly onstage, addressing a roiling mass of bodies, reaches over a mixing desk to tweak some levels, all the while speaking with punch and rhythm, all the while gurning and grimacing with a hugely human power. Whoosh. The Grimacier-In-Chief. Ecstatic.

Grimacier

 

Inside my eyes, things are happening at once.

Things are happening at once in the lines of my face.


It’s a version of Paris around 1810. The trebly 

chirp of bluetooth speakers in parks, later.


Intimacy’s as naked as my blood, today,

as if anything looked better from a distance. 


An afternoon of varnish chips from clapboards 

of bouquinistes as buskers pinch harmonics.


Sands from the Sahel brush the city’s skins.

A system of rainbows makes a dome over Bamako.


A blank glop of fishes’ faces lines

a nearby stall, many-coloured-silver,


smelling rankly of ocean and gore. A dancer

extends a finger, accusing the space at its tip.  


From these my performance takes, or doesn’t, what

it needs to catch the eye, or fail to. Look.


Face: the bruising shock of seeing the scurf

of bits of flame snowing down on your home


or, worse, a large beloved building

of some storied faith or firm.


Face: an infant’s boil-red cheeks as chrism

slops its welcome to the world of wetness, cold.


Face: the dull calm thrill of hearing

the hush of traffic or water, airish and kind. 


Face: I’m looking at a doorway through

a window in a doorway into where


we once lived. On it, the undersides

of insects appear. Behind me, too-


smooth stones assume new shapes on soil.

Are you even listening? Am I?


Ask the violets what they think of the earthquake,

or the pavement what’s next from the ambo,


and you’ll get a gurn in reply as your spoils.

A series of thirty-five expressive heads 


makes a range along the streets. Look,

the whole world’s making a face right now, 


the exit strategy a fog of words,

sky gone the colour of bronze under blood.

 

Note: the Colta Ives stuff on Bolly and the grimacier is taken from Romanticism & the School of Nature: Nineteenth-Century Drawings and Paintings from the Karen B. Cohen Collection, a catalogue for an exhibition of the same name at the Metropolitan Museum of Art which ran from October 2000 to January 2001