Coiffure / Hair-do
The beautiful American word hair-do
lacks the élan of the French word coiffure.
Hair-do is flat-footed & matter-of-fact.
It does what it says it does; Americans adore that.
I could run hairstylist up the flagpole as a word
to salute—that’s as Cadillac as our idiom gets.
But Cadillac looks suspiciously French—about
as Yank as Yangtze or American as freedom fries.
The strange but beautiful French word pouf,
if given two o’s, stands for fag in British slang.
Also note that in pouf—when said by the French—
lurks the inimitable Ouf! of Gallic lips pursed to rue
gauche American gaffes—like the war in Iraq . . .
Gaffes which my mom tried not to make, studying
French in Paris that summer and shopping every day,
quite patriotically, at Les Galeries Lafayette.
At the beauty salon near L’Opéra, they couldn’t
get her beehive quite right. Your air-dew, Madame,
eet iz not verry moderne! they said with hauteur.
Air-dew?—That’s the beautiful American word for my mother.
Chasing luxury is buying a trompe l’œil eternal life:
Like that set of miniature Parisian landmarks done as jewelry—
minus the burning banlieues, street barricades
or mounds of dog poop. These fantasy gems
are meant to distract. They’re perfect for
the economic downturn, when fine things are so cher
that only someone as rich as the Duchesse of Windsor
could purchase the Palais Royal made of amethyst.
Deficit spending demands caution: if you have to
check the dollar-to-euro exchange rate,
this kind of luxury is beyond you & forget it.
If you do take leave of your senses, buy
the cheapest bauble—the one spelling out Á Bas l’État!
Or, go ahead & get that citrine fleur-de-lis, or that
“Let Them Eat Cake” necklace of marquise diamonds.
Wear it to the Hotel Ritz in honor of the late Princess Diana.
Or blow all you’ve got and get the ring inspired by Notre Dame’s
rose windows, remembering how Marie Antoinette gave her
hand-me-down gowns to the priests there.
Then say a (guilty) prayer, like my mother in Paris—
modest of means, but still shopping: “You’ll have to
forgive me,” she wrote to my father. In Vogue, she read
that “women have been spending their last sou
here for hundreds of years!” It made her feel less alone.
Pouf Tossed Salad
Its body is of Bibb & frisée lettuces
garnished with pearl onions, Crimini
mushrooms & julienned carrots.
A craze for simple food
began when the ladies-in-waiting
saw the queen trying a new régime
ridiculously lean of meat.
Cornucopious display of bio-
logique got tossed with tomatoes
and the house piss-&-vinaigrette.
I’ll never wear anything but vegetables
again! one duchesse said, catching sight
of the pouf Salade Composée.
It’s better to have vegetables in
the puff-pastry of one’s headdress
than to be dull as a turnip at table,
or pea-brained as a trophy queen.
I was monolingual until I took French in college to fulfill a language requirement. My mother had gone on a kick to have me learn French when I was about 10, but I hated it and must have been a pill about it because her campaign didn’t last very long. Then I took a trip around Europe the summer I finished college. My first stop was Paris, and though I’d had a year of French, hearing it spoken on the street as a living language was a coup de foudre, but what I fell in love with was a language.
I returned to Paris and took classes at the Alliance Française. In order to ramp up my learning curve, I decided to speak only French as much as possible and even to make myself think in French. This intensive, mental effort grooved the French I practiced so deeply into me that sometimes French words actually came to mind and mouth before the English.
Even when I was back in the U.S., French appeared most insistently when I wrote. Sometimes my prose got so studded with French that it read like “Coiffure / Hair-do.” This effectively limited my potential readership to French-English bilinguals, but I’d made friends who’d also studied in Paris, and a kind of idiopathic, belle-lettriste franglais became our lingua franca. It was perhaps just a snooty way of setting ourselves apart, but it also kept that immersive cultural and linguistic experience of culture—and language-learning alive for us.
A few years later, I returned to Paris with my mother. This time she was the one studying at the Alliance Française, as recounted in the poem. Watching her tangle with the language, I finally really understood that what I’d thought of as English is, yes, “suspiciously French”—even if a twang-mangled, excessively dipthonged and diffidently ungendered French.
I think that once someone who’s monolingual becomes conscious of all the different linguistic ways to skin un chat, the more French (and German and Arabic and Spanish and Iroquois, etc.) one finds in one’s English. It’s a decentering experience that can’t come soon enough for those of us who haven’t been compelled by colonialism, migration, geography, or violence to know that our way of saying and doing things isn’t the alpha and omega of anything. Being even serviceably bilingual provides mind-altering new lexicons, tastes, and tonal registers. It puts two sides on every coin. Bilingual, one has more real and faux amis; more poetries, more worlds in which to think.