A Foreign Queen Lost in Paris

We went in waves and I went last
as I was most dangerous to my King
being foreign and female
and middle-aged.
I was costumed as a servant and
the rough looseness of the dress
chafed my breasts
sore from so many little gums.
It was the hour when servants leave,
the King and Queen assumed asleep
in separate beds instead of
running for their lives.

Guards—to keep us in, not safe—
barely glance at my white hair nor
my three manly escorts, despite
the Palace being lit as though
I had sprung a new heir and
France was en fête not at war–and
then he was almost in my face—
La Fayette, that bastard, my gaoler,
in his carriage he nearly ran me down
and I swung with my stick at his
pasty glassed-in face.

De Marsan caught it, then my eye and
I saw his sudden horror, the
rubella flush of fear that he had
offended me, and we both
let go of the stick and it
clattered like a tocsin.
De Moustier, de Valory scrambled to still it and
I saw a door and took it to
get away from my shame,
to get out of that cursed place,
to go to my King and my children:
but I turned the wrong way.

My gallants followed my heels
clacking on wood, a bridge if I’d known it
but in the panic and press of time and in that
treacly darkness we simply fled
across and up and each corner of the rising street searched
for our carriage and our safety.
If they had been less gentle, more men
my protectors might have stopped me sooner
but it takes courage to stop a Queen,
doesn’t it?

Dark streets engender dark thoughts:
why was I hated so when
I’d done nothing but be? Is being
sufficient for hatred?
I did my duty, made living heirs with a man who
preferred picking locks to
penetrating me, but still I am the
Austrian Bitch who wallows in orgies and
buys or steals expensive necklaces,
when I have spent years without sex, living in
building sites where I
froze or roasted in clothes
I couldn’t call my own, wearing
the jewels of dead Queens.

“Madame, we are lost….”
Yes I knew it and my heart knew it.
“We must have crossed the river…”
Yes just tell me I am a
frightened old fool, but
you won’t will you? We all looked
everywhere but each other’s eyes:
perhaps this was the last moment when
I would be their Queen?
“Messieurs, it is I who have
led you amiss and my life is
even more in your hands, so I pray you
undo my missteps and
forgive my folly.”
I saw them want to bow, though forbidden to:
heard their furtive whispers, then
“This way, Madame” and I caught
the unsaid “we hope”.

There are few straight roads in Paris
and we had crookedly followed a crooked lane:
turning round seemed futile so we
went left and left again in the hope that the
figures of Euclid made sense on the streets of this city.
I followed, but my feet went one way, my mind another—
to Versailles and air and trees and a sky so big
I wept sometimes beneath its immensity.
People laughed at milkmaid me but
it was the only place I could be myself.
But who was she, myself?
The woman in the portraits? Do you know
people paid to watch me eat?
In the agonies of childbirth I opened my eyes
to see the cream of France
staring up the Queen’s quim.
I was watched each moment of my life and
each eye seemed to pierce me like
an unsharpened knife.

My mind wandered on until it ran into
the backs of my men, suddenly stopped:
there was a guard on the bridge
where before there was none.
More mutterings and a muffled yelp
as I strode up to the soldier.
“Citizen, we are looking for the rue
de l’Ėchelle and have lost our way.”
“No worries, Citizen. Your quickest way
is through the Palace.”

A  moment’s pause for effect and then he
guffawed fit to burst and we
tittered along with him all the while
glancing at the great pile in which lamps
still glowed and the chance remained that
our empty beds had been found and
the hunt had begun as our new friend
stogged his laughter with his fist.
“But you, citizens, don’t want to be
disturbing the innocent sleep of
Citizen Cuckold King, nor intruding on
the orgies no doubt at this moment happening in
Citizen Bitch Queen’s bed, so
my best advice is to head straight on into the Doyenné
and keep bearing right. Right?”

We thanked him, hurried on,
his words burning in my ears,
my stomach, my sex.
As we crossed the Tuileries I thought I saw
a flash away to my left towards the
Place de la Revolution and I
shied away from it right into de Marsan.
The collision loosened his tongue—
“Madame, what you did then was
braver than any of us soldiers could have done but
do not hesitate to follow his lead.
He will watch us”

I knew the Doyenné mostly by smell—
its slum-reek seeped into my windows in the Palace
against which it leant exhausted by its
long struggle against time.
I clutched de Marsan’s arm, the others
went fore and aft and as a
rough diamond we forged towards
that reeking bulk, my free hand
gathering my skirts though
no woman could lift them high enough to avoid
the shit we waded through as we
sank into that great gabion, half
ancient abbeys sublet to tenements, half
ordure piled on ordure piled on
the leavings of half a millennium

like the ordure that was piled on my head, the head
that would have held its nose if it had a free hand,
that reeled at the horrors around me and remembered
it was my adopted city which I
pitied and which hated me so.
The alleys were empty save for
one woman who hurried by with barely a glance.
I so wanted to speak to her, say
“Citizen, I am your Queen—
do you hate me?”
My men no doubt thought her a whore and
she probably thought the same of me.

But why be slandered as a whore
and have no pleasure? So I gave in,
yes I did, and took a lover
who loved me and wouldn’t talk and
wasn’t French, the man who sat now
worried and waiting for us, who’d planned our escape
for love of me, the first man who
fucked me—God this awful place with its
walls seeming to squeeze us into its mire wants
me to say its words too—yes he fucked me
and for the first time I felt
what a woman should feel with a man
between her thighs who isn’t thinking of
procreation, of heirs, of a throne
now suddenly pointless, who
wasn’t ashamed to let me see him
wet from me and drooping finally
satisfied from the clasp of me, and
I reddened with the blush of an
unexpected expurgation of my sex, of
the sudden realisation that
in my thirties I could finally
complete a man and myself.

“I see it,” de Valory murmured and I
saw it too: a stout fiacre stolidly waiting,
so different from the grand carrosse in which
they’d brought us back from Versailles
gaily as if in a carnival,
Citizen King and Queen and squabs all together
with our guards accompanying us—but
only their heads, their powdered wigs
dripping blood as they pirouetted on pikes and
the look of terror in their dead eyes as
their heads were bobbed at our faces for fun and I
put my hand over my son’s eyes to save him
but I saw, and felt his terror,
the poor man’s terror…

I knew I smelt of shit when I went into
that humid overcrowded carriage but my husband
clasped me fervidly exclaiming “I’m so glad to see you!”
and I believed him and felt pangs of guilt for the
hot, distressed glance given to the
coachman/saviour/lover above.
I tumbled into a space as the coach sped off,
already delayed by my folly and our future cloudy—
except for that one flash of light I had seen which
might have been the sun creeping from beneath
low clouds on a cast-iron day or
might have been the glint of light on
a sharp blade falling, but
seen from a distance, or
might have been….

(Inspired by the chapter “Lost” in Graham Robb’s majestic “Parisians”)

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  • 1emeraldcity  On April 24, 2011 at 12:02 pm

    This is an absolutely spellbinding, if not sympathetic take on Marie Antoinette, innocent or guilty…your poem depicted the woman..more than the queen…a woman caught up in politics she neither understood nor cared about, …that causing her downfall. All the earmarks of an epic..with the tragedy underscored..and the humanity and reality of the woman, the queen, mother, wife and lover and her glimpse, at the end, of her ignoble end at the guillotine. Bravo! Very well done!

  • Antoinette Baranov  On May 29, 2011 at 6:45 pm

    Fascinating poem had read already but unaccountably no comment though name? So much to say but you’ve done a great job to understand this queen whose namesake I am. I was translating her words into French which you must do! She would have said “baise” and not fuck which does not sound the same or could her thoughts been in Austrian at that point still? Great job(Doyenne with accent on e? For that to happen in French there has to be two ee)

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