Count Unicorn and Countess Fish Skin

by R. Nemo Hill

I meet the Vicomtesse de Milhau, German widow of a Frenchman.  I give French lessons to her daughter for 100 francs a month from 9 to 11 in the morning. The Vicomtesse decides to leave Paris for Germany.  She buys an auto and plans to drive to Germany in it.  She asks me if I’d like to accompany her at 200 francs a month.  I accept and we leave August 22, 1901. 
                   (Guillame Apollinaire, Letter to James Onimus—1902)

1. Cyst

Allegedly enriched by trading slaves,
this skilled practitioner of low finance
shot himself into a sudden grave
while at his manor on the coast of France.
“There is no record of the circumstance.”

Eclipsed by his own wife’s extravagance
no trace remains of him whom no one mourned—.
Except a cyst of massive prominence
with which the Vicomte’s forehead was adorned:
crude locals still recall ‘Count Unicorn’.


2. De Dion-Bouton

Gripping that steering pole, keen to maintain her mechanical stride,
dashing through villages, lurching through open countryside,
hissing and rattling, blasting through town in a deafening gale:
gloveless, yet bonneted, fitted emphatically with a dark veil,
sounding the klaxon, scalding the air in her coach leaking steam,
striking the peasantry just like a witch from a bothersome dream—.

Sometimes the auto, silenced and dusty, traveled more slowly,
harnessed to mules, pulled by the worn leathern straps of the lowly,
hailed by the villagers, fallen at last from her ill-mannered grace,
veil at last lifted, eyes flashing angrily, red in the face,
jeered by small children: she who’d once slapped the town pharmacist’s boy
for touching her carriage—Verboten!—a spoiled child defending her toy.


3. Eczema

The pharmacist’s son, the one who’d been slapped
as an innocent curious child,
turned caustic with age and gave vent to his rage
in a memoir he later compiled.

The Countess was “nasty”, “eccentric”, and “smallish”.
He’d sketched her in ink mixed with bile—
from red hair to sharp nose to dark eyes cold as crows,
her whole countenance roundly reviled;

from the charm bracelets jangling with jewels and with coins
that clattered on each boney wrist,
to that far stranger greed for attention, that need
to compete with her dead husband’s cyst.

For in summer she shocked town and country alike
by displaying her arms and legs bare
in their scurf-like condition, without inhibition,
as if daring the neighbors to stare.

But whether they raised or averted their eyes,
those same rustics who’d once dared to christen
her husband’s huge horn, with a parallel scorn,
baptized her: ‘Die Komtesse Fish Skin’.


4. Doll’s House

The house has far too many rooms,
yet gives an inescapable impression
of littleness and cramp, of a shelter that entombs—
so mean are the proportions and so cluttered their expression.

A fevered fairytale romance
so over-confidently misconceived,
this old half-timbered ginger-breaded manse,
part Rackham and part Disney, must be seen to be believed.

A gnome-and-elf style Camelot—
its belfries, spires, and balconies extend
around a courtyard that’s become a parking lot
for couples who drive out into the countryside to spend

numbed Sundays drinking steins of beer
in what was once a witch’s dining hall;
or waltzing at a stilted tea dance in her queer
old airborne parlor—buttressed from below—yet poised to fall

from rough-hewn white-washed posts
festooned with masks and gargoyles far too coy
to frighten, with their feeble jeers and idle boasts,
the Hansel or the Gretel lost in the pharmacist’s grown boy.

And all this was the work of one
dimwitted local jack-of-every-trade:
an architect and painter and less-than-master mason,
exclusively contracted and then grossly underpaid.

Each fall she left instructions for
the work he was to undertake that spring.
Each summer she charged home—refortified for war!—
with calls for drastic change that led to months of quarreling.

One year she sent the luckless man
crawling down the roof’s ledge with a saw
to guillotine a turret, just-built with his bare hands—
its failure to adapt to her foul mood its only flaw.

How concrete then is psychic truth—
boy’s memoir, witch’s castle, each self-styled.
Like his, hers tells Grimm tales of a resentful youth:
she must have had her doll’s house snatched away when still a child.


5. “Starry-Headed Poet”

In Deutschland but two months, he visited
his namesake’s miracle-producing head.

Transported to Cologne, in fabled times,
the ship on which it traveled had stopped mid-Rhine,

held fast by some mysterious force—which willed
that the relic grace a chapel there, just built

for fateful reasons not till then divined.
The saint’s head stayed. The church was redefined.

Thus far the legend, made far more exact
in 1852 by cold clear fact—

by a mineral spring discovered near the road
down which the ailing flock had dragged their loads

for centuries.  Henceforth the sacred shrine
has all but turned this water into wine

and lends its name, Apollinaris, to
a factory-bottled saintly residue

disseminated worldwide ever since.
Oh miracle! Oh severed head’s footprints!

(after Francis Steegmuller’s biography—Apollinaire, Poet Among The Painters)

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