Book Review: Kiki

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Amanda Earl, 51pgs, Chaudiere Books, chaudierebooks.com, $20 

The story of Paris in the 1920s is one of legends. When Amanda Earl went in search of one — Kiki the Queen of Montparnasse — she was seeking something deeper than the standard history. She wanted to resurrect Kiki and, as Earl says, discover “the feeling not the facts”. To that end the poetry collection, Kiki, uses the wild frame of Paris between the wars to paint an even wilder picture of the life Alice Ernestine Prin — known in Paris only as Kiki.

Alice Ernestine Prin came to Paris at age 13. By the time she was a young woman she was adept at flaunting her sexuality and living wildly and creatively in Paris’ art circles. But Earl’s poetry collection is not simply a raw romp through the sexual adventures of Kiki. It also paints a tender picture of a woman’s struggle to be free, and this is its greatest strength. To do this, the collection is divided into three parts. The first is a stark but tender rendering of the transfiguration of Alice into Kiki, with each poem in the cycle beginning with “This is Alice. This is fucked up.”

Next the cast of characters surrounding Kiki are paraded around the reader as though in a fun house mirror. All of the big names are here — Gertrude Stein, Kandinsky, Kisling, O’Keefe — and each with descriptions that trade off between the beautiful and the absurd. Of Marcel Duchamp, Earl writes: “The destiny of Marcel/ Duchamp is a musical onion.”

The final section of the collection takes much of the debauchery, paranoia, and profundity head on and is aptly called “Opium.” Here we face the drugs that fuelled much of the lust, heartbreak, exuberance, and danger that characterized this time period. Focusing in on the contradictions essential to a life teetering between the extremes of love and pain Earl writes, “I am the rhythm of flowers, the speed of metal. I am a slow rising balloon.” By Earl’s pen Kiki is alive again — broken and breaking, but also complete and transcendent. (Megan Clark)

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