Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret
among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture Marly Youmans is a novelist and poet out of sync with the times
but in tune with the ages. --First Things

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Songbird Guns

          Once out of nature I shall never take
          My bodily form from any natural thing,
          But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
          Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
          To keep a drowsy emperor awake;
          Or set upon a golden bough to sing
          To lords and ladies of Byzantium
          Of what is past, or passing, or to come
It's National Poetry Month. For all you prompt-loving poets and writers out there in the known universe, try the inspiration of Christie's Aurel Bacs and the paradox of these works that combine the skills of a jeweler and an automaton maker with the look of pistols. These little "swords-into-ploughshares" items are among the strangest valuable objects ever made . . . and the most expensive joke guns ever.

My husband points out that these are a matched pair--dueling pistols, then, as if for a mock duel. No wonder they were made for a non-Western market, then, as the subject would have been far too serious in the West at that time. It took the West a many years to get to “Your mother was a hamster, and your father smelt of elderberries!” (Thank you, Monty Python, for taking us so far.)

I am also reminded of my husband's description of songbird duels in Hanoi. I would have liked to wander that street of birds. Dueling, birds, and Asia: it fits so neatly!

If you're not a poet or writer, the songbird guns are still remarkable. Take a look if you need a little absurd, marvelous birdsong in the morning.

Here is the description from Christie's, intricate with detail:
Rectangular gilt brass movements, chain fusées, circular bellows, double-barreled pistol-shaped cases, the grips with translucent scarlet enamel over engine-turned background, set with one pearl and diamond-set and one diamond-set rosette, split pearl-set lower edges, the upper edges decorated with black enamel and pearl-set laurel wreaths, the grips' reverses embellished with gold and black enamel pattern and pearl-set scroll and foliage motifs, both pistols centred by split-pearl framed gold plates chased with a lion on one side and a stag on the reverse, the top edges set with half pearls, gold matted and engraved hammers, the heads of the flint vises engraved with lion's heads, gold vise nuts terminated with diamonds, agate flints, gold pan covers with polished interiors, the outsides engraved with acanthus leaves, their springs terminating with diamonds, opening under the right pan covers for sound, the blue enamelled double barrels decorated with paillonné and laurel foliage simulating damascene works, three barrel-like ramrod pipes to the undersides, the ramrods containing the keys for the bird movements, the birds released by the percussion of the hammers when the triggers are depressed, the front covers opening and revealing painted varicoloured enamel bouquets of flowers over turquoise enamel, the birds set with realistically multicoloured feathers, lifting to the top of the barrels, turning, flapping their wings, opening the beaks and moving their tails, in time to a lifelike imitated bird song, when the song has finished the birds will automatically retreat inside the pistols and the covers will close. 
Attributed to Frères Rochat.
Circa 1820, for the Chinese market.

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I am continually bemused by which posts or tweets receive comments. There must be a secret to it that I do not always grasp. Sometimes, though, it's easy: none on this one, but quite a few amusing ones on another posted later the same day at facebook--on an article about a young, naked performance artist who "paints" by pushing "eggs" full of paint out of her vagina." "Anywhere but an art gathering, this would be regarded as a satire on modern cultural emptiness."

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Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.