words elisabeth debourse

translated from french by elisabeth debourse & anna weber

From time to time we call you Charleking, in English, to talk about you. It’s ironic, a suffix that suits you as well as a top hat on one of your former miners. You don’t say anything. Your reputation precedes you: no princely manners to speak of, and a “royal court” more like a “court of miracles” from a Victor Hugo novel. And yet, there is something haughty in you — a solemnity hidden in the clouds of ashes coming from your chimneys, the jewels of a battered crown.


They say you’re the ugliest of them all. And it’s true — you are repulsive at first glance. At the station, you welcome me in your Sunday best. But you’re not fooling anyone right now, you know — you’re a bit grubby, and the colorful suit you’re wearing is already has-been. It smells like piss around us, but I don’t really pay attention. It always smells like piss in train stations, anyway. Outside, in the pale light of day, I notice, observing you out of the corner of my eye, that you have a charcoal-gray complexion, a dusty hue. Your face is scarred by years of neglect, and these motorways suspended above your head make the picture even sadder.

What am I doing here?


You look like an outsider. Sometimes, you talk to me and to yourself at the same time, your words unclear, your own language taking over. You talk of pride from the top of your little artificial mountain of shale. You say you don't care about what they say, you don't give a fuck about being a fallen king. All of you, go fuck yourselves. You have feverish eyes. Glowing eyes. You're the eruption of this dead volcano, you explode — and then you shut yourself down. You shut up.

We walk side by side. I’m trying to understand you. I think you’re a little bit fascinating at the end of the day — it’s intimidating. You introduce me to some people, to your friends, the ones who believe in you. You play music together, you go to the bar together, you try to become grown-ups together, and then you head to City Hall, goofing around down the red velvet carpet, laughing like idiots. Occasionally, we also cross paths with the people you let go, in the depths of their cans of bad beer, in the depths of their problems.

I don’t know how it came about, progressively or in a flash. The same flash you hear when I take a shot of you and you let me do it, without saying a word. I always try to not get caught, when I do that — but I don’t think you care. I begin to feel a kind of tenderness for your messy teeth — me, the city girl with the flawless white smile. Your overturned dominoes in a perfect mouth, made to kiss, to sing, to swear — it’s this oral paradox, this cohabitation in your features that moved me. I loved the sincerity of your face. The spontaneity and the boldness of your words, the poetry of your arms waving around, your tall lanky body, your square shoulders. The waterways, the factories, the lost places and the people over whom you reign. This ugliness, your coat of arms, it’s your most beautiful weapon — a shield I had to learn how to get you to lower, having proved I deserved to get to know you.

We explored one another. Me with my camera, uncovering your unsightly wrinkles and beauty spots. You with your gaze guiding my steps, pushing me further and further to the most beautiful corners of your lost kingdom. It’s the beginning of the spring — despite the passage of time since then, I remember. You shine. I photosynthesize. Had I stayed, I would have burned myself against these first ardent rays.

They say you’re the ugliest of them all. I’ve never met someone like you.

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