(ed. John Thomas Allen)
The poet John Thomas Allen is on a mission. From reading the introduction to this short but powerful anthology; Nouveau’s Midnight Sun, comes an urgency very unique to 21st Century English language poetry, is it something not seen since the doings inside The Cabaret Voltaire almost a century ago? And it enters the living rooms of a rather sick and ailing western psyche right on time, as far as I can see.
While pictorial art has made many more inroads through the surrealist attack on what was once called ‘the bourgeois mindset’, or ‘culture’, the word; the written arts (that Antonin Artaud would not deign to degrade by calling them ‘literary’ or ‘literature’) have always had a much rougher ride, particularly outside of their native (and now ‘ancestral’?) tongue; French. We are children of the surreal, whether we’re aware of it or not… and yet those writers that most acutely possess and invest in this artistic lineage are often more marginalized than the popular conception of the word surrealism implies.
Nouveau’s Midnight Sun, and its attendant group of writers; The New Surrealist Institute… (or N.S.I… yes, I like the possibility of that pun on N.S.A) consists of an attempt to explode the notion of a surrealism either confined to one language or to be a purely European affair… and, in a number of different ways, to broaden the reader’s notion of what the 21st Century surrealist enterprise might be. The introduction itself makes exciting and gutsy reading for starters… gone is the purely distanced critical voice that inhabits so much poetry discourse… this is up close and soul-personal writing of the utmost intent, as much of Breton’s Surrealist Manifestos, were. And what mattered in the manifestos matters here (and then some). Allen opens the anthology with this quote:
Across the spectrum of religious experiences—from the archaic and chthonic experience of sacred power to organized religion—surrealism arises in that elusive threshold between the sacred and the profane, between the illuminations and of everyday life and the more formal expressions of the sacred. The mysterious, contradictory nature of this liminal zone is embodied in surrealist literature and art: matter becomes metaphor; the ordinary object becomes extraordinary; and images evoke emotional disturbance and ambiguity rather than specific ideas. The ambivalent force of the surreal resists conventional rational categories of intellectual discourse. Behind its elusive potency of mood and charged associations lie the fundamental ambivalence and non rational power of the sacred.
—Celia Rabinovitch, Surrealism and the Sacred
The initial attempt of surrealisme to expand, to bring western philosophy up to the seemingly inexplicable weight and depth of sacral vision is more than hinted at here. It points toward the breaking of all the parameters that Plato, to some extent its godfather (although he is a philosopher), implied in his allegory of the cave. Is it any error that 20th century philosophy was born with Fourier, and with The Romantics we’re now all so familiar with (that we prefer to group them under that nomenclature; “roman-tic”, is something of an academic error… that they, having Greek and having Latin for sure, relate equally, or more so, to Provencal and to the Occitan line than to pagan Rome). Or even that the general pantheism or pagan atheism of the romantics also has a presage of monotheism in Kant’s noumena? at the very earliest? Perhaps Breton’s surrealisme would wish it that way? The Marriage of The Noumena and The Real? How so comfortably philosophical and dialectical. Yet each could be equally inexplicable… and yet Kant; being the über-Kind of his time, surely strove to apply system to that wink of the noumenal void?! Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and finally Andre Breton, entered, tutting: The Un-system-men.
Notice that I don’t include Tzara in this mix, despite mentioning The Cabaret Voltaire already. Why? Because Tzara’s Seven Dada Manifestos can sound so much like a post-Victorian Aristotle or Thomas More; a kind of brutal anti-theologian constructing horrible paradises while millions of men die in the trenches. Tzara was, most probably a great poet, but, like Pessoa’s Álvaro de Campos chanting hymns to the machine age, there is more than a whiff of the P.T Barnum about his manifestos (humour, though, wasn’t that the point? I might say to myself; warmth! into all your deconstructionist and structuralist distances, your analysand’s corners) and can only assume that Tzara’s poems were wondrous, all of his explications; faulty… although, to my mind, his shunning of Marinetti was a very sensible move.
One has only to utter a sentence for the opposite sentence to become DADA. I’ve seen Tristan Tzara asking mutely for a pack of cigarettes at the tobacconist’s; I have no idea what was wrong with him. I can still hear Phillipe Soupault insistently demanding live birds at the hardware store. As for myself, at this moment I might be dreaming.
—Two Dada Manifestos, André Breton
Tzara is the anti-sophisticate to Breton’s Kant. He soothed the human rage for rational dialectic, for material solutions (throwing up, instead, the suggestion that if the pre-Archontic God exists, he is no answerer but the mightiest of questions, which existentialism surely began, in order to be a meme, or cognate, of that same relation). Yet, it took The Beats to add the angelic to that first surrealist stew… and have we exhausted, yet, this vein of enquiry…? which still might throw an Origen, Plotinus, Philo, Aquinas, Paracelsus, or The Irishman; Eriguena, at the wall of the Bretonian void (… but there is always no-time, or all-time to do it in, surely?) And existenz, from Kierkegaard to Heidegger, seems also the bare soup from which surrealisme’s first wave fed.
And so it was Pared Down Ontology… nothing but Being and the respiratory infusions of an anti-philosophic Marvellous to run the modernist boat on. Only in a ghosted, inherited manner, did Heidegger know what was coming, and for him to further every western philosophical precept since Plato he knew he could do only one of two things. The first; to fulfill all the highest hopes of philosophy by becoming Hölderlin; ascend into poetry and (if Nietzsche’s presumptions were anything to go by) onward… into music; a new ‘bodily rationalism’ of ‘daylight-glossolalia’ with the prosaic left as utilitarian, proto-gnostic prop (where a Gnosticism inclusive of Plotinus’s The Good, enters Christianity) a more resonant form of dialogue; The Word, most famously given form by John’s gospel (in Koine Greek it would be The Logos) the beginnings of which, in Aramaic transliteration; the language of Christ, reads:
1. In the beginning [of creation] there was the Milta*; and that Milta* was with Allaha; and Allaha was [the embodiment of] that Milta.* 2. This was in the beginning with Allaha. 3. Everything was within his power*, [otherwise] nothing would ever exist.* 4. Through him [there] was Life* and Life became the spark* of humanity 5. And that [ensuing] fire* lights the darkness and darkness does not overshadow it.
—Testament of Youkhanna [Aramaic Gospel of St. John]
This “Milta,” or Logos, was present to communally terra-form a world before the descent into linear time, and which surrealism’s ultimate Reality attempted to mystically reveal (which is what we have been manipulated into doing, unbeknownst to us, via Satan in what was lost in the mythos of The Fall… we begin, thus, to see the mythos of Satan transposed into historical terms… it is time, now, to re-enter our first world with the fullest and most piercingly self-sundered conscience, a kind of pre-social mode of consciousness that endlessly enquires and digests by un-masking maya, by re-discovering its own artistry upon the instrument of the entire de-located mind-body, as The Present; the stopped instrument for Time).
Man’s fall, in dualistic and philosophical terms, apes Heidegger’s second option: to ‘become’ a philosopher-of-the-end-of-philosophy, set up a kind of repetitive meme of all the presumptions of the last 2500 years and have them on a mono-stylistic loop, recreating the scenes of all those happy minds in full historico-spirographic scribble, feigning variety in a world of rapidly increasing hyper-realities. The world of Alvin Toeffler’s Futureshock.
He chose the latter, at least in the sense that he felt something coming in from the Outside that western philosophy couldn’t withstand, and keep any base terminology in proportion to. Joyce’s Wake arrived. Existentialism, like Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit, was not to develop. It has existed only as a potentiality up until the present. Woefully, it was to be ideologised, i.e- to be made Sartrean.
Just as Breton had been Trotskyite, now Sartre locked a few million students into the mind-game of Marxism and the rather dully apparent anti-capitalism which still goes on to this day (the un-seer of Das Kapital wedded to Soviet revolutionary rhetoric… now there’s a thing to get Pacman-trapped in…). The procedure of the cultural arbiters, being; ‘give them a general theme, but keep them away from the true crimes etc… ‘capitalism’ rather than these very very very particular capitalists (the two R’s; Rothschild, Rockefeller). Thus The Beast works in us, with capital as degraded offspring, using any device for the purpose of slavery (only appearing because the populous willed it so) while the God behind ‘the god/s’ that wreak havoc waits patiently for the individual to remake, or re-ensoul, himself, so as to reconfigure the characters of the dream. The dream, being very real. And not real enough. Surrealism, perhaps despite Tzara and much of Breton’s writing, apprehended The Real as the shaman enters Dream-time, and the first Nazarean mystics fell upon God as eternal Hebraic mystery, through the figure of Yeshua.
It is no surprise that the first major writer in English who became enamoured of surrealism; David Gascoyne (who we’ll come back to shortly) had pondered Heidegger’s problem, also. And Allen is well aware of this, and quotes liberally from Gascoyne’s prose, appertaining to the issue:
In the words of Saint John at the end of the Gospel according to the logos, ‘even the world itself is not great enough for the books that there would be’, if one were to try to explain rationally the origin, coming and dispersion of the Word, so that it is hardly to be hoped that one could say very much that is relevant in a mere aphorism on what is the true significance of the word logos.
“When I was younger, I spent some time wondering whether I could formulate what I wanted amateurishly, to be called Logontology; but I soon realize I had neither the time, intellect or learning I would have needed to do the thing properly.
When I came to study Heidegger, I began to wonder whether or not the Fundamental ontology he has sought to find and lay foundations for might be just what I had dreamed of once. I’m still not really sure about this philosopher; and no doubt he is no longer at all sure, either. But the great thing is that neither his nor my project is any longer absolutely necessary.
The great I AM has already been found to be founded quite satisfactorily enough.”
—David Gascoyne, The Sun at Midnight
No surprise, then, that surrealism is a small and incredibly energetic child when Heidegger is giving birth to Sein und Zeit. In this, religion had to become philosophically secular for it to absorb the sacred more forcefully (in that crucible, then, there is no atheism, as there is no death) so that we see The Bible as initial apocrypha, or as the baby’s head appearing out of a mother’s labour, the birth-pang! and the invisible limbs of a truer Christianity, that we’re in the midst of… that this is a mythical, trans-religious force (which The Beast has attempted to unsuccessfully replicate throughout all the major religions, banking and cultural programs etc) and not a strictly rational or anti-rational risorgimento, as I’ll return to. This lineage is a seed, only now coming into view, but understood by Breton, at least in principle (and which explains why most of his later years were taken up in studies of esotericism; the lunatic fringe of the religious sensibility… just as Gascoyne had also sensed in his The Sun at Midnight but Breton refused to admit to; that the name remains but its meaning evolves).
The scriptural scribe of the internet (which had to be born as the print form was entrenched, and beholden to a critical stasis methodologically some hundred years out of date) gets married to the pre-promise of a Gutenberg, as Nazarean gnostic theurge becoming The Christian, and is pitted against The Beast; last vestiges of monarchy, of ego, of hierarchy. If post-modernism meant anything at all it was the final dualism of Artaud’s “En finir avec les chefs-d’œuvre” but only to entirely admit the I as supremely Partial, thus only to bring forward the previously unseen Self that the material self, the societal self, loathed to admit entrance. (This is key; cultural control, especially that mindset that has become prevalent since the end of WWII, depends on a radical re-emphasis on the individual, AND the communal, the mass… each notion is tweaked to fit the social engineering of these years, that of inauthenticity, whose only partisanship is falsely wedded to a mass, through manipulation via change agents etc).
And just as Freud mistook Consciousness for The Unconscious (the dualism meant, up till-then, The Conscious, with ‘the unconscious’ being the brain, unjustly persuaded of its bodily superiority, an iron Plato in the territory of a glossolalic Parmenides and Heraclitus) so surrealisme had to provide the method of no-method. (On top of the evolutional meaning and force of consciousness; the evolutional meaning and force of unconsciousness! Freud’s question brought down to us).
For surrealisme to travel, though, it needed emissaries… in essence; emissaries in other languages. In English we were fortunate to have two ‘envoys of The Marvellous’ in Breton’s time, the British poet David Gascoyne (previously mentioned) and the U.S teen-poet Philip Lamantia… from two separate generations (and unbeknownst to each other? Yet, we know that Lamantia read Gascoyne’s A Short Survey of Surrealism early on, as well as being inspired by surrealist painting…) although it would be a mistake to speak of them as purely or wholly surrealist, particularly in the case of Gascoyne.
Each, at least, used surrealist techniques but abandoned parts of Breton’s thinking (here I’ve no use for Breton’s Trotskyism, since Trotsky, and Bolshevism, were simply a paid off front for western industrialists to give Russia a ruthless makeover… the same ‘un-free market’ they’ve given the west).
Gascoyne split with Breton when he began being interested in the sacred more seriously (was it the Duchampian ‘game’ aspect that Breton wanted to retain for the surreal? What was it about the sacred that scared him off, I wonder)… all this, while Lamantia eventually got busy adding other more uniquely North American feathers to his cap. Une béatitude de la gouttière? L’héroïne? Jazz. What the beat ethic of the fifties and sixties did was to undermine the top-down alchemical theatre of Literature (it could be argued that this never really happened in Britain, and that the academy, in the wake of The Movement, was never really dislodged, and if it was, it became a customer friendly counterculture, and in the last few years, domain of the post-modern ironist, where the poet, stranded from surrealism’s original attack on culture or rationalism, neither aspires to The Real, The Irreal, or The Miraculous… and has absolutely no thought for The Mythic (maker of the real, but historically bound to a density of consciousness)… this new breed of poet’s concerns are wholly intellectual and apolitical, and their world inheres to that of the materialist socialite. Ironic, then! that the Baudelairean and Kierkegaardian emphasis on irony in the face of universal suffering that so characterized what became modernism in the 19th Century has now so overdosed itself on the same irony (with a helping hand from very limited readings of Frank O’Hara) that it has now so eviscerated its techniques of what Terence McKenna called ‘the felt presence of immediate experience'; one of poetry’s great tools (thus a surrendering of wonder to intellect down the years).
Yet there was a spiritual imperative in Breton’s cause, an imperative innate to language itself, that corrects our fall into ‘intellectualis procul’ just where the twin-stars of Baudelaire and Rimbaud crossed the night skies of that still young century. One can only read prose like this, and attempt to locate it:
At an early age children are weaned on the marvelous, and later on they fail to retain a sufficient virginity of mind to thoroughly enjoy fairy tales. No matter how charming they may be, a grown man would think he were reverting to childhood by nourishing himself on fairy tales […]
Words, groups of words which follow one another, manifest among themselves the greatest solidarity. It is not up to me to favour one group over the other. It is up to a miraculous equivalent to intervene—and intervene it does.
Both The Marvelous and The Miraculous up-end the Ecclesiastic and historical energetic framework, which seems to be a kind of tantric oppression, ultimately… I mean the wrangling of human and Platonic relationship into a wholly subsumed eros, an arch physicality of de-spiritualized matter. (Heidegger understood it, via Husserl, as the phenomena… Hegel alchemically manipulated the same to fit our quite understandable yearning for God through experience of matter. Aside from Breton, was it only Rilke that got closest to it, in its positive and active form between those epochs of Hegel and Heidegger, with an oeuvre that consistently keens to the presence of God-in-thing/s? All well and good. To discover the question! But there was something trans-disciplinary about all this that failed Heidegger’s grasp, ultimately). If, indeed, spirit had wholly slipped through matter in the western sensibility, one could also have a certain amount of sympathy for Gascoyne’s impatience with Breton… but what bothered Breton (and what has bothered many since) is that the form of the sacred that surrealisme implied ultimately rendered his product a little less marketable (or, to lay the responsibility for this with his interpreters? a little too dependently social than the solitude of Rilke’s God. That the foundation of great art, as physical convection, must necessarily stand in relation to a clarity of thought that demands the solitude that inheres to the foundation, and fountain, of ley-line and vorticesal geode).
Compared to this The Beats lived in a strangely a-religious realm, with Michael McClure’s “MATTER IS ALIVE, BY GOD! / MATTER IS ALIVE! / The grains of crystal slide. / It is the molecular consciousness! / ((I must be a Pagan / to survive it / — TO SURVIVE this vision.” (from Star)—after enjoying the freshness of this piece the reader’d be incredibly attentive to the notion of the sacred being non-religious or anti-religious, or even being put in the position of one standing before the building of the edifice of Christianity, in a mixture of dread or awe, anterior to the sequestering of Christ’s message. Except I don’t think this is entirely true of the generations born since McClure’s poem was read… when most of the abuse of the church (that tantric oppression again) and the psychological damage it has accrued and engendered in men is second and third generation, and the whole reputation has slipped out of the hands of most of the institutions, so that we can be both spiritual and religious rather than being spiritual in order to be anti-religious. Kerouac’s obviously anti-secular devotions, particularly in his poetry and in books like Visions of Gerard, temper the ferocity of McClure’s statement in favour of paganism, without invalidating the reality of his vision. (Let it also be said here that Lamantia, after Artaud, clearly identified the opposite of this; an anti-Eros; the earthly Satanic tantric oppressions of pedophilia, rape and torture early on).
Both Gascoyne and Lamantia did at least see, and effect, in their own different ways, a similar variegated spiritual imperative in the achievement of Breton’s manifestos, and in what they had meant holistically for writing in a more para-literary sense (with Joyce’s Wake, first, and then with Borges, the notion of the meta-voice and the meta-narrative would have drawn attention in direct parallel to Lamantia’s, and most of the beat writers’ development as artists. Yeats’s Spiritus Mundi was also in the air. The ‘spiritual being of earth’ was not simply leftover terminology from theosophy, or from the natural philosophy of the 18th Century scientific reformers. It corresponds to the solitudinal, biological and geological potential the great artist is moved to en-soul that I mentioned earlier. In the same way Allen takes up these concerns and tries to move beyond them in a visceral, un-programmatic and engaging way in his introduction):
There were antinomies other than the ones Breton had attempted to resolve which still seemed to hang in the air. The real and the imaginary, dream and reality, the sacred and profane? The metaphysical and the secular? Was that even my question? What truth was so elusive? Why now? Why was I dreaming words of poetry, prose, literary criticism written by Frenchmen so long ago when my physiological state and it’s attendant continuing well being was the immediate concern?
The answers came, slowly. My state of consciousness at this time could not be called idiosyncratic; indeed, by clinical standards I was having a serious bout of megalomania. While lying in bed and coughing spasmodically, I felt nothing but the most unearthly hope; I envisioned Rene Char opening his ‘Leaves of Hypnos’ deep in the Paris Catacombs as bits of multicolored grains began reabsorbing themselves in blue frost on the reptilian, jeweled tongue of Artaud, stuck forever to the lamp-post where Nerval had taken his own life, slowly reconstituting into green cotillions of mechanized insects with esoteric marching orders, sizzling anagrams, falling deeply from the sky’s black canopy. I walked determinedly with a collapsible cane, experiencing in different shocks, seizures and spasms, the violently profane and sacred finding unity in my being.
The antinomies he speaks of are not only of ‘movements’ or within ‘literature’, they lie at the heart of our whole attitude to The Real, spread over the last hundred years like his strange black canopy; the emergence of an exit sign slowly, and then more quickly, flickering up to full neon glare, in some corner of the apocalyptic circus tent? The bombshell of language that occurred in St. John’s rendering of the word-as-spirit cleaved into matter, and recovered here in shamanic ordeal (and anyone doubtful about the physical effects of revelation should take peyote, or speak to someone who has taken peyote, using that exact nomenclature; Ordeal. Ordeal, too, as in our current political lunacies which are simply humanity putting a gun up to Satan’s forehead, and every media-meme fastening itself to the myriad (but ultimately dull) shock-projections of The Beast (where the counterculture, in the conception of a hope-killing post-sixties Ginsberg, would surely collude? Which I’d class as the great opposition to the mythic in the post-modern arena of poetry. Might we conclude, in this, that the ‘beat mode’ ran out of steam exactly because it ignored surrealism, and that artists like Michael McClure and Philip Lamantia outlasted it because they continued to develop?)
But, in short, have we understood how NEW metaphysics is to the production of poetry, or to conceptions of poetic utterance?? No one before Donne saw it function so acutely as part of poetic practice. Even so-called ‘modernists’ like Basil Bunting managed quite well to carve out an entire oeuvre without it, or in dismissal of it (despite his mixing with the great surrealists of the twenties). Perhaps a purveyor of Robert Duncan’s Language Mysticism (the experiencing of the sacred, of God, through language… without any middleman… brings Duncan, as he implied through his lectures, closer to Luther than to the academy in its most papal manifestations) might concur on this point. And it’s also something John Thomas Allen has wholly ingested,
If surrealism didn’t contain a metaphysic, why were so many prepared to sacrifice their lives (Unica Zurn, the ill fated and mercurial muse of puppeteer Hans Bellmer, who had jumped to her death from a high rise window) (David Emery Gascoyne, expatriate British surrealist poet who would write his alchemical collection, ‘The Sun at Midnight’, before crashing into an amphetamine-induced psychotic depression for years after) and their sanity to it? The constellate diamond of Surrealism, rather like the Star of David sparking on a workbench joined to a seismographic body with an ivory crucifix as the lever in shining perpetuity, was more than a mere “art movement” and always had been.
Between disagreements on this matter, it is also obvious Allen’s proto-Bretonian project could be held to the leftover dogmatisms of the pope of surrealisme himself. Yet the introduction to this anthology is written with such a warmth and graciousness absent in other editors or would-be editors that this worry is quickly dispelled.
While there isn’t space here to go into a full comparative analysis of what has happened with surrealism in English since Gascoyne and Lamantia first imbibed it (Andrew Joron’s Neo-Surrealism would perhaps take care of the North American side of things?) and since the works of the early surrealists started appearing in translation it’s worth stating that surrealism in a purely written English-language sense, seems still something of an outsider art, despite, like existentialism, its having a slow burn of energy from the immediately post-WWII years through to the 60s and early 70s (particularly in the U.S… interesting to note that its effects were all over American and U.K marketing and yet Breton, in the years up to his death, and in the years immediately following, had less and less influence in Europe). Any neo-surrealism of a name is due to a number of small presses in the U.K and the U.S (Atlas Press in the U.K, and Black Widow Press in the U.S might be the most recent of these, with many surrealist translations now available, particularly from the latter). As the reader can guess, generally speaking, the cause of surrealism seems to have remained much stronger across the Atlantic (the extreme polyglot nature of the U.S, its carried-down resource of other languages may also allow for this) and this naturally befits the correctness of the location from which Allen’s anthology should hoist its proud flag of Illogic from.
That Blake’s work is shadowed in the book’s subtitle; Transcriptions from Golgonooza and Beyond whets the curiosity. Breton’s insistent lineage for surrealism was, markedly and unsurprizingly, French language orientated, but I often wondered why he was so hard on Joyce’s work, as a near-contemporary, and failed to mention Blake in his first manifesto (perhaps the case of Blake’s absence is more easily understood, as his work was only just appearing in print at the time of the manifestos). It seems to me that, in certain English-ized approaches to The Marvellous certain key personages in European romanticism would, as I’ve already pointed to, definitely bolster Breton’s stated lineage. Blake’s dictation of his later poems, Coleridge’s composing of Kubla Khan… both of these, although not ‘automatic’ in the Breton-and-Soupaultian sense, they are extremely close. And compare Coleridge’s famed championing of Wonder in literary composition with Breton’s citing, and framing, of The Marvellous are all worth bearing in mind (and where, if we go back to Gascoyne, his straying into Ecclesia occurs. Ironic, that Breton; being ‘pope-like’ to his admirers, is, in this reader’s eyes, the most secular of pamphleteers… I see no contradiction in that at all!)
But let us allow the poems to do the rest of the talking. David Shapiro’s A Book of Glass opens the anthology:
On the table , a book of glass.
In the book only a few pages with no words
But scratched in a diamond-point pencil to pieces in diagonal
Spirals, light triangles; and a French curve fractures lines to ellisions […]
It has something of the European quality. But there is also the North American plain-spokenness about it. Impersonal and displaying an ambiguous journeying quality, it plays with inner tones and sensual enquiries. It’s a very good poem, and I notice Shapiro has no more. Shame. Not so with Christina Zawadinsky, who is fairly amply represented… which is a great editorial move, as she is obviously one of the most talented poets in this gathering. Her prose poem Fifteen Years Was Not Enough begins thus:
Near the piano the globe of Pluto spins and then tries to fly away on its black wings. In front of the television there’s a circle of light where you would sleep and stretch out your arms in the darkness. Outside the door every stranger in the world knew not to come even one inch closer. You smiled and the earth cracked open and out walked crows and angels carrying toys and tiny pyramids. Now beyond the windows the willows are swaying and shaking out their long cold hair. But you were always there, you didn’t fear the darkness or snow or the sun.
There’s something of the elegy to it, obviously… but her work displays sudden outbursts of phantasmal or oblique imagery which would plant it more precisely in a surrealist mode. Note, also, Pluto and The Sphinx. These disparate elements; the galactic and the ancient in collusion somehow. For me, this is where the future is for surrealism and its updates; Fourier in an inner entanglement with Philip K. Dick and John Carpenter.
In contrast, we have prose poet extroardinaire John Olson, with a piece named Afternoon of an Autonomy (surely this is a reference to Mallarmé’s L’Apres-midi d’un Faune? I even feel like putting on the Debussy to remind myself of it set to music. And Olson’s mood is characteristically irreverent),
The autonomy of a monotonous mood rolled by with a sigh. It crashed into an abandoned pile of socialism. A crow arrived and furnished the bruised autonomy with glasses. The glasses were French ocher and veined with absent-minded rivers. The autonomy hurried to wear them, but stopped to paint an exhibit of alcoholic ice skates. The clatter of naked peculiarities produced by the creative fervor of the short-sighted but determined autonomy worried a nearby elephant, a female from Sri Lanka named Sathyanga who sparkled with telepathic alphabets and blew aromatic furloughs from her oracular trunk.
Olson has a seismic imaginal reach for crackling strangenesses, and the overriding tone of his lines seem to fall somewhere between sarcasm and playfulness, existing somewhere Benjamin Péret and Francis Picabia (you could also throw in Max Jacob or even Shakespeare). He is a troubadour of the oblique and absurd, and this anthology is all the more interesting for his presence. The poem How Sentences Are Born also sees some fascinating flights:
There is a candle whose light awakens the sheen of a grand piano. Let’s use that light to navigate our way through all the debris and chaos that life throws at us: objects falling on a hardwood floor. Zombies disembarking from a tour bus. Bugs and abstractions boxing in a baked eye of intuitive goop. Personal injuries weeping in a mirror of hungry sand.
…and later he falls into a similarly weird, probing and elevated mode:
Think of yourself as words on a radio. Busy, probing, inquisitive, confident, but basically ephemeral. Waves. An ellipsis boiling over with miracles of protein. That’s when it’s time to seize the rain and squeeze it until it assumes the shape of Wisconsin.
…or how about this, from the Hopkins-like Each Time a Vowel Catches Fire:
Art’s fondest dream is to push its interior meanings into globular lumps of morality which writing does when it really starts to tremble and become a maelstrom of silver the crackling of ink beside the mind of an ant attracting rain and Pollock pushing a little blind eye into a dangerous glamour to sweeten the sharpness of death a nail in a declension of wood.
…nice, how punctuation takes a holiday in that last piece, leaving all the expressivity supercharged in only word-meaning (which aspires to all meaning?) and, further, how the exploitation of the prose poem form allows him to drop into reflexive philosophical statements that never entirely find conclusion and, instead, add to what John Ashbery has called ‘a poetry of continuum’. Whatever furthers the poem, imagistically and observationally, is its own sustenance. If you do not have any of Olson’s work I highly recommend it.
The first of two pieces by Adam Cornford also catches my eye, and I soon go back to re-read it; Red Venice:
In solitary London
all the stone steps are connected
In brave Accra
dolls float in the lagoons
In silent Munich
night has a long tongue
The poem succeeds not only through syntax and image, but here through the unlikely juxtapositions of places themselves: London, Accra, Munich… offering odd new lines of dreamy travel à la Roussel. His next poem, Philosophical Panorama, has:
At sunset the line of hills undulates like a lazy signal in the infra-red
and behind them curtain gray curtain paling the mountains
cordilleras fluttering with infinite slowness in the geological wind
like worn muslin the strata exposed and angled near vertical
a decor of ghosts the ancient shells hanging in the tatter and weave
Symmetry, asymmetry, dissonance. Distance. Nearness. The surreal collapses space and time. Transposes it into space-Time. Verdant connectivity of dissimilars, nearness into distance, distance into approximate intimacy. Abstraction and concretion. As Jim Morrison once joked in an interview; ‘the dead will have to fend for themselves’ to the question of human lives becoming longer, and by degrees, more and more spiritual. We ghost the dead, we see them by creating them in imaginary forms. Anna Karenina exists as long as the book does. And yet she is nowhere. Our creations, then, share vital qualifying principles with the dead. Is this pure imagination? We inhabit our own Guadalahara… as Ashbery, himself ghosting Roussel, implied. The wind, in Cornford’s poem shares a concrescence with rock and soil. The nothing-is-something tone. There, and now… here. The marvellous receives its energy from that communion of spiritual and material; this is the liminal implied by Allen, and also in the poetry of Michael Rattigan (whose writing is also reviewed at The Fiend).
The liminal eventualizes correspondences, as Allen’s anthology exposes. That’s why, I would assume, he has broken up the work into chapters or sections so that the overall impression is something akin to a conversation, a menage, even, between Arthur Cravan, Plato and Loy… or as in his own poem Genome Dice:
Surrealism is Eros, the woman in sepia gelatin. How could she be reached? She’d been given a blue ring of ochre that rang and sang, he’d spent nights and days with her, but a gelatin freeze remained. How could she be reached? A word fallen like lead thumbs? A scream so horrifying it would render Lucifer deaf? He couldn’t maintain her face, it shifted. Strange is a mathematics of semiotic dislocation now. This is not Arnim, or Achim, or the uncanny. A sense of dislocation related to civilization is not the same as the uncanny… A cryptographer struggling with a code as some struggle with poppers of sea salt asthma, and the molecules were pleasing him in nostril shock, porcelain worms freezing into small hickory smoked bullets burning.
…not only are the images tantalizing but it also (more broadly) makes me think that, formally speaking, it is surrealism that has done more for the prose poem than any other approach. Ever since Baudelaire the race has been on to undermine the traditional form for poetry and the structures and strictures inherent in prose. Surrealism led the charge. Lautreamont discovered the sleeping road of nightmare and found it consoling; an ugliness absorbed into beauty by compassion’s black wand. Desnos’ prose seeped into poetic metre, Breton and Soupault’s Les Champs Magnetiques prefiguring Charles Olson’s projective Field by a quarter century? (along with Einstein’s greatest theory: not relativity, but the theory of the Magnetic Field, not coming to any school near you not soon; the moment when Einstein could inherit from Tesla cleanly and honestly without obfuscation)… prose as prophetic gate into oblivion’s sacristy etc. Prose imbued with the first ballad-like urge of man?? Switches in forms, cross-embuements, or cross-fertilizings of the physical and of the spiritual. Kant, Schopenhauer and Hegel had all built systems on the before then shabbily treated liminal (but none apprehended it as symbol of process until Bergson and Whitehead) but it wasn’t until The Marvellous that the sacred implied in the psalms and the gospels became at least partially present and a visible presence in modernity. No philosophy could swallow it whole. It was like Socrates knelt at the place where Empedokles was plunged into the boiling lavas of Etna. No one could dive in. Platonism could dutifully return to Pythagoras but Empedokles was for the entirely betwitched or the ecstatically brave. All this, the innate balladry of the plain prose sentence stored up… needing the novel to encourage it through the 18th and 19th centuries, before, in Baudelaire, it could expend the fullest extent of its potentialities.
In this context, the wholly book-tied pieces of J.Karl Bogartte are worth delving into (Bogartte doesn’t explicitly name anything he writes as formally ‘poetry’ or any other form of creative writing. The writing seems simply a part of an entire creative ethos that encompasses much visual art, and is formal only insofar as it is contained by the printed book or the webpage etc. The following sections in the anthology are from the book A Spindle’s Arc).
Night, ridiculous angles. Glance, eating muses by candlelight, she is eating her placenta, by instinct, your precious amanita… At dawn you are a translation, the nearness of another language, the flowing of locks capturing a sense of clairvoyance, windows of night-presence for a serum of words, a ridiculous corridor of invisible twins… You and you…
The glow between living and ceasing to live, emulates the long-legged cascade in her whispering circuitry, the gaze of rain is corrupted film, caught in the act, disguised by pleasure purring in gradually brightening passwords.
Deception is a lunar state of unconditional ill repute, a ravaging stone held close and indigoed into a conception of fire rising through the body, facing the other direction. A lancing misconception.
Sometimes the lines can seem very choppy and terse. Other times they can be very angular, dissonant and pre-thoughtful… entirely instinctual. Nothing, however, feels formulaic or procedural. As with the images in his visual work they have, and appear out of, both an abrupt and consoling darkness of pagan clarity, along with the vagueness of a not-wholly-grasped memory; the illusiveness, but Real, exactitude of déjà vu (literally; the already-seen, the re-minder). Which is to say they’re always surprising and disturbing, in the most visionary sense. In his pieces the madness feels to be its own rational un-system. And, for me, this always invites the primal self-reflection which process philosophy imbibed from; the surrendering to a secret, rather than the arguing into submission. And this, I think is implied in one of Yeats’s great titles; The Cold Heaven. Distanced absorptions? Joy’s onenesses; felt again in the ekstasis of Julian Semilian’s Poetry Reading, whose title similarly flexes back upon its own performance, so that the writer is submerged beneath an initially prosaic setting that turns into a glee’s linguistic gymnastics, language thrown back into the glad ferocity of its own signifying waves…
ah, the dedications of voluptuaries! A hand for them! a hand like a swarm of flutes to grant fortitude at the funeral of friends, a temporary gathering at best. But the crimson! engrossing you in the kelly-green of the asylum where we read, now emerald, now viridian, now aquamarine! porphyry quavering amidst the adoring of cadavers! […]
The Marvellous as language repository itself has had a certain traction in critical theory ever since works like Breton’s L’union Libre and Les Vases Communicants or Joyce’s Wake. In the final poem I’ll quote from, that notion is pitched to an entirely Other landscape which, again, proves that the alchemical, the science- fictive, the cognitive leaps, the boundary dissolutions, continue this tradition of surrealism, felt first in those now-almost-centennial works.
Sutton Breiding’s untitled poem appears thus:
I am sewn
to the words
waxwing and binary system
I am hypnotized by the special effects
before the sky’s blue screen
here are echoes
of all poems in poems of the Poem
the million mirrors reflecting dead teasel
in a rubble of shadows and toys
I am sewn
to the taste
of night rains
and the berryjuice of memory on hot country lanes
where I scrawl in post-language’s cool fire
a pre-language of dust from everyone’s Martian childhood
Andrew O’Donnell, Nov ’14
‘Nouveau’s Midnight Sun; Transcriptions from Golgonooza and Beyond’ is published by Ravenna Press, and is available through their website, and the usual online booksellers. John Thomas Allen is also the author of ‘The Other Guy’ (2012) and ‘Lumiere’ (2014).
David Gascoyne’s ‘New Collected Poems’ was released this August, through Enitharmon Press. Philip Lamantia’s Collected Poems was released last year, and is available through University of California Press.
[All uncredited photographs by the editor.]