On vacation this August, I picked up a copy of Dean Young’s The Art of Recklessness, a book-length essay in which Young argues that “Civilization makes us ill,” by its repressions. His antidote? Art. And art is most meaningful, he suggests, when it undoes the civilizing effects of socialization. Poetry is best (most affective/emotive/imaginative) when it’s reckless, wild, receptive—not disciplined or finely crafted. “Poetry is when the animal bursts forth, inflamed. It ain’t always pretty.”
It’s a good essay. But I still haven’t finished it. Because once he started talking about which artists he felt were sufficiently, amieloratively reckless, I couldn’t help laying aside the essay to go and find something of theirs to read (or look at): de Kooning, Stevens, Breton, Mallarmé, Ashbery, Keats, Rikyu, Picasso, Barthes, Duchamp, Verlaine, Whitman, Archilochus, Joyce Mansour.
Who? Here was the first figure whose name I didn’t recognize immediately—and also the first woman I’d noticed, (up to this point, only p. 22, and there are many others later). “I’m struck not so much by a power of evasion to prolong desire or with language’s inadequacy to refer so much as [I am struck by language’s] overabundance and adequacy,” Young writes. He pointed, I went looking. It helped that he specified a title, “In the Gloom on the Left,” and quoted the first line: “Why my legs around your neck.” Laying the book aside, I hit the Google on my phone without having to leave the couch, where Wikipedia’s stub told me Mansour wrote in French (though born in England, and raised in Cairo), and none of the sources for further reading were in English. I ran upstairs and grabbed a popular anthology of 20th Century French poetry—nope, not in there. I googled some more, using “In the Gloom on the Left” with her name. Oh found it: in Poems for the Millennium: Volume Two, (Rothenberg & Joris, eds.) and back upstairs I went.
OBSCURITY ON THE LEFT
Why do my legs
Encircle your neck
Sticky tie dark blue bouffant
Monotonous vestibule of a laughing creek
Christianity’s white olives
Why should I wait in front of a closed door
Supplicant, timid torrid base fiddle
Swallow rare vinegars on your gums
The tenderest white spotted with black
Your penis is softer
Than a virgin’s face
More irritating than pity
Feathered tool of an unbelievable noise
Adieu au revoir it’s over good-bye
The envy of the fantastic wilted blossoming
Livelier more violent
Mauve candies of devoted swoons
Pressing and paralyzed
Vehement afternoon nightmares
Whoa, I thought. More please.
This is not the translation by Molly Bendall from PotM, which she titles “In the Gloom on the Left,” since I do not have permission to reprint that, but that version is well worth looking up for her alternative phrasing, especially through lines 10-13. (Ahem. I think I may have actually grunted aloud.) Bendall’s version originally appeared in American Poetry Review and you can read it online (with ugly formatting) here. The version above is from Essential Poems & Writings of Joyce Mansour, translated by Serge Gavronsky, available from Black Widow Press. That’s what I did next: put in an order with my fave bookstore. The next day I ordered a second copy directly from the press, just to see which would get here faster. It’s the only collection of her work avialable in English, and you should probably get it right now.
Joyce Mansour was born in England, Joyce Patricia Adès, to Jewish-Egyptian parents who raised her in Cairo. She married at 19, but her husband died of cancer only six months later. Two years later, in 1929, she married Samir Mansour, an Egyptian Jew, with whom she had two sons, Phillipe (1952) and Cyrille (1955). Fluent in both English and French, she switched from writing in English at some point, perhaps influenced by her husband and her attraction to work coming out of France at the time. Her first two books, Cris (Screams) and Déchirures (Torn Apart), were both released in Paris before she and her family moved there in September 1956, into the same apartment building as Edmond Jabès. Mansour had already met Andre Breton on a prior visit to France, and the two were close friends. (“Your gift is that of a genius,” he told her.) Everybody agreed and her work was welcomed with as much enthusiasm as Mansour herself was. Once on the scene, she became a well known Surrealist, author of sixteen books of poetry, prose, and plays. Pierre Molinier drew her portrait for a 1958 issue of Breton’s Le surréalisme, même, and several other artists dedicated works to her or illustrated her poems. (Check out some of this work in the catalog at www.andrebreton.fr, including with facsimile pages from the books, letters to Breton, etc.) Serge Gavronsky’s introduction to Essential Poems & Writings vividly describes her relationships in the group, of which she seemed a prominent figure. (Joris & Rothenberg note, however, that she “exceeds the strictures of that movement, especially in relation to the latter’s phallocentric eroticism.”) Gavronsky places her in historical context, discusses her stylistic tics, themes, politics, eschewing of the typographic experimentation of her contemporaries, and more. (I’m still exploring it all.) Mansour died of cancer in Paris in 1986.
So she comes after Mina Loy, before Harryette Mullen, and is of the same generation as Sylvia Plath sans the early exit. She anticipates and perhaps influences (haven’t asked) some of the grotesquer corners of the Gurlesque as in work by Ariana Reines, Danielle Pafunda, Lara Glenum, and others; the Necropastoral as explored by Joyelle McSweeney, Johannes Göransson, and others; and the flamboyantly femme Flarf of Nada Gordon and Sharon Mesmer. I see her in Sandra Simonds’ work too. I see her, accidentally and by way of these others, in some of mine. It’d be interesting to read Kim Hyesoon’s Mommy Must Be a Fountain of Feathers alongside Mansour’s Phallus & Mommies. I’m planning to spend a lot more time with her work, figuring out what she’s done (to me, to us, to poetry).
“Why haven’t I read Joyce Mansour?!” I whined on Facebook a week or two later, halfway through Rapaces (Birds of Prey, 1960). I posted links to the few pieces I could find online. I took snapshots of some of the pages as I read, all of which sprouted multiple thumbs-up. “Well, now you have!” consoled Maria Damon. “Amazeballs!” enthused Lara Glenum. During the weeks of the first three debates when nary a uterus or vagina was uttered by the candidates but legitimate rape fluttered around wildly in the atmosphere, I reeled, reading “Handsome Monster”:
Sickness with its floating moustache
Hovers over me
Each time my eyes meet under the table
Its long musical hand
Stuffs itself between my breasts
And strangles my abscess
In an egg
My nose runs like a sewer
My hair falls with sadness
And the stinking smell of voluntary humiliations
My legs fly higher and higher
Open shells smooth fur
Inviting tender mouths
Scissors sea-horses with voracious claws
Share their delights
Their smiles their clothing
And their childhood pimples
Yes, exactly—lookit these handsome monsters trying to strangle my abscess and can they puhleaze not win any sort of election?! “I am in lurve with Joyce Mansour,” added Danielle Pafunda. “Let’s have a reading,” suggested Susan Brennan.
So that’s what we’re going to do, this Saturday, November 17 at 6:00 PM at Two Moon Cafe in Brooklyn.
Each poet will read from Mansour’s work as well as from something of their own that speaks to her influence in some way. Some will read in French. We may show a short film of Mansour’s “Pandemonium” by French lectrice Frédérique Bruyas. Black Widow is sending us a limited number of copies to sell on their behalf, because for some reason you didn’t order it instantly when I gave you the link above.
“Why should [you] wait in front of a closed door?” You shouldn’t. Hope to see you there. One more poem, an untitled piece from Rapaces (Birds of Prey):
Can you still remember the sweet aroma of plaintains
How strange familar things can be after departure
How sad the food
How dull the bed
Do you remember those cats with strident claws
Screaming on roofs when your tongue passed into me
And rose up when your nails skinned me
They vibrated when I gave in
I no longer know how to love
Dolorous bubbles delirium fainted on my lips
Let go of my leafy mask
A rose bush agonized under the bed
I no longer swing my hips among the stones
The cats deserted the roof
Shanna Compton is the author of the poetry collections Down Spooky, For Girls (& Others), and several chapbooks. Her new book, Brink, is forthcoming in December from Bloof Books.