Over the last few days, I have been thinking about poetry as a source of consolation in the face of devastating circumstances, thinking again of our friends, loved ones, and fellow poets in France—and of an earlier generation of French poets, the Surrealists, who knew a great deal about mass violence, displacement, and senseless suffering, having lived through the First and Second World Wars in Europe.
I love the Surrealists for many reasons including their emphasis on collaborative processes of making poetry and art, gathering together nightly in Paris to play verbal and visual games of chance that often yielded startling rich results, and for their attempt to achieve states of mind in which “life and death, the real and the imaginary, the past and the future, the communicable and the incommunicable, high and low, cease to be perceived as contradictions,” as their leonine poet-manifestoist André Breton, declared.
I like that the movement was founded and led by a poet but encompassed many painters and sculptors, and that it was international. Most of all, I like the language of Surrealist works, which fluidly incorporates strangeness into the everyday in a way that makes sense to me. I like the bleak humor and wit and the defiant activation of levity to puncture despair. There is much to loathe as well about the Surrealists with their embracing of violence, casual sexism, Eurocentrism, and misogyny, but when I read the poems, what I like is the working from and toward a place where destruction, sorrow, and fear can become something manageable, with the pain of experience still foregrounded.
Everyone who turns to poetry for consolation has a different idea of what a comforting poem looks like, and naturally what one seeks depends on the situation, but since the oughts, I have often turned to poems in this mode for a little pick-me-up, that feeling of nicely startled recognition as in oh, yes, of course, that’s how it is. Why didn’t I see that before?
My favorite of the French Surrealist poets is Max Jacob, who grew up in Quimper in Celtic Brittany and died in a Nazi concentration camp in 1944. His life story is nearly unbearably sad, though his prose poems will always make me smile.
Here are two poems by Jacob, the first translated by Andrei Codrescu and the second translated by Armand Schwerner.
The Wallpaper of Mr. R.K.
The ceiling of hell was fastened with thick gold nails. Up above was the earth. Hell is all fountains, big, luminous and twisted. For the earth there is a little slope: a field of wheat cut smoothly and a small sky in onion rinds through which passes a cavalcade of mad dwarves. On each side there is a pine forest and an aloe forest. You are now appearing, Miss Suzanne, before a revolutionary court for having found a white hair among your many black ones.
Miracles Real Miracles
Nice, old priest! After he’d left us we saw him fly over the lake, just like a bat, his thoughts absorbing him, not even understanding that this flight was a miracle. His cassock, the hem of his cassock is wet! That amazes him.
And here are two poems by contemporary American poets. I’m not sure if they would consider themselves surrealist or not, but I feel the influence of the surreal uncanny in their poems, which I have long admired. The first is by Larissa Szporluk from her collection The Wind, Master Cherry, The Wind published by Alice James Books.
A bell is gonged,
the body of a girl
curled up inside it,
a town grown wild,
dogs sniffing skyward—
They listen all night
for the girl to fall,
her stomach to growl,
or is it a foot
in a mindless gallop,
snorts of delight
as the gods take up
or is it a weird
and beautiful gargle,
the lovemaking sound
of a deep-sea diver
The next poem by the poet and translator Don Mee Choi speaks to the aftermath of the Second World War and the Korean War in Asia, as well as other large forces of history and American poetry, including a phrase from Dickinson (Emily). The poem is from her collection The Morning News Is Exciting published by Action Books.
from Twin Flower, Master, Emily
4 Dear Master,
I do! Autogeography, I do! Deeply lobed, in defiance of pretentious form, I push a petal from my Gown. An orator, born from jets, never met a translator. Orator, map out a wasteland between the front and the Chinese border. Such is—neocoloniality. I do! Autotranslation, I do! History can confront napalm. Sister’s madness is as good as mine. We make the biggest picture in the world. Shallow and spiked, nodding in air, we endure barbed wire. Daisy Cutter can touch us, cut us, demolish our petals. Our gown can stain like a drape. Translator for hire! Hire me. See you at the DMZ!
Yours, Twin Flower