Selections by André Breton, edited and with an introduction by Mark Polizzotti
(University of California Press, Berkeley 2003)
Martinique: Snake Charmer by André Breton, translated by David W. Seaman with introduction by Franklin Rosemont
(University of Texas Press, Austin, 2008)
Hypodermic Light: The Poetry of Philip Lamantia and the Question of Surrealism by Steven Frattali
(Peter Lang Publishing Inc., New York, 2005)
Tau by Philip Lamantia / Journey to the End by John Hoffman, ed. Garrett Caples
(City Lights, San Francisco, 2008)
André Breton was surrealism. Both king and court jester, he was the ultimate hall monitor expelling recalcitrants who fell afoul of his mercurial whim. Philip Lamantia was surrealism’s most well-known American exponent. We will call on Wikipedia to provide a working definition of this nebulous term:
Surrealism is a cultural movement that began in the early 1920s, and is best known for the visual artworks and writings of the group members.
Surrealist works feature the element of surprise, unexpected juxtapositions and non sequitur; however, many Surrealist artists and writers regard their work as an expression of the philosophical movement first and foremost, with the works being an artifact. Leader André Breton was explicit in his assertion that Surrealism was above all a revolutionary movement.
Surrealism developed out of the Dada activities of World War I and the most important center of the movement was Paris. From the 1920s on, the movement spread around the globe, eventually affecting the visual arts, literature, film, and music of many countries and languages, as well as political thought and practice, philosophy and social theory.
The latter paragraph is undoubtedly incorrect. As will be shown later, Dada developed in Zurich shortly after World War I was declared arriving in Paris as a result of such personages as Francis Picabia and Marcel Duchamp as well as Andre Breton. Again relying on Wikipedia for a concise working definition:
Dada or Dadaism is a cultural movement that began in Zürich, Switzerland, during World War I and peaked from 1916 to 1922. The movement primarily involved visual arts, literature—poetry, art manifestoes, art theory—theatre, and graphic design, and concentrated its anti-war politics through a rejection of the prevailing standards in art through anti-art cultural works. Its purpose was to ridicule what its participants considered to be the meaninglessness of the modern world. In addition to being anti-war, dada was also anti-bourgeois and anarchistic in nature.
Although there was a connection between Dada and Surrealism in the sense that, for the most part, each supported the other and each were counter-cultural, the important Surrealist precursors were Arthur Rimbaud and Stéphane Mallarmé, in literature, and, to a large extent, Hieronymus Bosch in the visual arts. Thus, it would be more accurate to allege, at least for literature, that Surrealism developed out of Symbolism than out of Dada. Even then:
The real revolution of this period, however, ultimately had little to do with Dada, or with any of Breton’s previous literary models. In the spring of 1919, before Dada came to Paris, and just as his first book of poems, Pawnshop (Mont de piété), was coming off press, Breton turned back to his psychiatric studies and to the startling imagery that he’d heard from his traumatized patients during the war.(Polizzotti, 14)
Born in Normandy on February 19, 1896, Breton began studies in medicine and psychiatry which were interrupted by World War I as well as his lack of interest in those or any subjects. His training did, however, put him into a position serving on a neurological ward in Nantes during the war where he came into contact with soldiers suffering from shell-shock (or what would be known today as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). From that position, he struck up friendships with Alfred Jarry (the creator of the pataphysical concept) and Jacques Vaché. The latter’s suicide at age 24 would have a profound effect on Breton plaguing him psychologically for the rest of Breton’s life. He, along with Louis Aragon and Philippe Soupault in 1919, founded the literary review Littérature. At first infatuated with Dada, he invited Tristan Tzara from Geneva to Paris but later turned his back on the Dadaists going so far as to disrupt one of Tzara’s readings leading to a riot. In 1924, he published the Surrealist Manifesto , originally conceived as an addendum to a collection of automatic writings but which afterwards achieved more prominence than the writings it intended to introduce. Disappointed when Freud, who was sent a copy, showed little interest in what Breton considered an application of Freudian theory, he then courted the French communist party as he considered surrealism a meeting place of Arthur Rimbaud and communist theory. He was spurned by them as they considered him not orthodox enough according to the Stalinist view then in vogue. He then turned to the Trotskyite version spending time in Mexico with Trotsky, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. He died on September 28, 1966.
Selections opens with an excellent concise biography and analysis written by Mark Polizzotti – something befitting a person the stature of Breton and something which all other publishers should take note of. This, in itself, is worth the price of the book – and that’s only the beginning. The only thing that one could still wish for were that this was a bilingual editiion.
Polizzotti expounds on Breton’s predecessors in the following passage:
The intricate collage of Breton’s poetry begins, as if following a classical apprenticeship, with the imitation of his predecessors. His earliest pieces were wittingly obscure sonnets styled after the nineteenth-century Symbolists, whose verses he discovered in his early teens. It was from the Symbolists, with their penchant for abstruse formulations and sensual decadence...that the young man early on adopted a taste for hermeticism that never entirely left his writing. He absorbed the precious aestheticism of such now forgotten writers as René Ghil and Stuart Merrill, the dark and fusty enigmas of Villiers de l’Isle-Adam and Jean Lorrain. He became a passionate devotee of Stéphane Mallarmé, perhaps the most arcane poet France had yet produced, whom the young Breton considered ‘God made manifest.’ And at almost the same time, he was enthralled by the liberating insouciance and perpetual adolescent revolt emanating from another literary deity, Arthur Rimbaud, ‘a veritable god of puberty such as no mythology had ever seen.’(1-2)
When it came to his own poems, “whether dredged raw from his unconscious or based on a very deliberate appreciation of his environment, generally followed the prescription he first sketched at age seventeen: that the true merit of poetry is to ‘unsettle the walls of the real that enclose us.’”(4)
Polizzotti quotes Breton in regard to his early poems inspired by Rimbaud:
These lines were the closed eye to the operations of thought that I believed I was obliged to keep hidden from the reader...I had begun to cherish words excessively for the space they allow around them, for their tangencies with countless other words that I did not utter. (10)
Polizzotti adds his own assessment:
If there is one overriding aesthetic of this period, it is the collage, an assemblage of ‘indirect loans,’ disparate fragments borrowed from life, literature, advertising, slogans, and any other element deemed useful...In his 1918 trilogy of poems, Breton uses the minutiae of admired literary figures as sign-posts, guides for the text, even as accomplishes – just as he named his friends in many of his prose writings throughout his life. Even Breton’s daily existence at this time was a collage, a sundry patchwork of military duties, long-distance literary activities, periodic exchanges with his friends Aragon and Soupault, and, more than anything, his infrequent but much-awaited encounters with Vaché, who was now back on the frontlines.(10)
Polizzotti addresses the import of the Surrealist Manifesto by first referring to Breton’s mock-dictionary definition:
SURREALISM, n. Psychic automatism in its pure form, by which one proposes to express – verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner – the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concerns.(20)
He then adds this quotation from Breton: “Let us not mince words: the marvelous is always beautiful, anything marvelous is beautiful, in fact only the marvelous is beautiful...It is a call to man, ‘that inveterate dreamer,’ to reject the ‘lusterless fate’ promised by centuries of Greco-Latin logic.”
‘Age’ was written in 1918. It clearly shows its indebtedness to Rimbaud:
Dawn, farewell! I’m coming out of the haunted forest; I’m braving the roads, torrid crosses. A foliage that gives blessings is ruining me. August, like a millionaire, has no cracks.(52)
Compare this to Rimbaud’s ‘Drunken Boat’.
Two years later, Breton wrote ‘Black Forest’. Here, he is indebted to Apollinaire, in particular, the Apollinaire of Calligrammes, published posthumously in 1918, for the layout of the poem:
Tender capsule etc.derby
Madame de Saint-Gobain finds time goes by slowly when alone
A cutlet wilts
Outline of fate
Where shutterless this white gable
Log-haulers are favored(53)
The difference between these two early poems is astronomical. We can clearly see the collage technique that Breton also borrowed from Apollinaire, an indebtedness to Picasso’s and Braque’s Cubist experiments in the visual arts.
Breton, in ‘For Lafcadio’, from 1918 as well, telegraphs his technique at the end:
Better to have it said
that André Breton
collector of Indirect Loans
is dabbling in collage
while waiting to retire(54)
In 1920, Breton published The Magnetic Fields (Les Champs magnétiques). Polizzotti describes this period, on p. 15: “That June, while awaiting discharge from the army, Breton spent hours in his hotel room with Soupault, ‘blackening’ sheets of paper with a rapid flow of words jotted down without premeditation or vigilance – words that, he hoped, would form a verbal record of his unconscious.” Here is a brief segment of the result, ‘Honeymoon’:
To what are mutual attractions due? There are some jealousies more touching than others. I willingly wander in such baffling darkness as that of the rivalry between a woman and a book. The finger on the side of the forehead is not the barrel of a revolver.(58)
It is clear from ‘Choose Life’ that not all was purely automatic in The Magnetic Fields. Here, Breton revised the automatic at least to the extent of adding a refrain “Choose life”:
Choose life with its conspiratorial sheets
Its scars from escapes
Choose life choose that rose window on my tomb
The life of being here nothing but being here
Where one voice says Are you there where another answers Are you there
I’m hardly here at all alas
And even when we might be making fun of what we kill
He was, also, not reluctant to play with typography once the automatic writing had been recorded as can be seen in ‘Angle of Sight’ on p. 73.
Written and published in 1924, Soluble Fish is the poetry collection attached as an appendix to the Manifesto of Surrealism, the reverse of what Breton originally intended as the Manifesto was to be merely a preface. This is another example of ‘psychic automatism’:
In those days the one thing people were all talking about around the place de la Bastille was an enormous wasp that went down the boulevard Richard-Lenoir in the morning singing at the top of its lungs and asking the children riddles. The little modern sphinx had already made quite a few victims when, as I left the café whose façade some thought would look good with a cannon, although the Prison in the neighborhood may pass today for a legendary building. I met the wasp with the waist of a pretty woman and it asked me the way.(76)
The Manifesto itself is provided in an appendix where the thread of Breton’s musings runs from man, “that inveterate dreamer, daily more discontent with his destiny”(143), through the word ‘freedom’ which, he writes, “is the only one that still excites me”(144),to madness where he “is willing to admit that they are, to some degree, victims of their imagination”(145) while complaining that “we are still living under the reign of logic” to Freud and psychic activity ultimately arriving at dream where he states that he “believe(s) in the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality.(150)
The poems contained in Soluble Fish deserve more attention than they received at the time of publication and even today where they remain overshadowed by the Manifesto. We must accept that not all is unconscious although it may have begun in that manner. A case in point is ‘Free Union’ which begins:
My wife whose hair is a brush fire
Whose thoughts are summer lightning
Whose waist is an hourglass
Whose waist is the waist of an otter caught in the teeth of a tiger
Whose mouth is a bright cockade with the fragrance of a star of the first magnitude
Whose teeth leave prints like the tracks of white mice over snow(89)
It is hard to accept that this blason is the result of a completely unconscious process. Certainly it doesn’t follow the ‘accepted’ course of the medieval blason which would move directionally rather than jump from hair to thoughts to waist and back to mouth. Certainly, the imagery is not one of extolling the visual virtues of some fair maiden nor do they produce the reverse blason that Shakespeare became so renowned for from his ‘My mistress eyes are nothing like the sun’. The imagery here, while somewhat guided, moves, to a certain extent, with the immediacy of thought but of thought applied, not of thought unleashed.
“Surrealism’s recent changes of course, notably its rejection of pyschic automatism in favor of Communist politics and, more internally, its excoriation of some of its own members”(23) was signalled, almost as an apologia, by the publication of the Second Manifesto of Surrealism, which reads in part:
Everything tends to make us believe that there exists a certain point of the mind at which life and death, the real and the imagined, past and future, the communicable and the incommunicable, high and low, cease to be perceived as contradictions. Now search as one may one will never find any other motivating force in the activities of the Surrealists than the hope of finding and fixing this point. From this it becomes obvious how absurd it would be to define Surrealism solely as constructive or destructive; the point to which we are referring is a fortiori that point where construction and destruction can no longer be brandished one against the other.(153)
It is this Manifesto that contains these famous words:
The simplest Surrealist act consists of dashing down into the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as one can pull the trigger, into the crowd. Anyone who, at least once in his life, has not dreamed of thus putting an end to the petty system of debasement and cretinization in effect has a well-defined place in that crowd, with his belly at barrel level.(154)
Polizzotti next includes poems from Fata Morgana written while in southern France awaiting embarkation to America and escape from the deteriorating European situation of WWII. He includes a quote from Breton regarding the “epic work...a poem which ‘states my resistance, which is more intransigent than ever, to the masochistic enterprises in France that tend to restrict poetic freedom or to immolate it on the same altar as other freedoms.”(30) The excerpt begins:
The bed hurtles down rails of blue honey
Freeing into transparency animals from medieval sculpture
It tips and nearly spills onto the slopes of foxglove
And is lit in flashes by the eyes of birds of prey
Loaded with all the emanations from Otranto’s giant feathered helmet
The bed hurtles down rails of blue honey...(111)
In 1948, Breton published a self-selected anthology titled Poèmes which Polizzotti says was “for all intents and purposes...Breton’s final poetic word.” He continues:
The war had taken its toll on this level as well, for the later poems in the collection occasionally sound an unfamiliar note of fatigue...As the poems become more conscious, more directed, and more far flung geographically, they lose some of the adventurousness from the pre-war years. Instead, Breton’s true sense of exoticism emerges on home ground; his earlier writings evoke a Paris in brilliant electrical darkness, proliferating in fantastic human and animal creatures.(34)
Of Breton’s legacy, Polizzotti says “Only after his death on 28 September 1966, at the age of seventy, would the lasting impact of Surrealism begin to be recognized, as students adopted his phrases during the May 1968 riots and the disquieting aesthetic of Surrealist art infiltrated the visual idiom of everyday life.”(36)
Martinique: Snake Charmer is, in part, about Breton’s flight from France in late 1940. He and his family stayed in Marseilles for a few months while awaiting embarkation to the safety of the U.S. having passed briefly through Martinique on the way. The trip was quite eventful, to say the least. Franklin Rosemont, in his introduction, describes some of the events:
On December 3 , the eve of Vichy premier Pétain’s visit to the city, Breton was arrested and held for four days. The official report described him as a ‘dangerous anarchist sought for a long time by the French police.’
In February-March 1941, Vichy regime censors forbade the publication of two of Breton’s books, the Anthology of Black Humor and the poem Fata Morgana, with drawings by Wifredo Lam.
Eventually, with the unstinting help of Varian Fry and the American Rescue Committee, Breton succeeded in obtaining a U.S. visa and was able to secure passage for himself, his wife, Jacqueline, and their daughter, Aube, on a transatlantic steamer, which left Marseilles on March 24.(3)
The trip across the Atlantic was itself memorable given that Breton, along with others such as Claude Lévi-Strauss, were described as ‘scum’ and “slept on crude mats in the hold.” Nor was their arrival in Martinique that much more pleasant. “When the ship arrived at Fort-de-France, Martinique, after a month at sea, it turned out that word of the ‘dangerous agitator’ had already reached the island’s Vichy authorities” and Breton “was promptly sent to the Lazaret concentration camp, a former leper colony. Released a few days later, he remained under constant police surveillance throughout his few weeks on the island.”(4)
Martinique begins with a Preface in which Breton states “in Martinique, in the spring of 1941, our vision was split in two.”(39) He goes on to make it clear that Martinique is a collaboration between he and André Masson:
in the following pages, we decided to devote one section to lyrical language and another to the language of simple information. We were both wildly seduced at the same time that we were wounded and indignant. Hence, our use in deliberate opposition of these two forms, which our unified voice shelters from dissonance, but which furthermore are bound together here by a conversation between us. In this dialogue, even as our spirits yielded unreservedly to the magnetic force of this ideal and real place, our conversation maintained a simultaneously sinuous and familiar turn, reassuring us that it is less important to view this world as artists than to respond to it as human beings.(40)
The first piece, ‘Antille’, is by André Masson. It begins: “At night, the house-fires admire themselves in the land’s glance. A grand ballet of palms, set in place by silence, motionless, rustles in the fresh dancing air.”(41) Here, personification brings the scene vividly closer to us. “On the lawn of your lips the protruding tongue of the hibiscus”(42) is but one of the memorable lines to be found in this brief but magnificent poem.
Collaboration proper begins with ‘The Creole Dialogue between André Breton and André Masson’. The process of collaboration appears to be that they took turns writing paragraphs or groups of paragraphs. The difference in style is discernible from the first two stanzas:
“Look at this white spot there above us, one might say it was a gigantic blossom but it may as well be the underside of a leaf; there is very little wind. The night here is full of trap doors, of unidentified sounds. But what is most beautiful, because it is least believable, is still the break of day. It is totally unforgivable to miss it.”
“The forest surrounds us; we knew of it and its sorcery before we arrived. Do you remember the drawing I called ‘Delire végetal’ [Vegetable Delirium]? The deliriousness is here, we touch it, we experience it. We are one with these layered trees, bearing in the elbows of their branches miniature swamps with parasitic vegetation grafted to their supporting trunks; rising, falling back down, active, passive, festooned from top to bottom with garlands of starlike blooms.”(43)
Even if we didn’t know that Masson was also a painter, we could guess that the first paragraph was by Breton and the second by Masson. Breton’s is much more jagged than Masson’s which has a painterly smoothness, which is much more interconnected while continuing to create science fiction landscapes. This ‘conversation’ is accompanied by extensive notes, as is the rest of the book, explaining the sometimes rather obscure influences. Wisely, these notes are endnotes rendering them unobtrusive although the quantity of them and their sometime unimportance to Martinique itself give one the impression they are present merely to show off the erudition of the translator more than as support for the work which is all notes – endnotes or otherwise – should do.
The subsequent prose travelogue alternates between the two as well. But this is a travelogue written by madmen. An excerpt from what is presumed to be Breton’s ‘The Dark Lantern’ will demonstrate:
Rain sets its hurricane glass around the bamboo grove, in sconces of vermilion flowers clinging to branches with suction cups, where, not a minute ago, dance steps spun, taught by two butterflies of pure blood. Everything unfolds in the depths of a bowl the way Japanese flowers do; a clearing opens; heliotropism jumps in on its shoes with curling toes and spiraling fingernails. Heart-stopping, flights up the sensitive tree, a feather crest, causes to swoon the fern whose burning mouth is a wheel of time. My eye is the closed violet at the centre of the ellipsis, at the tip of its tail.(59)
The next, ‘Bearer with no Burden’, preceded as it is by a sketch of what appears to be a fruit tree with legs and breasts, is assumed to be by Masson:
Like a spirit returning at regular intervals because its habit is periodicity and belongs to it alone, young black women pass by, often unaccompanied, carried along by the same rhythm; each is the very one Baudelaire was thinking of; his image of these women is so unforgettable.(61)
The reason for Masson’s incredulity at the sight of unaccompanied women was that it was still unheard of for European women to transgress unaccompanied the terrain occupied by men.
‘Troubled Waters’, a lengthy prose work, is more in keeping with the realist memoire and bears littel resemblance to anything that could be termed Surrealist. It is Breton’s account of his stay in Martinique.
‘A Great Black Poet’ is written in the same vein but begins following Breton and his family’s release from Pointe-Rouge, Martinique’s jail converted from the former leper colony of Lazaret. Breton describes his encounter with the first edition of Tropiques, the literary journal edited by Aimé Césaire and his wife, Suzanne, and with Césaire himself.
Martinique concludes with the poem ‘Formerly Known as Liberty Street’.
Martinique does not present any counter-argument to Polizzotti’s claim that Breton’s best work had occurred prior to his leaving France. It is a fascinating read but not one that adds anything to the annals of Surrealism. But it does herald Breton’s arrival in America where his and the Surrealist influence will be imparted to American poets, the chief of whom would be Philip Lamantia.
Born in San Francisco in 1927, Philip Lamantia initially has his poetry published in the magazine View in 1943, when he was fifteen and in the final issue of the American Surrealist magazine VVV the following year. Affiliated initially with the San Francisco Renaissance of Jack Spicer and Robin Blaser, he later became involved with the Beat movement and, in fact, appeared at the historic San Francisco Six Gallery on October 7, 1955, when poet Allen Ginsberg read his poem Howl for the first. He then embraced the Surrealist Movement in the United States when several of their representatives, including André Breto, fled to the U.S. to escape WWII. He died in 2005. During his life, his poetry was greatly underrated and virtually unknown.
Frattali seeks to remedy this oversight. Frattali says of his book: “perhaps examining the work of one of its more obscure figures will prove to be a useful means of reconsidering the [Surrealist] movement as a whole, as though one were to be led into a large and famous public building through a little-used side door.”(2)
Frattali divides Lamantia’s poetry into phases committing a chapter, and a color, to each phase. The first is Red: The Erotic Vision. This process is just a little bit too cutesy and should have probably been reconsidered. He describes Lamantia’s poetry in this first phase as:
work governed by the spirit of Breton. It presents us with erotic poetry which takes the erotic itself as the point of departure for a visionary impulse and makes of it a vehicle for encountering a range of metaphysical questions. Many of these pieces are in fact early and are written in an unfashionable ‘poetic’ idiom – incantatory and dream-like – and are often centered on an idealized woman...We are reminded that certain elements of European Surrealism, particularly in France, were a kind of modern rebirth of Petrarchism, and we find in such poems a special baroque complexity which codes desire and its transformations in an ornamented and deliberately conceited idiom.(3)
The erotic theme is well-researched and informatively written. Frattali begins with the assertion that
European Surrealist poetry, in dealing with the erotic, approached an ultimate degree of mannerism and stylization, a kind of baroque style...Perhaps it is natural that these anti-realist tendencies should be especially marked in the genre of erotic poetry. In dealing with this charged subject, the poetry strives to exceed normal expression, to create an overflow of meaning that is caused by and also creates a surplus of images and of figures.(11)
He goes on to indicate that this ‘superabundance” may not be to an American audience’s taste as “it follows an aesthetic quite at odds with much contemporary American poetry, for it in no way models itself after natural speech. Instead, it resorts to the hieratic, the enigmatic, and the incantatory, seeking in the radiance of its figures a light beyond the merely rational and a warmth other than that of ordinary passion.”(12) He then goes on to examine Lamantia in this light:
In Lamantia’s case, erotic celebration is a vehicle for exploring a range of experience, both literal and imaginative, which takes him into areas of metaphysical concern, ideas of transcendence, of self-hood and of alterity. We find an array of striking associations and images, combined with a sense of exultation, which we can compare with Breton. Or, in a somewhat different vein, we find passages in which an affinity with Desnos seems to show itself in a style more somnambulist, a bit less rhetorical, and perhaps closer to song.(12)
Frattali compares this surrealist form of love poetry to that of the medieval troubadour before quoting from Giorgio Agamben on the concept of trobar in Language and Death:
It is difficult to understand the sense in which the poets understood love, as long as we obstinately construe it according to a secular misunderstanding, in a purely biographical context. For the troubadours, it is not a question of psychological or biographical events that are successively expressed in words, but rather, of the attempt to live the tropos itself, the event of a language as a fundamental amorous and poetic experience.(16)
He calls this “the opposite of the Puritan model” going on to describe the difference as one of ‘inner’ v. ‘outer’: “one first has an experience, an ‘inner’ experience, and then professes it in words, perhaps aloud. And yet writing of the kind that Agamben describes is not merely performative; it is itself a becoming, and a becoming other.” The comparison of this troubadour love to that of the surrealist which follows is quite fascinating, particularly when he arrives at the statement: “These erotic poems, therefore, do not describe the beloved. They respond to her and to the libidinal excitement and psychological challenge she represents.”(18) Certainly, he means by this that the beloved is objectified as an other. However, all love poetry, whether written by male or female, objectifies the persona of the beloved. Frattali essentially states this otherness when he compares the surrealist to the Platonic:
Platonism sees such personal beauty as a lure toward the apprehension of a Beyond. The Surrealist response, with its mythology of the Marvelous, bears some relation to this at the level of thought: the Beloved is an emissary from elsewhere, ailleur, and embodiment of something more; the Marvelous is a door opening to an unthought-of realm. Yet at the level of writing, the response amounts to a disintegration of rationality in a flight of images which, following Lyotard, we might characterize as figural.(18)
He concludes the opening chapter with explications of several of Lamantia’s erotic poems.
Frattali ascribes the colour black to Lamantia’s second phase describing it as:
poetry dominated by the influence of Artaud, probably one of the few such bodies of work written in English. In this phase of his career, coinciding roughly with the decade of the 50’s, the poet’s writing exhibits a Gnostic vision, in which there dominates a sense of the fallen, residual nature of the world and of language itself. The body is often viewed as a charred remnant or dross. There is an exasperated impatience with literary language, a kind of sparagmos of the poetic world, and the explicitly political poems become angrier. Comparisons may be made with Cesar Villejo, with the Lorca of Poet in New York, and with some of Neruda’s pieces in the Residencia sequence
He begins the chapter with a very brief digression to Levinas’s concept of the il y a, the ‘there is’, the response to which is one of horror and therefore something similar to Kristeva’s ‘abject’. He then turns to Surrealism and says:
The typical subject of Surrealism, therefore, is enigma, which it nonetheless presents frontally, boldly, and as though in a joyous wondering. In the erotic mode, this presentation is prompted by the desire for union and lured by its glimmering possibility. Despite the enigmatic context, there is a boldness of representation: the enigmatic is, paradoxically, exhibited, placed directly before us. We are intended to see more than we normally would, to see into and to see beyond the merely factual. In reading Surrealist texts at their most exuberant we might almost feel that we witness the fecundity of the heart of the world, a fecundity that exceeds both being and non-being, an excess and a surplus at the root of all existence and all genesis.(44)
To this gnosis he ascribes woman as the Beloved. He then goes on
At the heart of Surrealist vision is a special type of horror, a special type of shudder; it is not a rustle but a clamor, the clamor of Being itself. Yet as long as the imagination maintains as its central point the body of the Beloved, this horror, or at least its portrayal, remains somewhat muted, covered, as it were, by the erotic.(45)
He applies this to Lamantia’s use of language:
We find this torment of reason and of language in Lamantia...In the style, in particular, of some of his work, we observe a language quite different from what we saw in the erotic poetry. There it had verged upon non-sense, or perhaps an excess of meaning, and yet it was buoyant and fluent nevertheless, a voluble and ecstatic speech. Yet in this later phase, as likewise in Artaud, we find a halting and aphasic idiom marked and abraded by a too-harsh contact with the evil of the world. To speak this way is to speak in gnostic terms. In such a vision, the poetry’s key element, which had previously been light or perhaps water, becomes darkness.(45)
This materializes as
recessive and harsh, a charred remnant, and crossed with waves of negative affect which disrupt syntax, rhythm, and stylistic register. The inscription of a sentence no longer follows from the natural impulse of desire toward its object, however much diverted from baroque hesitations and redundancies; rather, the unit of utterance is as much the phrase as the sentence; expression falters and continually reorients itself toward an object, Being, which it can approach only reluctantly, or from which it shrinks in an attempt to create an alternative condition, which yet it cannot imagine or have access to through any of the objects in the world. There is, in fact, and quite naturally, a sort of hostility toward objects, as likewise toward nature as a whole, and images sometimes seem chosen for their grotesque inappropriateness, or even to be chosen at random.(46)
Frattali refers to this denial of desire towards the object un-American
The evil of the world, which capitalism has multiplied and decorated, consists in this very fecundity. (There are new models of cars every year.) This evil must now be called forth before itself, and us, in a series of denunciations. There is a certain paranoia implicit in this, and yet vigor as well, a vigor of rejection. It is quite simply the rejection of the society of consumption in terms as insulting to it as possible. For the frenetic activity of this society, which we usually call ‘consumerism,’ seems to be the perfect embodiment of the false, the wasteful, and the decadent.(50)
In further support of this concept, Frattali makes a comparison between W.C. Williams Patterson and Lamantia via Artaud
We might recall the spectacle which William Carlos Williams celebrates in his excursions to the park on Sunday in Patterson. Williams reaction to the vulgarity and candid sexuality of the sunbathers is appreciative, even admiring. Yet Lamantia has an opposite response. In this he would be joined by Artaud himself, whose intense discomfort with sexuality has to do with the assent it imposes on the human subject during moments of passion and jouissance, an assent which runs violently counter to his gnostic quest for freedom(51)
From this, he discusses language as violence
Yet it is the schizoid breakup of this voice which creates holes, gaps, and fissures through which social existence itself is made manifest, not merely in the form of its scattered linguistic traces but also in its underlying spiritual nature. We see, in fact, an irruption of the social and the historical into the space of writing as they mark themselves upon it in the form of a pure violence. We also witness an attempt at resistance, though the self which must resist is fragmented.(54)
The comparison to Williams and the concept of language as violence are mentioned at the beginning of Frattali’s explication of the title poem ‘Hypodermic Light’ which is one of Lamantia’s major works. They have been included at they are applicable to much of the poetry explicated in this chapter. He concludes this chapter with an explication of several other poems. Such explications would register more should he have included excerpts from the poems to which he refers. There appears to be an expectation on his part that the reader will have ready access to Lamantia’s collections – an expectation that is completely unfounded.
We are now given the ‘go’ sign, green, although ‘amber’ might be more applicable to this description of the third phase ‘Green: Becoming Visible’:
quieter, more reflective, and continuing into recent publications...a return of a utopian vision, but this time the focal point is not so much the Woman as the physical world and our ecological relationship to it...Here lines become longer, and the surrealist baroque yields, to some extent, to a more visually oriented imagism. This phase marks something of a break with surrealist style as we usually think of it, and yet it also reminds us that this understanding is sometimes too narrow and that surrealism has at times forced itself to confront the real more directly.
This reminds one of the Breton of Martinique. Up to this point, Frattali has provided a fascinating portrait of Lamantia. However, he takes up the first six pages of this chapter with philosophical musings on perception culminating with the philosopher Lingis leaving the impression that this was an essay written for another purpose but which he decided to stick in here as an afterthought. He eventually arrives at an interesting statement regarding Lamantia which extends his statement in the introduction (quoted above):
In Lamantia’s poetry an increasing sense of the visual and the factual develops gradually over time. The gradualness of this development is a matter for speculation yet we might note that such writing, more attuned to the facticity of the world than the more overtly surrealist work we have looked at till now, requires a language responsive both to the external as well as to subjectivity, and to the non-linguistic signs by which the visible is made available to us in perception. The new item in such writing is the precise visual detail.(79)
This description could be equally applicable to Breton’s Martinique and , more particularly, to ‘The Creole Dialogue between André Breton and André Masson’ contained therein. This last quotation leads into an interesting statement regarding Breton and Surrealism:
The objective of Surrealist writing for Breton, was the search for the Marvelous, which he defined as the beautiful, though, importantly, he preferred uncon-ventional (sic) beauty and in particular chance revelation of such beauty. The ultimate purpose was to foster an expansion and a heightening of awareness beyond the constrained perspectives of everyday life. It was this reawakening of perception and insight into the real which was the fundamental objective, however much this was pursued by means which were themselves so startling as to sometimes overshadow this underlying purpose. Yet a clear style was not in principle ruled out. More to the point, the visual, as opposed to the dreamlike, was always considered a possible means of revelation. For what was always sought, after all, was a revelataion into the nature of the real, and the clarity of the visual, as in photography, can place that reality before us with particular sharpness.(79-80)
Frattali equates Lamantia’s thought in this phase with the liminal experience of ritual:
Though he undergoes initiation, what he is initiated into is not occult. Everyone may participate equally in these truths, which, because they are based upon perception, are not mysteries, although the full substance of the vision is perhaps given only to those privileged to enter into the rituals in the fullest sense...
...The rituals and everything connected with them are the result of an attentiveness which does not merely occur, however much the experience it is based upon might strike the observer with an extraordinary force by virtue of its sheer beauty, dignity, or uniqueness. Rather such attentiveness and such receptivity presuppose instruction, albeit of a special kind, and this instruction, which these aboriginal societies have preserved in their rituals and lore, must be preserved. The ability to impart it and the disposition to receive and to understand it are cultural achievements that must be carefully guarded. The speaker recognizes this ongoing project in the native groups he visits and whose hospitality he accepts, and this recognition, as much as the magnificent natural setting, contributes to the tone of reverence which is a distinguishing feature of this phase of his work.(84-5)
It is again unfortunate that Frattali fails to provide source references so that the reader can determine what it is that gives rise to these expressions. We come to a couple of important statements in furtherance of this discussion. The first is that “If the image of the speaker created by the early poetry was that of an erotic supplicant, or perhaps victim, the figure that confronts us now is that of a shamanistic observer, participating and yet also witnessing.”(87) This, and the preceding discussion of ritual combined with the fact that Frattali is making these statements in reference to poetry written in the late 50s makes one wonder why this is not reflective of an ethnopoetics and why Jerome Rothenberg’s name goes unmentioned. There should at least be a statement comparing and contrasting Lamantia’s and Rothenberg’s work during this period. What we do get is “In this work, the exploration of awareness pioneered by Surrealism is enacted in a new way, outside of the exclusive and restricted context of writing alone and the equally restricted context of the individual and his or her desiring subjectivity, and for that purpose not merely of enlarging awareness but of enlarging it in a particular way – the fostering of a greater receptivity of individuals, especially Americans, toward other cultures and toward the environment.”(87) This sure as hell sounds like ethnopoetics to this reviewer.
The fourth chapter, ‘Elsewhere: The Unique and Incommensurable Experience’, is a grab bag of poems, none of them excerpted, that Frattali was unable to assign a color to. He states in his introduction:
Not written under the sign of any color but rather that of a place or a dimension, the elsewhere. Like the erotic vision, it is not confined to a particular volume but is an ongoing and recurrent impulse. Elsewhere marks out concepts of transcendence that are found in the work, sketching a range of limit experiences for reason, which by this means delineates the extreme edges of its world.
As this chapter consists of explications of unexercepted poems, it is of very little interest.
It is unfortunate that what initially promised to be a much needed exposition on the work of one of America’s leading surrealist writers never achieved what it aspired to as a result a failure to include any excerpts from Lamantia’s poetry. Why Frattali chose to proceed in this unwarranted manner is never addressed? Explications are not that interesting or useful when what is being explicated is never present.
It is a good thing, then, that City Lights has published Tau so that we have an opportunity to see some of Lamantia’s work. Tau has been combined with John Hoffman’s Journey to the End. Referring back to that historic event at San Francisco's Six Gallery on October 7, 1955, this latter is what Lamantia chose to read, John Hoffman being a friend who had recently died. As such, it is very fitting that City Lights chose to release the two together. In ‘A Note on Tau’, which opens this book, Garrett Caples states that “While Lamantia’s desire to pay homage to the life and work of his friend is understandable, and the self-effacement of his gesture characteristic, the fact that the didn’t read even one of his own poems is curious and, in later years, when pressed for a reason, he tended to be evasive.”(1) Apparently, Lamantia was undergoing a crisis of conscience at the time. It was not unusual for him to destroy his work: “Lamantia still wrote much more than he ever published, and had even burned a great deal of unpublished work somewhere around 1960, an event alluded to in the title of his third book. Almost a decade of activity, from 1946-1955, was apparently destroyed at this time, apart from a few poems scattered in periodicals.”(4)
Following his death on March 7, 2005, his wife, Nancy, while going through his belongings, stumbled upon this manuscript. Caples describes it as “a collection of seventeen poems, many untitled, only four of which were even published.”(5) At p. 11 he continues, “In terms of his own poetry, Tau clearly develops out of what Lamantia sometimes called the ‘naturalistic’ section of the two-part Erotic Poems, printed before, though written after, the visionary automatic surrealist poems of the second section. By Tau, naturalism has been dispensed with, leaving behind only an apparent austerity in comparison with the flow of images in his earlier work.” Caples concludes:
the formal preoccupations of Tau would increase through Ekstasis, Narcotica, and Destroyed Works, and my sense is he viewed none of this work as surrealist. Yet is is hard to withhold the designation from the Artaud-influenced texts of the latter two volumes, or indeed to certain poems of Tau, which opens with an invocation of the concept of ‘Mad Love’ so celebrated in Breton’s book of that name.(14)
The opening of ‘Mad Love’ is somewhat pedestrian. Lamantia doesn’t get going until the middle where he begins to play with typography:
O Mad Love where untempered
You remain, tunnelling trains of art –
on this voice – these sounds –
A heart whose wails you dream
Into actuality swims halfway
To your always perilous oblique and
Interesting how the emotion of the poem erupts out of ‘Mad Love’ evolving into a mezzo-soprano release of energy (think the passionate anger of ‘Carmen’). Frattali would include this in his ‘erotic’ category with the erotic unleashed in the shifting of the lines.
Another poem showing the influence of French Surrealism is ‘Going Fourth by Day’:
To such the sign from circumvolutions
He can cast diced divagations
To the four winds. Nothing and the sun
Will speak for him. He speaks from the sun.
On temporal levels, on this level Now,
The personaged past interpenetrates
On the weird slung head
And screams screams
On all sides of the snakes of Tau.(24)
This is Lamantia’s most Bretonesque poem. It fulfills Frattali’s requirements for ‘the Marvelous’. But this is also, in a sense, a descent into shamanism, the elsewhere marked by ritual and incantation.
There are also poems that seem to be touched by the softer strains of Spanish Surrealism as derived from Lorca. The untitled poem on p. 28 is one:
Out of crystal beginnings
He watched the sunbleached sky
Trail before moonscaled ceilings
Where light ript the darkness down,
- his love loveless in a cloud
That last, indented line becomes a refrain.
And then there are those that echo the voice of Artaud:
She sped to me a winter word
When wound in welts & wounds of dawn
Black lights flayed on growning ground
The sun blocked on us & swooned a summer artichoke
In winter’s spleen
A rant of graves in a thorn
Of that her sleep, that spent a shrieking vein.(32)
Interesting that within this one winds an echo also of both Robert Frost and Baudelaire. But then, strange echoes constantly strain against the confines of Lamantia’s imagination. The numerous compressed words made us think of Hopkins sprung verse. And then there is ‘Question’ that seems Shakespearian in tone:
Not I, but it, should die
when it twists against sinuous walls
diminishing me in a jaw of stains death made:
not I, but it, to stammer in voids, shriek hells,
and once it dead, I live!(36)
This shouldn’t be that surprising as Shakespeare was a master of ‘the Marvelous’.
This concludes the discussion on Philip Lamantia, André Breton and Surrealism. Although the book containing Lamantia’s Tau also contains an essay on John Hoffman as well as Hoffman’s Journey to the End, this played no part in American Surrealism even though Lamantia chose to read it rather than his own work at the 1955 Six Gallery reading. Therefore, it will not be discussed other than this brief mention.
John Herbert Cunningham is the host of Speaking of Poets – a half-hour radio show on Sundays on CKUW 95.9 FM. He resides in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada where he writes poetry, reviews and interviews. He publishes regularly in half a dozen literary magazines in Canada and the same number in the U.S. He is also a multi-instrumentalist with the free jazz group ECMW – Experimental Creative Music Workshop. He is currently studying the alto sax, the Chinese flute and the darbouka.