“. . . Ah my shadow, my dear shadow. I should write a long letter to the shadow I lost. . . “ (André Breton)

Not crystal but real

Not crystal but real

I will posit without any reservations that I’m something of a surrealist. I’m not sure what the word means, but I’m pretty sure I am one.

This is the first, the only time I will talk about “movements in art” or such things. I hope anyone who can’t see the tongue-in-my-cheek will read to the punchline and not get caught up in art criticism or worry about my (misguided) attempt at serious scholarship (or worry about anything else, either).

Dadaism I don’t understand. I wouldn’t know a Dadaist if Theo Van Doesburg bit me on the keister. However, if the Dadaists,

believed [the social, political, and cultural ideas of that time] to be a byproduct of bourgeois society, a society so apathetic it would rather fight a war against itself than challenge the status quo. (Introduction: “Everybody can Dada,” National Gallery of Art),

then I suppose I’m something of a Dadaist, too. We are obviously fighting wars against ourselves—in Afghanistan and Iraq and Yemen and Gaza and Pakistan and the United States Congress, wars against ourselves.

Fred S. Kleiner (Professor of Art History at Boston University—I looked him because I found this quote) says Dada was a “reaction to what many of these artists saw as nothing more than an insane spectacle of collective homicide.”

An insane spectacle of collective suicide.

On the other hand, the Surrealists were not interested in the social, political, and cultural ideas of any time. They were (are) interested in anything having to do with

pure psychic automatism, by which an attempt is made to express—either verbally, in writing or in any other manner— the true functioning of thought. The dictation of thought, in the absence of all control by reason, excluding any aesthetic or moral preoccupation (Breton, Surrealist Manifesto, 1924).

The dictation of thought, in the absence of all control by reason. My thoughts almost always happen in the absence of the control of reason.

My thoughts uncontrolled by reason began this morning because I stumbled upon the poem at the end of this post by André Breton. I remembered reading somewhere a long time ago that he was a surrealist and trying (unsuccessfully) to make the connection in my mind between his poetry and Salvador Dali’s paintings (the only surrealism most of us know).
daliSurrealism, as I understood it in that art history class I took a long time ago has more to do with the mind than with ideas. What’s going on in one’s mind, not how one is sorting out what’s going on and making logical connections.

The operative clause above is “as I understood it.” The dictation of thought, in the absence of all control by reason.

elbow concert blue sad friend movie difficult sheets driving laundry hip sad appointment desk friend complicated sunshine cat cat cat hard-boiled eggs typos neurologist blue plastic sad cry why Prokofiev cat sad teeming etymology and so from a young Tongan man to Moana to the Plow that Broke the Plains and Virgil Thomson to blue plastic laundry and back to getting old and wishing I knew

My thoughts, in the absence of all control by reason, excluding any aesthetic or moral preoccupation, but sometimes, thank goodness, larger thoughts—about war and peace and love and hate and loss and grief. Those things. I’m no different from anyone else. But only André Breton can make poetry out of that jumbled mess in the brain.

Or not. I wrote a poem a couple of days ago before I stumbled upon André Breton. It may not be good poetry, but it’s a good picture of the way my mind moved from meeting a young Tongan man with his fresh tribal tattoo to the films of Robert Flaherty, Moana especially, to needing to do laundry to the constant new nagging in the back of mind if I am really able to take care of myself and when the time will come, as it certainly will, when I am not able—a perfectly futile thought (as I said, “nagging,” not helpful). And so two days ago I called a friend who loves to refinish furniture and offered him my huge old mahogany roll-top desk that I couldn’t possibly move to a new apartment asking as payment only help with a couple of business details I can’t wrap my brain around because absence of all control by reason not only pervades my writing, my poetizing, and music-making, but also the way I exist in this world of car registrations, insurance policies, retirement funds and returning library books which I have never been able to navigate.

And after I called my friend, I wrote the first draft of this poem. The first time in years I’ve let anyone see one of my feeble attempts.

“Blue plastic and silent films,” by Harold Knight.

The goblet not Orrefors, I know, but from Sweden,
on my kitchen counter blue plastic with dollar and quarter-dollar coins
for the old man’s laundry piled on the floor at the foot of the bed

waiting for the hand that steadied the plow that broke the plains
I am not yet the old man but I am old enough and I wonder
how long can I stay here taking care of myself

I take care always when I go down staircases
take care of myself before they make me—that plow,
Louisiana Story, the music, I hear the music both,
but Moana has no music only the boy and his tattoo

the tattoo means something, something family, something
Virgil T might have composed a score for but Robert F
made it two years before the talkies—before they make me

move to a place where we need one person in charge of another
and there we have one person in charge of another
for our memories of the silence, the silence of the films
and the silence of our memories when another person asks

how do you know stuff like that

And here’s that real surrealist poem.

“The Forest in the Axe,” by André Breton (1896-1966)
Someone just died but I’m still alive and yet I don’t have a soul anymore. All I have left is a transparent body inside of which transparent doves hurl themselves on a transparent dagger held by a transparent hand. I see struggle in all its beauty, real struggle which nothing can measure, just before the last star comes out. The rented body I live in like a hut detests the soul I had which floats in the distance. It’s time to put an end to that famous dualism for which I’ve been so much reproached. Gone are the days when eyes without light and rings drew sediment from pools of color. There’s neither red nor blue anymore. Unanimous red-blue fades away in turn like a robin redbreast in the hedges of inattention. Someone just died,—not you or I or they exactly, but all of us, except me who survives by a variety of means: I’m still cold for example. That’s enough. A match! A match! Or how about some rocks so I can split them, or some birds so I can follow them, or some corsets so I can tighten them around dead women’s waists, so they’ll come back to life and love me, with their exhausting hair, their disheveled glances! A match, so no one dies for brandied plums, a match so the Italian straw hat can be more than a play! Hey, lawn! Hey, rain! I’m the unreal breath of this garden. The black crown resting on my head is a cry of migrating crows because up till now there have only been those who were buried alive, and only a few of them, and here I am the first aerated dead man. But I have a body so I can stop doing myself in, so I can force reptiles to admire me. Bloody hands, mistletoe eyes, a mouth of dried leaves and glass (the dried leaves move under the glass; they’re not as red as one would think, when indifference exposes its voracious methods), hands to gather you, miniscule thyme of my dreams, rosemary of my extreme pallor. I don’t have a shadow anymore, either. Ah my shadow, my dear shadow. I should write a long letter to the shadow I lost. I’d begin it My Dear Shadow. Shadow, my darling. You see. There’s no more sun. There’s only one tropic left out of two. There’s only one man left in a thousand. There’s only one woman left in the absence of thought that characterizes in pure black this cursed era. That woman holds a bouquet of everlastings shaped like my blood.

From Andre Breton: Selections, edited by Mark Polizzoti. Copyright © 2003. Reprinted by permission of University of California Press. “The Forest in the Axe” translated by Zack Rogow and Bill Zavatsky.

Tribal but not surreal

Tribal but not surreal

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