“. . . 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

sum link for other blog

“. . . why bother to get in a car and pretend you are going a different place . . .” (James Tate)

Concrete surrealism?

Concrete surrealism?

On the floor of the parking garage between the stairway and my car is a penny. The penny has been there for several days. It appeared the day before the city of Mosul in Iraq was taken over by the “militants,” the “terrorists,” the “Sunis,” or “ISIS”—whoever they are. I’m pretty sure most Americans think they know who they are, depending on their political party.

The penny may have fallen from my pocket when I pulled my keys out of my pocket. It may be someone else’s penny. It doesn’t matter. I check the penny when I go to my car to make sure it is still there. Last night it was.

I could describe my thinking about the penny several ways. Serendipity. Absurdity. Chance. Fate. Funny. Weird. Perhaps Surreal.

André Breton (1896-1966), the first proponent—at least the first explicator—of Surrealism in art, described it as “thought expressed in the absence of any control exerted by reason, and outside all moral and aesthetic considerations.” Although he was describing a movement in the arts, I can play with the idea. Make it as concrete as—well—as a penny on concrete.

Surrealism is most likely best known through the paintings of Salvador Dali. “The Persistence of Memory.”

I’ve been thinking about that penny on the parking garage floor. My thoughts have no “control exerted by reason,” and the penny is certainly outside all moral and aesthetic considerations.

What can be moral about a penny on a slab of concrete? I know, I know. It’s not art.

Just now a bird that had been sitting on the sill of the window of my fourth-floor apartment took off flying and hit a wing against the window. My three cats ran to the living room.

The United States should destroy all pennies. No one cares about a penny. A penny saved is apparently not a penny earned. Restaurants have changed their menus these days to read $12 instead of $11.99. The penny is headed toward obsolescence.

When I next go down to my car, if the penny is gone, does that mean someone has finally decided a penny earned is important? Does it mean the ISIS forces have relinquished their hold on Mosul? Does it mean the bird on my window sill has returned and the cats are under the bed?

Imagine a town where, on the 27th of June every year, the citizens gather to draw lots from a black box a hundred years old. The person who draws the slip of paper with a black dot on it is stoned to death without remorse or questioning on the part of the citizenry. It is done every year because it has always been done. No fuss, no guilt, no excitement. Mrs. Hutchinson is stoned to death before lunch, and all go back to their daily activities without another thought.

I’m working with some young men who are, to an extent, illiterate—“showing lack of culture, especially in language and literature” (dictionary.com). They can read but they have not, through no fault of their own. Never during their education has anyone challenged them to figure out, for example, a short story. And so, they read Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” and cannot figure out what is happening.

I helped the young men understand the facts of the story—that Mrs. Hutchinson is going to be killed randomly and unapologetically, that everyone will participate in killing her—and the young men understand it completely. What, I hardly need to ask, in their experience is done simply because it has always been done with no thought of the consequences?

The young men I work with are black.

I will ask them—now that they understand the story—what they think of the news this morning about three executions carried out in the United States in two days.

". . . free mankind from the bourgeois shackles of logic and reason . . ."

“. . . free mankind from the bourgeois shackles of logic and reason . . .”

Obviously, I am not writing in the style of Surrealism because—in case you can’t tell—I am not expressing my thoughts “outside all moral and aesthetic considerations.” We use “surreal” to refer to actual events as well as a style of art; that is, “having the disorienting, hallucinatory quality of a dream; unreal; fantastic” (dictionary.com).

The execution of three men in two days is “surreal”—and can be carried out only by ignoring “all moral and aesthetic considerations.” I know exactly what the push-back against my thinking will be. It will be akin to the thinking of the townspeople in “The Lottery.” That is, ultimately, no thought at all.

The three executions will join the penny on the pavement, the bird against the window, Americans’ dangerous lack of comprehension of the situation in Iraq, the illiteracy of five young men who have high school diplomas, and more of the common ordinary unquestioned realities of our day-to-day.

André Breton was doctrinaire and uncompromising. He

aimed for . . . a total transformation of the way people thought. By breaking down the barriers between their inner and outer worlds, and changing the way they perceived reality, he intended to liberate the unconscious . . . and free mankind from the bourgeois shackles of logic and reason which thus far had led only to war and domination (“Surrealism.” Encyclopedia of Art History. visual-arts-cork.com. Web.).

Perhaps we need to break down the barriers between our inner and outer worlds so we can “find the ultimate in the ordinary horseshit.” Or at least begin to understand that a penny on pavement, another war in Iraq, a bird flying against the window, and executing black men are not the ultimate, but they may lead us to the ultimate if we can ever get over thinking we are acting reasonably when we are not.

James Tate, an American poet influenced by Surrealism, is the poet “. . . of possibilities, of morph, of surprising consequences, lovely or disastrous. . .” according to his friend and fellow poet, John Ashbery.

“South End,” by James Tate
The challenge is always to find the ultimate
in the ordinary horseshit why bother

to get in a car and pretend you are going
a different place to live each day as if

in ignorance of each other’s desires
betrayals are not counted Saturday night

when it was real warm read the paper and fell
off early in a hot flea-infested building

one must pass by the simple objects suitcase
coffee cup tennis shoe to take account of

life which passes by I sit here and stare
watch a ball game or tease the crazy kid

sunday afternoons are worse everything is
closed nobody drops in they all have

families and places to go so I walk
a straight line from this chair to

that table so what I paid fifteen dollars
for that table the dues and still

I’m foiled in every dream some folks
sit out on the front stoop all night

slowly they roll through the dead plum
trees and fill the air with a numbing moan.

Our best-known work of surrealism.

Our best-known work of surrealism.