Books

A New Collection of Surrealist Writings Focuses on Women Authors

The Milk Bowl of Feathers shows how women’s contributions to the Surrealist literary canon captivatingly crack the wall of Surrealist phallocracy.

The Milk Bowl of Feathers: Essential Surrealist Writings (image courtesy New Directions)

Published by the outstanding New Directions press, The Milk Bowl of Feathers is Mary Ann Caws’s latest distinguished contribution to the Anglophone Surrealist literary catalogue. In addition to republishing poems and prose from the original James Laughlin 1940 New Directions edition (including a great Paul Éluard poem translated by Samuel Beckett), Caws has translated into English quite a few of the surreal offerings in this slim book, and has written a brief but fascinating historical introduction stressing Surrealism as a “combination of the startling and the lyric, in an unmistakable and sensational style,” open to chance encounters.

As a social and political movement, Surrealism (centered primarily in France in the 1920s and 1930s) asserted that the liberation of the human mind, and subsequent liberation of the individual and society, could be achieved by exercising the imaginative faculties of the unconscious to attain a dream-like state different from, and ideally truer than, everyday reality.

Though the subtitle of the book, Essential Surrealist Writings, is hyperbolic and somewhat misleading, The Milk Bowl of Feathers is a decisive addition to the Surrealist English library, as it includes short texts by often-overlooked female Surrealists Dora Maar, Joyce Mansour, Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, Claude Cahun, Leonora Carrington, Mina Loy, Alice Rahon, Gisèle Prassinos, Kay Sage, Meret Oppenheim, Alice Rahon, and Léona Delcourt (aka Nadja). These women’s contributions captivatingly crack the wall of Surrealist phallocracy principally erected from André Breton’s misogyny. Breton viewed every Surrealist woman as a femme enfant who helped provide the male artists’ access to the ingenuous unconscious. But now, with this fuller spectrum of women’s participation (which unfortunately omits Leonor Fini), one finds little difference between the men and the women in the style or content of their writings, be they the purple prose of Sage, Rahon, Cahun, Carrington, Loy, Prassinos, and Delcourt, or the ravishing poetry of Oppenheim, von Freytag-Loringhoven, Mansour, and Maar (the last, the subject of a retrospective exhibition next summer at Centre Georges Pompidou). In all cases, amour fou (uncontrollable or obsessive passion) is being flirted with.

Such fou female flirtations deliver some wonderful love lines, for example, in Maar’s poem “I Rested in the Arms of My Arms”:

(…) An eternal shivering of thoughts (…) The hummingbird motionless as a star

while Mansour ends her poem “I Want to Sleep With You” this way:

(…)

Tense and sweating

Shining with a thousand quivers

Consumed by ecstatic mad inertia

Stretched out on your shadow

Hammered by your tongue

To die in a rabbit’s rotting teeth

Happy

Wonderful as this is, I would argue that any “essential” collection of Surrealist writings must include at least excerpts from André Breton’s first “Manifesto of Surrealism” (1924), if not some from the additional Surrealism manifestos. Thus a better subtitle of The Milk Bowl of Feathers would be A Surrealist Sampler, as any collection of essential Surrealist writings, besides containing Breton’s 1924Manifesto,” would also need to include, in my opinion, Salvador Dali’s vivid and scatological paranoiac critical art theory. For that, I highly recommend Yvonne Shafir’s exhilarating translations in Oui: The Paranoid-Critical Revolution: Writings 1927-1933 (first published in French in 1971).

Also, how do you leave out a bit of Les Champs Magnétiques (The Magnetic Fields)? André Masson’s featured automatic drawings from 1924 expanded the lexicon of Surrealism into visual art by adapting the écriture automatique (automatic writing) method of Breton and Philippe Soupault, who used it to compose in 1919 Les Champs Magnétiques, the first surrealist text. Masson’s graphical automatism created a visual analogy to the écriture automatique writing method, based on speed, chance, and intuition, but also revealed a certain amount of reflection and artistic strategy.

Most of the Surrealists came to the movement via Romanian-born French poet and essayist Tristan Tzara’s participation in the nihilistic-revolutionary 1916 Dada Café Voltaire in Zurich. After moving to Paris, Tzara engaged in numerous tumultuous activities with Breton, Soupault, Louis Aragon, and Francis Picabia that rocked and shocked the public. A Tzara poem, “Round Trip through the Moon and through Color,” smartly closes out this collection.

The Milk Bowl of Feathers book is accessible, delightful, and inexpensive. The often madcap poetic texts are brief, usually one paragraph to a page. Also included are black-and-white graphic artworks by Desnos, Alice Rahon, and Man Ray. Succinct author biographies make this small book an art educational asset, as well.

Caws writes on the back cover of The Milk Bowl of Feathers, “Essential to Surrealist behavior is a constant state of openness, of readiness for whatever occurs, whatever marvelous object we might come across, manifesting itself against the already thought, the already lived.” So, dear reader, open up and drink from the Milk Bowl of Feathers. You might even become more marvelous, yourself.

The Milk Bowl of Feathers, edited by Mary Ann Caws, is now out from New Directions.

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