Winter 2005 vol 4.2
If Andre Breton Were Alive Today He'd Be Spinning in His Grave: Surrealism and the Contemporary Prose Poem
John Bradley
"It would not be good for everyone to read the pages which follow; only the few may relish this bitter fruit without danger.” So warns the Comte de Lautreamont in the opening page of his ecstatic and grotesque Maldoror (tr. Alexis Lykiard). To talk about the influence of Surrealism on the prose poem, one must first acknowledge the “Holy Trinity” (as one critic calls them): Lautreamont’s Maldoror, Rimbaud’s Illuminations, and Baudelaire's Paris Spleen. These works by Surrealist predecessors not only helped establish the prose poem as a viable form, but also demonstrated how the prose poem could be an ideal stage for the surreal. As Ron Silliman notes, the prose poem “was perfect for hallucinated, fantastic and dreamlike contents, for pieces with multiple locales and times squeezed into few words” (from The New Sentence, 81) Note his use of the past tense.

    Why this conductivity of the prose poem for the surreal? Recall that infamous image from Maldoror, on which Breton relied to define surrealism: “ . . . the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing machine and an umbrella.” Prose provides the ideal meeting place, or “dissecting-table,” for “chance meetings” of language. As readers, when we come to dine at the prose “table,” we have been trained to expect the prosaic, which my American Heritage Dictionary defines as “mater-of-fact, straightforward; lacking in imagination and spirit; ordinary.” The surrealist prose poem takes this expectation and turns it upside down, giving us chance encounters with the marvelous in order to let us experience “the beautiful convulsion of irresolvable paradox,” as poet, translator, and essayist Andrew Joron puts it (in his Neo-Surrealism; Or, The Sun at Night, Transformations of Surrealism in American Poetry 1966-1999, Black Square Editions, 2004, p. 3). Each of the three Surrealist predecessors went about it in unique ways, but they all attempted this “beautiful convulsion” and opened the prose poem gates. As Rimbaud predicted: “Other horrible [prose poem] workers will come.”

    What are these “horrible workers” up to? Or, to put it in another way, how are some contemporary prose poets currently veering away from “the poverty of the positive fact”? I’m borrowing that last phrase from Joron’s definition of surrealism: “The practice of conjuring Otherness, of realizing the infinite negativity of desire in order to address, and to redress, the poverty of the positive fact.” Though this question regarding contemporary surrealist technique is much too large for a short discussion such as this, I hope to at least open a discourse by looking at three prose poems: Mary Koncel’s “The Neighborhood Man,” Eric Baus’s “The House of Sleeping Children,” and an excerpt from Jenny Boully’s The Body. I am aware that some or perhaps all of these writers may not call themselves “Surrealists.” In response, I offer this succinct reply by Lee Ballentine, editor of Ur-Vox (a journal which “embraces all phases of surrealism early and late”): “But I don’t care too much how poets describe themselves (Ur-Vox, vol. three, “Å Letter from Madrid”). Let’s see if there’s evidence of that “conjuring of Otherness” in the prose poems of these three poets.

    Mary Koncel’s “The Neighborhood Man,” which appears in No Boundaries: Prose Poems by 24 American Poets (ed. Ray Gonzalez, Tupelo, 2003), opens with a first line that doesn’t immediately create a “chance encounter” or establish an altered terrain. Nevertheless, it roots the scene in a particular place, and it functions to set up the second observation, which indeed addresses that “poverty of positive fact.” Here is “The Neighborhood Man” in its entirety:

    A dog is rolling in the grass. A man walks by and thinks the dog is drowning. But the man’s not sure because he’s just a neighbor. The dog is very convincing, turning over and over, its long legs kicking up clumps of grass. The man strips off his suit, drops to his knees, and rolls in after the dog. He hopes the dog can hold on just a while longer.
The man is having problems. He’s getting very tired, barely able to keep his head above the grass. It’s very late. He hopes this will be over soon. But the dog is getting smaller, the grass much deeper.

    “The Neighborhood Man” probes the domestic and takes us into the otherworldly. How can a dog “drown” in grass? Could the worried neighbor have stumbled on a space/time anomaly, or is he just a busybody with an overactive imagination? Or maybe the dog is a descendant of that Native American trickster Coyote? Whatever the case, in the last line we know this much—if this grass is grass, it’s certainly not behaving the way proper grass should. We’re left with that sudden shift in perspective—the dog shrinking and/or the grass deepening—producing that “beautiful convulsion” that’s indicative of the surreal.

    Mary Koncel’s prose poem draws on classic Surrealist techniques, with its conjoining of the familiar (grass, dog, neighbor) and unfamiliar (drowning in grass), its use of illogical logic (the man jumping into grass to save the dog), and tongue-in-cheek humor (“The man is having problems”). But what makes it fairly typical of one style of the contemporary Surrealist prose poem is the use of the narrative as the engine of the surreal event(s). This can be seen in the work of Russell Edson, Charles Simic, James Tate, Louis Jenkins, Nin Andrews, Peter Johnson, Jessica Treat, Morton Marcus, Christopher Kennedy, and many others. All these writers owe a large debt to the narrative prose poetry of Paris Spleen.

    Just how popular is the narrative prose poem? We can look at Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within (Shambhala, 1986), one of the first writers’ guides, and find a chapter devoted to how to write this type of prose poem. There, in the section entitled “Nervously Sipping Wine,” Goldberg provides a list of Russell Edson’s first lines (such as: “A husband and wife discover that their children are fakes,” “Identical twin old men take turns a being alive,” and “A rat wanted to put its tail in an old woman’s vagina”) followed by two complete prose poems by Edson. Then she provides the following instructions:

    Try sitting at your typewriter and without thinking begin to write Russell Edson-type pieces. This means letting go and allowing the elm in your front yard to pick itself up and walk over to Iowa. Try for good, strong first sentences. You might want to take the first half of your sentence from a newspaper article and finish the sentence with an ingredient listed in a cookbook. Play around. Dive into absurdity and write. Take chances. You will succeed if you are fearless of failure. (Goldberg 67)

    While it may sound as if Goldberg has reduced the use of the surreal to a recipe, in her defense it must be said that her call for integrating prose from differing sources is a technique that some of the French Surrealists exploited. And Harryette Mullen, a contemporary prose poet, utilizes this technique to great effect in Sleeping with the Dictionary (Univ. California Press, 2002), although she uses it to complicate and destabilize narrative. But for the most part the narrative reigns in the kingdom of the contemporary surrealist prose poem.

    This raises the question—Why the popularity? Perhaps because it continues to speak to the tensions and absurdities of our time? Or because it’s endlessly entertaining to subvert the reader’s expectations in prose? Or maybe, to move to a deeper level, despite all manner of surprises the narrative springs on us, it offers reassurance that the narrative continues, carrying everything, even the transformed (and sometimes deformed) characters, along with it. No matter if we grow lobster claws for hands, or if we wake up in bed one morning from unsettling dreams and find ourselves changed into a figure made of sponge, with protruding front teeth, and square pants, and find ourselves accused of perverting the minds of children. Somehow the narrative, and our place in it, survives.

    But there is another group of contemporary prose poets who look more to Our Lady of Postmodern Prose, Gertrude Stein, than to the Holy Surreal Trinity. Inspired by Stein’s Tender Buttons, these writers rely little on narrative and much on juxtapositions and fractures in language. These prose poets owe a debt to “the new sentence,” prose which Ron Silliman, author of the influential essay “The New Sentence,” differentiates from Surrealism. To Silliman, Surrealist prose poems “manipulate meaning at the ‘higher’ or ‘outer’ layers, well beyond the horizon of the sentence” (New Sentence 87), while the prose poems of the “new sentence” “focus attention at the level of the language in front of the reader” (88). This explains perhaps the intent of the writers of the “new sentence,” but does it capture the effect of the dynamic on the reader of these sentences? For Silliman, the juxtapositioning of sentences that do not make rational sense inevitably leads the reader back to language, but could they do that and something else at the same time? Take these two sentences from Carla Harryman’s “For She,” which Silliman cites: “The puddle in the bathroom, the sassy one. There were many years between us.” Granted these two sentences are guilty of “limiting the syllogistic movement,” to use Silliman’s phrase, and do indeed make us conscious of language, but is that all they do? Could they do that and also send us to that “higher” or “’outer’ layer” of surrealism? In other words, the “infinite negativity of desire” of surrealism might be found in the linguistic conjoinings of the “new sentence.” The exploration of this possibility leads us to Jenny Boully and Eric Baus.

    The title of Jenny Boully’s The Body sounds like a surrealist prank, for The Body has no body. The main text of The Body consists of blank pages, with the exception of numbered footnotes (1 through 156) for 77 pages. The footnotes to the missing text, then, become the text. The footnotes themselves, though numbered and thus separated, interact just as any text does. Here are two footnotes from page 53 of The Body. Imagine a blank page and then at the bottom the following:
101 The omens were as follows:
l the black bird perched on a snowman in twilight;
l the black brassiere under the wedding dress;
l the open mouth, spreading forever as the sea and without
a CAUTION sigh, panting like bad sin and hurrying to it;
l the grackles which cackled like spinsters, a snare sounding
of carnivals, gypsy songs.

102 If the window is open, then true. If the door was abruptly shut, then false. If the villanelle was blonde, then add five points to your answer. If she was drinking a dirty martini, subtract 60 points for fear. If you forget her name, wait out a turn. If love, then the ace of spaces for everything else, reshuffle and deal again.

    The footnote, usually seen as scholarly apparatus, or obscure digression, or boring addendum, no longer serves as humble foot servant to the main text. Now it is the main text, complementing and competing and complicating the silence of the white space above. Further evidence of this uprising of the footnote can be seen in Delia Tramontina’s “Footnotes” (Ur-Vox, Vol. Two) and in George Kalamaras’s “Footnotes (from a Lost Text of Nishiwaki Junzaburo)” (Quarter After Eight, Vol. 7). While Tramontina provides both text and footnote, Kalamaras and Boully, by providing footnotes to a missing text, tease the reader into conjuring the absent text, while heightening the importance, and absurdity, of the footnotes. It’s as if Lautreamont gave us the dissecting table and then below it placed an umbrella and a sewing machine. We’re left to conjure the possible surgery. Rather than narrative, chance encounters within and between footnotes provide the engine for The Body.

    Take footnote 101. The items in the list of the four omens interact and the reader notices the prominence of the color black--black bird, black brassiere, blackness of open mouth, black grackle, and “bad sin,” contrasted with white--snowman, wedding dress, and the implication of sea foam. Color only emerges in the last line--with “carnivals” and “gypsy songs,” both contrasted with the harsh image (“grackle” and “cackled”) of spinsters, which contrasts with wedding. Once again, that Surrealist play of polarities can be found. The conjunction of so many “omens” functions much like a list poem, only this list insists its a reference to an invisible text, while becoming the primary text. There’s another primary text on this page, however. Footnote 102, which the list in footnote 101 also interacts with.

    Here the tone shifts to one of playfulness. This footnote begins by sounding like a true/false question or the answers to a pop quiz. Boully plays with the uncertainties of text (both the invisible text above and the visible one below) by pointing out the nature of drawing inferences as a game--”Then add five points to your answer.” In the third line, we encounter a “she.” Is this the same “she” of footnote 101, where we saw intimations of wedding and spinsterhood? And how can a villanelle be “blonde”? Is this a comment on Boully’s ability to bend form, just as she as bends the footnote into the “body” of this book? And what are we to make of the mysterious two-word phrase “If love”? Love is something encountered randomly? Is it connected to the unnamed “she” here and in footnote 101? Could it be a love of the state of exquisite confusion produced by these juxtapositions? A love of footnotes? Now it seems we’re playing a card game, and we must “reshuffle and deal again,” perhaps by turning the page and proceeding to the next hand. Love has taken primacy; failing to find love, even if it leads to “the black bird perched on a snowman in twilight,” you must begin again.

    Boully, with her subversion of an academic convention, has created a prose form as elastic and evocative as the traditional prose poem, if not moreso. The footnotes range over a large territory. Like Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, the personal and the impersonal coexist, taking on the same tone, the same weight. For example, footnote 29 describes how, after staring at a magazine, the author and her sister became afraid to pee. Juxtaposed with the personal is the impersonal. Footnote 30 aloofly speaks of an unspecified “her”: “It is odd that she chose not to record this particular dream about E….” Boully’s playfulness, which includes a blank page with no footnotes (page 22) and numbers like 156 3/4 and 156.999, reflects a Marcel Duchamp-like spirit. Her missing-but-ever-present-text leaves us with “the beautiful convulsion of irresolvable paradox.”

    Eric Baus’s The To Sound also accomplishes this, but with a heavier reliance on Steinian poetics. Here we encounter prose poems where the titles sometime appear as sentences, complete with a period at the end. At other times they function as the title and opening phrase of the first sentence of the prose poem. Often the poems, addressed to “Dearest Sister” and “Dear Birds,” read as letters with a quiet and insistent intimacy. Unlike the surreal narrative prose poems, these are not rooted in time or space so much as in voice, tone, and image. Despite the displacement or fracturing of narrative, though, the influence of Surrealism can be clearly felt, such as in “The House of Sleeping Children,” which I offer in its entirety:
twisted in bed eating starfruit some small boy dropped from the sky said he invented helixes nightly the house of sleeping children thinned by the sun close your eyes said the international sign for helixes nightly said hum the house of sleeping children kept track of themselves spiral staircases spoke of the body said hum star-faced helixes night the house of sleeping children evening crawling back from the tonsils fall forward star-faced dropped from the sky the house of sleeping children helixes nightly

The poem seems to dangle a story or situation before us, yet when we try to grasp it, it’s just out of reach. Likewise the language. Each time you think you’ve caught a complete sentence, a fragment forms, or you realize a phrase that completes one thought could be read as starting another. The ground keeps shifting partly due to the absence of all punctuation (even a closing period). This shifting creates just what the poem is after—we’re not falling; we’re “helixing,” like the spiral staircases, the small boy, the house of sleeping children, the body, and very the language itself.

    While Baus has a unique architecture and voice, there’s much here that would feel familiar to a French Surrealists--the use of repetition, fractured wordplay, associative leaps. The poem, freed from the confines of the literal and the dictates of reason, makes us feel we are hearing “the actual functioning of thought,” a definition of Surrealism Breton uses in his first “Manifesto of Surrealism.” In this “actual functioning of thought” we can hear the influence of the folk tale (“some small boy dropped from the sky”), of surrealist polarities (“by the sun close your eyes”), and the fractured syntax of Gertrude Stein (“evening crawling back from the tonsils fall forward”). While the other prose poems in this book do use punctuation, the same tension between certainty and uncertainty can be found, such as in the last poem, “The To Sound.” Here we come across lines that seem to echo each other as they end, only to begin again in slightly mutated forms: “You are a. Too. Tuned to has. Ash/You are the you and. The to sound. The utter the”). The poem closes with a firmer declarative stance—”You are the one after end. The burned bird I woke up in.” The missing “the” before the word “end” in the first half of the closing line reminds us of the presence of absence, as well as the influence of postmodern / L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry; the last half, with its disturbing “burned bird,” ends the book with the power of a Surrealist image. The prose poems of The To Sound demonstrate a unique hybrid, identified by one writer as “Late Surrealism and American ‘Language’ Poetry,” yet another variety of Andrew Joron’s Neo-Surrealism.

    Other writers are exploring this L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E / Surrealism field: John Olson’s Free Stream Velocity (Black Square Editions, 2003): “Clay trickled from my crutch, although it was obvious I had no crutch, the crutch was a fiction, a non-entity, an imagined object, an abstraction.” Kristin Prevallet’s Perturbation, My Sister (First Intensity Press, 1997): “When an egg galls from the hand of a statue far above the skyscraper’s antenna and gives birth to the people it crushes, it is the imagination proving that it does control destiny.” George Kalamaras’s Even the Java Sparrows Call Your Hair (Quale Press, 2004): “I am walking the night streets of Paris, completely naked except for a pair of gray Ragg wool socks and two giant moth wings growing out of my back.” Andrew Joron names other (verse and prose poem) culprits: Charles Borkhuis, Garrett Caples, Jeff Clark, Phillip Foss, W.B. Keckler, Brian Lucas, and John Yau (Neo-Surrealism 57). I would add Harryette Mullen, Tomaz Salamun, and Rosmarie Waldrop. No doubt there are many others.

    To those who say, “Surrealism? Isn’t it dead already?” I offer this trinity of responses: a.) “But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” Donald Rumsfeld b.) “Every day war runs through my hands and I eat text.” Alice George c.) “The crystalline purity of the marvelous has been smeared with the excremental impurity of the horrific and chopped into regular polygons by new machines and seduced into the inexact, probabilistic, but still beautiful miasma of new equations and the force of new approaches to language, or indeed, to entirely new language” Lee Ballentine (Ur-Vox, vol. one, “This Writing, This Journal, the Particulars”). André Breton may have died in 1966, but the marvelous, deep in the catacombs of each of our cells, keeps spinning.