Mina Loy: Apology of Genius
(The University of Chicago Press, 2022)
In an essay on Joseph Cornell’s shadow boxes, Mary Ann Caws writes: “The memory and the prophecy are not different: we must remember to remember.” Whether familiar with or new to her work, one immediately encounters, here, the infinitive: the not yet that is and from where all else will come. More than just the genius of art criticism, more than merely a marvelous instance which is the surrealist’s desire to keep intact, this single line of poetry—penned more than twenty years ago—remains one of the very principles of her poetics. Like Cornell’s Proustian remembrances, Breton’s haunting “Who am I?” and Char’s aphoristic-elliptical enjoinders, Mary Ann Caws makes us aware that life—that primordial passage—must be looked at anew and with ever-renewed looking, if we are ever to see the red chili pepper affixed with wings that form the dragonfly, or fall madly in love and at the same time lovingly into madness.
The dialogue that appears before you, which emerged from a series of meetings that took place virtually over the summer of 2021, is a reorientation as much as it is a foreshadowed re-looking being realized, “backward as well as forward.” From the Catskill mountains of New York and the Upper East Side of Manhattan, between her translation of Alice Paalen Rahon’s collected poetry, a monograph of Mina Loy, sips of 2am rum, and planning trips to Paris, we discussed eternal woundedness, Arthur Cravan’s pugilist poiesis, self-sustaining obsessions, Claudel’s sadness of water, what we weep over, and current writing projects, amongst many other things.
Mary Ann Caws: My book on Mina Loy coming out in the spring of next year is subtitled “Apology of Genius.” I only wrote with great anguish over confusing the sources, one is “The Last Lunar Baedeker” and the other is “The Lost Lunar Baedeker” heavens above. But I’m fascinated by the futurists. Marinetti comes up in my Mina Loy book, and I guess everybody comes up in everything just about. She finally got bored with him, which I think is pretty interesting, because he keeps doing the same thing over and over—it’s true—like shouting all the time. Then there’s the other futurist, that weird guy Giovanni Papini, she loved two of them at the same time and of course simultaneously. Then I think she thought (you know, she was a lot smarter than most people), “Oh shit, I’ve done that,” and then went on to something else. That going to something else is something that they couldn’t deeply approve of, but her poems about futurism and all that are fantastic. Really interesting.
To me the “Love Songs” to Joannes and “Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose” are less crucial than the way her poetry changes from time to time. When she left futurism and was always going back to Paris, getting her children or leaving her children, she finally came to America and lived in the Bowery with the Bowery Bums, wearing her nightgown to be with them. Her poem called “Hot Cross Bum”—that kind of thing is what challenges me. How original is that? So this book of mine on Loy has nine chapters, and she’s always doing different things, like going to Aspen as a toothless white-haired person while still writing these fantastic poems. To me that’s Mina Loy. She can do all this. Then she did everything else. Mina Loy didn’t need to lie about everything, she just did everything. She was complicated enough without lying.
As for Insel, I hated it. Can we talk about that? I had to devote a chapter to it. First of all it bores me immensely. Secondly, I think that the artist was not interestingly mad, just mad. It’s terribly written. It’s the worst thing she ever wrote. So how was I going to devote a chapter to it? You can’t not do it if you’re doing a book on Mina Loy. So the only thing that really grabbed me in all of that, Jared, was that at one point she looks across the room and on a shelf is a picture of Arthur Cravan. So of course that she can sort of get herself involved in, but I couldn’t take any interest in Insel or her prose writing that they have at the Beinecke that’s all online. My book is about her poems, really.
Jared Daniel Fagen (Rail): Is Cravan going to make an appearance in your Mina Loy book?
Caws: Oh enormously. A whole chapter. There’s a whole interlude with Arthur Cravan. Just today in the acknowledgements—I mean really just today I sent them off—I was writing “Mina Loy was in love with Arthur Cravan—me too.” I fell in love with him first in Rome where I found a book of his—Maintenant—and he was so weird in every single possible way, I mean a genius, period. So I fell in love with this book that I had found in a bookstore. Of course it was in French, but then it was translated and then somebody else picked it up and it was plagiarized everywhere. So in my acknowledgements I say something like “and so I fell in love with him in Rome and Paris and New York, just like Mina Loy,” and I think the last line of the acknowledgements (because you’ve heard my son’s band) is something like, “I wouldn’t be surprised if Matthew Caws, of Nada Surf, decided to write a song about Mina Loy, or Loyland,” which is what Roger Conover—the person who loves Mina Loy most and knows most about her—calls his place. Cravan, Cravan was everything.
Rail: He was Mina Loy’s second husband, right, also fleeing and sort of everywhere at once? Did I read somewhere that he was also the nephew of Oscar Wilde?
Caws: He was, and then he got lost. Or lost himself. Or got overtaken and done in. We just don’t know.
Rail: On the topic of art and life, can we talk about Blaise Cendrars for a moment? In Journal, the first of his Nineteen Elastic Poems translated in the New Directions volume as “Diary” (to which I am referring), he writes:
That’s what I’ve ransacked
In a free-verse poem where the poet and world bewilderingly coalesce, in the imaginative extension of the private self in a public landscape, the choice of “Diary” is interesting because, as you know, “journal” in French could mean “diary” or “newspaper.” The noun in itself, used as the crucifix of the poem, stands for the space of personal reflection and private emotion and the efficient consumption of public information, costing a nickel or however much in 1913. The poetic “freedom” of the diaristic form meets and violently harmonizes with the fragmented and detachable episodes (i.e. headlines) of the popular form of prose. But the “ransacking,” the culling of poetic material directly from modernity’s “Rockets,” “Effervescence,” “Everything” that is “bright orange” rather than the subjective well of the lyric, is what’s so spectacular—Cendrars taking from life what it had taken from him: a limb. And then there’s Christ: the figure of redemption, the representative of “ideal” humanity, and an exclamation that expresses disbelief, dismay, awe, disappointment, pain. Private confession and the exhibitionism of the “paintings [the poet has] done” that “hang on [his] walls” and “open strange vistas in [him]” find agreement in the shock, the abstraction of poetry and the poet in reality, both no longer recognizable (or all too recognizable), with Christ at the café unfolding the ridiculously large pages of a newspaper across his chest, securing the posture that anticipates his being nailed to the cross or the wings of an airplane he will ride first class to heaven.
Whether a “commentary” on the artist’s existence in a world on the brink of annihilation or on the “literary marketplace,” with the lyric “I” presented as produced discourse, maybe Cendrars is saying that poetry—like Dada—belongs to everyone just like a road should, or at least has transcendental utility, like the functional beauty of an American highway (and this, I think, is where he and Henry Miller disagree about technology). The engineer and poet are both masters of their materials, for the former numbers and the latter language, and both give shape to a complex image or idea first formed in the mind before made into matter. Is this futurist or surrealist or both, as embodied by Loy?
Caws: Here is something we could at some point talk about: what we weep over.
Rail: I weep over the sound of a name I was given but never heard aloud and don’t know how to pronounce. I weep over that part of myself too late to love. I weep over the lives I’ve ruined with my affections. I weep over what overflows from abandonment. I weep for the thought I just had reduced to ellipses. I weep apologies. I weep over the sunflower that is not a dandelion. I weep over the lawns I mow. I weep over the eyes that glow in the distance. I weep over the drink too hastily drunk.
Caws: When do you write best? Do you drink something when writing or before or after or all or never? I ask because I have two lives: one regular and one at some other time like 3am with rum, and I scribble but the next day usually can’t read but think I am imagining better, alas, for losing it.
Rail: I’m closer to “all” or always (as I write you it’s 6pm and I’m pouring my first drink of the day). I too like dark liquor, but prefer non-blended Scotch or bourbon. I feel the same way about it as you do. The best imagining has to do with its own fragility and peril. The best writing, in my opinion, comes from a place of intoxication, getting access to inside yourself or outside the outside, and as a reader being able to locate (not necessarily in words) what’s at risk in the attempted escape (or excavation).
So when I’m writing I’m mostly drinking (those times of day when I can afford to be a little reckless) and when I’m drinking I’m mostly writing. What comes first, I don’t know. But I want to say I write best when I’m not writing or neglecting it (impossible!) or when I have nothing I think is really worth saying or even when refusing it—when the writing finds me and not the other way around. When writing (and ultimately publishing, when we’re able to and do publish) I think there’s a relationship between wanting to find and be found, but sometimes we don’t know what we’re looking for (or at) anymore and by whose eyes or if any at that.
The relationship between drinking and writing is also with boredom. The pendulum of reverie and emptiness, the distress and vastness of instances. In a surrealist and not-surrealist way, it’s maybe another conduit to dreams and desire (but maybe not so pleasurable in itself). I think of the last stanza in Baudelaire’s “Au Lecteur,” with the bored “dreams of scaffolds” accessed by the opium pipe. It’s one of my favorite things in Madam Bovary (how real boredom is!)—when confronted with the boredom and banality of (bourgeois) convention, or the expectations of some real world, Emma seeks refuge in reading magazines and novels, “seeking in them imaginary satisfaction for her own desires” and, with “the hours [slipping] by,” she forfeits to her imagination with her thoughts “blending with the fiction.” And like Emma, the sickly immobile Des Esseintes is able—after carefully preparing and making all the travel arrangements—to simply place his finger on a map and travel to/drink in some English pub entirely in his mind.
In “The Task of the Translator,” as you know, Benjamin talks about making a commitment to a text’s “afterlife,” which includes the participation of the translator to not only resuscitate but also to transform and reinscribe language into a different time or a different place. Immediately, of course, I think of your work on Char, whose aphorisms are able to isolate time in your care, but more prominently (and famously) I’m thinking about your decision to translate ma femme to “my beloved” in Breton’s L’union libre.
That’s where changing femme to “beloved” is bold but also indispensible to the work and our reading it now. “Beloved,” in the sense of reinscription and afterlife, makes sense to me: there’s the beloved whom you admire from a distance but doesn’t requite your affections, there’s the beloved who’s passed away or is no longer there. And the beloved isn’t precisely male or female but could be—you’ve translated, here, the word’s possibility. Just this one word is so much more rich than “woman,” which does what many words do—limit.
So I’m interested in this conscious choice that you felt very strongly about—to not use a literal translation that reinforced male possession. How much do you believe in moral translation?
Caws: “Reinscribe” is so interesting because “inscribe” is interesting. I went to Bryn Mawr, and the person who was the first president was not only anti-Semitic and anti-everything else, but wanted to remove the inscription for the M. Carey Thomas Library. I mean is that not interesting and ironic in a terrible sense? You could keep the façade and reinscribe the plaque, but you have to have the first inscription to reinscribe.
The man with whom I first translated “Free Union” for the University of Texas Press had put “my woman” or “my wife” and I said, well, there’s a little problem with that (he was a man so of course he knew much better). Ma femme is not “my wife,” obviously if you’re going to change all the time, and “my woman,” I mean forget it, I’ll just go walk right off the stage. So with Pat Terry, with whom I loved translating, finally we put “my beloved,” which could be a man or a woman, and I realize that’s the sort of exciting problem now. But that was the issue with that poem, and so I took it out of the Norton Anthology because I said “you cannot put my name there with something saying ‘my woman.’” Then I said “but I could give you a re-translation,” but they said I couldn’t because of something about how they’ve sold so many copies. I think that was a big distress in my life because I wanted Breton to be in there, I wanted that poem to be in there, but I wanted it not to say “my woman,” please.
I had a wonderful discussion with my editor Edwin Frank at New York Review Books about a word in the Rahon book, tordre, meaning wind or wind or, you know, twist. And you say “twist” and you’re thinking “the twist.” There isn’t any translation that doesn’t sort of go slipping into some other word or something else. Recently I talked with Mark Polizzotti, who’s the big-deal translator and the big-deal writer of surrealism, about how you worry about translating various issues as well as words, because like cubism, it’s everything seen from different angles. In this way cubism and surrealism are not so different, and of course I have always stressed the closeness of baroque and surrealist looking. The grand book of his called Sympathy for the Traitor is a manifesto of translation, and that’s exactly what seems to me to be the problem. Well no, it’s not a problem, it’s why we stick to translation. Wouldn’t it be boring if you were just doing this and that, you know, like on Wikipedia, this means that? But this never means just that. Certainly in surrealism this no way ever means just that, like with the fish in the aquarium and all that. It’s not ever A to B.
I do believe in and love the term moral translation, and how much of what we do, you and I and many others, in deciding what to do with our lives and time and other persons, involves exactly that kind of decision: a judgment about whether this or that. What to leave out: and that decision might differ if the object in consideration is about something to be read or heard, and over a long or brief period. That’s about presentation.
Rail: What role does omission play when translating and writing about poets with whom you’ve also formed close relationships, and the promises you’ve made to them? Can we talk about representation in relationship to presentation?
Caws: The moral decision concerning “my beloved” is important because Breton was not gay, in fact he was a bit homophobic, and that was the problem with Crevel. But “my beloved” doesn’t have to be a person. As for representation, how very involved it gets with your/our own involvement with the author/artist we are standing in for or with: I used, in my younger days, to write on and on about translation and interpretation and judgment—you always wonder what lasts of what you do or say or write: must happen to all of us all of the time.
I was just thinking that what I was trying not to think about was also that I’ve been writing about Ian Hamilton Finlay, you know that Scottish poet and shepherd who then became sort of (to understate the case) right-wing? I don’t know how to deal with that, but I loved his poetry and his shepherding and I’m Scottish way back, so how do you deal with what you can’t deal with?
Have you read that wonderful play of Paul Claudel (whom I wrote my thesis on), about the woman that he was in love with, the Partage de midi? If you see a production he’s sitting in this kind of chair that looks like he’s sitting on a throne in heaven. Claudel was not only desperately religious, or pretending to be, but what a visionary! You know if you read his writing about art you see how incredibly luminosity was everywhere. It was all about light. One of my favorite poems of his is about that.
So the Partage de midi, the sharing of the wake of the ship at the wake of noon, is about the woman he was in love with, and then he adopted the child he had with this woman and made—or let, or forced, or persuaded—his wife adopt the child he had with his mistress. Give me a break. And Claudel was horrible to his sister Camille, and I think that dreadfulness to somebody in your family is not inexcusable but it’s sure as hell bothersome, because Camille Claudel was not just Rodin’s mistress but a great sculptor. To Paul Claudel, her being Rodin’s mistress is terrible, and yet of course he had his own.
So what are we doing here about morality? I’m always trying to think about writing as a moral issue—what you choose to write on, what I choose to write on—and I promised Yves Bonnefoy (and I remember promising) I will never write a biography of somebody I don’t admire. And I think, I hope, that I’m true to that. It’s a big-deal problem.
Rail: Maybe with his personal life—his questionable devoutness, his mistress, the way he might have committed his sister—writing for Claudel was less a moral act than an act of redemption.
Caws: Oh, well that’s interesting. So Partage de midi, in a way, is kind of like, “I did it, so let me write about it,” and then it was performed by Jean-Louis Barrault, if you can believe it, and Madeleine Renaud, his wife. It was like you’re redeeming it by having it shown, but what am I doing?
Rail: Right, without exploiting it or romanticizing it or turning it into something else.
Caws: Yeah, like turning it into just an academic issue or subject. I think that’s it. You don’t want to make something you really cared a lot about into something it’s not.
It was like Artaud and Jacqueline Lamba, who he was in love with (everybody was). In some of her letters he would write spells to protect her. And here she is telling me this and I’m thinking “I can’t record it” because I had to rip up everything I recorded from her. So that’s a moral issue for me. How do you deal with what you couldn’t deal with because you promised not to deal with it, and then the person dies? It’s like Max Brod and Kafka. What do you do when you made a promise to somebody who’s gone?
Rail: That’s tricky. How much of Kafka would we have had Brod not betrayed his wishes?
Caws: I only want to deal with people who fascinate me, not Paul Éluard who doesn’t fascinate me. He’s a fine poet, but Desnos is much more fascinating as a poet. I get Éluard’s poems—I like the poems I don’t get, and that’s I’ve been spending time with the “side” people like Rahon and the wonderfully peculiar and madly dressed Erik Satie, on whom I have an essay that’s hopefully coming out with Reaktion Books called “The Vexatious Gentleman,” about his Vexations performance at the Guggenheim, his love for Susan Valadon, and his seven brown corduroy suits (even though he had no money) that were all the same.
As you know, I’ve written a lot, and we all cared desperately about, Artaud. I was going to do my thesis on him but then realized that it wasn’t going to work at the University of Kansas. But his madness was the first I loved: I was appealed to precisely that madness. His work is so much more interesting in a way than it would have been if we just had him before he lost his voice and he was this beautiful actor holding up his bible when Joan of Arc is dying at the stake, and Falconetti and all that. I mean isn’t that gorgeous? But later I worried about profiting from his madness for my publication—that was the kind of thing we in my epoch concerned ourselves with, I suppose—and realized it had already become an academic business, just like Virginia Woolf. Unless you’re Hermione Lee or somebody as gifted in all ways as she is, I think you hesitate to overpopulate the field.
You won’t have known the feminist writer of Writing A Woman’s Life, Carolyn Heilbrun, but I have to give a talk on her this Monday and it has been obsessing me: how do you spend 26 years walking with someone every week at the same time and yet manage when she does away with herself to speak of that?
That is suddenly about haunting: all these enormous geniuses of people, like Char and Cravan who were over six-feet tall, and the kind of thing one gets involved in (must happen to you too), what it is you get involved in, that you get re-involved in and then uninvolved in but you’re not uninvolved, you’re still haunted by. Just as I’m writing about Mina Loy and reviewing the proofs, I’m looking at Carl Van Vechten, who was very problematic and very peculiar and helped Mina Loy a lot. He was not everybody’s favorite person and in fact kind of a criminal. So somebody is haunting you and your writing, and that person is not the person you had written about as being—he’s somebody else who in fact was involved in Harlem and not in a good way, I mean he was cheating all around, and yet of course I presented him as “oh gosh he helped Mina Loy, how super.”
Translating Artaud and Cravan and all of these way out and peculiar and really big genius people is obsessively fascinating because you don’t know what they were really like because they’re so many things you can and cannot say. I mean Artaud, so many. And Jacqueline Lamba was of course very beautiful and very thin and very small. Not small, she was never small, but I mean she had no bulkiness to her anywhere, and I guess I loved that. But what do you do about people who change in your professional—though I say professional when I’m pretending to be a professional—your pretense professional work? You know I pretend to be a translator and I pretend to be a teacher, but what I’m doing is really just liking to talk with people. That’s pretense, not professional (it’s not like what we were saying before about academia)
How do you think about obsession, and obsessions, and do you find them helpful? What are some of yours, or is there one main one? And do they seed or center your writing of poems and/or prose? How do various ones differ and aid or obstruct what you think and write?
Rail: I’m haunted everywhere, but the hauntings are inconsequential.
Caws: Why inconsequential? Whoops!
Rail: I guess in some ways you learn to live with the hauntings, or at least let the hauntings inhabit you (for me at least).
Caws: Yeah, and that makes it less haunting than “oh goddamn, just one more memory,” or nostalgia, and the haunting is so much stronger in its unrealization, I think, than its living. I mean if it’s living it’s not haunting, so that’s about the outside and inside too, and the thing you can’t talk about.
Rail: Obsession absolutely, and absolutely helpful because nothing I do exists without it. It aids me in keeping to go on. I’m obsessed with toiling over (and always failing at) making the unrealizable realizable. It’s an everyday crisis of my soul, how I crave to blur the inside and the outside. My main obsessions are thresholds—traversing the pain of saying without crossing, forgotten in the ecstatic moment of the possible brink. I’m not sure, at this point, obsession centers or seeds the writing, but maybe it orbits it instead, so the writing doesn’t spin too far from comprehension (Mallarmé s dilemma). Though if I could reach a point where obsession itself can be self-sustaining inside the writing, I’d be happy with that.
Rail: In the preface to your Surrealist Painters and Poets anthology, you write: “Just as the separation of genres is blurred over, so is that between the arts, specifically between the visual and the verbal.” This “blurring” of artistic mediums, which surrealistically share in common the combinatory, is paramount to its aesthetics. Yet the combination is not just between the visual and verbal: there is also a dialectical property—though not in the opposing sense, I don’t think—between doctrine and art, artistic impulse and ideology, as Cendrars and others have witnessed. I think blurring is especially interesting because it’s the point of departure for Breton’s “Object-Poem,” which, according to I think Mark Polizzotti, is “a composition which combines the resources of poetry and plastic art, and thus speculates on the capacity of these two elements to excite each other mutually.” Breton’s “Portrait of the Actor A. B.” was assembled following a “graphological problem” and its affects on the author, where the signed initials “A. B.” started to resemble “1917,” a date in European history he then unconsciously pursued, with the individual disappearing into that very year which constructed the work of text-art with (or for) him. Have you ever visited the “Duck’s Head” (“The Big Duck”) from Long Island that he references? In my childhood and teenage years I lived in Smithtown—which is right in the middle of the Island and is as boring and sinister a place as the name sounds—and had never found it at all remarkable until after learning about Breton’s 1941 poem-object (though the Long Island duck, unlike Vaucanson’s invention, does nothing but sit there and sell eggs).
I read and re-read Breton’s “Crisis of the Object” over and over again, but the beauty of the blurriness here, for me, is usually immediately stifled by the influx of pronounced “latent possibilities” found within the parallel development of non-Euclidean geometry and the “transcended contradiction” of Lautréamont and Rimbaud, which Breton discusses with the poetic persuasion that we all love but perhaps too “concretely”? What do you make of this essay? I get more out of his Bachelard quote—“an entity is more than the sum of its immediate data, or, to put it in plainer terms, it is the conviction that one will discover more in the reality concealed within the entity than in the immediate data surrounding it”—than I do five pages of his cluttered theorizing (yet, reading it again now, and in the context of Cendrars’ principle of utility, I think I can discern where Breton and Cendrars might dialectically disagree). Can or should we read the “Crisis of the Object” alongside the “Crisis of Verse,” which, if I’m not mistaken, you had translated? Isn’t, in the latter, Mallarmé privileging poetic discourse, although in doing so fortifying its relation, by its non-relation, to the diachronic and extraliterary?
Caws: At this point of almost post-pandemic crisis, it is surely a time to compare crises, and I am not up to it, and certainly remember being asked to translate the Mallarmé for some exhibition or other and the time it takes to translate his prose—am saying and thinking not at all about poetry—whew! The great translator of Mallarmé and others is in the land of Oz, where she is a birder, and whom I knew slightly in Cambridge and then more and happily in Bloomington, Indiana, and then in Melbourne and Adelaide in her land. It felt like being by invitation in the land of translation itself, thinking of James Lawler, translator of Valéry and more. Translation always feels like more.
Rail: Also in the preface to Surrealist Painters and Poets, you bring in Breton’s Communicating Vessels to point out that the unconscious, the location of what you call “unlimited connectedness,” is where the “basic distinctions between inner and outer states are overcome”—where Breton’s “savage state” of the eye greets the “insulation” of the mind externalizing the “purely internal model.” I can’t help but think here about the symbolists: Symons’ “the soul of things made visible.” Of course the surrealists were highly influenced by Rimbaud and Baudelaire formally, but also spiritually and mystically, right?
We know by now that Rimbaud’s “Alchemy of the Word,” with its “poetic quaintness” and small-scale prosimetrum typography, is as much an inauguration of the prose poem or poetic prose as it is an arrival “at the unknown through the disordering of all the senses.” In what ways is this magical process, the blasphemous and unholy mixture of contrasting elements to ore beauty from baseness, alchemic in the symbolist sense and Acéphalic in the (renounced) surrealist sense?
Caws: All in all senses! And Michael Leaman is bringing out From Symbolism to Surrealism, essays by me ...It probably should say “and after” because I did want to bring in after, but at the moment that’s the title. The essays are all in, including the one I did on Satie. I bet that when Michael Leaman looks them over that’s going to come out because it’s so irritatingly delightful, and I don’t know if irritation is where one wants to go. It’s where I would like to go. I mean I’m interested in not frustration so much as irritation, now that I’m thinking about it. Anyway it’s a lot of essays—like twenty-four or something—all these essays that are nowhere, like one on Dora Maar: I found a lot of paintings, some nice person in Paris found things that have never been published, and my book on Dora Maar was twenty years before now with all the stuff on Dora Maar. So it’s like something you think and then twenty years later it’s too late to have thought it twenty years younger, and there are others like that.
Rail: Personally, I’ve always been so interested in poets that write novels or poetry in prose, which is why I love Soupault’s Last Nights of Paris (translated into English by another American, William Carlos Williams).
I’ve always thought about the prose poem as a surrealist playground inherited from the symbolists, as an irritatingly untidy form of alchemy. I know we’re tired of hearing about Lautréamont’s “fortuitous encounter upon a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and umbrella” after Max Ernst applied it to painting, but what happens if we think about it in terms of the prose poem or hybrid literature? When I think about an “umbrella” I think about shelter, cover: the outside shape that traces the perimeter of prose. When I think about “dissecting” and “sewing” I think about what is lost and gained, respectively, of each form in the amalgam of the two genres. “Dissecting” is prying the inside and pulling out its parts to display on the surgery pan; the visible seams of “sewing” reveal the fragility and flaws, the vulnerability, of the brought-togetherness. With poetry in prose we get to see traces of the operating interior, depth, as well as the flaws of its design. Free verse is nice because I suppose it maintains the illusion of escape. With the prose poem we already know there’s no such thing as escape, that escape is only temporary.
You end your essay on Breton’s face, in which you contemplate setting apart the parts from the whole, with this amazing line: “Looking isn’t, after all, always seeing.” What I find so interesting about surrealist hybridity (and ecstatic, split, fragmentary texts in general) has as much to do with looking pluralistically as it does finally being able to see “things and people and ideas […] not just in but through the other” (italics mine), which, as you’ve stressed, belongs to both surrealism and the baroque. While the frame aids in drawing attention to that which is fixed within, it also encloses (and thus restricts, imprisons). When we look at a portrait or photograph, we don’t usually want to see its frame—we want to see what that frame contains, the interior life of the artwork. Looking isn’t always seeing because what we want to see is often prevented by the look unable to infiltrate the surface, right? Maybe this is why faces intrigue you more than bodies, which I know you find boring, because bodies conceal and can be concealed, just as our excitement at nudity is protected by the decorum of embarrassment.
In your essay on Claudel’s Knowledge of the East by water anthologized in your Prose Poem in France, you talk about the prose poem as a “convergence of the horizontal and the vertical axes”—which of course calls to mind Jakobson’s metonymy and metaphor, and De Quincey’s caduceus and Baudelaire’s thyrsus—and a “containing frame” in which “depth is balanced by a heightening lyrical consciousness” (I’ve always found metaphysical interpretations of the prose poem more appealing than Marxist ones). There’s something about water in baroque-surrealist hybridity, too, right, the idea of “changeability or mutation, including indeterminacy and cloudiness” and soap bubbles and the imagination? Can you talk a little bit more about water, as a form, as a reflection, as ripple?
Caws: Let me just react to the soap bubbles, since something I did as commissioned by Venta about bubbles and Joseph Cornell was fun to write. Perhaps, having just really stopped running reading groups and all that in the CUNY Academic Commons, itself a delight to be part of, I can take up more water and bubbles, and who knows what frames what now, and what drowns? A book I did way back for Princeton about framing (Reading Frames in Modern Fiction, I think) couldn’t find a perfect frame for its cover. What I wanted was impossible to get permission for, which is funny in itself. I do believe we should seek humor where we can, now or even now. Either.
Rail: Do you want to talk about gathering with the “Poets-together” group in the CUNY Academic Commons, looking at different sides of surrealism today as they persist, as well as the group’s collaboration with you on your new book, co-edited with Michel Delville and just out this year, called The Beginnings of the Prose Poem: All Over the Place, and moving outside France and in some small part away from the twentieth-century?
Caws: Every person in the group—I guess there were about seven of us who kept going on—is radically different. Chris Campanioni (he’s written a great deal of stuff) is one of the translators because he’s Cuban and Polish. Marianna Rosen because she is Russian and also from Italy, and then Peter Constantine, a friend from a long time ago whom I met through Burton Pike, and who has done translations from every known language, it seems to me. Rosanna Warren did Max Jacob, Richard Sieburth did Hölderlin, Rosemary Lloyd did Mallarmé, and so forth. So everybody had volunteered because there’s something about the prose poem that seems, to me, to get in a lot more poetry than just poet. You can be a prose poet but nobody’s going to say “prose poet.” To me the idea of poetry includes prose (if it’s a certain kind of prose). That’s the kind of thing I’m dealing with in my present project still in rumination dealing with Dada and surrealism, from a personal point of view.
Rail: I am interested in your re-translation of Claudel’s “Tristesse de l’eau” included in the new anthology, following Lawler’s translation “The Sadness of Water”? I love the “dark interior,” “the weight of grief bearing in itself its cause,” the “perpetual source in us” of the pain/rain that perpetually replenishes our basin of despair. Why is water sad?
Caws: Paul Claudel, a heavy-going figure in all senses, whom I met when he was deaf, was so incredibly sensitive to words, their shape and their order, like his religious procession, and I love his being converted from behind some pillar inside Notre-Dame de Paris, and remembering it now, after the burning, is all the more relevant.
Looking at the Claudel and translation that keeps changing, like water, there’s so much about seeing and seeing through that we can all write about and think about. Not sight and not vision, but the seeing as an adverb. I was reading my translation and thinking, “What am I doing, I have all these adverbs,” so that must be what it’s about. The re-translation is interesting, Jared, everything you re-translate gets to be more interesting than the first way. Let me read you some of the translation by Lawler, whom I loved:
“The Sadness of Water”
There is a source of invention in joy, I agree, of vision in laughter. But, so that you understand the mixture of blessedness and bitterness in the act of creation, I will explain to you, my friend, at a time when the somber season begins, the sadness of water.
From the sky and the eyelid wells up an identical tear.
How wonderful, and I published it in The Yale Anthology of Twentieth-Century French Poetry book that I did. Then I re-translated it and got all excited because I thought, “Let’s be more adverbial and more ongoing.” So now my “Water’s Sadness” goes:
There is some conceiving in joy, I admit, there is some seeing in laughter. But this mixture of gladness and bitterness implied by the act of creation, so you can understand it, friend, at this time when a somber season is starting, I shall explain to you water’s sadness.
From the sky there falls or from the eye there spills an identical tear.
So the “conceiving” and the “seeing” and the “starting” seem to me to be really important given the way Claudel really writes. But then I thought, “Oh, why didn’t I use Jim’s word ‘blessedness’?” And I didn’t because it says “this mixture of gladness” waters sadness in the rhyme, because of course you hear, when you’re translating, what you’re doing. Then the whole “spills” and “falls” in, “From the sky there falls or from the eye there spills an identical tear,” that seemed to me the most exciting thing I’ve done in months. So it’s that continuing to look and re-looking.
And goodness, right away I notice that I haven’t noticed how different “Il est” is from “Il y a”—the all-important opening of so much everythingness, as in the Apollinaire’s “il y a.” Since I am now about-to-be worrying about inclusion and exclusions in any project, in any anthology, in any wondering and wandering, let me stick here for a moment. Probably a long moment.
Whoops, or rather, whoa: look at the difference between Lawler’s “I agree” for “je le veux” and “I admit” I put, as if for a second thinking of how much conceding to happiness or “gladness” or “blessedness” we want to be achieving in our own creation, as if we, like whomever we consider to be our maker, were part of it. Claudel was or wanted to be part of it, and I suppose as translators we too want just that. I see we both put “explaining” as our business (that is, Claudel’s business). Seems a bit lordly to me, as (again, a Southern woman) for just myself contemplating the water, whatever its emotional being. Does it have to do with my emotion in any way or is contemplation like meditation a simply silent thing or action or inaction? It now at this moment occurs to me how I wish Claudel had recorded a reading of this as it were an ode to water, a sort of hymn of the wet.
Rail: I of course love Blanchot’s il y a too. But “I admit” has a tinge of sadness to it, but also the thrill or “gladness” of forfeiting to the work being contemplated. There’s also a tranquil, meditative quality to water that commands inaction, but maybe the action is in the looking at and through the dynamism of its depth, thriving in the “mixture” with its surface. I also find interesting that in Lawler’s preposition, sadness is an appendage of water, a part to the whole, and in your translation, sadness is water’s possession.
Caws: I loved the ritual repetition in your prose poem “Can You Be as Urchin,” and in the other, “On a Thorn Bed of Neon,” I’m imagining the last two adjectives in the ending of “I am something here you need, flickering and absent”—wow.
The stabbing monosyllables in your “TEAR”—do you read the text aloud and then hear how they thud on the page? Or do they just come without prescience (if that’s a proper word there)? Like: does something speak to and through your mind and, as it were, tongue, or do you think you think it out? Because that first or those first few pages of “TEAR,” whose title I see now can be read both ways, as tearing and a tearing up weepily, have that kind of verbal/visual force it is nigh impossible to reach thoughtfully. I will go on, but this initial impulse makes me respond right away.
Rail: I’m so glad you recognized the homonymic uncertainty of “TEAR” (of course you would). Uncertainty, changeability, apprehension, doubt, irresolution—these are really important to me stylistically (and personally). Here of course the hesitation is homographic, but “TEAR” (and most others then and now) came to me surprisingly and started as a sonic sensation, thinking about the word, over and over again, in both its senses: because I’m forever tearing out pages from my beat-up little notebooks to throw away, and sadness and remorse forever too, for not having the courage to keep (intact) or hold onto that which has silently seeped through and wept out of me, either from some physical, mental, or emotional necessity (because isn’t that such a sacred and precious thing we’re all caught-up in as writers: capturing?) It stabs my heart as so many other things do. But none of this is hardly ever premeditated: the poem comes to in and through the writing itself, and when it’s all said and done and I read the poem back on the page and aloud with my mouth, I “know” or realize it “always for the first time” (as Breton put it) in a way it probably wasn’t at first, so maybe it’s about un-knowing, too. I do worry, though, about capriciousness usurping the innate volatility in the work, though I suppose the former can help to temper or relieve the frenzy (and this is partially where one of my many possible dissertation titles, “desire’s despair,” comes into play)—like when we laugh not because something is humorous, but because it’s awkward or unbelievable, or stirs an anxiety we don’t know what else to do with.
I think about “verbal/visual force” a lot in I think ways similar to you: the combinatory and “blurriness” between the two mediums certainly, and as confrontation, but also I’m still trying to find a reconciliation between any two forces traditionally considered disparate. I’ll keep trying because I’m interested in aesthetic failure, probably more so than any other kind. I’m also interested in plurality and specifically “the double” that exists for and against the other as a single entity (or communicating vessel). I’ve been reading the Korean poet and translator Don Mee Choi—do you know her work?—and she says this about her imaginative “Orphans” poems from her book DMZ Colony: “It’s just that there are always two of us—the eternal twoness.” This has to do with the history and memory (one’s own and that of someone else’s) of the Sancheong-Hamyang massacre, the individual and the collective, the simultaneous existence of consciousness and unconsciousness, and translation of self that stands apart as other.
Plurality also concerns you in your life’s work. In particular I’m thinking, again, about your poem-essay “Rage Begins at Home”—the personal tied to the “professional,” translating and interpreting, rage and anger that you use and which uses you. How did you come to write this and lines like “where I live in my mind even when I no longer live there” and “I have not learned anger completely enough, and do not even know if I am still weeping inside”?
Rail: Can you elaborate on your current and next project, on the personal and finding or getting in more poetry that simply “poet” cannot convey? I think the greatest art, or at the very least art worth dedicating one’s life to (whether voluntarily or obligatory), is that which first pursued us without our knowing we were deep down burying or running from something—touching us on a personal nerve, giving us the courage to feel and speak, compelling us to pay attention to those initial impulses that, for whatever reason, had become dormant or forcefully ignored. For me, as a Korean adoptee raised in a predominantly white middle-class suburb, it was the work of Breton, Eluard, and Reverdy, their juxtaposition of disparate things and joining of opposites, their fusing poetry with prose, that at last helped me to be comfortable with the confusion of categorical experience, to be okay living in a state of statelessness with my wrought identities. Art and literature has of course become (perhaps obsessively) our “academic” preoccupation. You’ve already done a lot of curating and anthologizing—the latter implies defining, securing, and including/excluding on behalf of establishing some kind of permanence—but I know you’re spending these days reporting on your memories, collecting fragments of impermanence, approaching your work with a more subjective emphasis. What’s at stake in this self-critical project? What has taking or acquiescing to a Dada and surrealist lens that pre-existed inside you, since the very beginning, revealed to you about yourself and yourself in the world?
Caws: Ah, I am still, as of this morning and of last late night, trying to see where to go with women artists and dada and surrealism, just as you say—whom to choose or just display a long list, in which, alas, whom to not include, as in exclude. Not including seems much more available than “excluding”—so in thinking about any stance we take the wording any way we go seems squishy beyond belief. Banality haunts any answer.
So the next book I really want to do, about the personal looking at things I’ve written and things other people have written, has to do with re-looking. Not the surrealist look this time, but the Dada and surrealist re-looking, like you and I were talking that one time about re-reading and how strongly it matters that you’re not doing it for the first time. The kind of memory, maybe, matters more than you think it matters. So when you’re taking your notebooks—and I too have lots of little notebooks I scribble all this stuff in that’s never going to get to my computer, because how would I get the time or the energy or the space in my mind or in my life to transcribe these little things from my notebook—I’m not going to have time to do that, since I can’t do that and write. I can’t read and write at the same time, so I’m not reading a lot—I can’t do both. And I know you’re reading and writing, as well as teaching. I don’t think I read. I re-read maybe, but I’m not reading. Somebody asks, “What novel are you reading now?” And I’ve been on the same thing for ages, or the same book or the same article about everything I want to read right now. So I don’t know how you read and write, creatively, at the same time.
Are your writings reworked or just spontaneously there and stay there put? I’ve been thinking about that kind of ventriloquism, foisting a thought and vociferation loudly if you have usually a silent sort of response. How would the thought and the wording change?
Rail: A word or a line or phrase that for some reason I can’t shake will come to me from god knows where, and if I’m able to secure it somehow—often only after repeatedly muttering it to myself madly, in my mind or in a whisper—the writing starts from there (and there again is our frailty with words and their inebriated conjuring). That won’t be changed, because it’s already become the impetus (sometimes title) for the poem or poem itself, but against my “better judgment” usually what follows will be reworked some way or another. As you can imagine, waiting for and being able to seize just a few meager words or lines at a time when they come (if they come) to you will get you nowhere. So the ritual of repeating them first so they don’t perish (though of course they often do) and then being able to articulate what’s lost or gained in the litany is part of the work for me. And as you already know, I’m writing everywhere—cell phone, notebook, computer, and not necessarily in that order—so things inevitably get lost or uncared for in the transcription process. I also have this treacherous habit (with both academic papers and poems) of beginning each “writing session” by re-reading what’s already there, what I had already written, and in that re-reading things tend to get edited.
I often think about what you say about ventriloquism before and/or as a result of one’s predisposition to silence (if I am understanding correctly), though I’m not sure how to respond without sounding contradictory because I am fond of silence and find myself writing. Some of my favorite writers do both magnificently. And while I absolutely think words should come from somewhere else, and should possess you, I also think writing (and this also applies to reading) should never be strictly for entertainment or amusement and can and maybe should potentially exceed identification, that seeing yourself in someone else. Rather, I like seeing yourself as someone else. In this way, what I write is unreal or all too real (and both sometimes at once). Unreal because I become apart from: witness to parts of myself that didn’t previously exist or I didn’t know existed. Real because now those parts apart from do exist, spoken or not, faithfully or not. A friend of mine once said—and I can’t remember if this was in the context of his or mine or somebody else’s work—“you should erase yourself more.” I still think about this from time to time because to a large extent I agree, but who is really the “you” here? Is it you in or outside of the work or you that impedes the work, maybe something like personality (at least for Eliot and the formalists)? Isn’t the real you (whatever or whenever that is) what’s at stake, what’s at risk, in the writing, even if you can’t stand yourself and need to get away from who you are, and even especially if you can’t fathom who you are? Maybe all I am is in a drunken rage—and is that numbing who you are, helping to imagine who you are (or aren’t), or truly what you are? Is to be outside and hostile to oneself in the form of another the only way to know? My poems are violent and sad and angry because inside I’m violent, said, and angry, but in the end that violence only goes as far as the dummy sitting upon my knee that is me. My poems are composed with despair because I’m full of it, yet I find ways (such as writing) to keep hope alive in that restrained extension, or at least abate the despair enough that it’s not put on or into anyone else.
So reading and writing and at the same time, it’s extremely difficult for me as well, and are often not mutually exclusive. But you know, some of my favorite writers are those who are writing, I don’t know, five or however many books in their life but are really just writing the same book over and over. In writing I find myself over and over.
Caws: Yes, that’s wonderful.
Rail: That’s the “blessedness” of re-looking.
Caws: I loved “blessedness,” but I think that I heard, what I believe Claudel would have heard, is that maybe “gladness” gets to “sadness” more than “blessedness” gets to some sort of mystical thing.
Rail: Doesn’t Claudel have a poem in Connaissance de l’Est about the ear as well? Rembrandt’s philosopher in the garden? Something about walking the spiral stairs inside the ear?
Caws: You may be right. He was so big. That would be interesting, if he did that poem and then became deaf.
Rail: Or wrote that poem as a response to his deafness.
Caws: I suppose at your young age you can’t have a late style, but does what you write feel like “Jared’s early style?” Has the way you write and what you write changed? Your reading is vast: take someone, like Merleau-Ponty, and describe how his writing or thinking has mattered to you and Your Writing and Thinking, and does that change over time?
Rail: I think the writing has changed, or at least the process has, while the feeling is still the same. I’m still writing in prose except its inner parts are different. This will probably sound arrogant, but in many ways I’ve stopped trying so hard. My wife Erin, whose own writing was one of the first things I fell in love with about her, has told me that I’ve climbed more inside myself, and in that way my writing now seems more natural. I think she’s right (she’s right about nearly everything). I’ve gotten comfortable with giving into spontaneity. I used to write this terrible “fiction” (whatever that is) that luckily and quite correctly hardly anyone would publish, and too often tried to control the architecture and “meaning” of the text. You know, being occupied with having “real” despicable characters (that were and weren’t just me or who I thought I wanted to be), mixing metaphors, or trying to transpose something as grandiose as The Odyssey onto my own boring city existence (which I’m sure has been done already and countless times) and letting what I thought was “intelligence” interfere. Maybe, sometimes, I like reading others who can pull things like that off in new, intelligent, or interesting ways (can anyone after Joyce?), but it was too difficult for me and I don’t any longer have that kind of patience. In any case, those fictions are all gone now, I’ve deleted them (yet still, though it would pain me to read them again had they survived, part of me regrets doing so). The Animal of Existence—a collection (in which “TEAR” appears) coming out next year with Black Square Editions—is the early style that marks this transition, and I think that style still carries me today even if it might look different.
Doing all the things I do (like reading all the time and teaching most times) certainly matters to my thinking and probably infiltrates my writing more than I like (or would like to admit). I’ve always felt kinship to the idea of writing as a poetics, a performance, of thought, and I think a lot of my writing, certainly a lot of my thoughts, is prejudicially bent toward what it is “to be” as an infinitive, as a metaphysical and ontological deconstruction or restoration. Most of what I read now—from Merleau-Ponty, Blanchot, and Cioran to Celan, Luca, Alejandra Pizarnik, etc.—is for trying to earn that PhD thing, and that’s all about poetry and being, their beauty and anguish, interiority and exteriority, and the pursuit of the PhD is a pursuit of myself, it just has to be “personal,” otherwise I couldn’t go through with it—and not personal in the sense of giving over a way I want to be soon or that a doctorate would benefit me in any way financially, but in that I don’t know who I am (who I am is always changing whether I want to or not) and it’s all our responsibility to figure that out so we can be “better” to ourselves and others, or at least be tolerable? I think of the writing, the poetry, the reading, assuming a role as a publisher, and the PhD as all intersecting around a lack, something lost.
So Claudel lives on for us in his work, and it would seem we both have a hard time accepting Jean Schuster’s declaration that surrealism died in 1969. Only a few years ago did you introduce me to Annie Le Brun’s incredible Annulaire de lune in our independent study, and quite recently I’ve gotten really into the work of the American poets Will Alexander, Andrew Joron, Carlos Lara, and John Olson (and I love Michel Deguy—he’s French but is he “surrealist?”). Then of course there’s the New York School, with Ashbery, Alice Notley, John Yau and so on, and the L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poets, Lyn Hejinian (whose work I really love), Leslie Scalapino, and many others I haven’t read, as well as the “direct” or immediate influence surrealism had on Ron Silliman’s “The New Sentence,” on which, at this point, I have mixed feelings. Do you know it? Sur, “on” or “above,” does not necessarily imply “well beyond” as he argues, whether that of “the horizon of the sentence” or proximity to the body of the line.
I wonder what are your thoughts on writers and artists today who are called, or claim themselves to be, “surrealist”? What does it mean to be surrealist and how does surrealism live on? In what ways are you thinking of Gwendolyn Brooks, Rikki Dukornet, and Anne Waldman from a Dada and surrealist angle? Because it’s one of your books I’ve not been able to find, can you tell me about A Metapoetics of the Passage and “architextures”? Isn’t surrealism’s fluidity innately hostile to stasis, whether in time and usage?
Caws: Sure, and in my redoing of my redoing of my re-re-redoing of a project/proposal I struggle with (this Personal Anthology of women now and then Dada and surrealist etc., for the moment fragments and a work each and the interlarded with essays) I want to include many, like Tabitha Vevers and Sophie Taeuber-Arp, who was today on the last page of the art section of The New York Times (and I was going to bring this up) and was one of the people I was going to use as this sort of Dada-surrealist woman. But now, or and now, she is so in the public, like the same problem we’ve got with Dorothea Tanning. What do you do? Do you want to just get lesser-known people? I have a lot of friends who are just as interestingly surrealist as everybody else. I have to work on it when we are pausing our dialogue because all you mention I want to re-read and think and choose.
If you were given a tabula rasa and free slate with nothing upon it, how to start, and would that change with the hour or/and the day and mood and weather and surroundings—big deal: how do writings change and why?
Rail: Personally it’s more “when” than “how,” and for the most part the starting has and does change—the changing from and changing into is so crucial in spite of what you wanted to last. Though I’m more skeptical about “mood” because it’s the only thing I think I want to preserve, and the start and finish can be do distant from one another (a single poem for me could take months to complete, and then of course when is the work ever complete?). Maybe there’s a difference between boredom and boring. Boredom, as something where one can start and arrive with writing, is boring, or at least not what I find interesting about it. It’s the in-between and assault of different mental and emotional states—the drinks, the excitement, and the losing it—that boredom gives permission to journey precisely everywhere not boring which excites the writing: awe and dread and lust and longing. (A moth or a mouth has drowned in my drink.) There’s no way of knowing when that single word or line or image will arrest me or be arrested. They come when sitting at the bar or outside smoking under the awning, and they come (the best ones anyway) when you’re in the middle of something else, when you least expect it.
Right before I decided to go to, and started, graduate school, I had a tremendously fatiguing and boring (although rather financially generous) job: mostly nine-to-five and routined. Everything was partitioned into financial quarters to which my work corresponded. My writing during this time was long like those exhausting days, just as laborious and static. But as I was beginning to contemplate options to get out, the writing began taking the shape of what it would become after I ended my employment. The Animal collects most of the texts I wrote then and immediately after coming to the Graduate Center. Since then (maybe around early 2017 to now), since the surroundings have changed, things have been far less boring and there’s been more in-betweeness, more walking and transit. So the writing has adjusted to the interims, and as a result, lasted less in the rush of motion—becoming prose poems rather than long poetic prose or lyrical prose. I wrote “Can You Be as Urchin” and “On a Thorn Bed of Neon” and a dozen or so others on the Q train, over the East River, and sidewalks between the Empire State Building and Underhill Avenue in Brooklyn. With the pandemic I’ve gone back to something with more longevity, a previously abandoned sort of “notebook-novel” in prose poems.
Do writings change, or do they assume different textures? I think this points back to re-reading. Someone like Beckett, who you know I love, wrote the same book his entire life. The sieges shifted, the respirations, but the obligation to write persisted, sustained him, like water. How could Breton be so infatuated with Jacqueline Lamba’s underwater dancing yet be afraid to get his feet wet at the beach? If he wasn’t murdered, why do we think Arthur Cravan drowned in the Pacific? Why was Breton so obsessed with Mélusine (the original shapeshifter)? What about water did Rahon find so restorative and artistically inspiring?
Caws: Ah, alas, Breton’s fear of wetting his feet was nowhere in comparison with his essential prudery about showing them! Thus that amazing distance between Jacqueline’s strolling unclothed with David Hare (himself also very gorgeous) and her husband’s selfness.
No one knows why Arthur Cravan drowned: do we know that Hart Crane, slipping from his boat, did that on purpose? Isn’t that also a kind of mystery? Mélusine for Breton was always the inspiring mermaid out of the window, so both human and mystical or magic, tail and body—like his loving to go and take his friends to see her swimming naked in the wherever it was she was paid to swim (Coliseum, wasn’t it?), somewhere for others to see the loveliness. He was perhaps slightly unfond of his corporeal being.
As for the wonders of Rahon, she was always lame, so less great at walking, falling on the stairs and all that, than at swimming. She was a wondrous swimmer indeed, and visiting Anais Nin in Acapulco, she more or less dwelt in the pool.
Rail: She also has a poem on Mélusine in your forthcoming book. I love this part:
At dawn, Mélusine
plucks the sun in her hands
the dawn flees like water
Mélusine oh your cry
to this sun stabbing you!
You flee surrounded by your cry
and the mirror of love
of the love of men Mélusine
your likeness weeps which will come no more.
The attention Rahon gives to the life-giving sun that she realizes she can hold and wield, and the perilous attention it pays back to her, is quite the double-bind, and all she can do is cry into the light (her hands) that cascades over her like a shadow—her own light eclipses her. Additionally, the fleeing water that troubles her reflection doesn’t even belong to her, or rather, is withheld from her.
Caws: Yes, I love your attention to Mélusine, who really guides my would-be-wanderings and will preside if I can manage it over the book I intend to write, all this before returning to Claudel—with whom I fell more or less in love at Yale when I was in the real world falling in love with my about-to-be husband Peter Caws. We got married there in a chapel and our reception was in the Hall of Graduate Studies with odes in Latin and I suppose Greek, I can’t remember now.
Rail: Just like my favorite writers were walkers on the outside but dancers on the inside, I’ve always been fascinated by philosophers who could only philosophize through interpretations of poetry and the poets they loved. Speaking of water, and going back to surrealist hybridity, I’m curious about your thoughts, today, on the theoretical backgrounds of surrealism. Lacan was Picasso’s doctor. Breton, I believe, wrote letters to Freud that went unanswered. Wittgenstein and Dada formed a relationship around (the play of) linguistic limitations. The haunting echoes of Char’s aphorisms are somewhat Nietzschean, almost Heraclitan (and the ontological position of poetry, if I’m not mistaken, brought the ethical Char into contact with Heidegger). And, I would argue, Merleau-Ponty’s “Eye and Mind”—in which consciousness extends itself through the body, seeing and seen, and enters the world through perception, just as the painter seeks to uncover and put to canvas an “internal animation”—has surrealism written all over it. But what I find most interesting is how Bachelard and Breton are connected by water, with the former’s Water and Dreams and the latter’s Soluble Fish. You’ve written on this connection.
Stretching surrealist hybridity and the water metaphor just a little bit more, where and how do Bachelard the scientist and Breton the poet come together (or depart)?
Caws: This is so funny because a passionate Bachelard enthusiast invited me to Dallas to the Bachelard Institute and I got my first experience of a hot water pool to think in and met a Bachelard therapist who really wore a frog on his collar and told us of rescuing someone by explaining that under the water was firm land or sidewalk or something.
I was fascinated by Bachelard wandering along the walk up to the Sorbonne in his slippers and long beard, saluted by the bums under the bridges: “Bonjour, M. Bachelard, comment va?” Mina Loy and her Bowery Bums is not far off in my imagination, which is I guess my realest mind. Yours must be also, as a poet, though you called “TEAR” “feeble aphorisms.” Are aphorisms like brief prose poems for you?
Rail: Maybe genetically but perhaps not spiritually. But I think of aphorisms as maybe that most perfect silence—with their brevity, and the way they stay the lightning flash of epiphany—some of us are trying to achieve, because they are so profound, because in their profundity they stretch silence into timelessness.
Aphorisms, too, form “relations with the world” and join “different states of life,” at least according to Char in his Formal Share. You know how for Char life was poetry and poetry was life, that both existed together in an “exalting alliance of contraries.” Do you want to talk about Char and his resistance, his relationship to local space and geography, his “awakening echoes,” the aphorism—after Saint John Perse—as lightning, as witnessing agent, as link to the past and present, as a way to question where truth comes from and how knowledge (in a formulaic sense) prohibits itself?
Caws: I now think I will pass the best part of the rest of my life speaking or writing or thinking about René Char.
Rail: One of my favorite endings to anything ever written is Breton’s “existence is elsewhere,” and one of my favorite new things is what you’ve called “everywhereness.” Perhaps it’s not so much “existence is elsewhere” as it is “surrealism is everywhere,” that life and art are inexorably, inexhaustibly mixed (and thinking of again of Wilde, maybe the latter’s Socratic-dialogue-essay “The Decay of Lying,” in its denial of rational facts, is as surrealist as it is romantic?).
I just have to ask you about your favored meeting place of life and art—food, cooking, and your cookbooks Provençal Cooking and The Modern Art Cookbook. As a surrealist, what does cooking mean to you? Why did Dalí dress mannequins in baguettes and wear cocktails pinned to his jacket? Why did Méret Oppenheim make the Milk bowl of feathers and string high heels into the shape of a roast chicken? Can a recipe be a poem? When I think of cooking I think of transformation, combination, play, sustenance and mortality, desire, eroticism, ritual. And today convening and gathering around food is especially difficult (though it’s always been impossible to find a seat at the Café de Flore, which is crowded with artists and bankers alike).
Caws: Cooking doesn’t get to me the way consuming someone else’s super cooking does, out or in. everything about Dali was so Dali: I only met him once, and he was just that. Dore Ashton once told me when she saw him he had spoons rattling in his pocket and she asked him why, to which he answered: “to call attention to myself”—now that is surrealist funny. I enormously admire all about Meret Oppenheim and would put her in any anthology of anything I ever wanted to do. A poem-recipe: delicious in every way. My oldest (in the non-age sense) friend in Paris gave me an ashtray from the Café de Flore, and I love telling the story of Patti Smith having breakfast there: a perfect egg-shaped egg in a circle on a perfect circle of toast: I think I end my Creative Gatherings: Meeting Places of Modernism on that note, so let’s end this dialogue also on that note.
Originally published in Hyperion: On the Future of Aesthetics, Vol. XIV, No. 1 (2021), published by Contra Mundum Press.