Varieties of Surrealism: Five New Books
Collected Poems, by Mark Strand. Knopf Doubleday, 544 pp., $30.
If the Tabloids Are True What Are You?, by Matthea Harvey. Graywolf Press 160 pp., $25.
They Don’t Kill You Because They’re Hungry, They Kill You Because They’re Full, by Mark Bibbins. Copper Canyon Press, 96 pp., $16.
Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals, by Patricia Lockwood. Penguin, 80 pp., $20.
In Defense of Nothing: New and Selected Poems, by Peter Gizzi. Wesleyan University Press, 244 pp., $26.95.
In an essay published in Denver Quarterly seventeen years ago, the poet and critic Dana Gioia gave an account of what he calls “domesticated surrealism,” an aesthetic mode popularized by James Tate, John Ashbery, Charles Simic, and Mark Strand, each of whom is now considered a major English-language poet. These American surrealists, like their French antecedents, are connoisseurs of dream-logic, visual art, and playful lyrics—and yet, in terms of the movement, they were several decades behind. Andre Breton published his manifesto in 1924; Ashbery didn’t arrive on the scene until 1956. Gioia offers two possible explanations for the delay. First, the United States was in the throes of Modernism: Eliot, Pound, Stevens, and Williams monopolized the avant garde. More influential still, he writes, was the rise of Mickey Mouse. Gioia points out that the early cartoons of Walt Disney and Max Fleischer “took the principles of surrealism and turned them into mass entertainment.” In other words: “Hollywood got there first.”
Gioia’s critical observation is worth recalling, especially given the general state of surrealism today. From hip municipal branding techniques (“Keep Austin Weird”) to Broadway versions of The Blue Man Group (street-art hijinks viewed from the comfort of plush balcony seats), we are used to seeing commercial pursuits presented as irreverent art—the kind of art that Progressive’s spokeslady might indulge in during her free time. In the art world, this is partly due to Andy Warhol’s entrepreneurship; in poetry, it is a consequence of the so-called New York School (said to be comprised of Ashbery, John O’Hara, and Kenneth Koch, among others), which had a major impact on the last two generations of poets. Today’s poets favor exuberant irony over spiritual vision, and this can sometimes bewilder readers who actively seek out the latter, and who wonder whether the genre has become a forum for inside jokes. It hasn’t, of course. Judging by last year’s crop of books, surrealism is alive and well, and it has broad appeal.
Mark Strand, who died in November, gave us countless examples of the best that surrealism has to offer: art that addresses the radical strangeness of merely being alive. Strikingly, his Collected Poems resembles the work of Wallace Stevens more than that of the New York School. Both have a deeply spiritual (albeit irreligious) imagination, both create surrogate worlds in which to address our cosmic fate, both are thematically wild but always formally under control, and both draw inspiration from the work of modern painters (for Stevens, it was Picasso; for Strand, Edward Hopper). Occasionally Strand explicitly acknowledges this affinity (“Futility in Key West” is a wonderful deadpan homage) but mostly it is implicit in his cadence, as in “A Piece of the Storm”:
From the shadow of domes in the city of domes,
A snowflake, a blizzard of one, weightless, entered your room
And made its way to the arm of the chair where you, looking up
From your book, saw it the moment it landed. That’s all
There was to it. No more than a solemn waking
To brevity, to the lifting and falling away of attention, swiftly,
A time between times, a flowerless funeral. No more than that
Except for the feeling that this piece of the storm,
Which turned into nothing before your eyes, would come back,
That someone years hence, sitting as you are now, might say:
“It’s time. The air is ready. The sky has an opening.”
Strand is a poet of mood, with an emphasis on the “time between times”—our unrecorded mental life, the never-ending storm. His poems may be foreboding, but they are never fatalistic (“if the body is a coffin it is also a closet of breath”), nor are they overly solemn. Several—for example, “The Emergency Room at Dusk”—take the form of a parable:
The retired commander was upset. His room in the castle was cold,
so was the room across the hall, and all the other rooms as well. He
should never have bought this castle when there were so many other
cheaper, warmer castles for sale.
The humor is deeply satisfying—grim but humane, off-kilter, often involving animals that confess to human anxieties:
I wanted to praise the soul. My neighbor told me
Not to waste my time. Already the frost had deepened
And the north wind, trailing the whip of its own scream,
Pressed against the house. “A dog’s sublimity is never news,”
He said, “what’s another poet in the end?
And I stood in the midnight valley, watching the great star fields
Flash and flower in the wished-for reaches of heaven.
That’s when I, the dog they call Spot, began to sing.
Strand delights in transmigration and other forms of magic (in a separate poem the speaker, a horse, drinks from a lake beside his peers), so it’s no surprise that he is the author of three children’s books, published throughout the nineteen-eighties during a long hiatus from verse. Childlike wonder coexists with highly refined aesthetic taste; the result is constant contravention of the reader’s expectations:
A few months ago my four-year-old son surprised me. He was
hunched over, polishing my shoes, when he looked up and said, ‘My
translations of Palazzeschi are going poorly.’
The later volumes include a number of poems mocking death—mortality, in fact, becomes a theme as omnipresent as love. “2002,” a common favorite, made the rounds on Twitter in response to Strand’s obituary:
I am not thinking of Death, but Death is thinking of me.
He leans back in his chair, rubs his hands, strokes
His beard and says, “I’m thinking of Strand, I’m thinking
That one of these days I’ll be out back, swinging my scythe
Or holding my hourglass up to the moon, and Strand will appear
In a jacket and tie, and together under the boulevards’
Leafless trees we’ll stroll into the city of souls.
A lesser poet probably would have overdone the conceit (and perhaps given us the Grim Reaper). But even Strand’s most irreverent poems are tender and dignified. For someone with such a keen sense of life’s basic absurdity, Strand did not abuse the freedom inherent to his vocation. Instead, his poems evoke mystery without provoking confusion. Our inner lives are vast, he seems to say, but navigable.
Matthea Harvey takes surrealism to its playful extreme. If the Tabloids Are True What Are You?, her fifth collection of poems, assembles disparate projects into a wacky, gorgeous collage. There are photos of dolls frozen in ice, a Ray Bradbury erasure, a poem about a prom queen seeking U.N. recognition, and plenty of mermaid silhouettes. The book’s relentless whimsy sometimes overshadows the poems themselves, which are gentle and moving parodies of commercial entertainment: graphics, ads, sci-fi films, and pointless memorabilia. Here is “Cheap Cloning Process Lets You Have Your Own Little Elvis”:
If the real Elvis was a racecar,
the little matchbox-sized Elvi we buy
are the half-galaxies of other cars’
odometers seen through a cab window
at night ...
The voice is quirky and charming, and the book as a whole resembles the blog of a witty, hopelessly artsy friend—one that is rhythmic and skillfully paced and paired with “visual puns,” to borrow a phrase from René Magritte, the French surrealist painter famous for tweaking the correspondence between word, image, and mind. This is especially true in the section devoted to Harvey’s mermaids, whose lower halves are nothing like the ones in Disney’s or Prufrock’s dreams (instead of tailfins, they have a wrench, a plug, a knife, a corkscrew, etc.):
The Homemade Mermaid is top half pimply teenager, bottom half
tuna. This does not make for a comely silhouette, and the fact that
her bits are stitched together with black fishing wire only makes the
combo more gruesome.
In addition to being a spoof on our culture’s paradoxical view of women, the mermaids also represent our common inner misfit, who is always failing to live up to an unrealized ideal. Each mermaid is incomplete in ways that sound familiar, and several channel their author’s conflicted attitude towards art:
While she’s contemplating brushing her teeth, the other mermaids
go swishing off to Watercooler Class. The trick is to use a primer of
crushed pearls for a spectacular under-sheen when the drawing’s dry.
Later they’ll hold the paintings underwater and see which one fish
try to swim into. Fish are efficient judges that way and no one holds
it against them.
Like Strand, Harvey exploits parables and metamorphoses (she, too, has written children’s books). This book also has a sci-fi element: “Kangamouse” is from the perspective of a future race, whose archaeologists come across a gnarled toy animal that has been buried in the rubble of the “Last Ones’” civilization:
It is not one of their BeWiths,
which were almost universally furred,
nor a ListenTo, since he makes no sound,
nor is there a mention of a Kangamouse
in the Aesop’s Fables found in a Ziploc
in Zone Twelve some twenty years ago.
We still cannot make a Ziploc, but we know
all about Morals—try before you trust and
might makes right.
Here, the artwork enriches the poem—a photograph of a Kangamouse is on the adjacent page. Elsewhere, the poems speak for themselves, and the images seem redundant. One example is “Michelin Man Possessed by William Shakespeare,” a funny and oddly moving sonnet:
Though I want to tell him of the moon
and slippered feet in marble halls, these tires
at our waist are a mischief. I make believe
they are couplets of rubber, but barbed wire
would be more apt. It’s very hard to breathe.
Make us a man, or make us a machine—
but do not leave us trapped here in-between.
This kind of poem can give the impression that Harvey is not “serious.” Yet one of the strengths of surrealism—and one that Harvey exemplifies—is the way it approaches dark subjects with comic detachment. “The No More Suicide Fox Constellation” and “Radio Animals” do that here, and so does Harvey’s terrific poem “When the Water is At Our Ankles”:
When the water is at our knees, will someone
please pick a plan? Plan A: A fleet of sunken
subway-car reefs where fish with oil-clogged gills
can find some relief hovering in the newly calm water,
as eels coil around silver poles still smeared with
commuters’ coughs and fingerprints. When the water
is at our waists, Plan B: Let loose the artificial islands,
one squirrel per.
If surrealism is an appropriate mode for dealing with aging and death (as Strand suggests), it can certainly be an appropriate mode for dealing with planetary doom. What makes Harvey unique is that she combines a childlike imagination with very adult fears—just as Magritte used children’s primers to explore unconscious material. Not everything fits together—the section on Antonio Meucci, an early Italian inventor, seems especially out of place—but that is the nature of collage. These are poems well attuned to life’s bizarre glory, for which the reader—alternatively bewildered and delighted—is ultimately grateful.
If Harvey’s book errs on the side of exuberance and whimsy, Mark Bibbins’ latest collection, They Don’t Kill You Because They’re Hungry, They Kill You Because They’re Full, aspires to the condition of pure rant. The French Surrealists would have approved. They thought art should “change life” by attacking their culture’s contradictions, orthodoxies, and blasphemy laws. Bibbins sees contradictions just about everywhere he looks. Less benign and more politically energized than Harvey, he is never coy about his social commentary (“A dead CEO admonishes me / to do what I love, which he can’t / see me doing”), much of which is delivered with the same exasperation that hovered in the air during the Occupy Wall Street movement. Consider these lines from “In the Corner of a Room Where You Would Never Look”:
the next Godzilla movie has Godzilla
just running around eating everyone’s
money and it’s the scariest thing ever.
Yet his indignation is finally that of a poet, not an activist. It may be true, as the Marxist theorists tell us, that it is easier for Hollywood to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism; Bibbins is more concerned about the effect of our culture’s insanity on our individual psyches (“Certainly we all need / a visit from the Perspective / Fairy now and then”). The highlight of this collection is a series of poems that parody a certain Baptist media lord. Here is “Pat Robertson Transubstantiation Engine No.4”:
Wait a sec, is it
The desert in here
or is my greased-up heart
all a-sputter like a skillet
at a Friday fishfry. Jesus sure
how I redeem things
using like or as,
even if my cue
cards are crooked. Half the fun
of end times
is always feeling full.
Political venom is mixed with anxiety about the uses of poetry—a theme that appears throughout this collection. One poem in particular, “A Small Gesture of Gratitude,” addresses this anxiety head-on:
TV news is killing us and the people who own it are killing us
and the criminals at whose behest they concoct more nontroversies
are killing us and the tons of hairspray and makeup they smear
on the toxic marionettes who mouth nontroversies are killing us,
as is our ignorance of the reality of everyone killing everyone.
If it’s true to say the incubus fills us for the succubi to suck us dry,
why shouldn’t I? Pointing into bottomless, topless, sideless
madness is what scads of poets do and have been doing all along;
we take facts and/or feelings, herd them like butterflies
into killing jars, then run pins through them for the aesthetic
and/or ethical scrutiny of a tiny audience made mostly of other
They Don’t Kill You is unrestrained in its outrage at American media and its rampant hypocrisy on matters ranging from war to sex. It is also highly experimental. At its core is a question that haunts the contemporary surrealist vibe: what can poetry offer beyond a brief psychic release from the habits of mind that make us such exemplary citizen-robots? Can poetry give us (the butterfly watchers) something YouTube and Twitter cannot? Based on Bibbins’ own poetry, the answer is clearly yes. His work offers “perspective” in both the moral and aesthetic sense. By raging against the puppet masters of Hollywood and Wall Street, he draws attention to the line between art and entertainment.
Patricia Lockwood represents the provocative side of surrealism. In Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals, her second book of poems, Lockwood writes in the hyper-mischievous mode of Kenneth Koch—that is, if Koch had been born a woman and lived in a more pornographic age. Several poems are clearly designed to shock the reader’s inner Victorian (“The Whole World Gets Together and Gangbangs a Deer” is one noteworthy example), but most are highly original feats of unrestricted imagination. Sex and sexual politics are the governing themes, and it is clear from the opening lines of “Is Your Country a He or a She in Your Mouth” that our author will not demur when it comes to taboo subjects:
Mine is a man I think, I love men, they call me
A fatherlandsexual, all the motherlandsexuals
have been sailed away, and there were never
any here in the first place, they tell us.
Lockwood’s relentless sex-talk is in fact part of a long tradition (surrealist poets have never been shy about the human body), but her relationship with that tradition is complicated and fraught. When a Frenchman in 1924 makes a case for sexual freedom, what he means is a man’s right to satisfy his libido. Even today, among artists, poets, screenwriters, and stand-up comics, the assault on cultural prudishness is a heavily male enterprise. Lockwood’s obscenity seems like a way of fighting fire with fire. But even as she mocks the violence of male sexuality (“Rape Joke” is her best-known poem), her more consistent project is to expose how sex is simultaneously meaningful and absurd. Both impulses are present in “The Hornet Mascot Falls in Love”:
Cheerleaders are a whole, are known
to disassemble in the middle of the air
and come back down with different
thighs, necks from other girls, a lean
gold torso of Amber-Ray on a bubbling
bottom half of Brooke.
As her title suggests, Lockwood wants to expose the country’s sexual fault lines. “The Father and Mother of American Tit Pics” will seem at first like a joke—and it is. At the same time, it is a poem about eroticism and gender norms in American literature:
Emily Dickinson was the father of American poetry and Walt Whitman
was the mother, suckling grizzled wild dogs at his teats.
Walt Whitman nude in the forest, staring deep into a still pool, the only
means of taking tit-pics available at that time.
The Whitman-as-exhibitionist theme is not simply a gimmick. It reminds us that one of our greatest poets was thoroughly omni-sexual, a man who was hot and bothered by the concept of America and an author whose breakthrough collection of poems was deemed “vile” and “beastly.” Homelandsexual is meant to transgress, and poetry readers are never sure if that is what they want. As Orwell pointed out once in an essay on Salvador Dali, viewers of the art are “frightened either of seeming to be shocked or of seeming not to be shocked.” Whether Lockwood is courageous or gratuitously irreverent, her best poems are those that choose to empathize with the persona at hand, as in “He Marries the Stuffed Owl Exhibit at the Indiana Welcome Center”:
They live in a tree together now, and the children of
Welcome to Indiana say who even more than usual,
and the children of Welcome to Indiana they wonder
where they belong. Not in Indiana, they say to themselves,
the state of all-consuming love, we cannot belong in Indiana,
as night falls and the moths appear one by one, hungry.
For all its willful provocation, this is a book about suffering and the universal need to belong. Sex, as a source of pleasure and pain, is unavoidably part of the story.
Peter Gizzi is one of America’s most original poets, and therefore hard to classify. While sharing much in common with the poets already mentioned—Harvey’s playfulness, Bibbins’ awareness, and Lockwood’s sensitive ear—he also writes with a metaphysical urgency all his own. His latest book, In Defense of Nothing: New and Selected Poems, offers readers a full tour of his vast interior realm, where the soul (or whatever) struggles to find its voice amid the cultural noise—to learn, as he puts it in a memorable line, “to be and not to understand.” The struggle is also a journey, as in “Modern Adventures at Sea”:
Can I transform
I steward. This
my bio mass.
When lost at sea
I found a voice,
alive and cresting,
and rising. To drift,
digress, to dream
of the voice. Its
grain. To feel
its vibrations. Pitch.
Its plural noises.
To be upheld
in it, to love.
For Gizzi, doubt is one of the Muses, and not-knowing is definitive proof that one is fully alive. The problem with knowledge is that it relies on a language that cannot do justice to the real nature of cognitive experience, and this explains the fragmentary nature of these poems: their author has gone in search of something more elusive and elemental. “What difference would it make,” he asks in a poem called “Pierced,”
If a torso were dissolved
into many grains of sand
or the hand composed
from a swarm of bees
would it tell us we are plural
we are bytes of sound
as if a cell were projected
onto a screen, a glass slide
into the night sky
Gizzi’s poems are “surreal” because they try to depict consciousness as it calcifies into knowledge. (The book’s epigraph quotes William James: “The world contains consciousness as well as atoms—and the one must be written down as just as essential as the other.”). Still, Gizzi doesn’t derange his syntax just to bamboozle his audience. More often than not, he honors the implicit covenant between poet and reader, according to which any loss of clarity is compensated for by subliminal effect. He even makes a direct appeal: “do not mistake this freedom / for a swagger.”
What is most striking about Gizzi’s work is its emphasis on friendship, including a Whitmanesque correspondence between the author and his reader (or an unnamed companion). This comes across most clearly in “Periplum VII (A Valentine)”:
If I could tell you this
or tell where this is
or where on a given map
this being is
then I would give it to you
though I will not name it
which would not serve
this being the unnamed force
the absolute unnamed this
of our experience together
“Experience,” we think, should be meaningful, but Gizzi resists the impulse to assign meaning where none exists. His defense of “nothing” isn’t a nihilist manifesto; instead, it’s a way of praising life—“its contest of night and air”—and taking the imagination seriously:
I guess these trailers up in the lot off the highway will do.
I guess that crooked eucalyptus tree also.
I guess this highway will have to do and the cars
and the people in them on their way.
The present is always coming up to us, surrounding us.
It’s hard to imagine atoms, hard to imagine
hydrogen & oxygen binding, it’ll have to do.
Gizzi’s poems are difficult, but they are never flat or dull. By paying close attention to both interior space and the natural world (“the color of pale grass in March, / its salt hay blonde flourish”), In Defense of Nothing captures the sad numbing quality of our lives, and tries to wake us up (“Be everywhere alive”). In reference to Auden’s famous line, the poems do make “nothing” happen—that is, they breathe new life into the mysterious and the ineffable. The title is reminiscent of the final lines of Wallace Steven’s “The Snowman”:
… the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
Writers used to maintain a distinction between imagination and “fancy,” with the latter understood to be a lesser faculty, one that encourages poets to make connections simply because they can. Fancy is what produces many bad surrealist poems today. Gizzi, by contrast, is definitely a poet of imagination. His work is closer to spiritual guidance than highbrow entertainment. With most contemporary poets we are strolling through a flea market; with Gizzi it’s a pilgrimage. In either case, the point is to escape from the asphyxiating clichés that govern our lives, whether they come from Hollywood, Twitter, or CNN. Gizzi, however, offers readers something more than escape.
Drew Calvert is a freelance writer based in Chicago.