Saturday, March 23, 2013

Necessities/The Real and the Surreal

Many of your new poems take the reader on a journey through a series of unsettling landscapes. Indeed, we seem to enter each poem precisely at the moment when the ordinary suddenly becomes bizarre."*

Christopher Merrill

Surrealism in art and literature afforded a glimpse into the unconscious mind, juxtaposing ideas and images from dreams and the buried recesses of memory with the stuff of everyday life. The surrealists (speaking broadly) wanted to shock bourgeois sensibilities by suggesting that "reality"--that comfortable film of perceptions we take to be a mirror of what is really real--is far less than half the story. Romantics, surrealists, and madmen understand that life is as much hallucination as linear narrative, as much a process of uncovering what is buried as of recording what is (we think) simply perceived. A fish with a tree house attached to its back: a bit of Dali, of Bosch, and Pavel Tchelitchew--or of Andre Breton-- "Surrealism, such as I conceive of it, asserts our complete non-conformism clearly enough so that there can be no question of translating it, at the trial of the real world, as evidence for the defense." 

Breton also deployed the fish as an image--perhaps of poets out of water: From The Soluble Fish (1924): "Looking back I no longer see clearly, it is as if a waterfall stood between the theatre of my life and me, who am not the principal actor in it." Yes, that's precisely what we need to understand to enter into the surrealists' slightly tipsy world--we are not the principal actors in our own lives and we see things as if through falling water (or a glass darkly, take your pick). We've all felt this way, felt the skull beneath the skin, the pulsing blood, the muscles turning our eyes, the waterfalls of the blood. Tchelitchew, the surrealist, shows us the illusion of wholeness, the reality that is hidden.

Should Christopher Merrill--poet, translator, journalist, and teacher--read this little journal entry he might take offense, and I can't claim to know his (very extensive!) opus well enough to assert that he is a surrealist. But consider these facts: Merrill worked with the great Slovenian poet Tomaža Šalamuna on translations of Šalamuna's poetry; Šalamuna is regarded as among the finest of contemporary European avant-garde poets, and we may therefore assume some affinity with Merrill's own work; and, perhaps more to the point, is Merrill's recent Necessities, a series of connected (thematically, loosely) prose poems in an unmistakably surrealist mode:
"The blacksmith speaks in tongues to settle the horse that kicked him in the head, the white mare that he must shoe before the exodus begins. The metal plate in his skull functions as a lightening rod for the church; his congregation thinks the rusted nails he uses once belonged to a saint."
"The print's a fake, the guard assures us, winking at the woman in the blue sari, Starry Night? We were waiting for the press conference to begin, when the museum would unveil the latest scandal, our investigation into the woman's role in the curator's downfall having left us vulnerable to her charms. She's no Hindu, we declared, checking our money belts....."
Merrill's joy, like Breton's, or Apollinaire's, is in language. Merrill is never obscure, but he does keep the reader off balance. Here is the last stanza (there are no end stops) from Apollinaire's short poem "Clotilde" as translated by Donald Revell:

Gods of living water
Let down their hair
And now you must follow

A craving for shadow

And Merrill, from Part II of Necessities: The hairless men in saffron robes burning themselves alive--we had no language with which to shield them from the saint's wrath and nowhere to hide the roses they tossed to us as the flames consumed them. The effect is not unlike the hair of the Gods--an image catches us by surprise and forces us to pay attention--and it is akin to the Metaphysical poet's use of startling images and comparisons, Andrew Marvell's "pestilence of love" or Nature's "perhaps hand" that even now is opening the window.

Perhaps all poetry is surreal in forcing the mind away from the presumption of a unitary and wholly perceivable reality. Merrill's deeply felt "necessities"--for honesty in the face of lies, for political justice, for a clear-eyed view of the world we now live in ("Fences were falling everywhere, spurring the migration of refugees, caribou, and currency. It was herding time...")--are all the more compelling because of the way they come to us joined to their opposites, to what appears to be disconnected from the space they occupy. But of course this is the deception practiced by politics and (partially) rectified by literature--the notion that experience is fragmentary and that objects, like fish and trees, Gods and water, hands and spring are not one and the same thing.
Necessities is published by White Pine Press. Merrill (surreally) may be one of the few poets to blog on a distinctly political web site.
The quotation at the top of this entry is from Transom, issue is the link
George Ovitt (3/23/13)


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