Soft & Hard Surrealism

As Reviewed By: Jack Foley

Madonna Septet by Ivan Argüelles. Potes & Poets Press: 2000.

Musica Humana by Ilya Kaminsky. Chapiteau Press: 2002.

After by Jane Hirshfield. HarperCollins: 2006.

Beau comme la rencontre fortuite sur une table de dissection d’une machine à coudre et d’un parapluie. (“Beautiful, like the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table.”) -Lautréamont, Les chants de Maldoror

As a bona fide “movement,” Surrealism sang its swan song many years ago, but (as Irving Berlin once wrote) the melody lingers on. Surrealism’s influence on Madison Avenue-its use for selling products-has been amply demonstrated throughout the twentieth century. But is there any parallel use in literature? Has Surrealism been co-opted there too? I want to examine the work of three poets, two of them producing what might be described as “soft” Surrealism and the third producing “hard”-or even “hard-core”- Surrealism. The examples of soft Surrealism are both quite well known: Jane Hirshfield and Ilya Kaminsky. The example of hard Surrealism is known, but less widely: Ivan Argüelles. All modes of Surrealism, like Lautréamont’s assertion about the sewing machine and the umbrella on the dissecting table, depend upon the violent juxtaposition of concepts usually existing in entirely disparate contexts, different “worlds”; all modes of Surrealism exist to challenge the observer to some degree-to rouse the mind. But to what purpose? To buy a new car? To admire the sensibility of the speaker? To change one’s life?

[private]The following lines are from Jane Hirshfield’s “Hesitation: An Assay,” a poem first published in The American Poetry Review. The poem appears in her current book, After. (The term “Assay,” incidentally, is taken from Kenneth Rexroth, but Hirshfield nowhere acknowledges that fact.)

The rain

comes to it hard or less hard,

but knows nothing of hesitation’s rake-toothed debate.

As is often the case with Surrealist writing, the lines are initially puzzling. What has rain to do with rakes, teeth, or debates? What is this fragment supposed to mean? Sometimes it rains “hard”; sometimes it rains “less hard.” True enough. (Sometimes, one might add, it fails to rain at all.) If these lines weren’t by a poet of some reputation, would they have been published in so widely read and influential a periodical as APR? What exactly is “hesitation’s rake-toothed debate”? Are we talking the Hamlet problem here?

In fact the lines mean very little. People have consciousness, make choices, and they sometimes hesitate in making choices. “The rain,” on the other hand, operates in a very different mode of causality. Yet there is an oracular quality to Hirshfield’s language (“comes to it hard or less hard,” “hesitation’s rake-toothed debate”) which seems to insist that that truth has more significance than it actually does. These poems are constantly winking at you, telling you, “I’m saying this, butreally I mean something different and much more profound.” “A fidelity to the ungraspable lies at the very root of being,” Hirshfield writes in an essay, “Thoreau’s Hound: On Hiddenness” (also published in APR). The lines quoted above seem to be a perfectly “graspable” assertion trying hard to assure us that it is ungraspable. Indeed, the opening poem of APR’s selection (“Theology”) sounds like a kinder, gentler John Ashbery-minus Ashbery’s ever-present irony:

If the flies did not hurry themselves to the window

they’d still die somewhere.

Other creatures choose the other dimension:

to slip

into a thicket, swim into the shaded, undercut

part of the stream.

My dog would make her tennis ball

Disappear . . . .

Like many of Hirshfield’s lines-and unlike Ashbery’s-these verge on the unintentionally comic. “If the flies did not hurry themselves to the window / they’d still die somewhere.” True enough-flies die-but the observation is trite. Similarly, the poem tries to assure us of its profound intent with the mysterious, portentous line, “Other creatures choose the other dimension.” The other dimension-oh, yes! Faced with an utter failure of explanation-its inability to explain anything-Beckett’s tramps in Waiting for Godot respond to such formulations with “Ah!” Perhaps that is how Hirshfield expects her readers to react. (One of the poems in After is called “‘Ah! An Assay.”)

While occasionally veering towards the philosophical (as in the phrase “the other dimension”), Hirshfield’s language is unfailingly genteel and for the most part rather flat and prosy. Who would want to defend the musicality of a passage like this-also from “Theology”?

The flies might well prefer the dawn-ribboned mouth of a trout,

its crisp and speed,

if they could get there,

though they are not in truth that kind of fly

and preference is not given often in these matters.

That sounds like a passage T.S. Eliot would rightly have excised from Four Quartets. (“Its crisp”? The only current meaning I can find for the word “crisp” as a noun is British: “potato chip.”) Compare such language to any lines at all by Gerard Manley Hopkins or Dylan Thomas. Hirshfield comes nowhere near the work of such poets. The exciting “musicality” of poetry-of language-is not to be found in her work.

Jane Hirshfield is a real person who actually exists and who writes poetry with a serious intention. Yet suppose for just a moment that she were, like Ern Malley, a hoax created to expose the stupidity, pretentiousness and lack of humor of the reader. How would that affect our response to lines like these?

What can I do with these thoughts,

given me as a dog is given its flock?

Or perhaps it is the reverse-

Wouldn’t we find them funny (which is not what the poet expects us to find them)?

Certainly this poet has a considerable reputation, and I doubt that what I am writing here will alter that fact. Yet, as I read through her poetry, I couldn’t help thinking, “Isn’t there anyone to criticize this kind of writing, with its immense pomposity and its utter lack of humor?” In “Thoreau’s Hound” Hirshfield writes, “Mystery, secrecy, camouflage, silence, stillness, shadow, distance, opacity, withdrawal, namelessness, uncertainty, shyness, lying, erasure, encryption, enigma, absence, darkness-these are some of the kaleidoscope names of the hidden, each carrying its own description of something whose essence it is to elude describing.” Perhaps. But perhaps it is not a question of “eluding describing.” Perhaps it is simply a question of eluding detection-a deliberate obfuscation of the commonplace in order to appear profound. (“It is not precisely true that they are absent,” Hirshfield writes in “Poe: An Assay,” “though it is true that they do not appear.”)

I don’t deny that there are some effective poems in After. The elegiac, haiku-like “Red Scarf,” for example, is genuinely touching-though it is perhaps a little too close to Williams’ “Red Wheelbarrow”:

The red scarf

still hangs over the chairback.

In its folds,

like a perfume

that cannot be quite remembered,

inconceivable before.

For L.B. (1950-2004)

But the book contains such a weight of the portentous: “Questions and answers are not the business of rain”; “Sometimes you ate roasted chestnuts, sometimes persimmons”; “A person is full of sorrow / the way a burlap sack is full of stones or sand.”

What do people like when they say they like Jane Hirshfield’s work? “Wisdom” is a word which comes up often in discussions of Hirshfield. “Poems of quiet wisdom, steeped in a profound understanding of what it is to be human,” runs one of the blurbs to After. But a “wisdom” that does not in any way astonish or thrust us into the realm of the new (the Surrealist “marvelous”) is all too likely to reflect the beliefs of the status quo-what Heidegger called the “They Self” (das Mann). That, I fear, is the realm of Hirshfield’s poetry. Her deliberate oracularity (“I sound trite, but I’m really being profound”), her flat language, her utterly bourgeois sensibility, and her clichés masquerading as discoveries are all on display in “Tree,” a celebrated poem published in one of her earlier books:

It is foolish

to let a young redwood

grow next to a house.

Even in this

one lifetime,

you will have to choose.

That great calm being,

this clutter of soup pots and books-

Already the first branch-tips brush at the window.

Softly, calmly, immensity taps at your life.

Is this poem really any better than Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees”? Is it really anydifferent from Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees”? Isn’t its sentimentality, its vague religiosity (is a redwood tree really a “great calm being,” and does it really represent “immensity”?) essentially the same as Kilmer’s?

I think that I shall never see

A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest

Against the sweet earth’s flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,

And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in summer wear

A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;

Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,

But only God can make a tree.

Surrealism was one of the twentieth century’s greatest tools for attacking the status quo. In Jane Hirshfield’s work, Surrealism is used to affirm the status quo-or, as her admirers call it, “wisdom.”

In the work of the Russian-born, European-influenced Ilya Kaminsky, Surrealism has another purpose. On the back cover of Kaminsky’s handsomely-produced chapbook, Musica Humana, the following passage appears as a sort of ad for the book. The series publishers, Ann Aspell and Jim Schley, evidently regard the passage as a particularly good one:

In a city ruled jointly by doves and crows, doves covered the main district and crows the market. A deaf boy counted how many birds there were in his neighbor’s backyard, producing a four-digit number. He dialed the number and confessed his love to whomever was on the line.

My secret: at the age of four I became deaf. When I lost hearing, I began to see voices. On a crowded trolley, a one-armed man said that my life would be mysteriously linked to the history of my country. Yet my country cannot be found, its citizens meet in a dream to conduct elections. He did not describe their faces, only a few names: Roland, Aladdin, Sinbad.

Note the insistence on country, on deafness (which, sadly, is a genuine fact of Ilya Kaminsky’s life), and on the little boy who grows: these are all essential elements of this poet’s mise-en-scène. Note also that the primary message of the passage is: Behold how sensitive I am, what fine symbolic language I use, how imaginative I am-and all this despite the fact that “at the age of four I became deaf.” (Though I am deaf, I nevertheless “see voices.” My deafness means that I am special, different from others, more perceptive than they-though I am also VERY lonely: “confessed his love to whomever was on the line.”)

To me, the passage attempts but fails to be interesting; it is “literary” in the sense that nobody would actually talk this way-such sentiments appear only in literature-but there is nothing very interesting in the actual language. It’s flat and prosy-and it contains a pretentious grammatical lapse: “whomever” should be “whoever” (“was” has to have a subject). It’s saying, “Don’t you feel sorry for me (deafness, lonely)? Don’t you see how wonderfully imaginative I am (see voices)? Don’t you love me?” Kaminsky has won prizes, is admired by many. As for myself, I find it hard to get behind such work, such neediness, such egotism. This is how the chapbook ends:

Love, a one-legged bird

I bought for forty cents as a child, and released,

is coming back, my soul in reckless feathers.

O the language of birds

with no word for complaint!

the balconies, the wind.

This is how, while darkness

drew my profile with its little finger,

I have learned to see [the?] past as Montale saw it,

the obscure thoughts of God descending

among a child’s drum beats,

over you, over me, over the lemon trees.

Is it useless in these days of grammatical ignorance to point out that “as a child” could modify “Love,” “I,” or “forty cents”? Or that “complaint” was traditionally a word used to describe the sounds of birds, as in Thomas Gray’s “The moping owl does to the moon complain”? Have you ever tried to draw anything with your “little finger”? (Of course, it isn’t clear whether “little” in fact refers to the pinky or just means “small.”) O paradox, that “darkness” is drawing something! Not surprisingly, here comes “God” to give the poem its “big” ending. Does the word “descending” modify “thoughts” or “God”? No matter, here comes the big G (or at least “obscure thoughts” of the big G –whatever that may mean) “over you, over me, over the lemon trees.” Is there no one to notice that, like Hirshfield’s, Kaminsky’s language, portentous and inflated, approaches self-parody, is almost funny? Kaminsky’s opening “Author’s Prayer”-the latter word is significant-affirms: “Yes, I live. I can cross the streets asking, ‘What year is it?'” In a genuine Surrealist, such a line might well be funny, but in this poet’s “soft” Surrealism it is just another attempt, through “striking” juxtaposition, to convince the reader of the author’s profundity. In its initial impulses, Surrealism attempted to liberate the mind through the violent juxtaposition of oppositions; it arose from a situation shot through with contradictions and was vehemently against any attempts to mediate those contradictions. Surrealism eschewed affirmations of “ego” or “unity.” It was an announcement, in the loudest possible terms, of utter chaos. In Kaminsky-as in some other popular current poets-“Surrealism” is an assertion of the author’s admirably “poetic” sensibility. It is precisely an affirmation of ego: “When I lost hearing, I began to see voices.” The poet is like “Roland, Aladdin, Sinbad,” each a famous ego, each the hero of a story that almost any solid, bourgeois person might be expected to know.

Compare the work of Hirshfield and Kaminsky to that of Ivan Argüelles, who has been publishing complex, challenging-and not very fashionable-work for nearly thirty years. Recently retired from his position as a reference librarian at the University of California at Berkeley, Argüelles has plunged into the most experimental phase of his career. His astonishing, nearly 900-page poem Madonna Sestet (Potes & Poets Press) begins with two quotations from Madonna the pop star: “life is a mystery, / everyone must stand alone” and “mmm if I could melt your heart.” The latter is from “Frozen”-a word which echoes throughout Argüelles’ poem. These are the opening lines of Madonna Septet:

it was painful for her to evidence the pain

her spared and bared breast her eye on the

what was that dark her woof of mentality

a scorn for other goals her sex was the source

not her mind not the spool between her thought

her dark hole that prism in the key of Delta

as if she could sing what was frozen in the roof

of her mouth in the candid light of what passed

a day in the virgins with white smash to boot

her venice afloat in the cancerous century

if you call her what is her name but the Pain

at the root of the sleep of the she cannot

come back but as that dolorous enigma

There are many influences on Argüelles’ work-primarily Joyce’s Finnegans Wake and the early poetry of Philip Lamantia-but we are clearly no longer in the world of soft Surrealism. (Argüelles’s Masters thesis was a bibliography of William Burroughs’s work.) The shock of Lautréamont’s statement-a kind of initiatory moment in Surrealism-comes from our awareness of the different contexts in which sewing machines, umbrellas and dissecting tables ordinarily exist. But Lautréamont’s syntax is perfectly conventional. In Argüelles, syntax itself is attacked-reexamined, rewoven, disconnected. In the post-medium-is-the-message world of this poet’s work, even syntax is an instrument of the chaotic. It’s also as though Lamantia’s Surrealist heroine BIANCA (“child of broken elevators”) has shown up in Argüelles and, as is often the case with Surrealist heroines, she is immensely problematic and very likely unattainable: “dolorous enigma.” In Argüelles, however, she is also appearing in a monstrously long poem.

There are few problems in comprehending the soft Surrealism of Hirshfield or Kaminsky, but Argüelles’ work is far from reader-friendly. The length of Madonna Septet alone would qualify it as problematic, but the book is also in some senses an attack on the reader, challenging his/her ability to read it at all. The intense hostility, the fury that was part of the early impetus of Surrealism is definitely present here. Fundamental questions arise. Is there a single person speaking or are there many? Why are sentences broken off? Worse: Argüelles’ subject matter is anything but politically correct, and the poem is shot through with the author’s immense and often daunting learning. At one point the female figure is explicitly identified with “Durga,” the name given to the fierce, murderous form of Devi or Mahadevi (Great Goddess). One of Argüelles’ motifs is stated early on: the Goddess’s mouth-the source of her singing- will “swallow the god that created her.” The woman is “Lady Death ringing her worm around the rosey hold…and ShivJi shudders.” The poet is supposedly “in love with” the pop star-an “amour fou” if ever there was one. But he is also in the realm of the “devouring” vagina/mouth. These days, even the newspapers and television talk casually of “oral sex.” In Madonna Septet oral sex has cosmic consequences-and they are proportionately disturbing: “the way she took the god in her mouth / as if it were just a bottle of coca cola.” “So who are the saints we rever [sic],” asks Argüelles, “I mean the women.” (There is a later reference to “the women we rever abhor adore.”)

Poet John M. Bennett insists that Ivan Argüelles’ work “is not really ‘literature’ as the term is commonly understood” and asserts that we must read it “with a new mind-set”:

Instead of looking for the neat moral conclusion, one has to allow oneself to be “drowned” in the ocean of this stunning and protean work and be receptive to all the ambiguities and contradictions it contains.

Another way of putting Bennett’s remark is to say that Argüelles’ work is an immense assertion of chaos. Though his most recent book, Inferno (Beatitude Press, 2005) runs deliberately parallel to The Divine Comedy (there are two sections to followInferno), Argüelles has no central point on which the entire universe rests. Themes run rampant, sometimes contradicting one another, but there is no one theme-no “one story” in Robert Graves’ sense-that makes it all cohere. It would require a paper longer than this one to trace the pathways by which Argüelles arrived at such a conception, but suffice it to say that his Surrealism is “hard” in many senses: difficult to understand, hard-core, erotic, careless of popular appeal. What it is not is affirmative of the status quo (Hirshfield) or self-congratulatory (Kaminsky). It is also not “small”-no “slim volumes” for Argüelles!-and, unlike Hirshfield and Kaminsky, Argüelles does not diminish the legacy of Surrealism. Rather, he extends it. His work is in many ways, as the poet says in Inferno, “stupendous”:

[their] waking is a dream, their walking is stumbled , a frame

freeze followed by a cut up of hiroshima during the ,

BIG BUKKA NO HAKKA , the girl in the donut shop resembles

the late empress No-No , behind glass the reported water

continues to run at so many miles a second , a chance to

position the body , to listen to the reading of the “iliad”

in the scots transduction, burrs and bonnie weeds all

stuck in the , red is the lover’s true color , wrapped in

a semaphore of untranslatable jargon , my headache is a

italian girl , a harrowing beneath the skirts of , the only

one love is no more , a world is sad , a , never comes

again , pistols of beautiful flares in the stupendous

Once a fierce, defiant, thumb-nosing stance, “Surrealism” has become part of the intellectual baggage of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries: it is as available to a writer as the form of a sonnet or a villanelle. But beware of those ancient ashes: there was once a fire there, and every once in a while-as with Argüelles-the fire erupts again.[/private]

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