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from the November 2018 issue

One-third Women, “The Milk Bowl of Feathers” Adds Provocative New Voices to the Surrealist Canon

Reviewed by Susan Aberth

Edited by Mary Ann Caws, this anthology delivers new insights into this radical movement and rectifies past omissions to its canon with more intellectually daring and provocative non-French and female voices.

One tends to forget, particularly in the United States where fluency in foreign languages runs low, that Surrealism began and had it widest influence as a literary movement. Poetry, reviews, short stories, essays, novels and various forms of experimental writing were at the core of its revolutionary practice and the radical notions they promoted were embedded in the very form these texts took on. Mary Ann Caws, distinguished scholar and beloved doyenne of all things surrealist, has edited a slim but utterly delightful volume of essential surrealist writings titled The Milk Bowl of Feathers. It is a collection that delivers new insights into this radical movement with a laser focus, and, importantly, rectifies some past omissions to the surrealist literary canon with a few deft and expert inclusions, namely of women and non-French writers.

When Surrealism emerged from the Dada movement, it was grounded in a decisive new literary style—automatic writing—and dreamlike and avant-garde visual art. The experimental movement, which had at its core the Freudian and anti-rationalist practices of experimental writing, trafficked in radical notions and quickly revolutionized visual art, printmaking, filmmaking, and literature. While many associate Surrealism mostly with visual artists, such as Salvador Dali and Max Ernst, there is a strong argument to be made that it was in the realm of writing that surrealist experiments were most influential, helmed by the poet André Breton, who published his Manifesto of Surrealismin 1924. 

Caws, a professor at the City University of New York graduate school, is well-known for her surrealist anthologies, including Surrealist Painters and Poets (2013). She has made it her life’s mission to popularize the writers and artists of this movement, and The Milk Bowl of Feathers can be regarded as the latest installment in a long series aimed at this goal. Her introduction reads equally as surrealist prose poetry and scholarly summary, which sets a creative and playful tone for the short and captivating texts that follow. 

Along with the usual suspects of French poets Louis Aragon, André Breton, Robert Desnos, René Char, Philippe Soupault, Benjamin Péret, and Paul Éluard, Caws includes the inimitable literary polymath Georges Bataille. But Caws has done us a great service, and has corrected the record, by devoting a third of the volume to women. Now we have provocative and intellectually daring work by Mina Loy, Gisèle Prassinos, Méret Oppenheim, Dora Maar, and others, to give us a more complex view of surrealism art and its practitioners. Although Penelope Rosemont’s ground-breaking Surrealist Women: An International Anthology (1998) first introduced these writers, changing the course of scholarship in this area, Caws’ anthology gives us an even fuller appreciation of the individuals who were either at the center or the periphery of Surrealism.

The heart-wrenching “Despair” by Alice Paalen, better known today as the painter Alice Rahon, is a haunting lament to her lover Pablo Picasso. Rahon’s husband Wolfgang Paalen manipulated her into leaving Picasso—perhaps to her lasting regret, because this prose poem feels like a psychic suicide note. Leonora Carrington’s “The Sand Camel” reads like a surrealist Grimm’s fairy tale, with a matter-of-fact tone that makes the fantastical all the more believable. In “The Invisible Adventure,” Claude Cahun hints at her photographic mission when she confides: “Until I see everything clearly, I want to hunt myself down, struggle with myself.”

There are other inclusions that help us look at surrealism anew. A welcome addition is the earthy and evocative “The Automatic Crystal” by Aimé Césaire, translated from French by Caws herself. Césaire, an author and politician from Martinique, is best known for his essay, Discourse on Colonialism, and as the founder of the literary Négritude movement, vital for black intellectuals living in France’s colonies in Africa and in the Caribbean because it gave them a rallying point around which to confront issues of race and imperialism. It’s refreshing to see Césaire’s sensual, stream of consciousness surrealist fiction, which would have appeared in the journal he began in 1941, Tropiques, included here.

Many of the writers in this volume were also visual artists: Man Ray, Salvador Dalí, Paul Magritte, and André Masson. Their texts are testament to their ability to work seamlessly in both mediums. It reinforces not only surrealism’s literary roots, but also the connective flow of key ideas and tropes that crossed all manner of borders. Scattered throughout are nods to the Dada movement. Man Ray’s “Dadamade” makes the connection explicit, and particularly satisfying is the inclusion of “Mefk Maru Mustir Daas” by the ferociously transgressive Elsa von Freytag-Lorringhoven, whose long-neglected work has finally been receiving its due in such studies as Body Sweats: The Uncensored Writing of Elsa von Freytag-Lorringhoven (2016) and Baroness Elsa: Gender, Dada and Everyday Modernity—A Cultural Biography (2003). Both are by Irene Gammel.

The topic of love preoccupied the men of surrealism. Paul Éluard’s “Lady Love” and “Your Hair of Oranges” exude a quintessential dreamlike reverie. Breton’s touching ode to his infant daughter Aube, “Dear Hazel of Squirrelnut,” also bears an uneasy relationship to his notions of the femme enfantas he muses about her sixteenth birthday: “let me believe you will be ready then to incarnate this eternal power of woman, the only power I have ever submitted to.” Léona Delacourt, the inspiration for Nadja (1928), Breton’s iconic paean to amour fou, is usually relegated to the role of muse, not creator. When you read her impassioned and distraught letters to him—“After your departure, Why not just go to sleep forever”—the frenetic urgency of Nadja becomes more understandable. The Egyptian-French Joyce Mansour, particularly neglected in English translations, offers a tart counterpoint to the metaphor-laden love poems of Éluard and others. Her celebration of sexual desire is clearly stated: “I want to sleep with you.” The American artist Kay Sage gives a cool and detached expository on what to expect from lovers of various nationalities and is hilariously biting when she sporadically compares those lovers to breeds of dogs. 

Caws’ book is an eye-opener, and if you seek out more of these writers’ work, the book has done its job. 

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