David Gascoyne and Surrealism


La Vie de l'homme est cette viande (Man's Life Is This Meat)
(1936),
David Gascoyne, trans. into French by Blandine Longre
(140pp, 15 Euros, Black Herald Press).


Another excellent French translation, from Black Herald Press. My last purchase was their bilingual Corso - and this volume seems just as important. So, a salute to them, with their independent approach to poetry, free from the personality cults and 'phone box' fights for gongs.

I'd read some Gascoyne before - although always single pieces - and in the context of him as the half-forgotten 1930s English surrealist. I was bound to be disappointed by that, since the world of surrealist poetry isn't one to just dip in and out of. No, it's a complete aesthetic, almost a programme, which led to all sort of manifestos, factions, expulsions. I believe the English poet A.C. Evans is an expert on this, so see him on it.

As a result, the supposed re-emergence of surrealism in contemporary poetry can seem a little forced - more of a fashionable accessory than part of a genuine aesthetic:

A stud horse turns up at your girlfriend's house, looks at photos with you, then jokes about being 'ridden' by her. You're walking along a coastal path and turn into a goat. You wake up to find your neighbour is Charlotte Bronte, with money problems and a catalogued collection of dildos.

Because of the cosy English domesticity and 'look at me' smirking, it just seems daft. The sudden surrealism seems to dominate the poems, yet have little effect. 

Whereas Gascoyne clearly was
a genius. I'd no idea how impressive a whole volume would be; how unobtrusive but powerful such good surrealism is:

   Yes you have said enough for the time being
   There will be plenty of lace later on
   Plenty of electric wool
   And you will forget the eglantine
   Growing around the edge of the green lake
   And if you forget the colour of my hands
   You will remember the wheels of the chair
   In which the wax figure resembling you sat.

   Several men are standing on the pier
   Unloading the sea
   The device on the trolley says MOTHER'S MEAT
   Which means Until the end.

         ('The End is Near the Beginning')

As well as the subtle yet sinister elements, this works because of the near absence of 'voice' or 'tone', coupled with a strong (detached) sense of address. If you compare it to Auden's 'It is time for the destruction of error' (from 1929) - the poem which continues with the famous lines 'The chairs are being brought in from the garden,/The summer talk stopped on that savage coast.' - Gascoyne's poem seems less dated, less 'about' the approaching 1930s maelstrom. And it lacks Auden's beguiling, yet ultimately fake, knowing tone.

I'm not saying contemporary surrealism should try the same apparent quietness, but it's an idea. After all, if the surrealist element is doing its job (which it does in this oddly alarming poem) there's no need for any 'conversational' register.

However, I'd make a distinction with the technique of hyperrealism, in many ways the opposite of surrealism. The great example would be the deranged, yet mesmerising, prose fiction of Louis Ferdinand Celine. Not so much in his most famous novel, 'Voyage au bout de la nuit', but in its successor volume,  'Mort a Credit'. This method seems much more suited to our contemporary world, its information drenched anxiety, fed by accute over detailing and excess communication. 

Anyway, after reading the Gascoyne collection, I knew how impressed I'd been, And I didn't remember any of the surrealist details, which doesn't matter. They were integral to the poems, not some 'look at this! I'm so imaginative' add on. He even seems to manage this in a poem about Salvador Dali:

   The face of the precipice is black with lovers;
   The sun above them is a bag of nails; the spring's
   First rivers hide among their hair.

   ...

   Mirrors write Goliath's name upon my forehead,
   While the children are killed in the smoke of the catacombs
   And lovers float down from the cliffs like rain.
         (from 'Salvador Dali')

In fact, this marvellous poem seems to capture the spirit of an artist's work as well as any other poem about painting I've read - as brilliantly as Auden's 'Musee des Beaux Arts'.  There is of course a danger, since the unfamiliar will always be attractive. But the whole collection seems little dated -  it certainly can't be described as '1930s poetry'.

I'd also remark on how Gascoyne seems quite English in his sensibility; for example, he has a thing for the suffocating effects of green fecundity (and vegetables!). Yet he also seems truly international, dealing with the joys and terrors of the imagination, in the context of writers like Rimbaud or Holderlin. Reading, I was constantly reminded of Blake, who is of course very English yet not at all 'local'.   

This may also link to Gascoyne's  terrible experiences from mental illness - but from which, by some joyous chance meeting, one of his earlier poems finally saved him. As I remember it, he was in an institution on the Isle of Wight, and heard the poem being read to a group. He revealed himself as the writer and so met the woman who got him out of the place - and later married her. It's a wonderful story.

I'd just add that the physical production of this volume is a joy, as with all Black Herald Press volumes. Classical, restrained and ungimmicky.

     Paul Sutton 2016