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
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
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
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
('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
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
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.
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
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
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