Surrealism has had few out-and-out practitioners in America. Its greatest exponent here was Philip Lamantia, who navigated the oneiric pathways with narcotic logic. Among contemporary poets, Will Alexander has created a poetic idiom unlike anything that’s preceded it: a mixture of Aime Cesaire’s political engagements and a wild sonic shamanism openly in quest of transcendence.
Meanwhile in Boston, the least likely of havens, two presses have re-kindled the Surrealist flame: Black Widow, which mounts large, authoritative editions of major works such as Tristan Tzara’s Approximate Man and Paul Eluard’s Capital of Pain; and the newly formed Wakefield Press, which focuses on exquisitely tailored minor works. Wakefield (www.wakefieldpress.com) is the brainchild of Marc Lowenthal, a book designer for MIT Press, who together with a crack team, has begun producing beautiful editions of the French Surrealists and others, all newly and expertly translated, and appearing under the rubric of imagining science. The latest of these is Andrew Joron’s translation of The Perpetual Motion Machine: The Story of an Invention, by Paul Scheerbart, which brings an obscure fantasist of the technological imaginary into English.
Last Friday, my wife and I drove to Boston to hear Andrew read at Raven Books, in its attractive Newbury Street location. The evening, which was very well-attended, began with Lowenthal’s giving us a brief excerpt from his translation of Benjamin Peret’s The Leg of Lamb. He prefaced this with some remarks on Surrealist humor, noting that while Bergson stressed how laughter is provoked by the spectacle of the human taking on the properties of a thing, the Surrealists reversed this by giving things the qualities of the human. So, in the section he read, a humble pile of manure pleads with a gentleman not to assault it with veronese green. The pile, it turns out, is none other than Paul Claudel, the right-wing Catholic poet who had quarreled with the Surrealists, who never missed a chance for some payback.
Joron read then from Perpetual Motion Machine, a short work that struck me as part Novalis, part Bruno Schulz – a gently ironic mix of genuine Romantic yearning and whimsical satire that chronicles the author’s evidently very real efforts to construct, through an elaborate system of wheels, that holy grail of energy production, a perpetual motion machine. Needless to say, these efforts are crowned with failure. Yet the final pages of Scheerbart’s feverish little book radiate triumph as he turns, with moving eloquence, from a consideration of his contraption to a cosmic vision of the spinning dynamo of the earth itself, “the earthstar,” as he calls it, a humming bolus of gravitational power and infinite force that fuels all life.
The evening closed with Andrew reading a few poems from his own work – selections from the dazzling collections The Sound Mirror and Trance Archive.
I enter history
As a secret agent or stone effigy
dedicated to communism
but eaten away by music.
As Joron noted in his remarks, poetry must court a special kind of failure, one that opens the possibility for language to begin speaking otherwise, pushing it beyond “the poverty of fact” to the irrational, the vatic, the visionary. To imagine science is to think poetically.