Emerald Wounds

Selected Poems

Joyce Mansour
Translated by Emilie Moorhouse
City Lights ($22.95)


by Allan Graubard

Erotic, subversive, sensual, vivacious, defiant, fragile, satirical, ironic, lyrical, eruptive, heretical, anguished, sexy, and buoyant are just some of the words that come to mind when considering the poetry of Joyce Mansour. Certainly there are other words that readers will conjure. Have I left out odorous and sweaty, given Mansour’s embrace of the body as a ground her poems take root in and burst from? And what about her body, the female body, in a world run by men? Add in the complexities of passion, love, marriage, family, and exile, and readers will find that Mansour creates a rich and spicy gumbo in these Selected Poems.

From her first book, 1953’s Cris/Screams, to her last, Trous Noirs/Black Holes, published in France in 1986, the year of her death, Mansour will delight those with her, or those willing to be touched by her, while scandalizing others for whom custom and behavior are sacrosanct. Throughout her body of work, Mansour’s titular “emerald wounds” blossom and ensnare, even as they live and die, because they sing—this is a world ripe with magic, the kind that exalts and transforms by the power of words.

Long associated with the Paris surrealist group, Mansour in this new translation lives with a currency that is as striking as it is needed, especially when women’s free expression of desire, sex, and autonomy still militate against the enduring pivots of misogyny, whether intimate or institutionalized. Indeed, the fifteen-year lapse between this, Emile Moorhouse’s effort, and a similarly configured translation of Mansour’s writings by Serge Gavronsky (Black Widow Press, 2008) has, it seems, done little to eviscerate men’s desire to control women, so embedded in the social fabric it is, with deadly consequence all too often.   

But a brief history.  Born in England in 1928 as Joyce Patricia Adès to a wealthy family of Jewish-Syrian descent, she is raised in Cairo; her language English. Later, with her second husband who speaks only French, she will change, adopting French as her Rosetta Stone. Her poems, as she describes them, originate as screams or cries, the aforementioned title to her first book. They rise through her as the traditional mourning wails of Egyptian women do, sibilant, yearning, and sharp. Do her poems then function as a form of “exorcism,” as Moorhouse notes, of the dual traumas Mansour suffered when young: the death of her mother when she was fifteen and the sudden death of her first husband six months after their honeymoon, both from cancer? Perhaps. But it does not end there. If exorcism is a therapeutic medium born from trauma, the metamorphic and liberating charge of Mansour’s poetry leads.

By the early 1950s she circulates among Cairo’s avant-garde where, oddly enough, French, a colonial appendage, is the literary tongue. Political change, though, forces their move to Paris where her first book, Cris/Screams, draws the praise of André Breton, who identifies Mansour as one of the three most significant poets to emerge after World War II. From then on Mansour participates in the activities of the surrealist group, publishing in their journals and collaborating with some of their major and allied artists: Wilfredo Lam, Roberto Matta, Hans Bellmer, Pierre Alechinsky, and others.   

Emerald Wounds, with its 100-plus poems across ten of Mansour’s books, gives readers generous access into her world, emotional, vulnerable, and (as Alfred Jarry would say) umorous. A detailed introduction sets the stage while pointing out that, despite the potency Mansour commands, she is more often overlooked in the larger literary landscape. As for these translations, they perform well enough, beyond some awkward phrasings and word choices.

The first poem in Cris/Screams startles. From the sensitive opening, perhaps referring to the death of and funeral for her young husband—“I lift you in my arms / For the last time”—the corpse in its coffin “moving in your narrow world”—comes this implacable image that not only avoids cheap sentiment but also heightens the emotional stakes. For this corpse has its “head removed from your slit throat.” A concluding riposte to it all resonates with the bitterness of aborted passion: “It is the beginning of eternity.”

When it comes to sex, a convulsionary paradise, Mansour is ever explicit; the theme enriches throughout her work, as in the final poem from Cris/Screams:

May my breasts provoke you
I want your rage.
I want to see your eyes thicken
Your cheeks turn white as they sink.
I want your shudders.
I want you to burst between my thighs
That my desires be satiated on the fertile soil
Of your shameless body.

In her second book, Déschirures/Shreds, from 1955, the poems gain broader social reach and read as if written today in response to the oppressive cabal of racism and class:

Cry little man
Your boat is for sale
Your wife is sold
And the fresh milk of your cow
Red with the blood of blacks
Makes your children piss
Their hate

And then just a few pages on, pivoting to the sexual shivers that inspire her, is one of her most poignant poems. It begins this way:

I want to sleep with you elbow to elbow
Hair entwined
Genitals enlaced
With your mouth as a pillow

And ends in raked diminuendo:

Consumed by the wild inertia of bliss
Splayed on your shadow
Pounded by your tongue
And to die between the rotted teeth of a rabbit

The third section includes twelve prose pieces and poems that Mansour published in Bief: Jonction Surrealiste, a modest Parisian journal, from 1958-1960. Satire plays deftly with an opening salvo: a comedic critique of heterosexuality that deforms the traditional meaning of its title. “The Missal of the Missus (Good Nights)” evolves in three parts, each translating the rules and rituals of the Catholic mass into something else; something they would never otherwise have been used for. The subtext of the first part, “Advice for Running on Four Wheels,” reveals the poet’s body as a car cruising at night hot with desire, and what a woman can do during sex to ensure her lover’s satisfaction. The second part, “Cold Out? A Dress Is Essential,” refers to fabric spun from flayed “moorish” skin, “two tea towels” worth, and how to appear beautiful when wearing it. Savagery is just beside the point. The third section, “Lines Around a Circle,” is a pastiche of fashion magazine dictates where you must “Straighten the silhouette without crushing the organs.”

Included as well is Mansour’s take on gossipy female advice columns with some “Practical Advice While You Wait”; that is, for your man—when in a train station, a restaurant, a city hall, or at home. No matter being worried or jealous, the commandment is clear: The woman must stay “pretty, relaxed, sharp . . .” But don’t “wait in the streets” and always wait for the heart of the conflict steaming up “amongst the reddened leaves and the caramel fumes of your discriminations.”

Husband neglecting you? “Dowsing” has a cure: “Invite his mother to sleep in your room.” Want something more? Okay: “Piss in his soup when he lies down happily next to you.” And then, “Be gentle but skillful stuffing the fat goose / With octopus messages / And mandrake roots.” In the end, however, the wife needs what she doesn’t get from him:

Motionless like a mollusk flatulent with music
Clings to the telephone
And cries
In spite of myself my carrion fanatacizes over your ousted old cock
That sleeps

These poems give a sense of the breadth of Mansour’s writing, which can shift, implicitly or explicitly, from personal to social, cultural, and political contexts with ease, and from brief to magnetic longer poems in her later collections, such as “Endlessly Midnight,” “Pandemonium,” and, the finale, “Black Holes.” Although seduction and orgasm fuel her poems, there is a parallel motif of disgust and pain that illuminates a depth of embodiment and humanity. If we are wounded by the repressions and oppressions that stalk us, Mansour indeed turns those hurts into dark and precious jewels.

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