The Milk Bowl of Feathers:
Essential Surrealist Writings

Edited by Mary Ann Caws
New Directions ($13.95)
by John Bradley

Surrealism: “the domain of thought and experience beyond the daily and the convergence of dream and reality—inside and out, day and night, as with a swinging door,” writes Mary Ann Caws, a well-known Surrealism scholar, particularly of French Surrealism. In Surrealism “Everything is new, and happens, over and over, always for the first time,” she continues, quoting the French poet André Breton, who issued his Surrealist Manifesto in 1924.

That New Directions has published an anthology of Surrealist writing now indeed shows how much everything happens over and over. Caws draws largely on the New Directions in Prose & Poetry 1940 anthology, which contained “A Surrealist Anthology.” She does much more, though, than merely reissue previously published writings, which were all by men. Instead, Caws adds many Surrealist female writers, including Leonora Carrington, Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, Mina Loy, Dora Maar, Joyce Mansour, Meret Oppenheim, and Kay Sage. Without even mentioning in her introduction the explosion of the myth that Surrealism was largely male, Caws quietly enlarges the scope of this historic movement. Her slim anthology (only ninety pages), gives the reader thirty-two writers, and forty-four works (both poetry and prose), translated by a wide variety of writers: Paul Auster, Kay Boyle, Rikki Ducornet, James Laughlin, and many others, including Caws herself.

At its best, Surrealism’s odd juxtapositions can spark excitement and surprise in the reader, as this excerpt from “White Gloves,” a prose poem by André Breton and Philippe Soupault, demonstrates:

Famous men lose their lives in the carelessness of those beautiful houses that make the heart flutter. How small they seem, these rescued tides! Earthly happiness runs in floods. Each object is Paradise. A great bronze boulevard is the shortest road. Magical squares do not make good stopping places, [sic] Walk slowly and carefully; after a few hours you can see the pretty nose-bleed bush. The panorama of consumptives lights up. You can hear every footfall of the underground travelers.

This excerpt not only demonstrates the “convergence of dream and reality,” but exposes why short Surrealist poems and prose pieces work best. The associative leaps require an intense focus, as can be seen here.

While Surrealist writings cannot be pinned down to any one topic, one subject constantly arises—love. Two writers handle this subject with particular grace: Joyce Mansour and Robert Desnos. Mansour combines surprise and sensuality, which can be seen in these opening lines from her poem “I Want to Sleep with You”:

I want to sleep with you side by side
Our hair intertwined
Our sexes joined
With your mouth for a pillow
I want to sleep with you back to back
With no breath to part us

Robert Desnos’ love poems, while written in prose, contain a delicate lyricism. Here is the closing to his “I Have Dreamed of You So Much” in Paul Auster’s musical translation, which brings out the obsessiveness of Desnos’s love:

I have dreamed of you so much, have walked so much, talked so much, slept so much with your phantom, that perhaps the only thing left for me is to become a phantom among phantoms, a shadow a hundred times more shadow than the shadow that moves and goes on moving, brightly, over the sundial of your life.

Both Mansour and Desnos are essential to any collection of Surrealist writing, however that term “essential” in Caws’ subtitle invites controversy. Many readers will start naming works that are missing. Surely André Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto is essential, as well as his poem “Free Union.” Guillaume Apollinaire’s poem “Zone” is also key; after all, Apollinaire invented the term “surrealism.” And where are Hans Arp, Antonin Artaud, Max Ernst, Max Jacob, Dorothea Tanning, and Remedios Varo? It would be helpful to have dates of publication for the texts, too. Thankfully, there are short biographies for the writers who are included. The one for Léona Delacourt reads like a prose poem itself, although a tragic one:

Léona Delacourt (Nadja) (1902-1940) was born near Lille, met André Breton in 1926, and is the dedicatee of his novel Nadja of 1928. Naming herself Nadja (“the beginning of the Russian word for hope and only the beginning”), she wrote and drew in many illustrated letters to Breton, her sometime lover. She was arrested in 1927, was institutionalized in the Vaucluse and then in northern France, and was never released.

This short biography will send curious readers to Breton’s Nadja, as it should.

While The Milk Bowl of Feathers gives us only a glimpse of the international movement that revolutionized nearly every art form, and is limited to a small sampling of poetry and prose (and mainly French texts at that), this is a welcome volume. Caws deserves praise for including Surrealist women writers who have been ignored by too many for too long. Here’s hoping this collection will lead to anthologies that include more Eastern European poets, as well as Spanish and Japanese surrealists. To paraphrase Man Ray, the Surrealist painter and photographer, “Is Surrealismdead? Is Surrealismalive? Surrealism is. Surrealism.”

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