Richard Marshall reviews Hysterical Surrealism
Hysterical Surrealism, Edited by Tony Oats, Red Temple Press, New York, 2019.
On any ol’ street hear Zaum. The futurist Aleksei Kruchenykh nonced out his words to ‘Dyr bul schyl’ round about 1913. Zaum: The arrangement of the foam and craft of language to destroy language in an indeterminate manner aimed to fix it to a psychic and social evolution. It is about vocalizing the voices of gods, birds, shit and plastic bins. It is linguistic excommunication, marginalization and dissent refusing Enlightenment divisions of genius and hack, art and nonart, private experience and public, truth and falsehood. Octavio Paz knew something when he said poets were parachuting over the ‘post-babelic’ ruins somewhere off the main highway – or maybe that was the Chilean Vicente Huidobro’s Altazor. Negritude, existentialism, lettrisme, Dada, Oulipo, Fluxus, situationism, magical realism, feminism, post-colonialism are all creation stories and etiologies, defeating volcanos and assigning new destinies, eating new Gods. It’s a poetry Stewart Home would recognize as living now, dying later.
Historically the surrealism that we’re familiar with kick-started as a movement in Europe in the aftermath of the First World war – but it’s always kick-starting wherever there’s authoritarianism in the smoking air. After all: ‘Beauty will be convulsive or it will not be.’ ‘Hysterical Surrealism’ picks all this history and combines it with the frantic tone of Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ and the urbane speed wedge prosody of David Foster Wallace. In the face of scenarios that are populated by diminished and insecure Presidents and Prime Ministers, overwhelming information and interpretation, paralyzing cynicism and anomie alongside the bromide of seductive dogmatic talking points and party line propaganda, it turns the convulsive high-entropic context into marvels. It’s as if the existential synecdoche of stagefright is not to be overcome but embraced in humility as the best on offer – all other revered things being ‘self-indulgent crap.’
Tony Oats sets up the anthology nicely when he writes: ‘The artists anthologized here are cases in point – for example in their frequent travels to Mexico and more importantly, to Medellin, where they became acquainted with the imagery of magical realism, the meter of Vallenato music, Reggaeton, Perreo, and Latin Trap. And last but not least they immersed themselves in the hyper-post-modern frantic speed of writers like David Foster Wallace and Mark Leyner.’ He continues:
‘This collection is a glimpse into the Hysterical Surrealism movement. It includes bits and pieces that have been collected and read by members of the movement (the Magellan Poetry of Urizenus Sklar being a point of reference for all). Some of it took form on boozy South Dakota winter afternoons and 11 other parts while perreo dancing in Medellin all-nighters – poets trying to blow each other’s minds at Penny Fate’s dive bar and elsewhere in the world with progressively more fantastic imagery and more difficult and frenetic meter. It was, for several years, a race with no end. The baton was simply passed as the contestants collapse from exhaustion and the recipient running like hell to defeat the winter boredom and gangland violence that threatened to consume them if they ever stopped.’
Well, sural sounds like surreal and is of or relating to ‘the calf of a leg’, so it’s about what you’re standing on but seen as the parhelion symptoms of an intricate puzzle, maybe Chinese, all squares, rinds and diagonals. The pieces seem to develop long after their inception, like clots or the rapid repetition of a single tone of spavined alchemy. They inject celestial ruins into noises produced by moving bodies, like that made by sheer linen whilst in an abnormally deep, lethargic sleep, or, better, during a one-handed bullfighting maneuver.
Ok, for example:
‘A Freaking Hero
Last Saturday I finally asked Huck and Jim about Minn of the Mississippi and they looked at each other like, ok are we going to tell him? and finally Jim looked at me and said “That turtle is a hero, brah” and I look over at Huck and he is nodding. So I say “ok, I’ll bite, why is Minn of the Mississippi a hero,” and Jim is like, well he has three legs and he was born in lake Itasca and he engineered the whole talking dog hoax. And I’m like, hoax???’
EJ Spode’s piece here, part of his more expansive ‘Turtle Diaries’ sequence, networks a relationship of productive adjacency – challenging and combining popular, folk, vernacular and mainstream to create a refreshed currency. He takes the smallest perceptible movements away from familiar contexts of production and reception to make a new thicket of discourse and expression – shifting where the backgrounds and the foregrounds are, elevating tastes or deflating them, isolating dependencies and references so that phenomenological observations and linguistic effects become viable. Fragments, ephemera, the nonliterary, unintentional ecriture brut make a thick spaghetti micropoetics. The sacred here is served up as a shrewd and cunning lampoon that immediately turns into a wheel preventing backwards motion and insisting we go onwards. It’s a horse trick giving us a new line of sight via a noon, longitudinal circle circumscribing the world. I’ve heard it said that contemporary Mexican poetry is rather over-dependent on craft and balance at the expense of spontaneity and experimentation. Paz, Lopez Velarde and Sor Juana are influential in this state of affairs. However true this might be of many, there are exceptions. Natalia Toledo in Oaxaca writes in Zapotec and sees the world on the brink of extinction and this new fresh breed seems to be what Spode and his gang are absorbing.
And of course what you notice throughout the collection is the use of myth: the poems produce several wild prolific broods. For example, Blender by TJ Wayne which begins:
‘Cat Cruz made her own fucking blender today, Cat fucking Cruz.
Cat as in Catarina, Cruz as in Cross Cat Cruz as in Catarina Estefania Escobar Cruz made a fucking blender.’
And soon becomes a mesh of narrative and mythical crossover:
‘And that’s only the half of it because when she ran out of fruits and ice and chiles she began dropping people in her blender, yeah they would be walking down the street and SNATCH, into the fucking blender
And yeah that sucked for them but I had to drink it. Them and the cars and the bikes and the trucks and fucking snack carts with all their useless calories, I had to drink it all.
And then one day she snatched the moon from the sky and put it in her handmade blender. Kat fucking Cruz did that. Catarina Estefania Escobar Cruz snatched the moon from the sky and dropped it into her fucking blender,
Just like that, and she said, here, drink.’
So the poem has moved from a small cosmetic vernacular banality to cosmic two way traffic, reminding us of Ernst Cassirer writing on Mother Earth in ‘Mythical Thought’:
‘ In Plato’s Menexenos, we… find it said that it is not the earth which imitates women in conceiving and giving birth but women who imitate the earth. But for the original mythical intuition there is here no before or after, nor first or second, only the complete and indissoluble involvement of the two processes.’ Mythical and folkish thinking and intuition abounds in this collection, and the myth of learning’s rebirth in the figure of Rabelais’s Dionysian Pantagruel is perhaps the key avatar. In this the collection reinvents Blake’s Four Zoas, Keats’s Endymion, Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, Wagner’s Ring, Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, and so on. Gilgameshvisions of hell, Dante, Milton, Goethe and their underworlds are homologous longitudinal segments composing the torso of this collection. The Sumerian goddess Inanna overshadows many of the pieces. For example: in
We burn!Tanya Zeifer writes:
‘… We read poetry and philosophy and our minds entwine and we burn, we burn brighter and brighter until the whole room bursts into flames, And we laugh and drink and smoke and play our fiddles and dance in the flames as we burn!…’
… And we laugh with the Sun and the Jaguar Warriors and we dance in the blood and flames, And we burn.’
And there’s a link between this and hyphenation of the earth goddess or sun, of Emily Dickenson’s ‘ the lightning is a yellow fork/from tables in the sky ‘ where some ‘awful cutlery’ once belonged to a sky god like Jehova who sends lightning in Job 38:35. Enchanted Brunhilde ends in flames at the end of the Ring, who in turn is also Briarrose, Snow White, Little Red Hood, a shamanistic double clothed in wolf flames rather than a cloak. Zeifer draws on all this: she’s taking the most important myth of the middle ages – Christ’s harrowing in hell – relived many times as in Ovid turning Christ into Perseus, Andromeda as Eve, the sea monster as the gulf of hell and so forth – so Zeifer attaches herself to this in a wink to Shakespeare’s Hotspur, Percy, ‘hot as Perseus’, Prince Hal’s rival – a May-Mercury figure disclosing a variant of absented or merely possible ‘might have been civilizations – Babel, Atlantis, Utopia, golden ages of fire, antidiluvian and paradisal. If anything, this is a movement of poems abbreviating myths of seasonal change – the death and rebirth of vegetation where voices and words and people become flowers and forests, burning up and out of that, erupting into Spring, laughter, and the powers of the Highest overshadowing everything.
Still, you’ve got to stay alert and jumpy if you’re to get what’s happening. After all the Biblical parallels are only that, nothing more, round here. Mestizo priests know what pagan powers there are in this different sweep, where mountain cults, for instance, link floods to solar eclipses and where in the Andes people are saved not by Noah but by mountains. Indeed its part of the different spin on the myth that Christian ideology has broken the contract with nature by privileging humans over other life. Read, say, the Huarochiritext of the Incas where you get volcanic fire being rained down by the main protagonist, cannibals being taken apart and violators of hospitality being put to the sword. What this poetry is about is ‘Hairline fractures palm tree trains of love train their eyes on trains of wedding gowns of downs and ups and railroad engineers seeking fingers lost and found and lost again,’ all shamanic and breaking up then rejoining again, itself to itself, word to word, in unsuspected dreams.
So this is writing that inhabits multiple crossovers among mythic , historic, political and local – many locals – shoring lyric fragments with ruined ones, passports to lands of the dead where what’s denied is any clear distinction between themselves and the retelling. Everything is miraculous and patterned because that’s what myths are. Robert Hughes identified a Mithraic sun fixed over a tragic bullring in the lightbulb in Guernica. So too here everything comes off as sacred. The sensual receptivity to the hallow Orpheus’s existence can be read as a sort of brute rapture, an eloquent insistence on the old gods cleansing out new ones as in the whole thing by Ronnie Mejia’s ‘An Experiment in Dactylic Hexameter using Stress’ which goes:
‘When you get home from that shit school get yer ass back to the Stockman. Our fave bar has been ruined by posers and loserz and worse stuff.
Place is all scumbags and pervs now, drooling all over yer girlfriend. Penny is blowing them off, but, seri’sly you gotta show up.
Last week Athena was there with me checking it out and like she agreed. That place needs to be purged of its fail and its loozerness right now. Stockman’s gotta be saved at ALL COST cuz it is OUR place.’
Well, that’s a legendary story if ever there was one, demythologized only to remythologise at another step. This is kind of the wrong side of the story though, which makes it more refined and delicious, as if we’re taking Herod’s side when the tyrant ‘slew all the children that were in Bethlehem.’ The interior is muffled by the anxiety and outrage of the voice, which is through and through a rough beast indeed. And what are we to make of this, ‘ La pièce de résistance: Chocolate donut holes gently ladled with Croizet Cuvée Léonie cognac — cognac mellowing in bottles since before the French wine blight, since before the American civil war, the very beverage reverently sipped by Churchill and Eisenhower as they planned the D-Day invasion, cognac that is just now finally ready to be infused into my chocolate donuts.’ The intoxication with the sensual delights of the food are mixed with a strange image of anti-fascist liberation embodied in the seated figures of Churchill and Eisenhower on the brink of taking down Hitler, capturing an atmospheric species of knowledge that corresponds to what Conrad’s narrator says of Marlow in Heart of Darkness:
‘… to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernal but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of those misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine.’
This is a funny, serious, playful collection of heterodox knowledge secreted through writing born in the great noisy silence of margins. This all reflects a cultural resilience and political wisdom that enables them to defend at least some part of their territory. It sometimes takes on the nervy rattle of expat wave-and-step motifs but finds complexity and energy in the tethering weft and warp of origin and rulership literature. There’s a word-age genesis here more ancient than any nation state, producing writing that haunts the territory disguised as bird, vampire, fin-winged snakes, deferring, in its best moments, to the insight and curing power of the women Machi shaman and her kin. Inspiring, and proof of a higher civilization out there in the outlaw places.
Leave Los with the last words:
‘Cracked porcelain hair braiding times times ten times three times a day times everything, The things you see the things you say, say you don’t, say you can’t, but don’t rhyme, Just plane.Just play.’
About the author:
Richard Marshall is a writer, painter and a philosopher. He is a regular contributor to CREATRIX Magazine. You can buy his two books of philosophy interviews Philosophy at 3AM, and Ethics at 3AM from Oxford University Press.