Aside from the fact that they’re all dead, the women of Surrealism have had a banner couple of years. In 2021 Leonora Carrington’s novel The Hearing Trumpet was reissued by New York Review Books, while her designs for a tarot deck were published in not one but two handsome volumes. In 2022 Meret Oppenheim’s work had its first US exhibition in twenty-five years at the Menil Collection in Houston, and an edition of her complete poems was released earlier this year. Dorothea Tanning had a retrospective at the Tate Modern in 2019, Frida Kahlo at the Cleve Carney Museum of Art in Illinois in 2021. Lee Miller is the subject of Lee, a film starring Kate Winslet due out later this year.
Joyce Mansour, the Syrian Jewish writer whom André Breton called “the greatest poet of our time,” is the latest female member of the Surrealist circle to be reintroduced to the public. Emerald Wounds, a selection of her poems translated by Emilie Moorhouse and coedited with Garrett Caples, advertises itself as “a compact yet career-spanning anthology of an incendiary poet.” It includes Mansour’s 1953 collection, Cris (Screams), and ends in 1986 with Trous Noirs (Black Holes). Moorhouse has also contributed an introduction, describing the poetry as “erotic-macabre.”
The texts in Emerald Wounds are based on two posthumous collections published in France in 1991 and 2014 and on poems that appeared in the Surrealist journal Bief, which ran from 1958 to 1960 and featured newcomers like Mansour and the Canadian artist Mimi Parent alongside Breton and Benjamin Péret. Reading Emerald Wounds really does feel like entering uncharted territory, even for a reader well acquainted with the vast literature of Surrealism. It also serves as a bracing reminder of the opportunities for self-expression that the movement, much derided both during and after its heyday, made possible for female writers, artists, and performers.
Mansour was born in Bowden, England, in 1928, but her parents relocated to Cairo soon after and sent her to high school in Switzerland. Mansour’s mother died of cancer when she was fifteen; when she was nineteen her first husband died, only six months after their wedding. In a biography of Mansour, Marie-Laure Missir says that she first began writing poetry “to cauterize her bleeding wounds”; Mansour herself said she was trying to “efface the blood from her dreams.” Although she probably destroyed these early efforts—no one has ever seen them—she remained attached to an idea of poetry as a relation to pain. She explained it like this:
I went to a cemetery for a Muslim funeral. Suddenly a woman started to scream. The scream began, at first very deep, in the belly and became more and more shrill, deafening; it seemed to come from the top of the skull, you know, the fontanel, from which religions often say that the soul escapes at the moment of death. It’s terrifying. That is poetry. I write between two doors, all of a sudden, like that woman who started to scream.
“In Mansour’s work,” Moorhouse writes, “love and death are inseparable,” but this doesn’t seem quite right. It’s not so much love and death that are inseparable here but desire and disgust, the main affects in the Surrealist canon. Like Dalí’s paintings or the writing of Georges Bataille—who also saw poetry as “a kind of grave”—Mansour’s poems are chockablock with corpses, eyeballs, amputations, and genitals described as “cannibalistic tissues.”
At their best, the poems are unsettling and darkly humorous, combining the cheerful abjection of a ladies’ magazine with psychoanalytic satire: “Husband neglecting you?/Invite his mother to sleep in your room.” They can also sometimes suggest the gross-out game Would You Rather, in which players choose between imaginary scenarios like sliding down a razor blade into a vat of lemon juice or having fifteen nails hammered into your tongue—or, to use Mansour’s words, dying “beneath the rotted teeth of a rabbit” or “cross[ing] blades with the festooned wolf spider.” Take these lines:
The mice of desire
Eat the raw cock
Hidden in the hand
Of the sculptor
Only the love in your mouth still tastes like a severed limb
What is in that place penetrated by the dart
That makes my heart ripen beautiful abscess in the tomb.
It’s often said that the Surrealist movement sorted women into restrictive categories: the femme enfant (woman-child), the muse, the hysteric, and the femme sauvage, a sometimes sexy, sometimes terrifying wild woman. Mansour slithers around these personae, trying them on only to cover them in a profusion of fluids—blood, urine, vomit—until they lose their glib power. In their place she installs an unpredictable poetic voice determined to thwart the reader’s comfort. If Mansour turned to poetry for therapeutic purposes, the result was not psychic equilibrium but a ritualized expulsion of fantasy and fury.
Screams, published when Mansour was twenty-five, was met by mixed reviews. Writing in the left-wing newspaper Combat, which began life as a Resistance publication at one point edited by Albert Camus, the poet and critic Alain Bosquet wrote that Mansour “annexes necrophilia to poetry with extreme ease.” Compared to Screams, Anne Desclos’s sadomasochistic novel The Story of O was “mere rosewater and Henry Miller a choirboy.” “Don’t give her access to the morgue,” Bosquet warned, “she’ll wake the corpses.”
Breton, by contrast, was intrigued. “I love, Madam,” he wrote to Mansour, “the scent of dark, ultra-dark, orchids in your poems.” When Gamal Abdel Nasser became the president of Egypt in 1954, following the 1952 revolution that ousted the Egyptian monarchy, Mansour moved with her second husband and their son to Paris, where she remained until her death in 1986. She was welcomed into the Surrealist group, finding friends for life in Breton and Roberto Matta. It was at Mansour’s apartment that Matta, who had been exiled from Breton’s disputatious inner circle, crept back into its good graces after allowing himself to be branded by a hot iron with the word SADE, in honor of the eighteenth-century pornographer and occasional political prisoner Donatien Alphonse François, the Marquis de Sade.
Because he gave his name to the term “sadism,” people who have never read Sade assume that his books contain merely some spanking and whipping. But Sade is also the master of snuff porn. His 1795 novel Philosophy in the Bedroom ends with a woman being raped by a man with syphilis. The woman’s daughter and her daughter’s lover then sew up her vagina and anus so that “the virulent humor” of infectious sperm “will more promptly cinder [her] bones.”
The Surrealists loved Sade. He appears all over Breton’s manifestos and was proclaimed a political revolutionary by Paul Éluard. The French painter Valentine Hugo composed a striking set of drawings based on Sade’s story “Eugénie de Franval,” about an incestuous father–daughter couple who plan to consummate their lust on the “pitiful corpse” of the girl’s mother. He was an enormously important influence on Bataille, who later distanced himself from Surrealism but whose commitment to mowing over bourgeois norms of decency places him in league with Sade, whom Breton identified as one of history’s “three great emancipators of desire.” (The other two were Sigmund Freud and the socialist free-love advocate Charles Fourier.)
Mansour never mentions Sade by name, but his presence is everywhere. Cannibalism is a motif: in one short lyric, a woman’s body is a “mindless octopus” that “swallows your excited cock/as it is born,” while another begins with an Amazon, the archetypal female warrior, “eating her last breast/The night before the final battle.” “Feed yourself with the blood of the poor,” Mansour urges, “To be loved one must be cruel.” In the prose poem “Geneva,” the speaker fantasizes about putting out a cigar in the eye of her absent lover. “I will crush your penis with my tired heel,” she continues, and in response to this punishing set of images her “vagina tightens.”
Mansour also joins Sade in a frank sexualization of the maternal body, of which all that is left in one poem is a “hoarse clitoris,” that “pink hedgehog of the desert.” Elsewhere she insists that “every man aspires to marry his mother; he fondly remembers her nice flesh, her love handles, and her paunch.” The next step is logical:
You want to seduce the son?
Look like his mother
Eat pasta, butter and potatoes…
Stuff your bottom with soup and cream
You will have the last word.
Then there is “The Missal of the Missus (Good Nights),” which describes washing a lover’s skin in language that has an overt and disturbing racial charge:
Take two tea towels of moorish lover’s skin
Twist your hands giving them shine, and cap sleeves
Will beautify your arms shrunk in the wash
Staple a purple-martingale on your pleated sun
Cut on the bias (the tail must not protrude)
Tie the chest.
The term “moor” is notoriously ambiguous, but Mansour is probably using it to mean a dark-skinned North African person who may or may not be Muslim. The lines, which suggest that the lover in question has had his skin flayed and fashioned into towels, bring to mind Bataille’s fascination with lingchi, a protracted form of execution that involves slicing pieces off the victim’s body until he dies. Used primarily in China from about 900 to the early 1900s, lingchi struck Bataille not only as horrific but “ecstatic and voluptuous,” and in his 1961 book The Tears of Eros he included photographs of the process alongside pictures of Haitians engaged in “voodoo sacrifice.” Like Bataille, Mansour seems to get a libidinal kick out of imagining racial others in extremis, even gutted. While she considers herself a figure of “viscous oriental suffering,” it’s always in distinction from bodies that don’t look like hers.
It’s hard to know what to make of Mansour’s racial attitudes. Moorhouse doesn’t mention them, and sometimes her translations are genuinely misleading. When Mansour describes cow’s milk as “rouge du sang des nègres,” Moorhouse renders the line as “red with the blood of blacks,” obscuring the complex history of the term nègre in twentieth-century Francophone culture. I suspect that if Mansour had wanted to say “blacks” she would have used the more neutral noirs, because nègre can mean “Negro” but it can also be a more pointed racial slur. That said, Déchirures (Shreds), the collection in which this poem appears, came out in 1955, a good twenty years after Aimé Césaire initiated a reclamation of nègre in the political and literary philosophy of Négritude. When Mansour wrote nègres instead of noirs, did she mean to adopt what had, by midcentury, become the term of choice in many progressive circles? Or was she using nègres in a more colloquial sense, one that could include an outright hateful meaning?
These questions are neither raised nor answered by Moorhouse’s introduction, which is strangely muted on the subject of Mansour’s complicated identity as an exiled Egyptian with Syrian Jewish heritage, a British birth certificate (and, as Mansour says, a British hairdo), and a European education. In poems like “One Listen to No One Listen to No” (1965), “Beyond the Swell,” and “Endlessly Midnight” (both 1967), Mansour describes her Jewishness as a sometimes mystical, sometimes freakish quality. There is, she writes, “more passion/in the muff of a Jewess/Than in the openwork/Of the plain,” while elsewhere she invokes the medieval antisemitic trope of Jews having tails. Both images suggest something animal, as does the “old nest/of an Arab” into which Mansour, who elsewhere refers to “the Arab in me,” says she might in her madness transform.
Moorhouse sidesteps Mansour’s fascination with race and ethnicity, perhaps because she is more focused on the poems’ treatment of sex. In her introduction, she describes becoming intrigued by Mansour during the early days of the Me Too movement. If “our culture continually dismisses and denies the needs and desires of women,” she offers, perhaps it would be a welcome tonic “to translate the writing of a woman who spoke openly and shamelessly about” her erotic life and fantasies.
But what does it mean to speak openly in poetry? In an essay accompanying a selection from Emerald Wounds published in the magazine Poetry, Marwa Helal writes that it is “both interesting and disappointing” that Mansour’s “erotic references [are taken] so literally” by some readers, an interpretive mode she characterizes as a “Western imposition.” I don’t know if she’s referring specifically to Moorhouse’s translations, but they do sometimes seem to constrain the ambiguities of Mansour’s language, perhaps to make it appear bolder or more “shameless.” It’s not clear if this is always the right move.
A lot depends on the word sexe. Moorhouse often translates it as “cock”—as in “His cock in mourning sang loudly” and “In spite of myself my carrion fanaticizes over your ousted old cock”—but as in English the French term sexe just refers to the sexual organs, without giving any information as to what kind they are or what kind of person might possess them. The French language, of course, genders nouns, and the noun sexe is masculine but “ton sexe” simply means “your sex,” so rendering it as “your cock” is a strong choice. So is translating “Votre pénis est plus doux/Que les faciès d’une vierge” as “Your dick is softer/Than the face of a virgin.” Here the use of the vulgar term, with its hard k sound and air of informality, makes the English both more intimate and more irritable than the original French.
Sometimes strong choices ought to be made, but context matters. Compare the first paragraph of Annie Ernaux’s 1991 novel Passion simple and its English translation by Tanya Leslie:
Cet éte, j’ai regardé pour la prèmiere fois un film classé X à la television…. Il y a eu un gros plan, le sexe de la femme est apparu, bien visible dans les scintillements de l’écran, puis le sexe de l’homme, en érection, qui s’est glissé dans celui de la femme. Pendant un temps très long, le va-et-vient des deux sexes a été montré sous plusieurs angles. La queue est réapparue, entre la main de l’homme, et le sperme s’est répandu sur le ventre de la femme. On s’habitue certainement à cette vision, la prèmiere fois est bouleversante.
This summer, for the first time, I watched an X-rated film [on TV]…. There was a close-up of the woman’s genitals, clearly visible among the shimmerings of the screen, then of the man’s penis, fully erect, sliding into the woman’s vagina. For a long time this coming and going of the two sex organs was shown from several angles. The cock reappeared, in the man’s hand, and the sperm spilled on to the woman’s belly. No doubt one gets used to such a sight; the first time is shattering.
Ernaux uses sexe for both penis and vagina to underscore the peculiar abstraction of heterosexual porn, in which bodies are reduced to genitals whose “comings and goings” tend to be highly predictable or rote, and to set up a contrast with the obscene queue, or cock. The suddenness of that vulgarity as it erupts into Ernaux’s otherwise clinical prose captures the sense of bouleversement or shock that accompanies the proverbial money shot.
There are decades between Mansour and Ernaux, but that’s part of the point. Mansour had words like queue, bite, and dard (Sade’s preferred term) available to her but didn’t use them. Why not? Because, in the 1950s, they were off-limits for a woman poet? Or because imprecision was important to the specific texture of her eroticism, which seems rooted not so much in the unapologetically explicit but in a studied negotiation between polite speech and indecorous fantasy? Notably, when Mansour does flirt with slang in the phrase “l’air glacial de sa verge”—literally, “the frigid air of its rod”—Moorhouse translates “verge” in strict anatomical terms as “penis,” erasing all trace of poetic equivocation.
The problem with swapping either profanities or basic terminology in for language that is deliberately vague is that it changes the tone of the poem. “Mon sexe” is something I might say at the doctor’s office; “your cock” I’d reserve for a rather different situation. We learn from Moorhouse that Mansour was tormented by the infidelity of her second husband, Samir. Without imposing a narrowly biographical interpretation—another sort of literalism—on these poems, we might say that their ominous consolidation of elliptical and aggressive utterances suggests a frustrated intimacy of the sort that might mark a relationship damaged by betrayal:
I want to sleep with you back to back
Without breath to keep us apart
Without words to distract us
Without eyes to tell lies.
These lines are simple, even sentimental, but in their transparency they are as brazen as an X-rated film, and maybe even more unnerving.
In Subversive Intent: Gender, Politics, and the Avant-Garde (1990), the literary historian Susan Rubin Suleiman points out that, since the women of Surrealism “were generally younger and started producing later than” its men, “it’s not unlikely that their version of Surrealist practice included a component of response to, as well as adaptation of, male Surrealist iconographies and methodologies.” We could put it more strongly: since the women of Surrealism had the advantage of posteriority vis-à-vis the first wave of largely male Surrealist artists, it is not surprising that their work is increasingly seen as the true measure of the movement.
There’s no question that the upsurge of public interest in figures like Oppenheim and Carrington has been fueled by the political reckonings of the past several years. But if all Oppenheim and Carrington were good for was highlighting the difficulties of being a woman and an artist at the same time, they would offer no more than an elegiac contribution to Surrealism’s history. In 1949 the poet Joë Bousquet predicted that “the genius of the great surrealists will owe its renaissance to the young women who dared to and were capable of loving them.” There’s a truth behind his trite sexism, and it’s that love is not simply a feeling but a theory, capable of provoking intelligent self-reflexivity and creative independence. If the young women saved Surrealism, perhaps it’s because they understood it best.
“Endlessly Midnight,” a poem from 1967, is Mansour’s most arresting experiment in a poetics of feminist critique. Here love and its many onerous attendants—desire, hostility, tenderness, resentment—are gathered into small packets of short lines that seem to address not an absent lover but an exhausted aesthetic paradigm. “I now embody other people,” Mansour writes, “that were armed with mistletoe and commas/More dangerous and mutilating/Than many weapons of war.” One way to escape such sexual and grammatical coercions is simply to reproduce their forms; another is to try to devise a language that gets outside of them entirely:
I am the giggles of the lost opportunity
I am the fugitive running between the walls
Of his hurt
I am the dark ring of your vast clearing
I am the bars that bruise your reason
I am the free road and the flesh
Incanting these images of evasion and emancipation, Mansour announces the possibility of freedom from depressing social roles and the art that celebrates and in fact depends on them. “Your fugue,” she warns, “will be my discipline,” a line that reads as an assertive indictment of the Surrealist fetish for psychological misery, even madness. The poem ends with an image of assumption, with Mansour replacing the Virgin Mary and, by extension, all the mothers who haunt her memory and her marriage: “One day I will let go of the handrail/And my poppy skirts/Will glide in the sky.” It’s hard to say if this is a wish or a threat.