Surrealist Doodle

Surrealist Doodle
This was used as the cover of Karawane in 2006 and I have included it in on a number of bags and postcards over the years. Someone on the subway asked me if it was a Miro. I was very flattered!

Monday, January 12, 2015

Review of Carole Maso's Beauty is Convulsive: The Passion of Frida Kahlo

For the new year, let's revisit a great writer and a great painter:

Beauty is Convulsive: The Passion of Frida Kahlo
by Carole Maso
2002, Counterpoint Press
170 pp.

Whenever I read Carole Maso, I start writing like her. And so it’s the words and impressions that linger, hovering above the page, insistent, repeating: Broken. Fragment. Meditation. Accident. Votive.

Composed in Maso’s unique poetic and fragmentary style, Beauty is Convulsive: The Passion of Frida Kahlo is many different things at once: a highly condensed biography of Kahlo’s life, a voice for her words, and Maso’s artistic “conversation” with Kahlo.

Beauty is Convulsive samples freely from biographies of Kahlo among Maso’s own writing and impressions. We’ve become used to this style from filmmakers and rap artists, but it is still unusual in books, where we’re accustomed to more singularity of voice, clear quotes and citations with footnotes and page numbers. Maso’s rendering of Frida Kahlo requires a certain suspension of disbelief, a willingness to experience Kahlo’s life as we abandon our usual literary constraints.

The book focuses on three defining elements of Frida Kahlo’s life. The first is a serious bus accident in her adolescence which had repercussions throughout her entire life, including chronic pain in her back, legs and feet, and an inability to have children. Her subsequent miscarriages make up another recurring theme. And the third is her marriage to fellow painter Diego Rivera.

Maso’s sometimes halting, disjointed writing style suggests a life lived in fits and starts, as in Votive: Child:

“Its birth certificate filled out in elegant scroll His mother was
Frieda [sic] Kahlo

take this sorrow: child

I would give you fistfuls of color
if only

I would have given you.

Because I wanted you come to me

the cupped butterfly, painted black.” (19)

One of the hallmarks of Carole Maso’s writing is repetition of words and phrases, and Votive features in the title, as well as in the text, of many of the pieces in this book. Votive: Vision, Votive: Courage, and Votive: Sorrow, are among the pieces that lead the reader on a meditation, a wish, a prayer on elements of Frida Kahlo’s life, almost as if you are walking the stations of the cross. In between the Votives and other pieces are short epigrammatic quotes from Frida herself, each entitled “Accident”, which serve as interludes:

“I am not sick. I am broken.
But I am happy as long as I can paint.” (65)

“Nevertheless I have the will to do many things
and I have never felt “disappointed by life”
as in Russian novels. (75)

In her choice and placement of text from her journals, Maso not only gives voice to Frida Kahlo, but also highlights Kahlo the poet, particularly when writing about Diego:

“From you to my hands I go all over your body, and I am with you a minute and I am with you a moment, and my blood is the miracle that travels in the veins of the air from my heart to yours. . . Diego, nothing is comparable to your hands and nothing is equal to the gold-green of your eyes. . . .”(34-35)

Lest you start to believe that Maso is merely a collage artist, arranging the words that Frida has written and what others have written about her, Maso intertwines her own meditations on the artist’s life and her work:

“She remembers when her mouth -- pressed to the ear -- to the
hum of the paint the blood:
don’t kiss anyone else
magenta, dark green, yellow
And she watches him.” (91)

Add to this quotes from others who knew Frida Kahlo, including Diego himself, Alejandro, who was involved in the accident with Frida, and notes from her doctors, and gradually, contemplatively, you get a picture of the woman and the artist, and the effect she has on those who wish to enter her world.

Friday, January 09, 2015

Review of An Open Entrance to the Shut Palace of Wrong Numbers

An Open Entrance to the Shut Palace of Wrong Numbers
Franklin Rosemont

Chicago: Surrealist Editions

Just as misspelling is the least appreciated genre of creative writing, the Wrong Number is the most despised form of oral poetry and storytelling (75).

Surrealism is generally thought of as a thing of the past: Andre Breton holding court in pre-war Paris Cafes discussing Freud and Marx and writing poetry.

Franklin Rosemont, editor of Chicago’s Black Swan Press and (one of) the leading (contemporary) (American) Surrealists has taken his longstanding fascination with misdialed phone numbers as an occasion to write a contemporary surrealist manifesto of sorts, a reaffirmation of the presence of Surrealism as a force in our daily lives.

The wrong number: an exquisite corpse shared by strangers; a visit from the subconscious; a political opportunity; a symbol of sexual repression; an indicator of xenophobia. Rosemont’s often fanciful, sometimes exaggerated meanderings offer up the misdialed number as a seemingly comprehensive and insidious marker of our current social condition.

As an unconscious attempt to speak to . . . an Other, a stranger, every wrong number corresponds to the latent but unmistakable desire . . . for . . . radically non-alienated way of life (131).

The book begins as a treatise on modern society and on the Surrealist liberation of desire and imagination as the antidote to the “miserabilist world order.” Rosemont then lays out for us his “methodology” for researching wrong numbers. He shows how wrong numbers have been basically ignored, gone unstudied, despite their ubiquity in our culture. The wrong number soon moves from being the object of study itself to becoming the framework through which life can be explained.

In the second chapter Rosemont uses the conceit of wrong numbers to frame autobiographical anecdotes ranging from his family in Chicago and California to his meetings with Breton and several Surrealists in Paris in the 1960s. The stories in these chapters are charming and almost unbelievable in their chance encounters and fortuitous accidents.

From there, we move to a meandering mix of philosophy, psychoanalysis, gnosticism, linguistics and politics, all understood vis-à-vis the experience and analysis of wrong numbers. The result in these later chapters can be somewhat uneven. Like Surrealism itself, the book is at its best when it forgets itself, gets lost, and stumbles onto fragments of unexpected poetry. Some of the best moments are when Rosemont veers off into the performative, invocational language of manifestos.

The text becomes weighted down in places when Rosemont begins protesting too much. What can be fanciful at first starts to feel forced. One notable example is the discussion of sexuality, which starts off as an interesting and amusing contemplation. Rosemont goes to great lengths to compare the wrong number to every possible Freudian permutation of sexual dysfunction, ultimately stretching credulity. Attempting to keep the metaphor of the wrong number on task, the book often retreads, repeating itself--a worthy poetic device in a shorter piece that here creates a sense of redundancy and sometimes impatience. And in his desire to undertake a kind of serious and comprehensive “study” of the wrong number, the text, particularly in the later chapters, becomes dry and begins to read more like an academic paper than a paean to Surrealism.

Wrong Numbers also features drawings by Artur de Cruzeiro Seixas. The artwork is classical or “old school” surrealist, the cover art featuring a human body rising out of a telephone with images and figures that immediately place the book within that artistic framework.

Ultimately, the work is not only a call to openness (to chance, to strangers, to joy) but also a worthy contemporary analysis of our culture that, in its more playful moments, offers surprise and insight. It serves as a reminder that Surrealism is a force that remains afoot in the universe. We come to appreciate the smallest irritant as an opportunity for delight.

The struggle for a ‘poetic politics’ takes place on many levels . . . outburst of hilarity, generous gestures, impossible chance encounters, creams that haunt one for weeks on end, fits of delirium . . . inspired slips of the tongue, stunning coincidences that irrevocably alter the whole course of one’s life. . . . Immune to the forces of repression, they are themselves forces of poetry and therefore of freedom (137).