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What The Water Gave Me

I found myself in London again on the 17 June, visiting the Barbican‘s major new exhibition on the theme of Surrealism and architecture, The Surreal House, in which domestic and public spaces, ordinary interiors and furnishings are variously unsettled. Once again, looking at the products of this singularly lyrical movement, I was struck by how closely the best visual art so often adopts its strategies from poetry, myth and storytelling – whether Louise Bourgeois’ slyly phallic staircase No Exit, Edward Hopper’s 1923 House By The Railroad, a model for the modern Gothic home, used endlessly since as a cypher for an unsettling domestic space by everyone from Alfred Hitchcock and Steven King to The Addams Family, or the films of Jan Svankmajer, Andrei Tarkovsky and Buster Keaton. An exhibition like this feels more like an immersion in a library than a purely optical kind of viewing, full of ideas, suggestions and strangely shaped stories.

That the same day also happened to be the launch date for Pascale Petit’s latest Seren Books collection, What The Water Gave Me, was probably fortuitous, then, since the book expands Petit’s 2005 Smith/Doorstop pamphlet of poems in the voice of the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo to a full collection, and reinforces that same feeling that Surrealism’s lyric strain is entirely at one with the practice of poetry – hardly surprising, given the primacy of poetry within the movement, and the extraordinary – though often little-known to poetry readers – body of poems created by writers affiliated with it: even today, the movement remains active, with magazines like Phosphor in Leeds and the Chicago Surrealist group’s Franklin and Penelope Rosemont editing anthologies like Surrealist Women and Black, Brown & Beige that continue to extend the movement’s history and influence beyond the limits often placed on both by art-historical and academic orthodoxies that would pretend it ended with World War Two or Andre Breton’s death in 1966.

In fact, not only are active poets like Jayne Cortez operating as self-declared Surrealists, many others are drawing on Surrealist influences without formally declaring themselves as such, and while Petit’s book is not itself grounded in the politics or theories of the movement, beyond sharing a certain sensibility, in giving voice to another figure whose affiliations were independent, but whose practice was very much in sympathy with the temperament and aims of the wider movement, her imagery of hearts dangling from meathooks in the chest, or lovemaking as an explosive, emotional and literal car-crash, inevitably has its own connections to the original ideas underlying Andre Breton‘s guiding concepts of ‘convulsive beauty’ and ‘mad love’ as the basis for a ‘revolution of the mind’.

Perhaps it’s a long way from the Paris of that first manifesto in 1924 to a packed room in the Horse Hospital behind the Russell Square tube, on June 17 2010, where Petit gave a short reading of poems from the book accompanied by slides of the Kahlo works that inspired the poems. But it’s no distance at all from lines like “I am down under the stems/my face on fire” (from Sun and Life), “Every love-cry//is a silk tendril/quivering in my silent house” (from Diego On My Mind) or “The moon watches…hungry as an ulcer” (from Without Hope) and the kind of material produced by Benjamin Peret, Paul Eluard and Breton himself during the 1920s and 30s. That this Surrealist influence continues wherever poetry is found making its subversive impact – yesterday, at both the Barbican and at Petit’s wonderful (and hearteningly packed-out) Seren reading – becomes ever clearer as the years go on.

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