Joyce Mansour answers the call of male Surrealist voices from the 1920s by deforming their “own” images of women. In her self-portrayal, she takes up primarily the oneiric, disquieting themes of Andre Breton’s poetry, in which the woman is desirable yet threatening, both mysterious and dangerous. In his famous “L’Union Libre”, for example, the woman has an otter’s waist, but the tongue of a doll– she is characterized as at once animalistic, and disturbingly inanimate.  For herself, Mansour accepts a role that is both alluring and strange. But in tone, her poems also reflect the influence of another Surrealist poet, one whose love poetry and whose approach to the woman is less assertive than Breton’s– Robert Desnos.
Mansour’s first collection, Cris, appeared in 1945 – eight years after Desnos’ death, and 23 years after his expulsion (or rather, excommunication) from the surrealist group by its “pope,” Andre Breton. Despite this temporal distance between them, the intimacy of Mansour’s lyricism and her interweaving of the themes of death and writing with desire remind us of Desnos. Here, I will examine principally the correspondences between Mansour’s Carre Blanc,  from 1965, and “A la Mysterieuse” and “Les Tenebres” by Desnos, from Corps et Biens (1930).  I shall begin by situating Mansour in relation to Desnos.
For Desnos, the traditional distance between the poet and his beloved is an established tension between his narrative voice – je, and his object of desire – tu. The desired woman lives in the marvelous world of the poet’s dreams, which Desnos describes in “Les Espaces du Sommeil”:
Dans la nuit il y a naturellement Ies sept merveilles du monde el la grandeur et le tragique et le charme.
Les forets s’y heurtent confusement avec des creatures de legende cachees dans les fourres.
II y a toi.
For Desnos, the game of love consists in a continual launching of the self towards the Other – a projection he repeats ceaselessly. Although Desnos projects his longing for acknowledgement by his beloved throughout the poem “Si tu savais”, he insists upon the persistence of his own sense of isolation:
Si tu savais comme le monde m’est soumis,
Et toi, belie insoumise aussi, comme tu es ma prisonniere
O toi, loin-de-moi, a qui je suis soumis.
Si tu savais.
The Other, the toi of the poem, he designates by the phrase, “loin-de-moi”, and himself by “si tu savais.” They are both in the poem, yet irreconcilable.  He submits to her, but she is unaware of him; he acknowledges her lack of submission to him, while claiming her in words. Only in the text, as “loin-de-moi”, is she his prisoner; only on the page may he juxtapose references to her with references to himself. This juxtaposition generates an image of estranged union off the page, reminiscent of Reverdy’s definition of the poetic image later taken up by the Surrealists: “L’image est une creation pure de I’esprit. / Elle ne peut naitre dune comparaison mais du rapprochement de deux realifes plus ou moins eloignees.”  The textual union of the lovers remains incomplete, perhaps underscoring the distance which separates them outside the text.
Desnos focuses on his feminine Other, permitting his own identity to fade behind his assigned role – that of the poet who lives only to record his love. Yet despite the apparent seriousness of such a role, in a manner characteristic of Surrealism in general, Desnos in particular mixes humorous self-parody with passion, as in “O Douleurs de I’amour”:
Au reveil vous etiez presentes, ô douleurs de I’amour,
Ô muses du desert, ô muses exigeantes.
Mon rire et ma joie se cristallisent autour de vous.
C’est votre fard, c’esl voire poudre, c’est voire rouge,
C’est votre sac de peau de serpent, c’est vos bas de soie…
In effect, Desnos permits himself only one scenario of union with the feminine Other. He perceives his Other as truly near him, only when, like a creative spark, she is within him:
Loin de moi, une etoile filante choit dans la bouteille nocturne du poete. II met vivement le bouchon et des lors il guette I’etoile enclose dans le verre, il guette des constellations qui naissent sur les parois, loin de moi, tu es loin de moi.
His poetic nocturnal bottle is a pedestal – not on which, but within which the desired love-object is contained. The imprisoning glass, cristalline and magical, effectively marks the distance between them, perpetuating his need to continue writing. Following the convention, his love is unrequited: the captured woman-star keeps her silence. Even within him, she and he remain separate and isolated. Elaborating the effect of this distance on himself.
Si tu savais comme je t’aime et, bien que tu ne m’aimes pas, comme je suis joyeux, comme je suis robuste et fier de sortir avec ton image en tele, de sortir de I’univers. Comme je suis joyeux a en mourir.
he seems to be saying that for her he would suffer anything, even the solitude implicit in death.
Mansour takes up this theme of the lonely lover. But her moi does not focus on the object of desire in the same fashion. Like other women poets before her, (such as Christine de Pisan and Louise Labe), she concentrates more on herself than the male poet does, and consequently, the woman is still the object of focalization. For instance, in “Bruit dans la chambre a cote”, she transforms into a refrain, the line: “Combien je suis seule avec ma folle envie”. “Tu m’as abandonnee nuitamment” underlines her particular usage of the narrative voice. The possessive adjectives mes or mon, as well as the pronoun moi communicate her self-awareness. She focuses the reader’s attention on her person, on her emotions:
Mes heures coulent impassibles
Au fond du miroir mouchete de bronze
Des nuages font la parade
Dans la mare profonde ou tremble mon visage
Glissant comme des pleurs sur le malaise qu’était hier
Des feuillcs frissonnant sur le treillis du souvenir
Frissonnenf et tourhillonnent et pourtant restent immobiles
Quelque part au fond de moi un moule se cristallise.
Often imprinted with sadness, her solitude nevertheless evokes real, bodily pain – which introduces another difference between herself and Desnos. Mansour’s desire is based on an explicitly sexual relationship. She does not aspire as much to a sentimental union as to a spiritual liberation by means of sexual union.  J. H. Matthews writes that eroticism constitutes, for her, the liberating gesture by which together two people resist the menace of extinction.  She knows and describes the intimacy she misses.
Instead of cloaking her Other in mystery, she undresses him: “Votre penis est plus doux / Que facies de vierge”. She also unveils her own desire in “L’Eau des sources”: “Je ne saurais vivre / Sans brulant desir”. Her dreams are anchored in a type of reality based on memory; they are more concrete than the gossamer fantasies of Desnos.
Earlier, in the same poem, “L’Eau des sources,” Mansour invokes another image from the surrealist vocabulary: the woman/lovermirror. In the works of both Desnos and Mansour, the man looks to the woman as to a mirror; as a subject, she is essentially absent. But where Desnos’ use of the image is traditional, Mansour’s is not. Desnos’ most striking use of the woman-mirror image – in Surrealism, most common in the work of Paul Eluard  – occurs in his play, “La Place de I’etoile”, where the hero affirms: “Tu es ce que je reve et ce que, chaque matin, je decouvre dans ma glace.  Mansour refers to herself as a potential lover-mirror by formulating an unpunctuated question in parentheses: “(Es-tu reellement en moi / Ou est-ce par reflexion)”. By means of the authority implicit in her (feminine) narrative voice, together with the formulation of the image as a question, Mansour subtly queries the validity of such an assumption of absence. Nevertheless she grudgingly acknowledges a female tendency to serve as a mirror for men.
Although contradictory to the original conceptualization of the Androgyne – a being in which members oi opposite sexes are united into one – Breton’s notion of the Androgyne dovetails with the fondness of the Surrealists for the woman-mirror image. From the male perspective, the mirroring woman grants the man a satisfying illusion of wholeness, even though in such a construct the woman’s subjectivity is left out. By acknowledging the image of the woman-mirror ambiguously, in the form of a parenthetical question, Mansour grants a qualified response to Breton’s appeal for the necessity of reconstituting the primordial androgyne in love, as a basic principle of “love”, while simultaneously challenging it.  She underscores the fact that only one party fully experiences the wholeness achieved by such mirroring in love, thus effectuating a “union” that remains essentially incomplete.
Seeing his lover as a mirror evokes an affirmative sense of reciprocity for the male Surrealist poet; however, this sense is lacking in Mansour’s work. Furthermore, Mansour does not provide an opposite equivalent to the woman-mirror evoked by Eluard and Desnos; the man-mirror does not exist in Carre Blanc. Mansour seeks one, but in vain: “Vainement je cherche un reflet de ma joie / Dans le trou ou je pensais trouver ton coeur”. The transformation of Desnos’ well-known line, “J’ai tant reve de toi” into, “J’ai reve de ton oeil”, reminiscent of Bataille, implies the dominance of the male regard (or psychologically, of male potency).  Consequently, when Mansour seeks her own image, she sees no more clearly than when she sought her reflection in a man. In “La Griffe de I’animal,” and “En Attendant minuit,” the mirrors she seeks cloud over and turn to mud: “Cette eau qui tel un miroir attire les grimaces et les garde / Si maladroitement enlisees dans la boue”; “II faut que femme enlace / Son image dans la boue”.
The victimization implicit in such a muddied view of her own reflection surfaces elsewhere in the form of despair, particularly in “Galop du Coquillage de Neige”:
J’ai trop bondi trop rougi
Trop aiguise ma rage
Je ne veux plus etre le Goliath
De ta pierre
Mansour’s characterization of herself as a victim is not unmitigated by anger. She musters the indignation necessary to denounce male prejudice concerning women, in a poem that recalls Rimbaud’s “Aube”: 
Tu dis que les femmes
Doivent souffrir se polir et voyager sans perdre haleine
Reveiller les pierreries embellies par le fard
Changer ou se taire dechirer la brume
Helas je ne saurais danscr dans un marais de sang
These cries of pain are directed towards the poetic pedestal on which women have traditionally been placed. For Mansour, Desnos’ cristalline bottle is imprecise, like a lens covered with gelatin, as in Man Ray’s cinematic version of Desnos’ poem, “L’Etoile de mer”. Inside the bottle stars cannot survive; they must reduce such exquisite yet stifling prisons to shards.
Despite his creation of the image of the woman-star in the bottle, Desnos nevertheless proposes the possibility of shattering such a bottle in “Paroles des rochers.” In a playful reference to Baudelaire, this poem is addressed to women’s hair; its last lines anticipate Mansour’s sentiments: “Les infinis eternels se brisent en lessons ô chevelures! / C’etait ce sera une nuit des nuits sans lune ni perle / Sans meme de bouteilles brisees”. Yet these shards exist without broken bottles; the liberating act of shattering the bottle is missing from Desnos’ shimmering images. It is Mansour who demonstrates in her poems how enclosure in the bottle-pedestal feels: like a sentence to silence, if not to death.
The idealized yet distanced object of desire feels reduced by such adulation manipulated, like the uncanny figures created by the surrealist game of the cadavre exquis (in which each participant draws a section of the “figure” on a folded sheet of paper without seeing the section that preceded it, or knowing how it will be continued). The drawing produced by the game is at once fascinating and disturbing. The resulting body is fractured, segmented – un corps morcelé. Entrapping the desired Other in a bottle is akin to transforming her into a fetish of herself – into a psychological being who has yet to form an individual identity. If she is to love back – to reciprocate – she must be allowed not only to breathe but to exist. Mansour’s response to Desnos’ message in the bottle is as follows: if you wish to meet your desired Other, you must break the bottle.
In Mansour, the shooting star within Desnos’ nocturnal interior bottle finds a voice, but she does not always sing harmoniously. Indeed, her poetic dreams resemble nightmares. She takes up Breton’s challenge from the conclusion of Nadja: “la beaute sera CONVULSIVE ou ne sera pas.”  Her anger is vehement, as at the end of the collection’s final poem:
Ie crache sur ceux qui ecoutent
Derriere leurs prunelles limpides
Hes pietinees par trap de cerveaux feles
Leurs portes salement closes
Nomenclature du cauchemar
Une seule goulte d’urine sur le trottoir
Tous les niuseaux s’allongent
Mansour has already referred to herself as a nocturnal bird of prey; she finds contempt delicious –a bitter aphrodisiac; and she portrays herself as an amante/mante: “Comme elle je devorerai celui qui violera mes flancs… Il faut savoir attendre pour se venger / Imiter les insectes pour plaire”.
Rosalind Krauss comments that the praying mantis is a common image in Surrealism: “the female mantis’ sexual practices in certain species, its consumption of its mate after or even during copulation –and its voracity made it the perfect symbol of the phallic mother, fascinating, petrifying, castrating.  Yet, in science, the mantis is also a victim, which, as a standard procedure is placed under glass, and etherized, for the sake of observation and collection.  Both potential victimi/er and victim, the praying mantis acts as an ideal metaphor for Mansour. For while her poems abound in cries of distress, clearly she also savors revenge.
Her “Regions barbares,” answers to Desnos’ “Dans les espaces du sommeil”. just as he had imagined, she lurks in the night. But far from being a wonder of the world, she is alone there, and lonely. For Mansour, stars do not engender marvelous constellations, they are cold. By juxtaposition she compares the natural, supple phenomenon of a star-filled night (“la nuit gorgee d’etoiles”) to the rigid walls of her room. She describes herself not as celestial, but terrestrial: “Je suis I’animal de la nuit”. To her the corridors of outer space are peopled by sleepwalkers petrified into “formes ul times”. Only the damned live in glass bottles: “Les damnes sont a table dans leurs tristes habitacles de verre”.
Mansour admits to thinking overly much of funeral ceremonies. Her preoccupation with death narrows the distance between herself and Desnos. She could have been the little girl from his poem, “Suicide de nuit”, who goes off to school, reciting her lessons – including a line about the transparency of tombstones – except that Mansour sees the tombstones themselves as “femmes brisees”. Like Desnos, she ties death to love: “J’ai peur d’etre seule dans ta tombe”. Also in the manner of Desnos, even when her images are morbid, surrealistically they are never far from humour: “Seuls les morts n’apprecient guere les finesses de I’autopsie”.
The most striking similarity between Mansour and Desnos is their shared reverence for the Rimbalesque “alchemy” of writing, which they both take seriously, despite their surrealist humour. In La Liberté ou l’amour, Desnos describes writing as an alchemical phenomenon, to which the poet must appeal if he hopes to transform the white page into a psychic mirror. For him, the page remains continually on the brink of changing into something more sinister – a cemetery of words. From such a melancholy state, the page may be saved only by “une ecriture magique et efficace”, capable of transmuting it into a reflective surface. 
This intensity in Desnos is matched by Mansour in her line: “Je me noie dans I’encrier du moindre mot”. The page as mirror also appears, as “Papier d’argent”. Further, in “Le Satin / I’opale / la blanche alchimie,” a poem whose title echoes Mallarme in both its rhythm and thematic suggestion, Mansour’s images of a bejeweled woman evoke Desnos’ feminine Other.  Yet the love-object designated in the last line of “Contree de mon immense amour” is not a person, it is a place: the page whose opalescent whiteness invites poetic alchemy.
For Mansour as for Desnos, love of the Other is always tempered by the love of writing. However, the positions of their voices differ. The white page of Mansour’s title, Carré Blanc, proposes a reversal of the natural/cultural relation between margin and text. When we read Mansour, we hear Breton, Eluard, and Desnos in the margins, and her feminine “whiteness” takes its place as primary material. Her poetic voice answers Desnos’ description of the feminine as a creative shooting star captured in a bottle. This response demonstrates the capacity of the feminine Other to do more than reflect back the wonder projected onto her. She is more than a mirror. Her creativity shines with all the flash Desnos could have desired, yet more modestly than he might have imagined, because it is more real. Mansour’s poetry reveals a woman escaped from the bottle of male idealizations. She does render herself spectacular, but on a human scale, as in “Dans la foret hors des gonds de la patrie”:
De quelque griffonnage
Ou confiture de dame
In contrast with the mute voice of Desnos’ Other, Mansour’s voice from within the bottle – far from being like homemade preservesought rather to be labelled a mysterious elixir, and bear the notice: Warning, contents will disturb as well as dazzle. Katharine Gingrass is a doctoral student in French at the University of Pennsylvania.
1. Andre Breton, “L’Union libre” in The Ratitioni House Book of Twentieth Century Trench Poetry, ed. Paul Aiister (New York: Random House-Vintage, 1984).
2. Joyce Mansour, Carré Blanc (Paris: Soleil noir, 1965). In the tollowing pages this text will be referred to as CB.
3. Robert Desnos, Corps et Bie (Paris: GaMimard, 1968). In the lollowing pages this text will be referred to as C & B.
4. Marie Claire Dumas, Robert Desnos ou I’exploration ites Uniites (Paris: Kiincksieck, 1980).
5. Pierre Reverdy, Nord-SuJ 13 (1918); Andre Breton in Les Viises coinniuniccints (Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1955).
6. In this, her poetry is more in the spirit of Andre Breton’s “L’Union Libre”.
7. I.fi. Matthews, Joyce Mansour (Amsterdant. Rodopi, 1985) My translation.
8. Paul Eluard, “La courbe de tes yeux” in Cupitule de hi dou U’ur, ed. Vera Laniels (London: Blackweil, 1985).
9. Robert Desnos, “La Place de i’Etoile” in Nouvelles Hebrides et autres textes 1922-1930, ed. Marie-Claire Dumas (Paris: Gallimard, 1978).
10. Andre Breton, “Du surrealisme et ses oeuvres vives” in Mainifestes du surrealisme (Paris: Gallimard, 1963).
11. Georges Bataille, “L’Histoire de I’oeil” in Oeuvres Completes 1922-1940. ed. Denis Hollier (Paris: Gallimard, 1970).
12. Arthur Rimbaud, “Aube” and “Illuminations” in Oeuvres, ed. Suzanne Bernard (Paris: Gamier, 1960) 284.
13. Andre Breton, Nadja (Paris: Gallimard, 1%5).
14. Rosalind Krauss, “Corpus Delicti” in L’Amour Fou: Photognipliy and Surrealism, eds. Rosalind Krauss and Jane Livingstone (New York: Abbeville Press, 1985).
15. I am indebted to Gwendolyn Wells ior suggesting this analogy to me.
16. Robert Desnos, La Liberté ou I’amour! suivi de Deuil pour Deuil (Paris: Gallimard, 19t)8) 47 & 58.
17. Stephane Mallarme, “Le vierge, le vivace et le bel aujourd’hui” in Poesies (Paris: Livres de poche, 1977)
EDIÇÃO COMEMORATIVA | CENTENÁRIO DO SURREALISMO 1919-2019
Artista convidada: John Welson (País de Gales, 1953
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20 ANOS O MUNDO CONOSCO
Número 133 | Maio de 2019
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