Sunday, October 25, 2009

Documentary surrealism: Matt Jasper's _Moth Moon_

I'm reading "Surrealism" (from Rothenberg and Joris's vol. 1) for Wednesday's Form & Theory of Poetry class. Andre Breton is telling me, from the echo chamber of 1924, that he believes "in the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality, if one may so speak" (469). This surreality will present "the actual functioning of thought . . . in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern" (468). The difficulties involved in arriving at the "actual functioning of thought" can be seen in the fact that many Surrealist exercises were collaborative, rather than singular, communal rather than solitary. The exquisite corpses I ask my students to write end by approximating Ashbery's solitary writing practice, perhaps, but even Ashbery was schooled on Surrealist techniques in the early 1960s. The "Language Events" recorded in the anthology depend upon pairs of writers composing separately, then "taping" together their questions and answers. In that sense, as in many of the Surrealist exercises, two very ordinary statements, when taped together, make for one "marvelous" (Breton's word) event. The exchange between Benjamin Peret and Andre Breton goes as follows:

If orchids grew in the palm of my hand
masseurs would have plenty of work.

or, this between Yves Tanguy and Andre Breton:

When children slap their father's face
all young men will have white hair.

In neither case is there anything terribly strange about either half of the pseudo-logical statement. Even where one half of the statement is dream-like, "When shoestrings grow in the workers' gardens," for example, the syntax is normative, the image possible to see, the world still ordered in its self-estrangement.

When I began to write about my mother's dementia, I noticed that what she said was often sur-real in this way. She would take two unrelated true statements and splice them together to create what was to me a fiction--to her a true event. She would confuse time periods and run them together in grammatical sentences, which asserted that they were the same. She would confuse cause and effect, putting the latter before the former and creating an effect-cause effect. Much of the confusion I felt as her audience (daughter!) was in the fact I understood the elements of her conversation to be elements she shared with me. Even when her conversation became more strange, as when she asserted that she was in Afghanistan and needed a ride to Wooster, Ohio, I could infer that she had heard the word "Afghanistan" on the news and remembered that her mother and brother had lived and died in Wooster, Ohio. (Something similar happens when Ian Lind visits his dad on O`ahu and is told that he has been driving cars on Maui. Ian's occasional posts on his father's dementia are lovingly documented.)

To say that dementia is a surreal condition is probably not to say anything anyone doubts who has confronted a relative or friend with Alzheimer's disease. More interesting, on a literary level, is the way in which writing about dementia creates a hybrid form, documentary surrealism. If documentary poetry combines the strengths of historical writing, journalism, collage, and the lyric, then documentary surrealism opens up the field to the ways in which the imagination is actualized by mental illness or other extreme states (such as the post-traumatic syndrome Andre Breton dealt with during WWI when he treated soldiers off the battlefield).

Matt Jasper's book of poems, Moth Moon, owes a lot to what Pagan Kennedy terms "every surrealist who ever leashed a lobster," in one blurb. But the opening sequence of poems, based on the poet's experiences in a home for geriatric schizophrenics, has less to do with performing the imagination's oddities (walking lobsters) but with true mental states, recorded straightforwardly. The poet is not imagining anything; he is taking down dictation from those whose minds do not separate the real from the dream-state. Hence, in the title poem, he shows us a man who wears his hair away on the pillow saying "no," and a woman I don't think I shall soon forget:

A woman who suffers from Dutch elm disease,
who speaks to her hands as they turn to dried leaves
outside the window--
her hands covering the ground. (11)

Or, in "Anastasia, Purdy Group Home":

At nine in the morning I try to wake you.
I say your name, I rock you back and forth.
You open one eye
and say, "what you touching my hip bone for,
you going to make soup?" (10)

Or David D. who was arrested for "pounding nails into the yellow line on a busy city street." Or the woman in "The Tip of the Iceberg," who contemplates murdering the poet who says, "I've had mobsters tell me everything. / I mean everything" (37)

What to make of this conjunction of documentation and surrealism? Certainly it puts the focus on something other than imagination, other than aesthetics (though Breton said he didn't care about them, he surely did), other than "systematic displacement" (466). What to a surrealist is "displaced" is to a documentary writer (and his or her subject) a fact. It may not be a "true fact," but by the same token, it cannot be doubted.


Matt Jasper said...

I never thought of myself as a practitioner of documentary surrealism, yet that’s a better term than most for what I’m up to. The resolution of dream and reality into something absolute usually came to me just as guessed: “The poet is not imagining anything; he is taking down dictation from those whose minds do not separate the real from the dream-state.”
The vision required is simply one that is willing to initially or even permanently accept on some level the absolute truth of believed and performed “delusion” without diminishing it by labeling it, seeing it as part of a diagnosis, a thing to be corrected. I really believed in the validity of some oddly postulated worlds and the belief I lent them helped them become even more real. Some of the great case studies by Freud, Luria, Sacks etc. are best informed by a first step of pure, self-forgetful watching that borders on the boundary loss one might get when wading into something like a phenomenological approach.
I also applied this approach (perhaps the only one I had amidst pressures that stripped me of other resources) to myself when describing my mental state to a friend in a letter that I later titled and published as a prose poem called DIVINING:

God finally destroys the devil and accidentally disappears. I steal the bread of understanding and cast it to the duck pond. I have done what is good until an old and wise mallard looks me coldly in the eye, whispers that I have caused overpopulation, eventual starvation. It occurs to me that I give to charity only so calf-eyed children can continue to lead quiet lives.
The urge to go on a three state killing spree. Or help an old lady to cross the street. The realization that any action has an equal and opposite reaction, that to do any one thing is to kill the other. Parts of my body crawl away and are never seen again. I win friends. Their limbs fold back into a tree that leaves no seed. A tree that begs me to eat its red fruit. A tree that tells me the road to hell is paved with ordinary asphalt.

Surreality is so radically broken down into the phenomenological world of objects and sense that it can describe worlds beyond reason. From apocalypse to madness to war to the world’s growing complexity, it can have the sort of automatic ". . . actual functioning of thought . . . in the absence of any control exercised by reason. . . .“
I like to think of the actual functioning of thought as “form” —which pervades everything yet in its pure and/or perceptible state is as elusive as it is blinding.

susan said...

"pure self-forgetful observation"--that's exactly it, without judgment or the foisting of oneself onto what is perceived. Yes.

Lisse Hooker said...

Good Lord Matt, you're such an intellectual! Just discovered your writing & am really enjoying it. I'm now an artist living Oakland, CA. Remember Mayfield?

Matt Jasper said...

Hi Lisse-- thanks so much for the encouraging comment. I am a bit swamped by work and family and a care taking situation so have had little time for writing or reading. I get to make paper dolls with my 3 & 4 year-olds so it's not all that bad yet such encouragement Just might help me not keep on forgetting to pick up a pen. I'd love to see some of your art. Feel free to art spam me at: