Joyce Mansour and Variation

Midway through my two-hour browse through both locations of Commonwealth Books in Boston, “downstairs” and “upstairs and around the block,” I realized that my yearning was more than the simple reader’s yearning– I wanted to fall into love– new love, to match the new green of young willow leaves. A moment after this recognition, I opened a book and read this:

“The man left on the roads of insomnia
With a tongue in each eye and a leg on his shoulder
And the song of swallows
To guide him.”

I did not fall in love with Joyce Mansour but I recognized the dangerous perpexity, the soul-cutting as invocation to ego-death, the mayhem that is the train of tenderness, the wanting of what I wanted. I can’t say that finding her poems was better than love, nor a replacement, but there was enough parallelism to get me by– an uneasy compromise she would accept.

Mansour was one of the few women associated with the surrealists and little known to English speakers. Translated by poet and critic Serge Gavronsky, the volume drew me in and out my wallet.

Feeling pleased and talky and having petted the delightful orange animal that prides around the floor stacks, I mentioned to the friendly bookseller that while I loved Black Widow Press’s series of surrealist poetry (this is my fourth volume, joining Eluard, Char, and Queneau) I was not fond of the thematic cover design: alternating red and black triangles interrupted but a photograph, usually by Man Ray, with the author’s name and title in a large bold sans serif font.

The bookseller turned out to be Joe Phillips, publisher of Black Widow Press, and designer of the covers. He was happy I was buying the book and not too offended that I had dissed his book jacket, but boy was I embarrassed, and boy did I high-tail it out of there as soon as I could rather than make a friend.

That night I looked for a poem for A, but was unhappy with the translation of the one I wanted to send. I made some changes but in the end remained displeased. Yesterday morning I rewrote it freely.

I’ve snatched the goldenrod warbler
that vivifies the devil’s sex
it will instruct me in the seduction of
men, stags, and angels aglide on double wings
it will despoil my thirst, my shirts, and my illusions
before it goes dormant,
but me, my sleep goes stepping across the steeples
murmuring, gesticulating, and making love violently
avec les chats.*

Joyce Mansour (trans. by Wm Emery)

*with cats. It just sounds so much more casual and off-handed in the original, a bored slide of the hand and a long exhale from a Gauloises.

A smart and passionate if terribly hipster appreciation of Mansour can be found here.

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