A person can grow tired of explaining what surrealism is. So, I won’t. Let me simply say that the list of titles in print which follows is my modest means of illustrating the many ways in which surrealism has been present in this geography we call Canada. Surrealism has and continues to touch us, here and now, with its principal tenet: reality is elsewhere. That “elsewhere” is a place of freedom, of liberation of the self and, by extension, of the world.
Arcanum 17, by André Breton, English translation by Zack Rogow.
It goes without saying that notions like “nation state” are antithetical to surrealists. For all that, one of the principal works of historical surrealism was, in fact, inspired by and written in Canada, by André Breton, who, in the fall of 1944 travelled from New York, where he was exiled during WWII, to Québec’s Gaspésie. As is the case with many of the works by the principal theorist of surrealism, Arcanum 17 breaks through the fences of traditional literary categories. The Canadian edition of this extraordinary work was published by Coach House Press in 1994. The current edition of Zack Rogow’s masterful translation includes a foreword by Anna Balakian, first literary historian of surrealism in English. If you’re looking for an eminently readable introduction to surrealism in English, find Balakian’s Surrealism the Road to the Absolute, and read it!
The Least You Can Do Is Be Magnificent: Selected and New Writings, 1983-2016, by Steve Venright
Steve Venright is a surrealist through and through. A natural heir to such experimenters as Brion Gysin and William Burroughs, Venright pushes through the liminal and lands at the centre of those oneiric states long ago explored by surrealists like Robert Desnos. The record of these “states” is what matters here, as Venright so clearly demonstrates. All through textual and sound creations like Spiral Agitators, and the masterful Floors of Enduring Beauty and Other Fine Quality Realities, aphorism, prose, and verse genres flow one into the other. Getting to being in “the utterly Other” takes not just courage, but talent, which Venright has in spades.
The Eyelid, by S.D. Chrostowska
Relatedly, because oneiric, is S.D. Chrostowska’s novella The Eyelid, where dream is more one-directional, vacillating between constraint, its fall downward, and reverie, the desired state of its narrator. Unemployed and idle, he falls into reverie’s folds and follows a certain Chevauchet, the elusive representative of Onirica, “a foreign republic of dreams.” Together they enter a world suspiciously like ours, a dystopian place where sleep has been banned, where daydreaming may or may not act as the conduit to the marvellous freedom surrealists aim for. Written in flawless and elegant prose, this gem from Coach House Books to me reads like a stroll alongside today’s Paris surrealist group, of which Chrostowska is a bona fide member.
The Garden, a poem and an essay, by A.F. Moritz
Albert Moritz’s presence in surrealism is perhaps the least known aspect of his trajectory. Being a close follower of Moritz’s extensive oeuvre as a poet, translator, and critic, it is my opinion that his work is both informed and deeply steeped in the philosophy of surrealism and its antecedents. Both through literary genre breaking, and its focus on the political, The Garden a poem and an essay, is a cris de coeur against racial and social injustice, a call to the poetic as a means of transforming the world. As such, it more than exemplifies the surrealist attitude that animates Moritz. Further, his translations of the late surrealist poet and artist, Ludwig Zeller, and of Benjamin Péret, more than attest to Moritz’s commitment to the surrealist movement.
Rose and Thorn Selected Poems of Roland Giguère, translated by Donald Winkler
Roland Giguère was very young when he joined the postwar surrealist movement, first as a member of the Paris group, and after Breton’s passing in 1966, as an active participant in the PHASES movement. A dominant force and unique voice in the literary and artistic life of Quebec, Giguère excelled not just as a poet and visual artist, but as the founder in 1949 of the influential Editions Erta. Expertly translated by Donald Winkler, Rose and Thorn is the first and only comprehensive selection of Giguère’s poetry in English. The book is made all the more enjoyable, because Giguère’s art is included throughout.
The Headless Man, by Peter Dubé
He cannot speak, see, or hear, yet thanks to Peter Dubé’s gorgeous prose, we go along with the headless man as he senses his way through Montreal’s physical, emotional, often erotic geographies. Subversive because convulsive, the language and style developed by Dubé in this novella, furnishes its characters and the spaces they occupy with a rare beauty. As Moritz states in his endorsement, “Peter Dubé manages to make erotic experience real, offering it to everyone, shutting no one out.” Georges Bataille would have agreed.
The Book of Grief and Hamburgers, by Stuart Ross
Since, like, forever, it seems to me, Stuart Ross has championed surrealism in Canadian letters. Not just through his own writing, which renews itself with each new publication, but through his tireless work as the editor and publisher of surrealist poets. Of historical significance is his Surreal Estate 13 Canadian poets under the influence, published by the much-missed Mercury Press in 2004. In his Trillium Prize winning The Book of Grief and Hamburgers, Stuart Ross comes face to face with the irreparable grief of losing one’s closest, a pain so profound that, as the title suggests, only the things of daily life can be allowed to begin filling the abyssal emptiness.
Total Refusal, translated by Ray Ellenwood
Art historian Denis Reid called Refus global “the single most important social document in Quebec history and the most important aesthetic statement a Canadian has ever made.” The manifesto by Paul-Emile Borduas—“The Surrealists showed us the moral importance of non-preconceived acts,” is how he starts—and texts by Claude Gauvreau, Bruno Cormier, Françoise Sullivan and Fernand Leduc, are presented here as originally issued in 1948. Ray Ellenwood translated the whole, wrote the introduction, included short biographies of the manifesto’s signatories, and added reproductions of performances, exhibitions, and public acts by the Montreal Automatists.
Egregore A History of the Montréal Automatist Movement, by Ray Ellenwood
I consider Ray Ellenwood’s compendium about the Montreal Automatists one of the greatest books of cultural history ever published in Canada. The Automatists “began with experiments stimulated by French Surrealism and eventually arrived at a form of expression which was spontaneous and explosive…” Scholarly, yet eminently accessible, Ellenwood’s lucid prose weaves textual and pictorial documents into a rich tapestry, which serves to illustrate perfectly the transformation effected by this extraordinary group of artists, writers and performers on Quebec’s culture and society. Along with Total Refusal, a must-have.
In She Who Lies Above, Beatriz Hausner brings Hypatia of Alexandria, the fourth-century Byzantine mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher, to life. She does so through layered ventriloquism: publishing amorous correspondence from the feminist icon’s friend and former student, Synesius of Cyrene, and scribing Hypatia’s replies in turn.
These letters are “discovered” by Bettina Ungaro, a librarian and archivist by day and poet by night. She, in turn, collates the correspondence to build a vision of the couple’s relationship while writing a kind of postmodern critique of contemporary book and reading culture. These interjections both borrow from and juxtapose writing from ancient times, and, in doing so, explore the evolution of modern knowledge keeping.
The result is a rigorous, hyper-layered collection of poems that are elegiac and erotic; steeped in appreciation for a life of books and the technical and transcendent brilliance their authors can exhibit.
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