The Milk Bowl of Feathers: Essential Surrealist Writings
edited by Mary Ann Caws
New Directions, 2018; 128 pp
Reviewed by Zack Anderson
Emerging between the incomprehensible trauma of World War I and the creeping nationalism preceding World War II, the Surrealist project was inevitably a political one, arguing for a radical redistribution of reality and insisting on love as an act of resistance. “No, love is not dead in this heart and these eyes and this / mouth which announced the beginning of its burial,” writes French Surrealist and Résistance member Robert Desnos in the poem “No, Love Is Not Dead.” Exemplifying the political stakes of the Surrealist movement, Desnos died of typhoid fever in the Terezín concentration camp in 1945. Desnos’ poem appears in The Milk Bowl of Feathers, a new anthology of Surrealist writings that primarily represents European members of the movement. Though comparatively slim, this collection curates both canonical and underrepresented writers while emphasizing their collective commitment to the revolutionary Surrealist cause.
The Milk Bowl of Feathers is based on a 1940 New Directions anthology with a few additions. In Mary Ann Caws’ foreword, she emphasizes this anthology as a showcase for the political project of the Surrealists: “In a sense, its aims are still relevant: developing a flexible relation to the mind and to the world it confronts, and recognizing all the possibilities of the human condition, against everything that would confine it in a pessimistic point of view, that miserabilism against which André Breton struggled.” Caws, perhaps the best living authority on the Surrealists, also edited the influential Surrealist Painters and Poets anthology. The editorial triumph of The Milk Bowl of Feathers lies in its attempt to better represent the diversity within the Surrealist corpus. Although the representation in the anthology still skews toward men, women and nonbinary writers make up roughly a third of the artists collected here. Some of these texts cast new light on the relationships between these artists, such as Leona Delacourt’s “Drafts of Letters to Breton.”
Another notable inclusion is “The Invisible Adventure,” a text addressing the body’s mutability written by genderfluid photographer Claude Cahun and translated by Susan de Muth and Agnès Lhermitte. The text begins with a sketch of the photographer’s practice: “The lens tracks the eyes, the mouth, the wrinkles skin deep . . . the expression on the face is fierce, sometimes tragic. And then calm—a knowing calm, worked on, flashy.” This meditation on the photographic medium then seeps into an interrogation of selfhood: “Until I see everything clearly, I want to hunt myself down, struggle with myself. Who, feeling armed against her own self, be that with the vainest of words, would not do her very best if only to hit the void bang in the middle.”
I was especially pleased to discover Clara Cohen’s translation of “The Iron and the Rust,” by Michel Leiris. Leiris is best known for his hybrid ethnographic and autobiographical text Phantom Africa. “The Iron and the Rust” provides a glimpse into Leiris’ poetry, which reflects many of the thematic concerns shared with Leiris’ friend and collaborator Georges Bataille. Cohen’s translation captures the density of Leiris’ diction and imagery in lines like “the storm dogs yap in the straps” or “Let the sun be solid or very vague, charmed / vengeance is a harvested star in the sky.”
With its attention to underrepresented writers and its broad selection of texts, The Milk Bowl of Feathers is an excellent introductory collection, less comprehensive but more portable than other anthologies like the University of Chicago Press’ Surrealism Reader. It is perhaps most useful for those interested in exploring a range of Surrealist writing, although the inclusion of more obscure texts may appeal to more familiar readers as well. The Milk Bowl of Feathers may also serve some as a talisman against a threatening version of reality that defines the current political moment. Meret Oppenheim’s questions in her poem “If You Say the Right Word, I Can Sing” seem particularly urgent:
Who will take the madness from the trees?
Who does heaven give steamviolets to?
How does one downfall advise the next?