Friday, December 10, 2010

A Piqueray Dossier: More Belgian Surrealism!

So there I was, rooting around trying to put some order into the Augean stable that is my hard drive, when I ran across a little document called "A Piqueray Dossier" that I'd put together a year or two ago for an editor pal of mine who'd taken an interest in Belgian Surrealism.  Since I know the world is crying out for more information on the Belgian Surrealist poets of the mid-twentieth century — rare is the day my phone stops ringing with calls from Hollywood agents, Defense Department analysts, and representatives of major pharmaceutical corporations, begging for any scrap of information I might send their way — I'm posting it here.  Now get off my back!

A Piqueray Dossier

Gabriel and Marcel Piqueray were identical twins, born in Brussels in 1920.  Lovers of jazz and surrealism, they associated with key figures of the movement, including André Breton and René Magritte (with whom they held regular "surrealist working meetings" for many years), as well as with the musician Chet Baker and the composer Francis Poulenc.  In 1957 they became joint editors of the influential avant-garde journal Phantomas, whose contributors included Samuel Beckett, Roland Barthes, René Magritte, Kurt Schwitters, and Jorge Luis Borges, among many others.  They published a dozen books (listing "Gabriel and Marcel Piqueray" as authors — the Piqueray brothers did not believe in individual authorship), as well as numerous works in journals, and several works co-authored with Paul Colinet.  Gabriel Piqueray died in 1992, Marcel in 1997.  Au-Delà Des Gestes et Autres Textes, a 250 page selection of their work, was issued by Editions Labor in 1993, and sound recordings of their work were released on the Sub Rosa label in the collection Le Groupe Surrealiste Revolutionnaire (Vol 3).
Here’s some general background on Belgian surrealism from a 2001 article called “The Secret History of Belgian Surrealism” by Michel Delville, a sharp-eyed and eclectic critic (his book The American Prose Poem is my favorite treatment of the topic, and he’s done interesting work on — get this — Captain Beefheart):

Correspondance, the first Belgian Surrealist magazine, was founded by Paul Nougé, Camille Goemans and Marcel Lecomte in 1924, the same year as Breton’s First Surrealist Manifesto.  Since that time, Belgian poetry has remained one the European avant-garde’s best-kept secrets.  The names of Nougé, Chavée and Dumont are conspicuously absent from most anthologies and literary histories, and Belgian surrealism is generally considered as a non-literary phenomenon and almost systematically confined to the paintings of René Magritte and Paul Delvaux.  Unlike many other Belgian writers who moved to Paris to make a career (the examples of Georges Simenon, Henri Michaux, Pierre Alechinsky and many others come to mind) most Belgian surrealists published their work in their home country, and this may explain their lack of recognition outside a small circle of connoisseurs and specialists.  Perhaps it is the sense of being relegated to the margins of francophone culture that accounts, at least in part, for the radical, convulsive spirit that runs through the history of the Belgian counterculture, from proto-Dada poet Clément Pansaers to Noël Godin, the now world-famous entarteur who recently hit Bill Gates with a cream pie...

And here’s a note from the critic Philippe Dewolf (crudely translated by the present writer) on the nature of the Piqueray’s joint authorship and collective sensibility:

It has been noted that their sensibilities and their characters are essentially different. On occasion, of course, a few words or lines by one of them appear in the other's text, but not often. Usually, only the signature is in common. As Marcel Piqueray explained in 1944, their names had been and would remain inseparable: “one signature, one station signal, as they say on radio; one overall station signal for the Piquerist state of mind.” Five concerns characterize this state of mind: the quotidian, angst, tenderness, the fantastic, and humor.

So you get the general idea: there’s a well-developed surrealist scene in Belgium, in contact with, but blessedly un-beholden to, André Breton’s scene in Paris.  The Piqueray brothers, working together, are at the heart of this, in part due to their editorship of Phantomas.
            Michel Delville stresses the kind of thick-fingered, deliberately clumsy, strangely comic element of les frères Piqueray, but in truth, this is only really one side of their work, as Dewolf’s statement about their main concerns implies.  Much of their work is a little understated.  Consider these three prose poems:

Hierarchy: A Night
“Can you see anything?” shouted Danour.  He raised the faint and flickering lantern to his face.  His squinting features showed his worry.
“I think this road winds on down the mountain,” Lora answered. “Too bad it’s so dark tonight. No time to be stuck on the summit, with all this wind – it’s not going to be comfortable.”
Danour laughed. “To hell with comfort” he said. “The important thing is for us to get down to the valley.” The words had hardly left his mouth when he stubbed his toe against a human body. It moved. A voice spoke.
“I don’t want to butt in here, but let me tell you this: you’d better not try to go down there.”  The speaker struggled to sit up, rubbing the sleep from his eyes.
Danour brought his lantern over to have a look at this unexpected dispenser of wisdom. It was a man, about forty, with a big moustache and a bowler hat. As the man stood up he went on explaining: “You see,” he said, “at first the summit was covered with lost couples and young families. The brave ones, though, were able to find their way down into the valley. The rest followed.  By now they’ve worked out a system: every family’s got its place, packed in side by side from the top on down. You and the missus here will be the final link – you can settle down right here.”
“Now, he added, “let me get some sleep.  I’m really tired. Good night.”
Down in the valley, it sounded like someone got a foot tangled up in the strings of a harp, then became overly-apologetic, making careful and elaborate excuses.

The Raft Of The Medusa
for Geneviève, for Nathalie, for Jacques

I speak of the folding, Y-shaped cane, a tool often used by hunters and horse-racing regulars – the former to make their aim more deadly, the latter as a portable, revolving chair, to follow more easily the movements of their circling horses.
They say that Formality, everywhere, uses his all the time, being so stunned and so breathless at the merest suggestion of the chanciness of life.


Having scaled the wall, they leapt over the bristling shards of broken glass, hoping to land softly in the slop-pile left over from last year’s meager scrapings.
As they fell endlessly, they came to the conclusion that they must have picked the wrong wall. Growing used to the void, they started to think of other things.

The first of them is almost a Kafka parable.  So’s the third, come to think of it.  There’s a kind of social satire that bleeds off into metaphysical satire.  I guess that’s in the second one, too.
            Sometimes the prose poems seem more concerned with defamiliarization, though.  The image in this next one (if not the treatment of the image) always seems kind of William Carlos Williams-ish to me:

Hidden Light

This stately, low-wheeled carriage loaded with bright yellow boards never ceases to amaze people when they see it coming around the corner of the deserted street, pushed by a man in an apron.
It is such a strange vehicle, too majestic for this kind of cargo, such an unexpected and improvised means of transport – but somehow you know you've seen it before, though you can’t remember where. You’re so sure of this that you’re fixated by the sight of it, trivial as can be, as it rolls silently down the middle of the quiet street, through the middle of neighborhoods of accumulated memories through which we must walk, to understand.

They’ve got a bunch of poems that do something similar with the image of a beautiful woman, whose presence somehow charges the surrounding atmosphere with newness, beauty, and all that.  But I never thought of those prose poems as among the Piquerays’ best work.  Well, there’s this one, a sort of variant on the type I’ve just described.  I think it’s quite good, although a lot hangs on the end line:

Delerium’s Kingdom

In the distant, snow-choked valley sits the blonde, entirely naked, her hands clutching her knees tightly to her chest.
A city-suited man stands before her, his flapping scarf masking his face as he holds his arms outspread, as if to embrace her.
Little by little, first her legs, then her naked torso, and at last even her forehead and her fingers begin to blush with a glowing red. It is achingly beautiful: a color born of crackling woodfires.
For the man, now, there is nothing but the translucent nakedness of the woman, her closed eyes inventing the sky.
Snow is an aristocrat.

And speaking of aristocrats — some of the prose poems tell tales set in a strange, faux medieval or fairy-tale world (one of the favorite terrains of the surrealists).  Here’s one:

The Affective Distance Game

"Vendôme..." sighed the Marquise, leaning from the battlements of her turret.
"My jewel!" the Duke cried from the foot of the tower. He pulled a few ivy leaves from the wall and pressed them against his lips, tasting their bitterness. Faint voices came to them from far off in the splendid summer evening.
Some said, "Limousin! Golden Age! Rocamadour!" Others called out gently, "The Princes of the Blood! Saint-Amant-Roche-Savine! Ribérac!" Still others asked, “Blois? Marie-Adelaïde? Milady?”
"No, no, this is awful!" cried the Marquise, in answer. A great commotion was heard from up above. Then, suddenly, nothing.
Thinking this must be some kind of a joke, the Duke raised his eyes toward the turret’s battlements, and took a few impatient steps toward the moat. He laughed heartily:
"Bridgit! – What’s she up to? Oh, she's in for it now!”
But still silence reigned.
From the distant woods he could hear the faint sound of young ladies dancing.  Then came new voices, with an echo like the omen of a terrible sorrow.
It was a group of lords, rounding the bend with a little band of armed men. They bore the corpse of a young man.
Seeing this, the Duke turned abruptly back to face the castle, its battlements now shining violently in the moonlight.
“He played the game,” the armed men explained, “And fell dead the moment the Marquise sobbed out her last answer.”
But the Duke was no longer listening. He had stepped lightly to one side. “Good God,” he murmured, “I could have sworn they didn’t love each other that much…"
Striding up to the tower, he stepped on a square of blue silk, spotted with a little blood: it was a woman's handkerchief. He quickened his pace.
Arriving at the summit of the turret, he found all the players gathered there. He went straight to the little knot of princesses.  In their arms they held the corpse of the Marquise, her dead face bathed in the purest light.

Much of the Piquerays’ work that appeared in Phantomas involved a kind of Pessoa-like creation of different poetic personae — a great game for editors to play.  This is where a lot of the absurdism and oddball humor comes into play.  Some of this is scatalogical, some straight-up goofy.  This, I’m sure, is what an anonymous reference book writer had in mind when he wrote:

If there is a quality specific to Franco-Belgian literature, it is a corrosive humor raised to its highest point by the surrealists. It is also the attribute of Phantomas, a literary and pictorial review emphasizing the ludic and enlivened by the “Sept types en or” (Seven Golden Guys): Paul Bourgoignie, François Jacqmin, Joseph Noiret, Pierre Puttemans, Theodore Koenig, and Marcel and Gabriel Piqueray. Phantomas is perhaps the best illustration of this Belgique sauvage, which contrasts a little too easily with the official Belgium.

When I was thinking about what might go into your magazine, I thought of this strand of their work.  In fact, it might go into the summer issue, with the traditionally lighter, funnier, stuff.  I worry, though: it’s weird stuff, and not weird in any of the ways we’ve come to expect (if we expect it, is it really weird?  Maybe such stuff is just pseudo-weird...).  Then again, it isn’t as weird as mIEKEL aND (whose weirdness, I should add, is entirely laudable).

            Anyway, here’s a series that I think represents this side of l’oeuvre Piqueray, a group of poems called “The Sproks,” presented as written by one Guy Pezasse, an alter-ego of the Piqueray brothers:

The Sproks

Tale of an Experiment

He gets a chance
The man
Tears a head of lettuce
Into thousands pieces
And stuffs them into a very strong
Cup of filtered coffee.
And then
He takes
What remains of the lettuce
And dumps it
Into a vat,
Dripping with coffee.

Example of an Activity

This man’s uncle
Sometimes carries
An immense mattress
On his head.
And he staggers
With this mattress
From the top of the stairs
To the coal bin,
Where he lays it down
And throws himself on it
Pumping legs in the air
In excitement.

An Action Among Others

The same uncle
Who lives on the seventh floor
In the center of town
Is sometimes
In the habit of filling,
At dawn,
A large pan
With strong black coffee
And balancing it
On the window sill
With the help of his nephew;
Then sending it
Careening into the street,
Not giving a fuck
About it.

Tale of Another Action

It is this same gentleman
Who, with the help of his uncle,
Fills an immense cast-iron
With gooseberry jam.
When they’ve done this,
The gentleman and his uncle
Throw handfuls of jelly
At each other’s faces
For fun.

An Activity Among Others

What also happens
Is that the gentleman,
His uncle
And his nephew
Tear many heads of lettuce
into thousands of pieces
Then pour strong coffee
On them,
In a vacant lot
On a slope,
Coal heaps
And piles of shattered windowpanes
At the bottom of the slope.
They speed down the slope
On their bicycles
Without braking,
Their legs spread wide,
Feet held away from the pedals;
And then,
At the bottom of this slope,
The tires make a crackling noise
In the coal
And a farting noise
In the shattered windowpanes.
Then the gentleman,
His uncle
And his nephew
Jump off
Their bikes
And pelt each other
With old heads of lettuce,
Very strong coffee,
And shattered windowpanes
Until they take up shovels
While leaping
On mattresses
Filled of plaster
And pumping
Their legs in the air
In the gooseberry jelly
Of their excitement.

Well!  It’s different from the more conventionally beautiful, evocative prose poetry, for sure.  I think that’s part of the point, to de sacralize and de-aestheticize poetry (“The Sproks” is a manifestation of that particular page of the Dadaist-Surrealist team’s playbook).  I always think of the series as having a kind of strange, Buster Keaton-y slapstick, combined with a satire of bourgeois propriety, and even a satire of scientific method.  Michel Delville has this to say about “The Sproks”:

To me, the “Sproks” poems have always resembled a cross between Satie, Beckett, Buñuel, and Laurel and Hardy. The proximity of food, garbage and shit in the poetry of the Piqueray Brothers points to a poetics that does not shy away from describing fantasies of infantile regression and puts them to the service of a popular art that delights in imagining how the most banal situations can degenerate into absurdist extremes. Such manifestations of the eccentric, the repellent and the abject create a space where the shock aesthetics of the revolutionary avant-garde meets the verbal games of the poète-farceur, who considers poetry as a form of linguistic slapstick comedy. For all its apparent timelessness and impersonality, the poetry of the Piqueray Brothers remains rooted in their cultural and social background, and one suspects that many of the Non Inhibited Poems were inspired by the chink of beer bottles, the smell of fried sausages and the sight of people pissing in the streets on their way back from the local café. As Louis Scutenaire once put it, in Belgium “on boit de la bière et on mange de la viande / Et tout le monde est une bande d’abrutis” (“we drink beer and we eat meat / And we’re all just a bunch of morons”).

So there you go: a guided tour through the Piqueray world.  I find them delightful, and think of them as a real find (as far as I know their work doesn’t exist in English except in the translations Jean-Luc Garneau and I have put together).