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Undying Unica

Unica Zürn
The Trumpets of Jericho
(Wakefield Press, 2015)

And the walls they did indeed come a-tumbling down…crashing earthwards from the start of this narration of a to-be-mother, very much not-wanting-to have this child with whom she lives at the beginning, in a tower with some bats and ravens, in a “gruesome inner union.”

Through her body swollen to anguish, a manchild swims, fighting for his life like a fish ashore and gasping in this very odd text. It comes from a book collection of Unica Zürn’s work called Das Weiße mit dem roten Punkt [The White with the Red Point], which was published posthumously in 1981. The publisher of this story collection, Atlas Press, should be given full credit as the source of all sorts of wonderfully avant-garde texts, including this far-out one, the only untranslated story in this collection until this moment. Try this from Atlas: 4 Dada Suicides: Selected Texts of Arthur Cravan, Jacques Rigaut, Julien Torma & Jacques Vaché (Anti-Classics of Dada). 1995 never had it so good.

 Unica Zürn was German, a kind of mad genius poet, novelist, and painter, who counted among the French surrealists because of her alliances with Hans Bellmer, and with Henri Michaux, whom she called “Man of Jasmine” in an eponymous novel. He brought her drawing materials when she was hospitalized, and, like Antonin Artaud, a patient of the celebrated psychoanalyst at St. Anne’s and Rodez, Gaston Ferdière. Not totally irrelevant, I think: when I was preparing to write on Artaud and Zürn together (for my sins, not theirs), I found that the New York Public Library’s edition of Ferdière’s letters had been, um, “revolved” (read: stolen). And since I had traveled in a taxi with the noted doctor to Cerisy-la-Salle in Normandy for an Artaud conference, I was greatly miffed. But what a compliment to them all…

Bodily things are much on Zürn’s mind—not just in her life (what a life!), but also, and in a major in-your-face way, in her drawings—and quite especially on the minds of those readers who first encountered her not quite entire, but just with her behind as it appeared on a surrealist publication, isolated from the rest, and all roped up and into, a pattern of being she much enjoyed, as she repeatedly said.

Everywhere in her drawings are eyes—within detached human faces, or within those of strangely appealing monsters, with snake-like figures waving about and tails and feet or claws. So much is about seeing, and the reader is sucked into the whole scene, in this story and elsewhere. A ghastly scene and bodily: the heart is terrified, the mouth is shrieking, the ravens who are her friends are picking at the meat in the tower she is imprisoned in, those horrid little red hands of that horrid baby are dissecting her interior chambers, and the wind is howling. How not? Here comes the ugliest child she has ever seen.

Her own!

That goes on for fourteen little pages, but we cannot really testify that the invective against childbirth is exceptional, certainly not in the surrealist world. Christina Svendsen speculates that perhaps this story had remained untranslated because of this very reason, the anti-childbirth thing. But let me bring into the tale the painter and writer Dorothea Tanning, whose writings and whose paintings against childbirth abounded, for example one fearful painting where the rather small heroines are ripping the skin off the stomachs of pregnant women turned into walls—the Yellow Wallpaper in a different guise. Those walls are screaming no less loudly, and the artist spared no pains in telling me how she felt about childbirth, in the moment when I was supposed to be writing her biography—a request that was soon abandoned, just as the “heroine” of this tale longs to abandon this creature.

But then, we are indeed speaking of a woman poet whose tales alternate between darkness and light, between dread and fairy-tale prose poetry. Directly after a tale of Tartars and blood and death comes a paragraph in which “a sea of flowers grows out of the dust of this life.” It is a whole sea of blue ibis blossoms that will reserve the “small, moist scent of summer” right under the hanged man, where an orphan takes refuge. That is close up: far off, in some distant sunny land by a seashore, “where yellow eggsand was mixed with sweet rock sugar” and the silk blue sky waves at a child.

Scarcely an unmixed delightful scene, for the narrator utters what we feel from the beginning: “how is it that I think about death so much violent death?” she “urges out of love”—that magic […] But then there is a voice murmuring in her ear like a swarm of bees. So this is, as always, the binary setup of surrealism, where nothing is unmixed. The forty-two-year-old mother resembles a crone, a rat is about to drink, her pain shrieks again, her angry heart is bleak, and she curses everything she once found holy.

Back to the eyes, so many of them, turning toward us—some lust for gold, some lust to kill, and eagle eyes stare […] Some eyes are violent, some are sad, and they proliferate in the writings as in the drawings. And here is the self-consciousness reappearing: “Are you thoroughly bored by my story? I promise you, I’m as bored as you are while I’m writing this.”

Yes indeed: and we know that the author lacks, as she says, “human, irony, these masterpieces of poetic art,” so what is the reader to do about these texts? In no way do I believe the refusal until now to translate this particular story has to do with shock over the horror at childbirth. No, I think it is about looking, and in that sense, this same story is as close to the seeing problem as any of Zürn’s have ever been. I have cared greatly about Zürn, especially since doing a catalogue for The Drawing Center, for her exhibition Dark Spring way back in 2009 (April 17 – July 23).

The bookends of this story—if I can mix such an image, and in surrealism, as we know, much if not all is possible—take off sort of together. After the horrendous and miraculous beginning birth, there is finally a birth-through-ear, and then some breezy evocation of the natural, balancing the terror of the beginning: “O Winds, thousand brothers, let me pass away in your breath.”


Mary Ann Caws

Mary Ann Caws is Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature, English, and French at the Graduate School of the City University of New York. Her many areas of interest in 20th-century avant-garde literature and art include Surrealism, poets René Char and André Breton, Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury group, and artists Robert Motherwell, Joseph Cornell, and Pablo Picasso. Conceptually, one of her primary themes has been the relationship between image and text.


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2015

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