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"Englishing" Surrealist Joyce Mansour

Egyptian, French, Jewish, Parisian, Cairene, and British by birth, francophone poet Joyce Mansour (1928-1986) negotiated multiple identities to construct her deservedly legendary status as an outstanding lyricist of the orgasmic, the bizarre, the erotic, the vituperative, and the feminine.

Even among fellow post-World War II “official” Surrealists (a majority-male cohort certified by dictatorial leader André Breton) Mansour remains singular for her unexpurgated, disturbing, and brazen treatment of outrageous themes.

In this respect, one might even call Mansour a proto-punk, or punk-adjacent, artist. This is not as strange as it might sound. Mansour was actively writing, after all, in the late 1970s, breathing the same cultural air as punk music-makers (think of the Sex Pistols or Circle Jerks) emerging at the time. Punk and Surrealism share a rage for shock.

Breton’s movement was essentially a larger, more nuanced, popular outgrowth of Dada. Surrealism’s most consequential ancestor, Dada was, at its core, an explosive artistic response to the state, military, economic, and social powers Dada artists blamed for the wholesale slaughter of 20 million people (half of them civilians) during the First World War. Dadaists’ confounding artwork was unprecedented in its unruly denunciation of capital, logic, genre, and public morality.

Dada poets such as Emmy Hennings and Hugo Ball exemplified the movement with their notoriously confrontational performances; often hurling insults, and sometimes projectiles, at audiences. Many of these artists, as well as those in the audience, were fascinated by such deliberate acts of public chaos; enthusiastically shouting and stomping their feet during oftentimes sold-out shows. No small number, it was reported, came back carrying rotten food to toss at the stage.

And yet even Dada’s outrageous tactics pale in comparison with Mansour’s in-your-face provocations and wild expletives. This is particularly the case when you consider her place among other female poets; startingly more flamboyant and risqué than most of whom I am aware (even when set side-by-side with those who write openly and candidly about sexuality and the erotic.)

Mansour bravely wrestled with topics still generally considered to be out-of-bounds for male authors—much less female ones. As C. Francis Fisher has noted, “[Mansour’s] strange and ravenous work introduces us to a different type of Surrealism, one without the self-assured masculine voice that dominated the movement.”

However, in Mansour’s inspired, surgical hands, her oftentimes outrageous poems do more than simply shock. The poet’s custom-built directness, the product of a refined artifice, was intended to startle her readers awake; offering, as the poems do, novel ways to approach disturbing (and often disturbingly common) ingredients of dream- and daydream-life: non-volitional oneiric materials such as forbidden desires, illicit actions, dark terrors, and uncanny exultations.

Mansour, to her great credit, renders such supposed ‘unspeakables’ eminently speakable, in all their thorny-seeming illogic. As a poet, Mansour appears to greet as equals, with characteristic, unflinching deadpan, her classically bawdy French literary ancestors: scabrous troubadour François Villon (b. c.1431–d. after 1463), and copious humorist François Rabelais (b. 1483–1494, d. 1553), to name just a few.

Her uninhibited poems may also be read, perhaps more fruitfully, alongside Baudelaire—composer of miniature opium fugues; or Rimbaud—spurter of indelible spitfire denunciations. These now-canonical poets cast long shadows over Mansour’s work; and yet, at the same time, we can clearly see her battling, and ultimately transfiguring, these and other literary predecessors.

Fisher’s Joyce Mansour, In the Glittering Maw: Selected Poems, out this month by World Poetry Press, collects her beguiling reinventions of Mansour’s later poems (written mostly in Paris, between the late 1950s and early 1980s.) Not simply translations from the original French, Fisher’s “cover versions”; high-fidelity transmissions of their originals are, in their own right, bold new poems written in a distinctive American vernacular.

Fisher’s renderings—as presented in this beautifully designed, compulsively readable volume—are a welcome gift for anglophone readers.

Consider, for example, Fisher’s fresh version of Mansour’s longer lyric, “Desire for Endless Desire.” In this piece, Mansour paints Notre Dame cathedral as a disillusioned veteran sex worker lying prone, knees bent and open wide.

Fisher “Englishes” the passage this way:

I know that under the bridge
Your crazy eyes have drowned
Notre Dame parts her knowing gothic thighs
More powerful and more proud
Than scaffolds and nightshades


Here, Mansour’s speaker adopts a canny, derisive tone, slighting as “crazy” her addressee’s eyes; while at the same time, she appears to call intimately after this other who, wielding terrible magic, somehow has sunk the Petit Pont to the bottom of the Seine.

Stranger still, per the poem’s swift juxtapositions, Notre Dame’s metaphoric outspread thighs (which rhyme, visually, with the cathedral’s real-world twin towers) are figured, hauntingly, as having come to rest beneath the poem’s wrecked bridge.

A subterranean Notre Dame, then, resonates as a fatal complex, exerting, we are told, greater potency and hubris than the (vertically rising) “scaffolds” or (horizontally spreading) “nightshades.” These “scaffolds” summon the horrifying history of gruesome public executions staged in the cathedral’s forecourt, as well as the ghastly “night[-]shades,” they might have unleashed.

More, the standout word “nightshade” recalls toxic varieties of the plant genus Nightshade, which, over the years, certain Parisian revolutionaries and reactionaries used to take their own lives, in desperate attempts to avoid even worse fates. For us today, the word “scaffolds” also suggests, irresistibly, those carapaces erected, after the devastating fire of 2019, to resurrect the world-renowned landmark.

While for Mansour, “gothic” certainly referred to French Revolution-era horror novels, such as Matthew Gregory Lewis’ The Monk, for us, “gothic” brings to mind contemporary “goth” subcultures popularized, since 1978, by The Cure’s Robert Smith. In these, and many other ways, Fisher’s translations, while they are historically grounded, easily open up to contemporary reinterpretation.

This April I had the good fortune to meet both in-person and over Zoom with C. Francis Fisher. During a wide-ranging conversation we spoke about the excavation of dream logics, whether poetic music can survive translation, Mansour’s little-known political views, and her potential relevance, as a Jewish poet, to current events.

Chris Hosea: You’ve mentioned that Joyce Mansour has become a familiar spirit.

C. Francis Fisher: Having translated Mansour, I feel she now lives in my mind, like she’s become one of the voices I hear alongside those of friends and family. I definitely don’t feel finished with, or frustrated by her, at all.

Reading through Mansour’s later poetry, choosing which poems to work on, I sometimes said to myself, “I wish I’d written that.” Yet translation is such a rush, because I do get to write her poems, in a real way. I hope to continue “writing with her,” by working on her short stories.

CH: As a translator, how do you negotiate Mansour’s fragmented, and, at times, apparently illogical flow?

CFF: I think, in order to render Mansour’s poems anew, I have to piece together her ‘logics,’ in a text that tries to cover them up. What I mean by this is as the translator I need to understand the linkages, how she moves from image to image, while the reader should experience this in the same way someone encountering the French would: as a surprising cascade of seemingly unconnected images.

For example, she has a poem called “The Chameleon’s Tongue,” in which she speaks of her “weakness for tidal currents”. At first, I didn’t understand the metaphor’s relevance, but then there came a lot of blood imagery, and it became clearer that this weakness for tidal currents had to do with the experience of menstruation, and its relationship to the moon tugging on the tides.

CH: Tell me more about Mansour’s engagement with the feminine.

CFF: Mansour was not an avowed feminist. She was asked to write a piece about feminism for a magazine she said, legend goes: “Feminism, what’s that?”

The English-speaking world is now developing so much interest in Mansour. I think one reason for this attention is the space that she opens for women. She shows women can be just as perverse as men, just as violent in their desires. This reception is exciting to me because it signals that we might be tiring of a sort of second-wave, women can have it all, girl-boss version of feminism.

Today, reading Mansour’s poems we see something really radical. Here is a woman claiming her own desires so courageously. I certainly read her work as feminist texts. I think it’s important to remember that the politics of a text are not the same as the politics of the writer.

CH: Can translations truly convey an original poem’s sound effects? I’m skeptical.

CFF: I think there’s a false dichotomy between content and other forms of meaning-making in poetry, including sound. If there’s a really important ‘O’-sound in a poem, I might depart from a more literal translation to replicate that sonic pattern in English, because in some cases that
music is more important.

With Mansour, I’m kind of lucky, in that respect. Because, formally, meter and rhyme—those aren’t really her interests. But I did find, nonetheless, that there were always times when I had to make a decision, to some degree, between maintaining sense or maintaining sound.

CH: What can be ‘lost in translation’?

CFF: There’s a lot of anxiety around translations. Anxiety around the idea that they’re incomplete. You’re missing out on things in the original. To some extent there’s no way around this. Readers are going to miss out on details that exist in the French. At the same time, there are things you can do in English that you can't do in French.


I often think of a famous Salman Rushdie quote. It’s a cliché to say so much is ‘lost in translation.’ To which Rushdie replies with something like: “But I cling obstinately to the idea that things also can be found.”

CH: Do you ever worry about misrepresenting Mansour?

CFF: You know, as translators, we’re often worried about the role that’s often foisted on us—of being seen as ambassadors for writers who are gone, or underrepresented. A lot of anxiety comes with that.

I was at a panel on translation at AWP [the Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference], two years ago now. And one of the panelists, I think it was Sawako Nakayasu, said something that has stuck with me. She said that, in translation, you’re never doing any damage to the original. The original will always be out there. If somebody wants to learn French, they can read Mansour in the original. That way of thinking has made me a more confident translator.

CH: Why do you think Mansour chooses to put explicit sexual terms into her poems?

CFF: Mansour uses a lot of shocking imagery. But I think we have to ask, ‘Why shock?’ And there are reasons. The intended effect of surprise or disgust has an important purpose: to pull the reader out of the everyday, and reanimate the experience of life itself.

CH: You, courageously in my opinion, don’t hold back when translating Mansour’s expletives. What’s it like, on your current book tour, to read these uncensored versions to live audiences?

CFF: The beauty of being a translator, of course, is that, when I read publicly from this book, I don’t have to claim the sexuality as my own. I can blame the directness on Mansour. I can say it's not me, you know, I’m just a vessel for somebody else’s imagination. I think that takes away some of the some of the anxiety around how explicit she can be.


At the same time, obviously there’s something about Mansour’s wild language that resonates with me enough to want to translate it. But sometimes it’s nice to hide behind the role of the translator. [Laughter.]

CH: Do you think Surrealism is politically relevant now?

CFF: I’m really interested in Surrealism as a project that’s happening right now, in our shared moment. Mansour’s is a Surrealism that's deeply invested in the world—more, maybe, than in the dream space. Many current poets are, of course, still charting the uncanniness of the real. Jackie Wang is one example: think of her reading at the Grolier Poetry Bookstore that we both went to this month.

Surrealism emerges in the interval between the two World Wars. The movement is one reaction to a fascist political moment. Right now, we might be in a similar moment. We’re certainly seeing reinvestment, and reimagining, of anti-fascist actions. Surrealism often gives us language for imagining a different world. This is deeply political.

CH: Where did Mansour stand, politically?

CFF: Not much is known about Mansour’s own political beliefs. She wasn’t a diarist. There are letters, but they've never been published.


We can imagine, but not know for sure, that she may have been a leftist, because André Breton, and so many other surrealists, were socialists who became communists. There are poems, too, that signal this such as “Inexhaustive Inventory of the Indecent or Medusa’s Nose” which has the line about the obscenity of war and torture, and a favorite of mine: “Indecent the indifferents, the yes-men, the Stalinists.” And Breton never excommunicated her, as he did so many others who were at one time aligned with his version of “official” Surrealism.

CH: What do you imagine Mansour might say about the current crisis in Israel and Gaza?

CFF: I can’t know what she would think about the ongoing war. Something that has been useful to me is considering Mansour’s liminality—a Syrian Jew who grew up in Cairo.


How can considering the way in which Jews lived for thousands of years help us reach a different way of thinking about Jewish belonging and community? In what ways might these histories challenge the Zionist project?

CH: You are a remarkable poet yourself. Has Mansour influenced your poems?

CFF: In my own poetry, Mansour has given me license. She’s helped me feel, given me permission to write poems without narrative or plot. That’s been a big shift, and I’m grateful to her.

Chris Hosea was educated at Harvard College and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst MFA for Poets and Writers. Put Your Hands In, his first poetry collection, was selected for publication by John Ashbery, who awarded Hosea the 2013 Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets. Hosea’s second full-length poetry book is Double Zero (Prelude Books, 2016), which received several awards, and was proclaimed, by The Brooklyn Rail, “a statement for our generation.”  Hosea’s artwork has been shown in group exhibitions—and, for a collaboration with Oakland, CA artist Kim Bennett, a full-gallery show at Transmitter (Bushwick Brooklyn). Hosea lives in greater Boston, where he co-leads a weekly workshop for patients at McLean Hospital and their families, teaches poetry, and works professionally as a communications writer and advisor for non-profit, corporate, and art-world clients. An “artist-as-curator,” Hosea also organizes and participates in performances and art shows.

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