Saturday, March 31, 2012

"Something Wrong": Women Who Crash

First edition, 1928

 (Notes on Breton's Nadja)                   

Nadja. The book looks as if it’s going to be about her. Or chance. But really, it’s all about him.

Double Breton, 1927
“Qui-suis-je?” he asks in the beginning. “Who am I?”

His first answer: “I am whom I haunt.” And then, something like this, though not in so many words: “I am incommunicable but marvelous experiences that serve up telling truths about me.”

Muette et Aveugle by Marcel Mariën
What then of her? Why call the book by her name? 
“Mute and blind, dressed in the thoughts that you here loan me.” Is that how it is in Nadja?

Rene Magritte La femme cachee, 1929

Or is it like this? A rebus: "I don't see the [woman] hidden in the forest."

After all, early in Nadja, Breton says, “I have always, beyond belief, hoped to meet, at night and in a woods, a beautiful naked woman or rather…I regret, beyond belief, not having met her…I adore this situation which of all situations is the one where I am most likely to have lacked presence of mind. I would probably not even have thought of running away.” He adds, quickly, “Anyone who laughs here is a pig.” (N 39).

After Breton dies in 1966, Magritte remembers the moment of this look, this cliché: “In 1927, André Breton and I, each in turn, caught sight of an ad for a certain aperitif hanging from the wall in a bistro. We exchanged looks that neither reason nor insanity could explain. We had the same complicit look another time, when I suggested taking his picture with his eyes closed.  Well, his eyes are closed, but eyes open or shut, one can’t forget that his mind was seeking the Truth through poetry, love and liberty."

In other words, one man catches sight of another--catching sight of a woman? Or hiding from her?--and they are friends forever.

Breton, "Eyes of Nadja" collage

Again and again Breton speaks of Nadja's eyes: “I had never seen such eyes.” (N 64)
“What was so extraordinary about what was happening in those eyes?” (N 65)
Her eyes open on hope which is “scarcely distinct from terror” (N 111)

 Envelope in Nadja's hand addressed to Breton
30 Nov 1926
Nadja. Who is she? Wait, I can’t tell you. Not yet. Nadja really is all about him. What an enigma he is. His dreams. His encounters. His loves.

de Chirico The Song of Love 1914

Enigma? What is that?  

In 1913 the painter de Chirico writes something that Breton admires:
One must picture everything in the world as an enigma…To live in the world as if in an immense museum of strangeness, full of curious many colored toys which change their appearance…

Enigma. In other words, a mystery--now you see it, now you don’t. (I love the way Breton cuts out her eyes but covers his own.) Is this surrealist method?

Nadja, The Lovers’ Flower

Fact. On 4 October 1926, Breton runs into a woman on the street and falls for her. They agree she will go by the name Nadja—short for Nadjezda [Надежда], or “hope” in Russian.  (Does every love affair begin thus, with a pseudonym for “hope”?) 

Despite the hopefulness of her drawing, “The Lovers’ Flower,” those who fall in love rarely have their eyes wide open.

Does the production and reproduction of this image prove she existed?

Nadja, letter to Breton
"Merci, Andre, j'ai tout recu--j'ai confiance en l'image qui me fermera les yeux/
Thanks Andre, I've gotten everything--I have confidence in the image that will close my eyes"

For nine days they see each other every day, Breton and Nadja. Then they take a trip to St-Germain by train, arrive at around 1 am, and take a room in the Hotel du Prince des Galles. (This is a detail that Breton will efface from the novel when he re-edits it in 1964.)
Nadja, Note to Breton

The affair ends here, apparently, despite ongoing meetings and exchanges of letters between the two lovers for several more months.

Simone Kahn, 1927

On November 8, Breton writes to his wife, Simone Kahn, and complains about Nadja, asking, what shall I do with this woman who I don’t love and whom I will never love?  She is, he says, capable of “putting in question everything I love and the way that I have of loving.  No less dangerous for that.”

Watteau, Embarkation for Cythera, 1717, detail

Here’s what Breton says in Nadja about the end of the affair with Nadja: Nothing can be forgotten. Nothing.  Not the glitter of rare and volatile metals like sodium, not something so unlike as phosphorescence in stone, not a burning chiming clock, not even “the fascination which, despite everything, The Embarkation for Cythera exerts upon me when I determine that despite the various postures and attitudes, it displays only one couple…nothing of what constitutes my own light for me has been forgotten.” (N 108)

Who was this dangerous woman whom he preferred not to see [again]--and perhaps, hoped we would not see either, except perhaps as a sign for his special mode of seeing, surreal vision, surreal blindness? She even signed her letters, "Nadja."

Hester Albach,
Léona, héroïne du surréalisme 
Actes Sud, 2009
On 21 March 1927, the woman known to Breton as "Nadja" had a major breakdown, thought she saw men on the roof and began banging the walls of her apartment building.  "For some time I had stopped understanding Nadja," Breton writes (N 130). "I was told, several months ago, that Nadja was mad...I do not suppose there can be much difference for Nadja between the inside of a sanitarium and the outside." (N 136).

 In fact, it seems the woman known as "Nadja" was hauled away by the police, diagnosed with “polymorphous psychic troubles, depression, sadness, anxiety….episodes of anxiety mixed with fear,” and interned.  Thus she began a sojourn of 14 years in various mental hospitals.   

She died 15 January 1941 of “cachexie neoplasique” or extreme wasting thanks to a cancerous tumor.  But it’s also thought that she died of typhoid fever, “aggravated by under-nourishment.”  In other words, she starved to death, in occupied France.  

 Forgotten. A woman-phantom who has haunted many more fantasists than Breton, but was no more substantial than a shadow, a few lines, some sketches: une femme-reve, a dream woman.  Fiction--or almost.  Until Dutch writer, Hester Albach, following the clues Breton left in his book, and the revelations of a cache of letters by Nadja bound up with his manuscript, uncovered some of the details of an identity and a life.

Leona Camille Ghislain Delcourt

Who was this “Nadja” loved and loathed and turned into a symbol of the ineffable, the mysterious, a perfection of surrealist enigma by Breton?   

The name of the author of that cache of letters to Breton was Leona Camille Ghislain Delcourt.  She was born in 1902 near Lille, gave birth to a daughter in 1920, and arrived in Paris two or three years later, likely in the “care” of an elderly patron. She frequented dance halls, bars, the streets, was perhaps a heroin addict, and made money as she could, by picking up clients or admirers or patrons. Breton was perhaps all of these things. And then he dropped her, preferring the echoes of her memory to the echoing wards of the mental hospital. 

Andre Breton and Suzanne Muzard

The second part—Nadja’s part—of Nadja ends thus: “Who goes there? Is it you Nadja? Is it true that the beyond, that everything beyond is here in this life? I can’t hear you.  Who goes there? Is it only me? Is it myself?”  (N 144).   

Andre Breton and Suzanne Muzard

The last five pages of the book, Nadja, are addressed to an "irreplaceable you." Is this Nadja?  Nadja-dream? Nadja is long gone by then. Perhaps not so irreplaceable.   

Nadja’s is not a story Breton writes for Nadja, but for someone else.  Nadja's is, the narrator confesses, the story he “yielded to the desire to tell” some “you, when I scarcely knew you” (N 156).  It is widely believed that this you is a figure for Suzanne Muzard, (who is, at the time, married to writer Emmanuel Berl). 

 Breton goes on: “Without doing it on purpose, you have taken the place of the forms most familiar to me, as well as of several figures of my foreboding. Nadja was one of these last, and it is just that you should have hidden her from me. All I know is that this substitution of persons stops with you, because nothing can be substituted for you…You are not an enigma for me. I say that you have turned me from enigmas forever” (N 157-8). 

I say even he knows he is lying.

 Frances Grayson's plane before its crash in December 192
Nadja ends with the declaration, "Beauty will be CONVULSIVE or will not be at all.” But before that, just before that, we’re offered a small item, a clipping from the morning news for December 26, 1927. A voice has gone mute following a transmission near Sable Island Nova Scotia: “there is something that is not working” Breton writes.  Due to “bad atmospheric conditions and static” nothing more can be discovered (N 160). 

Who has disappeared thus, into foul weather and atmospheric interference? Breton does not tell us, but given the date, and the place, certain details can be discovered.   

The person who has gone missing is, of course, a woman.

Frances Wilson Grayson, aimed to be the first woman--with Norwegian pilot, Oskar Omdal, navigator Brice Goldsborough and her radio engineer, Frank Koehler—successfully to fly across the Atlantic Ocean.  Financed by Aage Anker, daughter of a Pittsburgh steel magnate, Grayson ordered a new amphibious Sikorsky aircraft (S-36), and left Curtis Field, New York, on the 23 December 1927 for Harbour Grace, Newfoundland.

Frances Wilson Grayson on the nose of the S-36 Dawn

According to the front page of the New York Times on 26 December 1927, “Grayson Plane Radioed 'Something Wrong' Friday Night; Then the Signaling Ceased, Silent for 54 Hours Since; Probably Lost Off The Nova Scotia Coast in a Storm."

Another ambitious woman, lost. Crashed.  Downed.

The name of her plane? The Dawn.
Frances Wilson Grayson with her crew in Maine

In 1928 the Ontario Surveyor General named a lake in the northwestern quadrant of the province after her.  The remains of Frances Grayson and her crew have never been found, but Lake Grayson may be precisely located on any map at 50°52'49" North latitude and 89°25'46" West longitude.

Grayson left a written statement with a reporter in case she didn't survive her attempt at flight. In it she said, "Who am I? Sometimes I wonder. Am I a little nobody? Or am I a great dynamic forc--powerful--in that I have a god-given birthright and have all the power there is if only I will understand and use it?"

That almost sounds like Breton.  Convulsive, compulsive beauty, indeed.


I'll bet you think I made this all up.
And what if I did? (I didn't.)

"Photos" and "facts" are such strange tissues these days: fantastical indices, nothing more.
Still, so little of ordinary life, ordinary loves, ordinary deaths, is made up.  Most of it just happens, and sometimes, as here, it is recorded.

Frances Wilson Grayson, 1927

Nadja is a documentary novel, the second known published novel with photographs.  The first was a Belgian book published in 1892, Georges Rodenbach’s Bruges-la-morte.  The photos there were of Bruges, of course.

Correspondence between Breton and Kahn cited by Marguerite Bonnet in Andre Breton Œuvres complètes, “notice et notes,” Gallimard, La Pléiade, Paris 1988, p. 1514.

Hester Albach's book, Leona: Surrealist Heroine is only available, at this writing, in Dutch or French. Several reviews of the work are available in French, including this one: club/article/010809/leona-nadja-heroine-du-surrealisme

Images and letters documenting the relationships between Breton and Nadja (Leona Delcourt) and Breton and Suzanne Muzard may be found here on a French language site sponsored by l'Association Atelier Andre Breton:
I am grateful too, to Susan Elmslie, for her inspired account of Nadja in I, Nadja, and Other Poems (London, ON: Brick, 2006.  See also
for sample poems and a discussion of them.

Information about Frances Wilson Grayson and her crew from wikipedia; photographs of her with the plane come from a set posted by the Boston Public Library entitled "Aviation: Boardman, Earhart & Grayson at

A Pathe newsreel video clip of Frances Grayson doing a test flight in Maine in October 1927 (date has to be wrong--Grayson was dead in October 1928) may be viewed here:

A nod, too, to Hal Foster's rereading of Breton and surrealism in Compulsive Beauty (Boston: MIT 1993).

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Not Yet

We call Night the privation of relish in the appetite for all things.
 John of the Cross, quoted by Roland Barthes, Fragments d'un discours amoureux

She dreams of a soft boiled egg.
The inaudible tear the yellow flood the 
pouring tender not quite flesh on
crusty bread. The tang of cheese. Of
sourdough. Sharp scent of torn basil leaf. Creamy avocado
plucked from the tree that shatters its fruit
on the kitchen window.

Every possibility is in front of us then.

Thousands of days 
filled with sunshine. And the rushing 
And the wind, cool 
on the nape of the neck.

Strong coffee in the afternoon.

A girl in striped pants.  The sensation
of sand 
your toes.

How can it be afternoon?
So soon blue 

She picks up her scarf.

Don't go.
Not yet.
(This can't go on. 
Not yet.

They sit on a grassy hill by the side of the road.
Cliffs tumble to the sea.
She pulls a bottle from the hamper, 
breaks the crust of bread with her hands, her 
red lips black, the 
fading light.

Cool wind on the nape
of her neck.
She gathers her scarf.
(No. Who twisted 

so that) I'll be leaving now
(who twists)
her posture
(someone is 


Oh please, 

A thousand afternoons of light five
thousand ten:
twenty-eight years of days of
sand between your toes 
of cobble beaches and
(sucking sounds)  
they tumble 

(what we call night
what we call)
endless oncoming 
what we call)

Here is my scallop bed,
here is my island.
dive with me.

We paddle to the island; we 
stand in shallow water; we pluck
scallops, sucking out
(the inaudible tear the sudden 
flood the
salt bathes 
her tongue,
the afternoon shimmers
glimmers, tumbles--

the failing

Don't (who has
who has
you around like
who has
Don't. Not yet. Not


so that in part-

While there is still 
light (while those,  
stelle) while those
stars still shine

still (lucevan
shines (seashells) she turns
(on the seashore) she 
stops (seashells) she 
she (seashells)
winds her scarf
she sings
stelle) in
her sleep

Quotations are distortions of phrases from:
St. John of the Cross via Roland Barthes, Fragments d'un discours amoureux
Rilke's Eighth Duino Elegy, trans. Stephen Mitchell in The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, (New York: Vintage: 1984), 197 and
 Puccini, E lucevan le stelle, sung by Beniamino Gigli, 1938

Photos are from this album: "Taylor Head Barachois,"

This poem was my response to an exercise I set my Strategic Fictions class.  We read--and looked at--various love stories as models for our own writing.  I asked them to think about the following questions:

Why, when we think of love and writing, do we so often think of poetry?  Is it because poetry is a kind of writing where not simply each word, but each beat, each syllable, each space and line break count?  Poetry (and love) both call for precision it seems—and sometimes, though not always, an economy of gesture.  But perhaps we think of poetry and love together too, because what we wish of each is a delightful surprise of the ear.  And what do we reap? Often, too often, dissonance, boredom, waiting, rhythms utterly out of step…We also tend to repeat clichés, and others’ words, over and over. Is there a way, nevertheless, to make such suspensions, such repetitions, work?

I do not know if I have succeeded. But as I tell my students, what is most important is to try.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

What We’re Doing These Days To Keep Afloat

We’ve hired a plumber to saw the top shelves from the library.

We’ve changed our motto:
A good foundation is all anyone needs or
The rest will grow back.

Meanwhile, in the elevator shaft,
one who was supposed to fix the roof knits in the dark.

He calls it a sweater, but it has neither armholes nor space for the head.
As for the body that will wear it:
“A garment is to live in,” he says.

Some insist he’s composing our shroud,
but others call it a bridal veil or
a roadmap,  or even
an elevator.

We knock on the walls,
drop letters and petitions into the hole,
send a cat through a gap in the brick to unravel the garment by night.

No one will say it,
but she seems to be neglecting her duties.
I too have been wakened by mice burrowing in my navel.

A secret, more radical sect among us believe the garment will catch the wind.
Someday soon.
Our knitter will drift up from the shaft and rise into ether.

Who will need fifteen staircases then?

They call the garment a flight plan,
which in our language means
manifest or sometimes chequebook
or the dog must have his supper
or I’m sorry there is no more soup.

It’s no wonder we’re confused.

What to do?

The carpenter drills pin holes in all of the pipes:
messages in Braille for our blind knitter.
Little Fountains, he calls them.

It’s a critical success:
“If you can’t fly, try swimming.”

We like his work so much we’ve ordered up
another building.

With any luck, we’ll soon be underwater.

Oh that will be the day;
all our worries will be over then.

Photos taken in 2010 in and around NSCAD U.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Time Changes

Another clear cold day. The sea is frozen out to the headland; a skim of brittle, pockmarked ice creeps up the beach with the tide, and the pond is solid again.  It snaps and groans and echoes in the cove, stretching and shifting beneath its closed skin.

The sun is high and bright and warm as it streams through the windows.  A time change today.  So early? I think. Already? 

I remember when it happened in May, the second Sunday in May, which was--or is my memory failing  me now?--also, often, Mother's Day. White or red carnations on everyone's breasts in church; white for those whose mothers had died, red for those whose mothers were still alive. Why then do I remember my own mother wearing a white carnation?

It couldn't have been so; her mother was still vibrant, active, a nearly daily force in our lives. We'd go see her later that day for a big supper, and play badminton in her back yard, careful not to trample her garden, the petunias velvety, nodding, colourful, like playful tiny faces. I always wanted to touch them.

May in Columbus, Ohio was sometimes cool, cooler than April--too cold for short skirts and knee socks--but spring was out full blast by then, the trees leafy, gardens in full bloom. And now and then it could even be hot.

I catch a whiff of the smell of freshly mown grass (a Saturday job in those days, not a Sunday one); I recall the wood stacked neatly in a sparse pile along one edge of our grandparents' backyard, everything clean and in good working order, neatly organized--not like at our house.  A sudden downpour, notes of spice and musk in the perfumes on my grandmother's dresser, bottles ranged and doubled on a mirrored tray.  Perhaps this is why I treasure the scent and colour of amber?  The ticking of the clocks; the cardinals at the birdfeeder; the large dial thermometer nailed to the maple tree.

Marike comes downstairs and opens the door.  Cool air streams into the house and I am suddenly back in Nova Scotia. Still, even here, the birds have begun to call and sing from the trees.  The last couple of days have been mild and everyone is expectant.  Spring will be here soon they say.

I find this funny.  I'm going on my nineteenth year in Canada, and I've grown used to waiting so long for the spring to come, that I hardly believe any of these signs.  I'm not sure winter has truly arrived yet--I keep waiting for it to get worse, for here, on the shore, March is the bitterest month; the time when the surface temperature of the sea reaches its nadir.

But perhaps, this year, we are already there.  Is this false hope brought about by an exceedingly early time change? What happened to bring it on so early? Or are my memories of my childhood faulty?  Even here the animals are already shedding, the birds singing, the ground muddy and earthy smelling. Two days ago we startled an otter in the marsh at high tide; it watched us through a hole in the ice, and then swam to another hole and popped up again and again, growling a little each time, before swimming out through the culvert and into the bay.

Perhaps the earth and these creatures know something I don't.  All along the shore streams rush and tumble into the water, sweeping away ice and stones and mud. The sap has been flowing all week too--a friend in Cape Breton is sugaring off.

I count the weeks: a bit more than a month of this term left.  I take a deep breath: relief--or oxygen--reaches all the way to my toes. Just then the ice on the pond flexes, hisses, growls; it sounds just like an enormous outdoor belly.  Hungry.  I am, too.


Birthday tulips--March 2012.

My mother sends me a snapshot of a vase of forsythia she's brought indoors and forced. An early March practice in Ohio, early May in Nova Scotia. Photo by Marcia Cope, St. Paris Ohio.