The Dada in Me

(This essay appeared in the August/September 2015 issue of The Country and Abroad.)

“Dusted with surrealism,” began a review of a poetry chapbook of mine, but while I’m hesitant to disown praise from a critic, I haven’t been a fan of Surrealism since my teenage years when anything druggy, dreamy, and avant-garde seemed worthwhile. Back then, my budding appreciation of Freudianism let me know that the limp watches slung over tables and branches by Salvador Dali represented limp something elses. Surrealism was risqué, definitely not the Monet posters my mother hung above her flower arrangements. Along with the Beats and Kurt Vonnegut, Surrealism offered rebellious relief from the suburban niceness that was otherwise my fate in the Seventies. Soon enough, though, nothing is more embarrassing than your teenage enthusiasms. By college, I’d taped a Mark Rothko poster to my dormitory wall to prove my sophistication. Since then, my taste in art has roamed from gallery to gallery at the museums: the Ashcan Painters when I was a journalist in Manhattan, the Hudson River School after I moved to the Catskills. After a long chill I’ve lately returned to the Abstraction Expressionists. I’ve even had days when Dia:Beacon’s Minimalism seemed like a thing of beauty. But not Salvador Dali or his perverse dreamscrapes. Maybe it was his silly mustache like waxed cat whiskers or my suspicion that his work was about masturbation, but I still cringe at the thought of him. Recently, I happened by those limp watches at MOMA–they’re in his most famous painting, “The Persistence of Desire”–and I couldn’t help but notice that the dozen people crowded around with phone cameras were in their teens or twenties. Surrealism is for the young. I prefer to think of the wacky imagination that emerges in my poetry as wholly American, a product of our country’s love for zany humor and outlandish spectacle that pervades our advertising and popular entertainment. Just watch our Superbowl commercials if you want to see American weirdness on parade. There’s nothing French or Freudian about it.

Or so I thought until I heard William Seaton talk about Dada. A lifelong scholar of poetry and the avant-garde, he experienced San Francisco in the Sixties, but has now lived in Orange County for decades, where he found a home for his “Poetry on the Loose” reading series at the former farmstead of a Swiss-born Surrealist named Kurt Seligmann that has become a community center. Set amid low hills of fields and forests on the outskirts of a tourist hamlet of cottage shops that sell bath soaps and country knickknacks, this compound seems to have more in common with an Andrew Wyeth landscape than with the European avant-garde of eighty years ago. The rows of autumn corn stalk stubble in the field above the parking lot on the afternoon of my visit was pure American pastoral. Yet you never know what you may find in the Hudson Valley. In 1939, Seligmann was the first Surrealist from Paris to reach New York ahead of the Nazis, and he soon helped his colleagues leave as well. He taught at Brooklyn College and with his wife bought this farm, where the barn became his studio, now a fresh yellow meeting hall with an expansive northern wall of windows. A productive artist, he completed thousands of pieces and enjoyed success in the United States and Europe until Abstract Expressionism eclipsed Surrealism as the daring art of the day. Not unlike Dali he painted precise fantasy images of not quite human figures engaged in what one critic described as a “dance macabre in which anthropomorphic figures–comprised of an amalgamation of armour, heraldic devices, ribbons, cloth, helmets, bone and ceremonial paraphernalia–cavort in unknown ritual in darkly cavernous, yet undetermined, space.” To imagine them for yourself, think of a Surrealist at a Renaissance Fair. As a boy, Seligmann had marveled at the medieval troubadours and knights who performed in the summer carnival in his childhood home of Basel, Switzerland. Living in exile in an Andrew Wyeth setting didn’t dim his Surrealist vision.

The Seligmanns were a worldly couple with homes in Manhattan and Paris. But he invited guests to his farmstead, including Max Ernst, Yves Tanguy, Peggy Guggenheim, Marcel Duchamp, and Alexander Calder. As reported in Chronogram, “Duchamp, in fact, shot five bullets with a .22 rifle into an abandoned chicken coop as a conscious work of art, which he later replicated on the cover of the ‘First Papers of Surrealism’ exhibit in 1942.” In a dark twist of fate, Seligmann later died by the same gun in a squirrel hunting accident in 1962, when he slipped on ice. Thirty years later his widow willed the property to a community foundation. The northern wall of windows in the meeting hall studio barn looks down upon a weathered red shed into the marsh reeds and pond that fills the shallow end of the valley. If you happen to be in the audience late on an autumn afternoon as the window sky darkens behind the poet reading at the podium, you’ll be startled again and again by the sudden arrival of Canada geese gliding low over the building towards a landing on the pond, a flock like a V-winged fighter jet. It may not be Paris in the Twenties, but it is enchanting. On one such afternoon Bill Seaton read from his book of German translations: Dada Poetry: An Introduction.

In the past I’d thought of Dada as a feverish bout of avant-garde pranksterism that broke out in a handful of European cities in reaction to World War One, a catastrophe that these artists countered with gleeful nihilism. But could I think of any Dada art that I’d seen in museums? I wasn’t wrong, but I soon learned that I didn’t know the half of it. Dada started in Zurich in 1916 with outlandish performances at the Cabaret Voltaire and spread to Berlin, Paris, New York, and other places before fading into other movements, including Surrealism, which Andre Breton defined with his Surrealist Manifesto of 1924. Some artists, such as Max Ernst, migrated from one to the other, but there were differences, especially Surrealism’s fascination with the Freudian unconsciousness, which it hoped to unveil in an effort to bring people closer to their truer selves. Dada was more rebellious. It didn’t seek redemption in a heretofore hidden interior life. It was more like punk when the Sex Pistols took England by storm almost before learning how to play guitar chords. Yet Dada was more than obnoxious, nay-saying fun. It was, as I learned from Bill Seaton, an incredibly successful artistic laboratory.

In Dada Poetry: An Introduction, he described the Cabaret Voltaire’s crazy, almost nonsensical performances: “Some evenings may have struck an accidental visitor as chaotic, but in retrospect the critic can discern virtually the entire repertory of modernist technique: first of all abstraction (which to some at the first seemed the party slogan of Dada), fragmentation, collage, performance art, conceptual art, aleatory work, simultaneity, sound poems (bruitisme or Klangdichtung), objects trouvés, interest in ethnological ‘primitive’ culture material and popular culture, even pranks such as sending false news items to newspapers.”

In Dada, the exhibition catalog for a retrospective at MOMA, the same point was made: “Born in the heart of Europe in the midst of World War I, Dada displayed a raucous skepticism about accepted values. Its embrace of new materials and methods created an abiding legacy for the century to come, with strategies that included collage, montage, assemblage, readymades, chance, performance, and media pranks. Radical then, they are foundational today–so much so that Dada may have had the greatest influence on contemporary art of any avant-garde movement.”

Paging through the catalog was a revelation. Not that I recognized many of the pieces, save for Marcel Duchamp’s famous urinal signed “R. Mutt” that entered history when refused for exhibition in 1917, but I found that many of the pieces looked familiar from the art that came after them, ranging from geometric abstractions to biomorphic wood carvings to newspaper collages. There were precursors to everything from punk album covers to Joseph Cornell’s boxes to Robert Rauschenberg’s combines made out of discarded junk. At the time these Dada pieces may have been meant to offend, but now they looked appealing, a reminder of how much our tastes have changed. And in the collage-making and the use of unexpected materials to make art I could see links to my poetry. Who would have guessed that I had a bit of Dadaist in me? Maybe many of us do.

For years, I’d written poems the way that others write memoir, culling my memories for narratives that I crafted into poems with line breaks and music in the words. In time I published two collections, My Late Mother as a Ruffed Grouse and Love in the City of Grudges, which invariably led readers and listeners to compliment me for writing poems they could understand. But selling poetry books–or attempting to–has to be one of life’s truly disheartening pursuits. I tried and tried and sold fewer and fewer. With a jaundiced eye I came to view my audiences as polite but shallow philistines who’d blow $16 on foamed drinks at Starbucks long before they’d buy my book. Bitter and burned out, I quit poetry and turned instead to my earlier dream of writing novels, where at least I’d have a fighting chance of landing a book in Barnes & Noble. But novel writing was a marathon. After a few years, I slipped back into fiddling with poems, enjoying the quick sprint of finishing a draft and then revisions. A poem didn’t take forever to get somewhere. But I didn’t write them as I had before, delving into memoir. That approach often entailed the healing of old emotional wounds, a worthy but draining pursuit. This time I played around with words to keep things light. For instance, I’ve long enjoyed Allen Ginsberg’s gift for concocting odd combinations such as “hydrogen jukebox, ” which appears in “Howl.” At a reading I heard–or, more likely, misheard– a poet say, “blue radio ears.” Back home, I let my imagination run wild.

What I’m Glad For

Blue radio ears.
Carburetor dung happiness.
The green theory of embryos.
Jupiter’s lost gossip queens.
Masquerading toads,
married one day,
elephants the next.
Then crows fly in,
shameless metaphors
scavenging sponsorships.
In a negative universe
Verizon sells extra silence.
In this one
what I’m glad for
is when suddenly
everything makes sense
but I don’t understand a word.

Ginsberg hadn’t gotten this idea from Dada but from T.S. Eliot who’d described the “telescoping of images” to link distant items like the hydrogen bomb and a jukebox to make a fresh kind of sense. But this is an example of a much larger force that Dada brought forth. “The juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated phenomena was the basic tactic of twentieth-century modernist art,” wrote Greil Marcus in Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century. “The idea was that, to the degree aesthetic categories could be proven false, social barriers would be revealed as constructed illusions, and the world could be changed. Things are not what they seem: that was the message then, and that is the message now.”

If Dada was an early effort to create crazy juxtapositions, then I was a fan. In the past my writing had been an effort to find the right words to express what I meant, a gratifying practice that I still enjoyed. But I’d learned to take pleasure in the opposite as well, starting with a jumble of words and phrases to see what meaning might emerge as I assembled them into poems. If the words didn’t sound particularly poetic, all the better. The fun came from composing something strangely compelling out of everyday dreck. I especially liked the feeling that these poems seemed to be by someone else, a late blooming poet who’d lurked inside me for years, not a rival to my previous self, but not someone who played by the same rules or shared the same tastes. My Inner John Ashbery in reflective moments. My Inner William S. Burroughs when I really got rolling. That I’d previously spent years dismissing Ashbery and Burroughs as charlatans who indulged in word games without saying much that was coherent, well, wasn’t that just one of those contradictions that makes life interesting?

Rather than working with memories, I was making word collages. I clipped headlines and images from newspapers and magazines to compose what I called Ransom Note Poems. I met with friends to write collaborative poems like an improv team trading lines back and forth. In the past I’d treated writing as a solitary pursuit, an exercise in quieting the many voices of society in my head in order to hear the one that felt truest and most private to myself. Now I realized that there were other voices that could be just as creative but needed spontaneous interactions to discover what they had to say for themselves. For instance, here’s a haiku composed while gazing out my cottage window from my writing desk:

the crow on the wire
shuffles its tail feathers
like playing cards

Here’s a collaborative poem finished in the same chair:


The cold wind makes orphans of mailboxes
under telephone wires tanned black by autumn.
The poor clown, his gospel barren, his crime revealed,
hides in a country ghetto where the beggar king promises
one day everyone will get to pump free gasoline and
widows will no longer burn effigies. Brides
will march down the aisles into the promise of cities.
But, for now, the mayor wears lead in his shoes
so as not to fly off like a balloon. Hope dies
early in the afternoon. Everyone refuses
to eat any more fluff, but still walks around
owing 2% interest to the fool with the dealership.
The popcorn gods have left butter clogging the drains.

For a time I taped one of Bill Seaton’s Dada translations over the cabinet mirror in my bathroom, a feisty, furious poem by Hans Arp, better known as a sculptor. I enjoyed reading this piece of Dada sacrilege each time I peed. Sincerity is all well and good, but poetry also needs its clowns.

The Swallow Testicle

Oh no, oh no, good Kaspar’s dead!
Who now will hide the burning banners in cloudbrain
….. and daily build a black mare’s nest?
Who now will turn the coffee mill in its old, old barrel?
And who will lure the idyllic deer
….. from its petrified paper bag?
Who’ll blow the noses of ships, parapluies, wind-udders, ancestral bees, ozone spindles,
….. and who will bone the pyramids?
Oh no, no, no, our good Kaspar is dead! Pious bimbam Kaspar’s dead!
The shark will rattle his teeth with heartrending grief when he hears his given name–so
….. I sigh on–his last name Kaspar Kaspar Kaspar.
Why has thou forsaken us? In what form has your great and beautiful soul
….. transmogrified? Are you a star? or a chain or water hanging from a hot whirlwind? or
….. a transparent brick on the groaning drum of rocky BEING?
Now our tops and toes dry up, and fairies lie half-charred on the funereal pyre.
Now the black bowling alley thunders behind the sun, and no one winds up compasses
….. and pushcart wheels any longer.
Who now will eat the phosphorescent rat at the lonely barefoot table?
Who now will chase the siroccoco devil when he wants to fuck the horses?
Now who’ll explain the monograms in the stars?

His bust will grace the mantel of all the truly noble men,
but that’s no comfort, no tobacco snuff for a deadhead skull.

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