BY PABLO PICASSO, EDITED WITH TRANSLATIONS BY JEROME ROTHENBERG AND PIERRE JORIS, AFTERWORD BY MICHEL LEIRIS
CAMBRIDGE, MA; EXACT CHANGE, 352 PAGES. $20.
On April 18, 1935, at the age of fifty-four, Pablo Picasso suddenly launched into a career as an experimental writer that lasted until late August 1959. It was a serious career because over the course of those twenty-five years he composed 340 poems and two plays; it was an obscure career because until Gallimard's 1989 publication of Picasso: Ecrits, the extent and nature of his writing during this period, sometimes undertaken on a nearly daily basis, was virtually unknown. In fact, less than a quarter of these works had ever seen the light of day. Now a team of excellent poet-translators--headed by editors Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris--have rendered these poems, composed in Picasso's native Spanish and quirky, idiosyncratic French, into a brilliant American vernacular, so now English-speaking readers can ask: What propelled Picasso into this writing? What kind of writer was he? And what relation did his plays and poetry have to his work as a visual artist?
By April 1935, the prodigiously productive Picasso had stopped painting and was in the middle of a messy attempt at divorce from Olga Khoklova, the beautiful Diaghilev dancer he had acquired in 1918 while working on the set designs for the ballet Parade. The interruption of his painting may have been due to temporary aesthetic exhaustion, or it may have had practical, economic--as well as psychological--causes. French community-property laws required a complete inventory and appraisal of Picasso's works in order to divide his assets equally. Any new paintings would have increased not only the headache of appraisal but also Khoklova's take. Whatever the reason, with painting blocked as an outlet for his creative drive, Picasso plunged into writing. Under the heading "Boisgeloup-18 April XXXV," starting simply in Spanish with a mildly fanciful declarative sentence, he elliptically evokes his economic problems on a lazy Thursday:
if I should go outside the wolves would come to eat out of my hand just as my room would seem to be outside of me my other earnings would go off around the world smashed into smithereens but what is there to do today it's thursday everything is closed ...
From this point, Picasso rushes without punctuation or pause into a series of short staccato sentences that gradually pick up a train of relative clauses and appositional phrases, bearing an increasing load of more fantastically depicted images of bulls and horses, swallows and blackbirds, armadas and mirrors, randy girls, and nuns, jack-knives, and grenades--images of winning and losing, of being constrained, wounded, suffering and breaking free--this goes on for nearly twenty pages of what Rothenberg refers to as "wall to wall poetry." This was the poetry that Gertrude Stein disdained and Andre Breton admired and published in a special issue of Cahiers d'art at the end of 1935. It is a poetry of rapid flows, quick turns, and uncensored images, but it's not automatic writing. The manuscript pages reproduced in Ecrits, which the volume of translations does not include, show numerous crossouts, additions, and revisions, which testify to the calculated effects of this rapidly constructed work.
In some ways, Picasso's process of considered but quick composition parallels his practice in painting. But there is no similarity in outcome. The paintings, sculptures, drawings, and engravings, no matter how whimsical, impulsive, or violent--from the never-completed playing-card nightmare of Les Demoiselles d'Avignon to the monumental comic strip of Guernica--all come framed by an elegance of composition either inherent in Picasso's visual sensibility or learned through his long and deep engagement with the painting tradition from Velazquez to Cezanne. They are also bracketed by an irresistible comic sensibility that permeates his darkest works. While there are flashes of wit in the torrent of language that Picasso's poetry presents, there are few signs of the painter's compositional elegance. There are also occasional experiments with lineation--one in fact that has an odd resemblance to William Carlos Williams:
tonight i saw the last person leaving the concert at the salle Gaveau and then i went to get some matches in the tobacco shop a bit further along the same street
Overall, though, such experiments with observation, derived precision, and articulation are rare.
There is an even greater difference between the poetry and the painting, which is a consequence of the difference between visual and verbal imaging, especially the kind of verbal imaging Picasso deploys. A painting's images are definitive visible objects, however dissimilar they may be to anything in our physical world, but in language works, you can say anything that's pronounceable or write anything that's legible, whether it makes any realizable sense or not. You can say "The sun somersaults over the body of three anxieties," and any speaker of English will understand what you've said, even if they have no idea what such an action might look like:
the battle began at two that afternoon the roses started shooting rounds and yanked out their gun- powder nails in little dandruff filings which did open fire on the snares and cut the words to pieces hanging from the olive tree when hands were twisting waves and threw them- selves down on the ground and naked polished off the stone enchantment blinding their delights up in the bough ...
It's easy enough to parse these relatively simple sentences without having any idea or even caring what "gun powder nails" are or how words can be cut to pieces by gunfire from roses or how hands can twist waves. In this kind of writing, the words go by, flashing lexical meanings that only intermittently combine into articulated sentential semantic wholes. The reader's pleasure comes from the flashing succession of word meanings as they ignite within the sentences that surround but do not control them.
So these poems are haunted by the ghosts of representations--of landscapes, of meals, of battles, of lovemaking. This is something they have in common with the paintings of Picasso's most inventive period--his Cubist works between 1907 and 1914--which even at their most abstract are always beset by specters of representation. It's possible that these journal-like poems served Picasso as a way to get his head together, to bring him back to his artistic roots among the poets, alongside his gone friends Jacob and Apollinaire. It was not for nothing that Picasso had scrawled in the old days on his studio door Au rendez-vous des poetes.
David Antin is a poet and critic whose most recent book, I never knew what time it was, has just been published by the University of California Press.
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2005|
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