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Brooks Lampe reviews Andrew Joron’s Trance Archive

What a desperate trance!—The skyboat resembles a flying vulva; the city, the arc of an abandoned soliloquy.

Andrew Joron represents a small, almost indistinguishable enclave of contemporary poets who know (and appreciate that) they have been influenced by surrealism. Versus the rest of the contemporary poets who do not know they have.

Surrealism has been a controversial topic in recent decades, and there have been few poets or scholars willing (or courageous enough?) to acknowledge their indebtedness to the movement. (But not these poets! Thank God.) The biggest problem, supposedly, is one of identification and definition. Suffice it to say, in broad strokes, surrealist poetry demonstrates:

  • Radically disjunctive imagery (usually through mismatching terms from unrelated semantic fields)
  • An analogical vision of reality, wherein irreconcilable things are conceived in relations and thus are (potentially) made reconcilable
  • Undertones of Hegelian dialectic, Marxism, revolution and utopianism

At its heart, surrealism wages a political and ideological battle through language. By creating impossible images through placing disparate objects side-by-side, poetry dismantles and re-formulates our perceptions and conceptions of reality.

Joron’s basic commitment to surrealism is evident in the above quote, wherein a “skyboat” becomes a vulva and a city becomes a soliloquy. He has recently appeared in American Hybrid, where he is introduced as “focus[ing] on the legacies of Surrealism, examining the links between ‘convulsive’ aesthetic practices and the current impasses of capitalism” (p. 219). And he has published a wonderful essay on contemporary surrealism, Neo-surrealism; Or, the Sun at Night.

But radical juxtaposition can be very simple. And this is what Joron’s poetry excels at showing. His trademark is juxtaposing pairs of words or phrases that are visually or audibly approximate but conceptually disparate. From “Le Nombre Des Ombres”:

grail: grille: grid

From “A Hole in Translation”:

If there is a floor
It is a flare
too quick & too bright
to be trod upon.

In “Confession: On Method”:

sunless, whose peaks : who speaks

solace : words give up to

no other, fused : refused

And the opening poem, “Absolute Black Continuum” is composed entirely of these kinds of puns that manipulate homophones and near-homophones. This kind of word play is very basic, but it accomplishes at least two things. First, it deconstructs, or at least denudes, language and thought (more on this below). Second, it places the meanings of these words in relationship to each other. In his poem “Constellations for Theremin,” from his volume Fathom (2003), Joron explains that two appositional words or phrases “interact as ‘constellations,’ in Benjamin’s sense of a non-hierarchical, indeed a salvational structure of thought” (44).

On one hand, this is basic to Imagism. We put “grail” and “grille” side-by-side and see a new and interesting relationship. But here—and this is Joron’s other half—the juxtaposition is not controlled by a poetic author, but, rather by the (arbitrary) nature of language itself. For Joron is also a Language Poet and the lines quoted above can also be read as participating in the Language poetry project. “[G]rail: grille: grid” is a surrealist constellation (wherein we understand each term in and through its relation to the others), but it is also pealing back the curtain of language per se. These words do not assemble as an act of artifice; they exist in apposition in the lexicon (not literally—since there are many word entries between “grail” and “grille”—but figuratively and parabollically). Joron did not write the English lexicon, he just noticed that these words co-exist on (or nearly on) the same page. Revealing this quirky quality of language, by implication, generates a multitude of interesting and revealing questions.

Joron is one of the few poets who has identified and embraced the possibility for surrealism and Language poetry to coexist in productive synergy. In these pun-strings, he has pointed out “sur-reality” in the very fabric of language. Another method is to form surrealist images that are about some of Language poetry’s pet topics (writing, language, structure, writing technology and the like):

Writing is disguised as perception’s ghost, a nocturnal substance to be spread by the Sun.


& future tenses
Lend their cloud-perspectives
To my insistent dying


—a blank page is the flag of a secret conflagration.

In such images, Language poetry’s ideologically-motivated dismantling of language merges with hallucinatory vision.

Surrealism and Language poetry share the same goal, which is to dismantle capitalism (and, eventually, erect a post-ideological utopia). Language poetry does it through syntax; surrealism does it through semantics. As Bruce Andrews’ lecture at the NPF conference in 2008 made abundantly clear (as have most of the Language poetry manifestos), the Language poets believe grammar itself has to be deconstructed before capitalism and logocentrism can be conquered because Western ideology is built into the structure of grammar itself. Without a doubt, Joron has recognized that surrealism is in on this project as well.

But this is not the only accomplishment of Trance Archive. Joron also pioneers a unique hybrid “genre” of surrealism and science fiction. In a similar vein, he is obsessed with math, especially mathematical paradoxes and their philosophical implications:

One existed, it would immediately become Two.

One is not innocent, & the Infinite
(because Divine) must be less than One.”


as if
A primary
ness were fixed within Sequence.

The line, diverted into itself.
(One object
Before the first & after the last.)

The voice, a relic of writing.
Rows of integers extending beyond the rose.

In this final image, almost all of these modes and themes (Language, surrealism, sci-fi and math) converge in hieratic vision.

The paradox of this kind of writing (and of both surrealism and Language poetry) is that, while supposedly very political, it does not read as overtly political. This is because the primary battle front is on the level of language and the imagination. As Breton said, the human race must be saved through the revitalization of the imagination. Nevertheless, on a rare occasion, Joron will slip into semi-transparent rant:

I go out into the stacked cubicles of the world-city
Work is an endless pounding of pistons
a reading of screens
covered with pink and green revolving toroids
That deliver me
Squared images of Jesus

Even so, the playing field is clearly language itself—both its seemingly infinite ability to deceive and limit the mind as well as its equally infinite ability to liberate the mind. Surrealism optimistically affirms the latter; Language poetry, primarily the former. But together, Joron’s work suggests, these two traditions may create a poesis capable of rescuing civilization. (Sorry, there’s no getting around utopianism’s inherent idealism.) In this sense, Joron’s poems are

Flights of birds [that] tune the strings of a destroyed or not-yet-invented instrument.

Whether the surrealist project was abandoned (“destroyed”) or never fully realized (“not-yet-invented”), Joron’s work ambitiously attempts to resuscitate it by merging it with the 21st century version of Marxist poetry and making it relevant to post-structuralism.

Highly recommended (especially for the avant-garde).

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Brooks Lampe teaches rhetoric, composition and poetry. His blog, Uut Poetry, explores the intersection of surrealism, postmodernism, experimental poetics and technology. He has several experimental Twitter projects including @Microdream. Currently, he is dissertating at the Catholic University of American in Washington D.C. on surrealism in contemporary American poetry.

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  • Travis Timmons October 17, 2010, 2:50 pm

    A good overview of surrealism and what surrealists have been up to. However, isn’t it true that it;s surrealism that operates on the level deconstructing grammatical syntax, since it works through juxtaposition?

  • Stewart Kahn Lundy October 17, 2010, 4:13 pm

    Your mention of “grail: grille: grid” (to me) is the most radical and violent sentiment of anything quoted here. Grail, alone, is the prize sought after by knights, a symbol of alchemical and psychological perfection always undiscovered (“not-yet-invented”). The juxtaposition of this sacred term with Grille is jarring and presents the possibility of a sacred future through fire (revolution) or of a destroyed sacredness (secularization) while being obscenely mundane with the superfluous yet eminently meaningful -e. The Grid shows an order destroyed and/or a new order/measure established. The violence dormant in these simple terms is profound. An excellent review. Thank you.

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