Surrealist Tourist: Alessandra Bava Honors Each Exquisite Corpse
By Jennifer MacBains-Stephens
In They Talk About Death, Alessandra Bava’s first chapbook published in the United States (her third, internationally), Bava represents the voices of the dead through thirteen poems about Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Patti Smith, Henry Miller, Amedeo Modigliani, and Arthur Rimbaud, among others. Lives cut short by drugs, suicide, illness, and murder – these artists and writers inspire Bava’s work. In this chapbook, assembled and handmade by editor and publisher Juliet Cook, ghosts requite and haunt red-walled Parisian cafes, New York street corners, and dark, succulent gardens.
It is no wonder that Bava would be able to channel many voices: she is an active participant in the World Poetry Movement, which uses poetic action to promote multinational communities that work towards social, ecological, environmental, and mental health, revering cultural diversity and social transformation. She is also a member of The 100 Thousand Poets for Change, a group that brings artists and poets together to work and perform, encouraging a sense of community. Both groups honor the qualities of cultural and philosophical diversity that are present in Bava’s own writing. Bava’s muses struggled throughout life to find their place and, whether through confessional poetry or offending critics, Bava portrays this glorious, marginalized group (some of them only achieving prominence postmortem,) in all of their eccentric and damaged glory.
In the titular, opening poem, the scene of a salon is staged. Writers talk and sip absinthe; as “Sylvia talks of her first attempt. Anne [Sexton] listens attentively…” the scene becomes almost like a portrayal of two school girls discussing a crush – words such as “sweet,” “infectious laugh,” and “loving,” convey an innocent intimacy; discussing death feels like looking for the shape of a friend in the dark at a sleepover. As readers, we witness this casual, everyday conversation about death, and the subjects’ preoccupation with ending life itself, capturing our attention, luring us closer to the grave. Experience the following:
terrible act dissected
with loving details
as on a morgue
where a “morgue table” is dropped in almost like patio furniture, followed closely by a mention of sipping wine. The casualness of this chat between Plath and Sexton about life’s ending grabs hold of our daily routine as well; we cannot be squeamish, but are forced to encounter the transparent relationship between breathing and not breathing.
When read aloud, these quatrains almost measure out the time it takes to sip a glass of wine or cup of tea. Throughout the chapbook, there is sense of participating in the dead writer’s routines, bridging our closeness with the dead, and with death. The reader shamelessly eavesdrops on these subjects, taking pleasure in their sometimes-imagined conversations, which are interspersed with actual dialogue spoken by the subjects, taken from their body of work or historical records. The words of the dead hold power over us.
Is there any poet alive who doesn’t know that Sylvia Plath left this world by committing suicide, leaving her two children food, a note, and an open window so they would not be asphyxiated by her gas oven? Despite the fact that Plath has been characterized as abandoning her children through this final act, the heart-wrenching poem, Milk and Bread, illustrates Bava’s gentleness with the tortured Plath. Even as she narrates Plath’s suicide, Bava’s language emphasizes motherly, nurturing qualities, with lines like, “I left you in the arms of February winds…” In this chapbook, the inevitable event of that morning portrays Plath in pain, not heartless, as Bava writes lines like,
“I gave birth…
and to you with distant eyes –
in order not to love too much,”
focusing the reader on Plath’s alienation and displacement in the world, her own life foreign to the idea of “comfort.”
The cover art, by Erin Wells, is eerily reminiscent of Sylvia’s famous blond curls. These curls, however, fall over a horse skull, such an apropos illustration for this collection – the whimsical carousel ride of childhood juxtaposed with the ominous horse skull, to somewhat terrifying effect. We are reminded that, though childhood ends eventually, these beasts continue to gallop in a circle forever, reaching up towards heaven and down towards hell, keeping all riders in a state of limbo. Perhaps the resurrected ghosts of these artists and writers find themselves locked into similar patterns: Sylvia, for example, so gregarious and lovely, almost child-like herself in so many photos, gave life and conformist roles a shot, but in the end, her own darkness was the an all-consuming role. She, like many of these authors, now lives out repeatedly in our minds the deaths for which they are (at least in part) so well known. Perhaps the carousel horse reminds us from the cover that we, too, might have to plunge into the depths to come back up. Bava’s exploration of the lives of these creative icons displays the balancing act at knife point. Cut too deep and it’s all over.
The theme of motherhood is perhaps paralleled by a theme of lost father figures. Bava captures the robust, punctual words of Henry Miller when he meets up with the author herself in a café. The poem Exquisite Corpse reminds us of partaking in life lessons and meaningful conversation. Bava writes of Miller in groups of three lines – the words are shorter and come faster, there is a rawness of Henry Miller. Who wouldn’t want to meet Henry Miller in a café and write a poem with him? Having escaped to Paris, Miller befriended the Surrealists. Inspiration from these meetings brought Miller his first famous works: Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn. The Surrealists repeated the same mantra at every meeting:
“Le cadaver exquis boira le vin nouveau.”
(The exquisite corpse will drink the new wine.)
The Exquisite Corpse was, of course, a Surrealist game in which each person present contributed one line at a time to a collaborative poem, without being allowed to see most of the lines written by the others. In Bava’s poem, she and Henry play this game together:
“The morning ritual starts
as Henry walks into the
café and sits close to me”
Henry “demanding the pen…”
We feel the heat of him next to us and on the page. Miller writes a line and then Bava writes a line. They create a poem together as people (and Bava’s readers) watch.
Miller, one of the early figures of the “Beat Generation,” turned realism on its head: his books banned in the United States for a time due to their graphic sexual content. Miller could be the long-lost son of Rimbaud, whose sadness and magic hit a nerve but often remain obtuse. Miller slaps us across the face with life. Bava captures Rimbaud’s romantic slow passion, though even in Bava’s world, Rimbaud is tortured:
“I stare at his . . .
At his holsters
Full of satisfied
I pause, I pant, I shoot, I write.
He grabs my hand
And cries, “Wake up!
I’m just a ghost
Selling false promises… “
This ode to Rimbaud is at the end of the collection, almost feeling like the reader has time traveled and come back full circle to the café. It is only in the café that we shake off the grime of the New York streets. It is our respite after touring the Bowery with Patti Smith, Rimbaud’s
dark, hungry, crow-like daughter-figure. Bava describes Smith using stark apostrophe: “Your dress is scanty and no black train follows it, your lips are smeared with poison…” conveying the sexy rebellion of Madame Bowery. Smith shunned the glittery big hair/loud make up of this decade, choosing to wear men’s clothes and live in the un-glamourous Alphabet City. Smith, having shoplifted Rimbaud’s book Iluminations when she was young, said Rimbaud was like her boyfriend, that she connected with his words immediately. The godmother of punk, Smith’s song fused rock with poetic verse, belting out explicit heartfelt lyrics and embracing the darkness in life. It is in embracing the dark, that the light becomes more apparent.
A favorite aspect of this collection was the feeling of these people co-mingling on the page. Even though they existed in different countries, in different time periods, they fit together so well in They Talk About Death, almost familial. The reader re-befriends them through Bava’s poems and as is one purpose of creating or writing anything at all – there is immortality in these pages: they are not dead. But we live in the world of the living, and hence, we do experience loss. The author’s own vulnerability and connection to these lost souls is palpable. In Vision, (for Sylvia Plath,) Bava writes: “As I carve my own poem, I hear the apse rustle./ The vivid stained glass windows on my bark shake…/ I am left to contemplate the Apocalypse of the Word.” The reader’s brain wants nothing more than to replace “word” with “world.” Why is anyone on the path they are on? How do we alter life with casual or concrete choices made in a milli-second?
And the reader, who has doubtlessly been inspired by at least one of the dead in this chapbook, happily goes along for the ride, conjuring spirits through Bava’s poems. Our own mortality is a post-it note. We go to the ledge, but we don’t have to step off. It feels good just to stand there, playing tourist to these ghosts wandering around in dark mental caverns. We are here to “stare at our beautiful corpse of a poem,” and Bava generously allows us to dip a toe in the afterlife. If we are lucky, we can grab for a stronghold in the cliff and hold on.
They Talk About Death, Alessandra Bava
Blood Pudding Press, 2014
Jennifer MacBain-Stephens attended NYU, and has spent a large part of her life moving up and down I-95 and I-80 in the Midwest; she recently moved to the DC area. She is the author of the chapbooks Clotheshorse (Finishing Line Press, forthcoming, 2014) and Every Her Dies (ELJ Publications). She has written four YA non-fiction books (Rosen Publishing). Her work has been nominated for Best of the Net, and can soon or recently be found in Dressing Room Poetry Journal, The Blue Hour, Vector Press, The Golden Walkman, Split Rock Review, Toad Suck Review, and Hobart.