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This review is taken from PN Review 214, Volume 40 Number 2, November - December 2013.

Shuffle Up and Deal susan wheeler, Assorted Poems (Salt) £12.99

Is there a school or tradition of American poetic surrealism? Poe's experiments with the Gothic may have influenced Baudelaire and Rimbaud but he left few traces in America. America's version of the Protestant Ethic seems to have been strong enough that even those who opposed it did so in its own terms, both emotionally and aesthetically. Reality was never turned inside out, perhaps because Americans have always been more romantics than realists anyway. Melville's The Confidence Man probably comes closest to our modern sense of surrealism; it probably influenced Borges and the 'magical realists' but again nothing was built on this foundation in America. It didn't even influence Melville, as his subsequent long poem Clarel is a turgid pilgrim's progress and travelogue, a return to earth rather than a further hallucinatory departure from it. It may be that surrealism needs an established church and hierarchy to flourish. Atomistic individualism and a general optimism that problems can at least be addressed, if not solved, is probably not the right climate for dark reversals of the established order. After all, our greatest religious poet, Wallace Stevens, was vice president of an insurance company!

John Ashbery is frequently accounted to be a surrealist, or at least one who has been influenced by French surrealist writers. Or at least he lived in France. Ashbery is very elliptical and evasive, looking for conundrums and rabbit holes to explore. His poems exist outside of time, either the narrative time of the poem itself or the historical time of a specific cultural ...


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