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This review is taken from PN Review 251, Volume 46 Number 3, January - February 2020.

Cover of A la Mystérieuse / Les Ténèbres
Edmund PrestwichSpellbinding Words
Robert Desnos, A la Mystérieuse / Les Ténèbres, translated by Martin Bell (Art Translated) £9.99
Karl O’Hanlon’s introduction tells us that these translations of the French Surrealist Robert Desnos were found in the papers of the poet Martin Bell after his death, and that they’re published here for the first time. I’m no Surrealist aficionado but I’d strongly recommend this book, both for Desnos’s own extraordinary imagination and for the beauty of Bell’s English phrasing.

Writing that doesn’t so much describe reality as create alternative realities of its own can seem spell-binding one moment and insubstantial the next. However, most of these poems do powerfully evoke the given world.  For one thing, presenting familiar objects in bizarre contexts makes them strike our imaginations more vividly.  On a larger scale, whole poems are constructed around collisions between fantasy and reality. And finally, of course, subjective feelings are themselves a reality of the world. In the poems that work – which I think is most of them – one feels convinced by the emotional development.

The collision between fantasy and reality gives its imaginative arc to ‘The Voice of Robert Desnos’. Beginning softly, with ethereally intangible images – ‘So much like flowers and breezes / like running water like fugitive shadows’ – it rapidly escalates through a series of commands evoking the world-transforming magic of Shakespeare’s Prospero or Ovid’s Medea. Suddenly the poem shifts from aspiration to imagined achievement. For thirty five delirious lines the impossible is offered as actual, culminating in the cry, ‘flesh quivers at my call.’ Then everything shrivels into the desolate simplicity of negation:
the girl ...

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