Ad Absurdum: A Collection of Poems by Marcel Broodthaers
A new edition of three books by Marcel Broodthaers is published by Siglio on the occasion of his retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art.
“A surd is a radical whose meaning cannot be exactly ascertained.” – Lewis Carroll
One exciting thing about the creative act (in the parlance of Marcel Duchamp) is its way of bringing about, for actor and viewer, things that haven’t been experienced before. At least not in the same context. Some of what’s been made by the Belgian poet, filmmaker, and artist Marcel Broodthaers is a good example of this, and in a way that also allows the viewer to creatively complete the picture by way of imagining new meanings of what’s being shown. With this I’d like to bring up nonsense, or better another sense, which is what to my mind what Broodthaers was engaged in. In My Ogre Book, Shadow Theater, Midnight (Siglio, 2016), he tries on Lewis Carroll’s shoes and explores the partitions of reality and make-believe. In one edition of texts and images spanning a little more than a decade, the book collects three short works. The first of three parts, Mon livre d’ogre (My Ogre Book, 1957), is a tableau in a series of poems — with Midnight (1960) in similar fashion, and then the all-image collection Shadow Theater (1973-1974) between the two, made from one of Broodthaers’ Projection series.
Like in Carroll, the why of Broodthaers needn’t be put into words. The tale that Broodthaers weaves is often a fragmented one that is at times homely and always bewildering. These things are what make his poetry congenial, seeming from the wellsprings of consciousness. Consciousness, after all, as writer Harry Mathews has said, “does not produce a particular meaning — it produces no conclusions.” That seems a pretty apt description of this collection: Broodthaers isn’t concluding anything, and with that he makes an adventurer of his reader. For children first, this nonsense has always been a secret means of access to a more vibrant, harlequin world — one I’ve come to find belongs to poetry, in all of its guises.
When the first of the three books came out, it was 1957, a post-war world. The first US edition of Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat appeared, and Allen Ginsberg’s Howl was printed in England and seized by customs officials that year. What is the significance of this? Maybe nothing. To liken Broodthaers’ writing to Carroll is, by the way, in no way to call it anachronistic — a word I’ll look askance at, not abiding by the notion that styles “belong” to specific eras. At the start of My Ogre Book, through the “present day mirror,” morning becomes a world unto itself, reminding one of Alice holding to her orange. Broodthaers also, while courting a familiar style, brings to the poems motifs and highly unusual turns all his own. There is otherworldly music where donkeys play the drums, and the bells of Easter Island, well, remain silent. Elsewhere goats knock on doors, fairies grind coffee, paper flowers fill with dew, and all the while everyday, clearly explained things happen too, making some of this fantasy material even more interesting. “The wind allies itself with the fire/ the rafts burn in the night” is one such line so lucid you can almost smell the smoke, and “The key is under the doormat” as ever.
In his writing and in the images within Shadow Theater, Broodthaers was able to summon the chance-originated play, conundrums, or (un)concerns that his later visual artworks hinge on physically. I’m thinking of Broodthaers’ La Pluie, a 1969 film wherein the artist tries to write as “rain” falls on him, washing away text even as he continues to write. A simple, strange tableau on astronomical situations, human effort and circumstance, all of Broodthaers’ work seems to engage the processes of being in the world and making things. But in his writings, the poet plays with meaning with an almost wholesale disregard for ordinary sense — no net as far as the game of reasoning and logic goes, he creates extra significances that endlessly drift in and out of new senses. In Midnight, surprising things take place: rain falls from the sun, a straw man guards the sea, a black cat constellation is made, centuries get lined up in a matchbox, and stars are turned to salt. This memorable nonsense impresses me just about as much as the regular phenomena it parodies.
Calling it an artist’s book is no stretch — at just over 150 pages, its layout has the look of a children’s book juxtaposed with the simple aesthetic appeal of Raymond Roussel and the artist Zo’s collaboration from 1929, New Impressions of Africa, where images and cantos are informed by one another throughout. The images in this book lie between the two short collections of poems but have no text on their pages.
Thumbing to Shadow Theater (Ombres chinoises) (1973-74) — a series of 80 slides of images taken from comic strips, books, and a photography manual, all of which were projected somewhere sometime — Broodthaers tells another story, again a provisionary one that unravels and winds up again by turns. A visual lexicon involving ordinary or comic incidents, objects, and figures, is reimagined in new juxtapositions that make the familiar baffling. In Shadow Theater, celestial bodies career through outer space and transform to erupting volcanoes, exploding perhaps through a kitchen window, to maybe cause the seasons to tear a man from limb-to-limb. Volcanoes, shadow puppets, and solid black rectangles are a few of this book’s recurrent motifs.
Broodthaers explained the effect of his work in 1965, saying, “The preference for eternity and the natural had ended up producing academicism, as we know. Its replacement by a preference for the ephemeral, for the artificial, for all that is false, aroused my enthusiasm as much as my poetic loyalty.” In Broodthaers, assumed logic is, for a moment, set aside or transmogrified. Be the truth “interstitial,” as Broodthaers calls it, or mere traces in the mind of the artist, the person experiencing the objects will always come away with something new when the imagination has a say.
Broodthaers, Marcel. My Ogre Book, Shadow Theater, Midnight (New York: Siglio, 2016). Trans. by Elizabeth Zuba with Maria Gilissen Broodthaers. ISBN-13: 978-1-938221-11-8. 160 pages. Edition of 1,000. $39.95