This the first in a series of musings that reflects on poetry and ritual and the power of both to regenerate the human spirit in dark times.
In age when politicians misuse language, when speech acts mix with hate acts, when propaganda curtails the transformative power of metaphor, stories of Robert Desnos’ poetic acts in the grimmest of circumstances reminds me that poetry has the power to enchant, transform and at its best – save us.
Who Was Robert Desnos?
Born in 1900 in Paris, as a child, dream worlds fascinated Robert Desnos. He could, according to William Kullik, "drop off in a flash and speak poetry - sometimes in perfect alexandrines - to the astonishment (and sometimes suspicion) of others" (The Voice of Robert Desnois xiii). It's no surprise that in his early twenties, along with surrealists Paul Éluard, André Breton and Louis Aragon, Desnos reimagined poetry in a way that it embraced his fascination with the unconscious, dreams and the uncanny. In his Rrose Sélavy (1922), a collection of aphorisms whose title bears the name of Marcel Duchamp’s alter-ego, Desnos claimed that Duchamp had sent him a direct psychic transmission from New York. Right up until his death in 1945, the possessive powers of language haunted Robert Desnos.
Between 1920 and 1930, Desnos wrote eight books of poetry including Language cuit (1923), Deuil pour deuil (1924), Journal d’une apparition (1927), and The Night of Loveless Nights (1930), all which experimented with different kinds of register, montage and collage. But poetry was not Desnos' only art. He wrote numerous slogans, reviews, essays and radio plays, among them Grande complainte de Fantômas (1933), directed by Antonin Artaud and an adapted poem by Walt Whitman in Le Salut au monde (1936).
In “The Voice of Robert Desnos” (translated by William Kulik), a sense of the mystical, dream-like and incantatory quality of Desnos’ register, influenced by the surrealist aesthetic, comes forth. It begins:
So like a flower and current of air
The flow of water fleeting shadows
the smile glimpsed at midnight this excellent evening
so like every joy and every sadness
it is the midnight past lifting its naked body above the belfries and
I call to me those lost in the fields
old skeletons young oaks cut down
scraps of cloth rotting on the ground and linen drying in farm
I call tornadoes and hurricanes
storms typhoons cyclones
I call the smoke of volcanoes and the smoke of cigarettes
the rings of smoke from expensive cigars
I call lovers and loved ones
I call the living and the dead
I call gravediggers
I call assassins
I call hangmen pilots bricklayers architects
I call the flesh
I call the one I love
I call the one I love
I call the one I love …
In Robert Desnoss, Surrealism, and the Marvelous in Everyday Life (2008), Katharine Conley calls Desnos the most prolific practitioner and star performer of automatism," a practice he makes apparent in "The Voice of Robert Desnos." At heart, automatism, or automatic writing, means writing from the unconscious or, some might say, a supernatural source. A kind of writing without writing, automatic writers took pen to paper in a kind of trance-like state. Fernado Pessoa, author of the The Book of Disquiet (1935), experimented with automatic writing along with William Butler Yeats’ wife Georgie Hyde-Lees.
To get an idea of what the act of automatic writing looks like, Louis Aragon describes Desnos entering a trance-like state in a café: “amid the sound of voices, the bright light, the jostlings, Robert Desnos need only close his eyes, and he talks, and among the steins, the saucers, the whole ocean collapses with its prophetic racket and its banners decorated with long silk banners.”
Whatever explanations lie behind automatic writing, and there are many – from an act of tapping into the unconscious to writing from dissociation to the intervening of spirits – Desnos' talent for automatism might have led to an extraodinary act of liberation.
The Poetry of Resistence
By the 1940s, the Nazis were occupying Paris. Robert Desnos had joined the Resistance. He began publishing articles under pseudonyms that criticized the Occcupation. Using his position at French newspapers, Desnos started to pass on sensitive information to Resistance fighters. In 1944, the Gestapo discovered him, arrested him and sent him to Auschwitz. Moving from camp to camp, Desnos ended up in Terezin in Czechoslovakia, where he eventually died of Typhoid only weeks after the camp had been liberated.
But he didn't die in vain. Far from. In Mechanical Occult: Automatism, Modernism and the Specter of Politics (2004), Alan Ramon Clinton writes that in the camp Desnos would “counter psychological torture by doing palm readings that prophesied long life and good fortune” (29).
Clinton sees Desnos’ palm readings as acts of poetry. He writes that the Desnos’ readings were “remarkably accurate, at least in a poetic sense” (30). Desnos was not a trained palm reader, but his practice in automatism, a belief in the supernatural power of poetry and a talent for stream-of-consciousness word-play allowed him to read poetry in places most couldn't. Those poetic readings of the palms of his fellow prisoners gave them hope if not a sense of beauty. Amidst unspeakable violence, in those small poetic acts, Desnos' readings offered resisted the Nazi occupation of the hearts of prisoners.
In “Can the Imagination Save Us?” (2004), Susan Griffin describes the story of Desnos’ palm reading prophecies her friend Odette, another writer and a survivor of the holocaust, told it to her. When guards began to lead Desnos, along with other prisoners, away from the barracks towards what everyone knew to be the gas chambers, Desnos interrupted the somber silence and jumped out to grab the palm of another man.
Griffin recalls Odette’s story: “Oh, he says, I see you have a very long lifeline. And you are going to have three children." She describes him as "exhuberant. And his excitement ... contagious." In succession, one man after the other offered Robert Desnos their palms. He offered predictions "for longevity, more children, abundant joy.”
The mood of the prisoners, Odette recalls, changed dramatically. Apparently, the guards found themselves unable to go through with the executions. All men, including Robert Desnos, were taken back to the barracks.
Desnos’ surreal, imaginative, poetic act saved them. Could he have performed that act of poetic palm-reading if he hadn’t been practicing all those years his surrealist experiments with words?
Poetry, perhaps, is not a useless practice.
Perhaps it comes from a deepest longing to love, to live. Perhaps allows us to step outside terror towards light and regeneration.
As I publish this, the dead have counted beyond 50 in another mass shooting in America. Some leaders deny their citizens the right to health care; others, the right to vote. 72 years after the liberation of Terezin, the Nazi camp where Robert Desnos read those palms, the far-right have won seats again in Germany's parliament,
What poetic acts can you do to instil hope in situations that appear hopeless? What rituals can you take up to resist the occupation of your spirit? Whose lives might you change with something so seemingly far-fetched and radical that it infuses love into forgotten places?