Friday, September 25, 2015

Surrealism and the English Channel

Paul Nash, painting of Dymchurch sea-wall

[Image source: from Cathy Lomax's pretty wonderful blog: http://cathylomax.blogspot.co.uk/2013/08/paul-nash-and-dymchurch.html]



Lee’s poems had about them a remarkable tone. They were ‘quiet’ compared to the work of the Americans I was reading, but they were also surreal. It was a surrealism of everyday things. I often felt that surrealism arrived in Britain as flotsam; objects that floated across the Channel and sat displaced on a beach in southern England. It’s something you can see in the paintings of Paul Nash.


(From Laurie Duggan's post about the late Lee Harwood:

http://graveneymarsh.blogspot.co.uk/2015/07/remembering-lee-harwood.html)


I wonder if Tim Allen (who grew up on the Isle of Portland) would recognize that particular psychogeographical configuration?

Thinking back to my Hastings days, maybe even (in early childhood)  my Eastbourne days, I'd say that I always had a vague sense of it.

A sense confirmed when, much later, I discovered Montale's poem "Eastbourne" (not that Montale was a Surrealist, but...) , and by the Channel-Islander Jeremy Reed's translations of Montale in The Coastguard's House, generously and rightly praised by Michael Hoffman in the LRB;  still surely one of Reed's most stunning achievements.

Maybe it's something about any town that sharply abuts the sea. The sudden, enormous sea-blankness always intrudes a kind of questioning commentary, a kind of provisionality, into the life of the land.

But maybe, too,  it's particularly something unique about the English Channel. Already when I was quite young, the experience here was not just of enormous sea-blankness but of a pressing awareness that, not very far beyond the blankness, though invisible to us, lay a populous, clamorous and totally different world; different languages, different history, different art, different thinking.

Plus it was a fact that continental visitors, like Montale, were a lot more likely to show up in South Coast towns than in, say, Derbyshire.

It always seemed to me quite natural that my own grandmother, an Eastbourne resident long estranged from her husband, should have nourished her imaginative and emotional life with visits to Paris and Austria. She even made me call her by a German name (Mutti). I never really thought of her as English.

Though I couldn't see across the English Channel myself, it was obvious that Mutti could.





[I've been here before.

In an essay I wrote in 2010 about Elizabeth Bletsoe's collection Landscape from a Dream (named after a Paul Nash painting), I felt concerned that taking an interest in Nash's South Coast localities might mean "an unsurrealization of Surrealism". I'm still not sure if it's true or not.]


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