The Milk Bowl of Feathers (edited, introduced and translated in places by Mary Ann Caws)

The fact that I can’t recall what prompted me to pick up a copy of this book recently proves just how shocking my memory is… Yet it’s only been in the house a few weeks so goodness know why I felt the need to buy it just at this time! However, it turned out to be an ideal read following on from the Leonora Carrington Penguin Modern; because the subtitle of this intriguing little book is “Essential Surrealist Writings”, and Carrington herself does feature in it!

“Milk Bowl…” is edited and introduced by Mary Ann Caws, who also translates many of the pieces – all of which is an amazing achievement. The book was published by New Directions and draws on a 1940 anthology by the publishing house’s founder, James Laughlin. I suspect, however, the involvement of Caws may have something to do with the pleasing presence of a large number of surrealist women, which really helps make this an absolutely fascinating read.

The Milk Bowl of Feathers

Surrealism grew out of Dada, and Caws covers the genesis of the movement in her introduction, as well as discussing themes and major practitioners. The extracts which follow and make up the body of the book are a wide-ranging, stimulating and really fascinating selection. There are pieces by Aragon, Breton and Dali; poems by Robert Desnos and Paul Eluard; even occasional illustrations. In fact, it’s probably the poetry that will stay with me most from this anthology, as some of it is really stunning and intense. Interestingly, Caws highlights the fact that the “notion of impassioned love” is one of the most important things in surrealist writing, and that’s reflected here, most particularly in the poetry. Desnos, Joyce Mansour and Eluard provide luminous, beautiful and intense verse, all dealing with love and its vagaries, although often with a dark edge which recalls Baudelaire. Leona Delacourt’s draft letters to Breton are fragmented and passionate; and Leonora Carrington’s short but sharp story is as a grim as anything the Brothers ever wrote!

I think Surrealism, like Dada, often comes across as difficult, scary or offputting; additionally, it’s probably more often linked with the visual arts as opposed to the written. However, the variety of the extracts on show here reveals that Surrealist writing can be strange, confusing, exciting, intense, dark and passionate – and definitely accessible to anyone who wants to read it. “The Milk Bowl of Feathers”, at a concentrated 78 pages, is an ideal introduction to this kind of writing and whatever prompted me to pick up a copy, I’m very glad that I did! 😀

(Re the translators – I always name the translators of the books I read, but in this case each of the 30-odd extracts has a translator/translators named at the end of the piece, and frankly to list them all here would just look silly. You will see their names and appreciate all their work if you buy this book – which I urge you to do!)