I am very fortunate to receive on occasions review copies of NYRB releases; often these are specific titles I’ve asked for, sometimes they’ve been offered, occasionally they’ll be NYRB Originals rather than Classics. However, NYRB poetry titles have been appearing, which is very exciting and also something of a voyage of discovery! I did request Magnetic Fields, which was an excellent collection; then After Lorca” by Jack Spicer arrived unexpectedly and was marvellous. Recently, however, a volume popped through the letterbox which is something really special: “Shapeshifter” by Alice Paalen Rahon, translated by Mary Ann Caws.

Rahon was a new name to me, and as the introduction to the book reveals, she was a fascinating woman with one hell of a life! Born in France, her first husband was the artist Wolfgang Paalen, although as the book’s blurb makes clear she had lovers as varied as Pablo Picasso and the poet Valentine Penrose; and her circle of friends over the decades included Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Joan Miró, Paul Éluard, Man Ray, and Anaïs Nin. The title shapeshifter, as applied to Rahon, seems an apt one; a painter as well as a surrealist poet, she spent much of her life in Mexico, becoming a naturalised citizen, and she travelled widely.

So Rahon’s life took in both poetry and art, and the NYRB edition gathers together not only the three poetry collections published in her lifetime, but also a wealth of additional material. There’s uncollected poetry and writings; Picasso’s poem about Rahon; a gallery of photographs of Rahon with friends and lovers, manuscripts and more. It’s a rich volume, and a wonderful way to give a rounded picture of a forgotten creative.

…to conjure up seas weightier than skies
livelier more joyous than comets
like the waters of birth

You might be thinking, well that’s all very well, but what about the poetry? As I mentioned above, Rahon is regarded as a surrealist poet, and the translation of her verse is by Mary Ann Caws, who is renowned for for her work on this kind of writing (and in fact is responsible for a wonderful anthology I have, “The Milk Bowl of Feathers“). So my approach to reading the poems was very much the same as for that collection and also to the verse in “Magnetic Fields”; this is not traditional verse with conventional structure, but words with unusual juxtapositions and imagery, and I find it best to just wallow in the beauty of the words and pull out the phrases which resonate most. There plenty of these, and reading Alice’s poetry was a marvellous experience; hypnotic and mesmerising at times, with verse which doesn’t necessarily have much conventional meaning, yet often has great beauty, with sections that leap out at you. There’s much poignancy in some unpublished pieces addressed to her first husband, and some wonderful imagery which really lingers in the mind.

The shadow descends a staircase of sun
to the depths of my heart

“Shapeshifter” is a bilingual edition, with the poems in French on the left and in translation on the right, and I do like to read a translated edition presented like this. Because the originals are in French (apart from a couple of pieces which appear to have been written originally in English), and I have a smidgeon of knowledge of French, I enjoy looking at the two versions side by side. As I mentioned, Caws’ introduction gives a useful introduction to the poet’s life, and the result of her labours in translating these works has to be commended; having never encountered Rahon’s work before, I absolutely loved exploring this book and I highly recommend it. Perfectly put together and absolutely fascinating!