SURREALIST MUSE – a poem by Anne Whitehouse

SURREALIST MUSE

The sense of a vessel is not in its shell, but in its void.
-Dag Hammarskjold

Loplop imagined a beguiling woman-child
whose purpose was to inspire him,
not to understand him.
She was meant to be his destiny,
sparking his creativity, leading him to visions,
a mirror in which he saw himself.

“Who is the Bride of the Wind?” he sang.
“She cannot read or write without mistakes,
but she warms herself with her intense love,
her mystery, her poetry.”

They shared a belief that art is alchemy.
Loplop was a blue-eyed bird
with fierce talons and soft feathers,
and Leonora was a white horse
with a mane of long hair
and the power of flight.

He made her the instrument of his passion,
and she loved him for it anyway.
In an old stone house near a river
of deep gorges and limestone cliffs,
and stones polished to a high gloss
by the river’s rough bottom,
he nourished her painting and poetry.

The mythic and occult
Leonora had sought since childhood
came to dwell with them
for a year of days filled with light
falling through the open shutters
of the tall windows of the studio
where she painted mysterious images
with enigmatic meanings
and cooked exotic dishes in a rustic kitchen,
and he decorated house and garden
with sculptures of mythical creatures.

“For two years I’ve been madly in love.
I’m painting only to keep from going crazy.
I want him to live only for me.
I wish that he had no past.
I want us to be in the same body.
Absolute love, I want him forever.”

This was in Saint-Martin-d’Ardeche,
in the south of France before the war,
before he was imprisoned as an enemy alien,
and she was left alone with their five cats
in the house she now called “The House of Fear:”

“Without you, I am losing my sense of life,
of everything I owe to knowing you.
In despair, I bite my fingers violently;
my body has changed into an animal.”

His release at Christmas was a reprieve.
In the new year he painted her portrait
in the dawn light of a tropical landscape.
In May he was denounced and arrested again,
and sent to a prison farther away.
Coerced into giving away the house,
she fled with friends, leaving their creations
and possessions behind.

She struggled to find a way forward.
The car jammed, and she was jammed.
The road of escape was lined with death.
She felt herself absorbing the world’s ills,
her consciousness leaking from her body.
Craving deliverance, she was betrayed
and abandoned by everyone
from whom she sought protection.

Abducted in Madrid, raped, and stripped
of her clothes and identification papers,
she left body and soul behind,
escaping into the shamanic visions
of an alchemist with the fantastic touch
of a fairy tale wizard,
invoking images and enigmas
with no solution in reason,
like the erotic dream-worlds
conjured in ceremonies
of ancient feminine cults.

“I tried to empty myself of the images
that had made me blind.
Armed with madness for a long voyage,
I wandered into the unknown
with the abandon and courage of ignorance.”

Confined to a mental institution
in the north of Spain,
shackled naked to a bed,
her skin ravaged by mosquitoes,
lying in feces, sweat, and urine,
treated with drugs that gave her convulsions,
she was plunged into the depths.

“At the bottom of the well
was the stopping of my mind
for all eternity in utter anguish.
I entered a state of prostration,
and when I awoke, I regained my lucidity.
The next day I met a small man
with a gray face who told me,
‘Power over animals is a natural thing
in a person as sensitive as you are.’”

Loplop once said, “To create the fantastic,
you must use the banal.”

Through luck, chance, and cunning,
she managed a series of escapes.
After a year apart and an anguished search,
he located her in Lisbon.

She was living under the protection
of the Mexican ambassador,
who offered her a way out of Europe,
the war, and the long reach
of her oppressive family,
who intended to commit her
to an asylum in South Africa.

Loplop, too, had found a sponsor,
an American heiress with an art collection,
who’d fallen in love with the artist
as well as the art.

If only Leonora had stayed in Saint-Martin,
he might not have lost her
or the house on the cliffs.
Thanks to the French wife he’d abandoned,
he was released soon after Leonora fled.
It was a shock when he returned
to find her missing and her cryptic note,
the house and their belongings
swindled by the innkeeper
he’d thought was their friend.

One moonless night
he broke into the house
and fled with their paintings
by canoe across the river.
The paintings were with him
the next spring when
he found her in Lisbon.

The longed-for reunion was a fiasco.
“Once again my life is a mess,”
he wrote their best friend, Leonor.
“I have found (and lost) Leonora.
She has been crushed, and there is only
an occasional glimpse of her old spirit.”

Yet, just a few days later, he wrote again,
“Everything has changed.
Leonora’s horrors have ended.
She has become beautiful, vibrant;
it’s a miracle.”

Through their marriages of convenience,
they both moved to New York,
where he would have left the heiress
for her in a heartbeat, but she refused.
“I was not the same person after Madrid.
There was no way for me to go back.”

He gave her his portrait of her
painted in the halcyon months
between his imprisonments,
when he should have made plans to leave,
but persisted instead in a dreamlike bubble,
pretending they could shut out the world,
that led them to disaster.

She gave him the early self-portrait
that had come with her from London
to Paris in the early days of their love,
and he had rescued from the house on the cliff.
In riding clothes and high heels,
she sits in a chair under a rocking horse,
with her mane of dark hair,
as she wards off an evil-eyed hyena
with the sign of the horn, and outside
the window is a fleeing white horse.

She also gave him the portrait
she had made of him as Bird Superior
wearing a pelt of rose-colored feathers
that ends in a forked tail
like the tail of his Maremaid.

Inside the lantern he holds in his delicate hand
shines the image of a white horse.
The white horse that soared across the lawn
is now an eyeless ice sculpture,
frozen to the ground.

One night while she lay sleeping,
he painted over one of her canvases,
then convinced her the next morning
that the painting never existed.
It amused him to play mind-games with her.
She was the youngest of their group,
wearing long skirts and lacy blouses
bought for her in thrift shops.
She went along with their wishes,
until she no longer recognized who she was.

Yet she was “magnificent in her refusals,”
said Breton the patriarch, czar of Surrealism.
She said “No” to Man Ray taking her picture,
“No” to Miró’s request to buy him cigarettes,
“No” to Loplop’s last entreaties of love.
She said “No” to the lot of them,
asking her for this or that,
just as she’d said to her father,
“No, I will not be who you want me to be,
or marry who you want,”
and he’d replied,
“You will not darken my doorstep again.”

She might paint her feet with mustard,
snip human hair into an omelet,
shower fully clothed and come out dripping
to sit down among the others,
invite random guests to dinner
from a phonebook. With women friends,
she practiced the occult as culinary art.
The kitchen was her seat of power.

What saved her was her sensitivity
to the natural world, seen and unseen.
“I could draw near animals
where other human beings
put them to precipitate flight.”

After a year and a half in New York,
she left on a road trip for Mexico
with her ambassador husband
and never saw Loplop again.
Rarely did she speak of him,
but she kept his portrait of her
in her bedroom until the day she died.

Their marriages of convenience soon ended.
Leonora and Loplop found new loves
that lasted the rest of their lives. Dorothea
was an art student from Illinois
when she met Loplop in New York,
and he left the heiress for good to live
with her in Arizona in a house of their art.

Chiki was Leonora’s fellow refugee,
a Hungarian-Jewish photographer
who saved thousands of images
from the Spanish Civil War by entrusting
the negatives to a Mexican diplomat
who took them home to his country,
where they were forgotten for fifty years
and then found in his battered leather suitcase.

Chiki and Leonora shared a war-torn past
that found safe haven in Mexico,
where they made a home, raised two sons,
and practiced their arts. Tender and gentle,
Chiki was Leonora’s ally in occult explorations.
Allthough she occasionally visited France,
she never went back to the house on the cliff.

In Mexico she found her spiritual country.
Mystery, darkness, witchcraft—the deep worlds
that she’d always sensed were hidden
existed in plain view under the blazing sun,
amid exotic animals and luxuriant foliage.
Her art responded in a shimmer of secrets,
rendered in translucent egg tempera
she produced in her kitchen.

She wasn’t anyone’s plaything anymore.
Bitter experience had taught her
how to protect herself. Once, hoping
to seduce her, the filmmaker Buñuel
locked her in his bathroom.
She decorated the walls with handprints
of her menstrual blood.

She claimed a legacy of ancient knowledge,
passed on through generations of women.
She could bring on illness or exorcise it,
provoke dreams in others as their spiritual guide.
A Zen master said of her at fifty,
“She doesn’t know any koans,
but she has resolved them all.”

Her paintings reveal the mysterious beings
that hover close in childhood,
creatures that scurry up and down the spine,
through a net of nerves,
holding torches that cast flickering shadows
into forgotten spaces, through the thin veils
separating this world from the next.

In old age she asserted her right to be a crone:
“Art is not hereditary. It comes from somewhere else.
If you try to intellectualize it,
you are wasting your time.
You understand through your feelings.
Canvas is an empty space,
and what we see as space changes all the time.
A transparent egg that emits rays
like the great constellations is a body,
but it is also a box.”

.

Anne Whitehouse is the author of six poetry collections Meteor Shower (2016) is her second collection from Dos Madres Press, following The Refrain in 2012. She is the author of a novel, Fall Love, as well as short stories, essays, features, and reviews. She was born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, and lives in New York City. You can listen to her lecture, “Longfellow, Poe, and the Little Longfellow War” here.

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