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I Shall Be Water
On a poem by Portuguese surrealist Isabel Meyrelles
Image: Sculpture by Isabel Mayrelles, Fellini Gallery
I’ve been reading through Penelope Rosemont’s massive Surrealist Women: An International Anthology. As you’d expect with any anthology, it’s something of a mixed bag—there’s a lot of lengthy aesthetic pronouncements which kind of blur into each other. And surrealist emphasis on individualism and original flights of fancy can get (ironically but inevitably) somewhat repetitive. After the fifth ode to freedom featuring blood and butterflies, you feel like maybe the pale caged caterpillars are on to something. At least they know they’re not going anywhere.
But there’s also some great poetry. I love this piece by Isabel Meyrelles, translated from the Portuguese by Jean R. Longland.
the pine tree sound
of your hair
and your eyes
To forget these petrified days
far from you
I shall be water
I shall be water
where only you
can be reflected
The poem initially reads as a lyric to a (permanently or temporarily) lost lover. The narrator wants to forget someone gone, and hopes to do so by becoming inanimate, “opaque, stagnant.” Water doesn’t remember anything, or think, so if the narrator is water she won’t be tormented by “these petrified days/far from you.”
The poem contrasts self (consciousness) and selflessness—but it also complicates that division. The lover is described as himself inanimate; his hair has a “pine tree sound”; his eyes are “black stones;” the days without him are “petrified.” The wish to become a stone or lake is in some sense a wish to become the lover, who may be dead, or may himself be a kind of personification of nature.
More, by the end of the poem, it’s clear that becoming non-self doesn’t actually end consciousness of grief, but compounds it. Meyrelles wants to be water, but the water isn’t pure. Instead, it’s “green/opaque/stagnant.” She’s festering, or curdling in on herself, until there’s no her left, only the image of her lover (“only you/can be reflected/nothing else.”) The relief from his memory is an intensification of his memory; she tosses aside the self that remembers him for a self that is nothing but his memory. She is a thing, and as a thing he is the only thing she is. That’s at least one version of grief.
The grief can be for a particular person. It might also, though, be a kind of lament for a disconnected self that can’t be put aside or fully integrated. Surrealism was fascinated by psychoanalytic ideas about divided and collective selves—the idea that there were hidden parts of identity that the self was unaware of, and that the fullness of consciousness was accessible only partially via dreams, chance, or misrecognitions.
Given that context, you can read “To forget” as a poem about internal, rather than external, estrangement. Perhaps the person with the pine tree hair and the black stone eyes is the narrator, or one aspect of the narrator—a true or natural or just alternate self that is more like a landscape than a self. The narrator is trying to escape from, and join with, that alter ego by becoming nothing—a dream without a dreamer, in which the dreamer and “nothing else” is reflected.
There are parallels here with Romantic traditions; in Keats’ “Ode to a Grecian Urn” the speaker’s longing for eternity is a longing for death and for a kind of self outside the self.
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
The urn’s eternity is immortality—Keat’s is imagining his poem enduring like the Greek paintings. But, eternity, when you’re talking about an urn, is also death. That “Cold Pastoral” has an ominous tinge once you’ve implicitly started comparing the figures on the urn to the bodies reduced to ash and dumped inside it. Keats is turning himself into art, but art doesn’t breathe. The poem is both a victory lap and an elegy by someone who knows he doesn’t have long to live .
Meyrelles is exploring some of the same tensions as Keats, but without Keat’s careful distance, and without his distinctions between poet and urn, art viewer and art. In Meyrelles’ poem, we don’t know who the narrator is speaking about. For that matter, we don’t really know who the narrator is. The “I” appears with no structure or self or background and immediately begins wishing its structure and self would melt and pool like water. It speaks as no one wishing to be no one. You look into the poem and see shadows, echoes, love or grief which might be there, or which you might bring in yourself. The thing reflected in the pond is just you, an unknown reader, a petrified self that is not sure who it is, or where it is drowned.
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