Bruce Boston. Surrealities: Texts and Images. Colusa CA: Dark Regions Press, August 2011. 66 pp. ISBN 978-1-937128-13-5.
Several decades ago, an eminent science-fiction writer, poet, and critic explored the idea that at least part of the attraction of SF for many readers lay in a combination of expectation and reversal, signaled initially at the level of language and syntax.
To demonstrate his meaning, he began constructing a statement. His first word: The. He then examined the assumptions readers would immediately make upon seeing that word. The is an article; therefore it will ultimately be followed by a noun or a noun-like word…most conventionally, by the name of a person, place, or thing. The ‘thing’ named will be specific (the desk, for example) rather than general (a desk). Given these two assumptions, the number of possible words, while still enormous given the extent of the English vocabulary, is at least in some senses limited.
He then added a second word: yellow. The adjectival alerts readers to several more possibilities. First, the noun, the thing-named, has not yet arrived. And second, whatever that thing is, it will have a specific characteristic. The reader might legitimately anticipate “yellow flower” or “yellow bird.” Already, within two words, the range of possible meanings has been radically narrowed.
The third word—sun—verifies each of these assumptions. Yes, there does exist in our universe such a ‘thing’ that is yellow and that we conventionally preface with the (or other indicating words), and the phrase makes perfect sense. We as readers may continue, feeling at ease with our understanding of the words and the ‘thing’ to which they refer.
The fourth word added was set. Acceptable. We all know that setting is one of the things that our sun can do, even though most would recognize that the verb is being used metaphorically—that is, the sun does not move, the earth does. But even within that proviso, the sentence—for it is a full statement, with subject, verb, and complete idea—resonates easily.
The fifth word—and—indicates coupling, and coupling of a certain sort. Something is to follow, and that something will be analogous to, or at least equal in subordination to, The yellow sun. We know this because and links. But would convey a contraindication. Therefore might indicate a conclusion. So would suggest cause and effect. But and lets us know that something of equivalent value will follow.
Fifth word: the. Again, this is to be expected. The word amplified our expectation that whatever follows will be specific, and will eventually name something
We are still comfortably within our universe.
Sixth word: blue. Ah yes, we have a yellow sun, which has just set; and now we have a blue something that will follow logically (and equivalently) on the previous action. In fact, the words already given are so powerful that many, if not most readers, will make a further assumption—that the next word will be sky or one of its synonyms. Perhaps the full compound sentence will even read: “The yellow sun set and the blue sky faded to black.”
At this point, we have actually moved ahead of the writer, anticipating the direction that the sentence—and perhaps even the story—will move.
Then, just when we are comfortable in our assumption, he adds the next word: sun.
Wait! That can’t be.
There isn’t a blue sun. There is just the single yellow one….
In our solar system….
And at that instant, the writer springs his ‘gotcha!’
We are not in our solar system. The words we know and understand, the grammar that we depend so completely on for communication, has in fact led us into another world, where thing not possible in this one are everyday commonplaces.
And with that disjuncture, science fiction takes over the story. We have learned not to trust our assumptions that language will always take us to familiar places, that grammar will always reflect that which we know to be true.
In Bruce Boston’s Surrealities, this process is carried to its logical conclusion.
Poetry is not prose (although a number of Boston’s poems are ‘prosaic’ in the finest sense of the word, combining the cadences of prose with the meticulous language of poetry). It relies more heavily on metaphor, image, and symbol than prose. It already requires that we set aside certain assumption about language—that it will conform to the overt grammar and rhythms of speech; that it will reflect reality directly rather than indirectly, elliptically, asymmetrically; that it will favor strictly factual effects over ‘poeticisms’. As a result, we as readers already approach poetry with a slightly different set of protocols that we would use in reading prose.
Boston takes that slightly different set of protocols and wrenches it even further, creating a texture that at times nearly defies affinities with what we know of words and things…that, in a word, approaches and at times defines surrealism.
In poem after poem, Boston’s technique forces us to concentrate on the semantic and grammatical possibilities implicit in each word , knowing as we do that the instant we move on to the next word, all of our assumptions may be proven false, misdirected, or utterly meaningless. In the universes of Surrealities, meaning is created, not by the seamless sequence of logical thought, but rather by disjunction, by the juxtaposition of word/images that in our commonplace, prosaic view of things, may seem to have no connections at all.
Then, having proceeded with care, and with frequent pauses to reconsider our place in the universe—whatever universe we happen to be in at that instant—as defined by the series of words that compose a poetic line, we are confronted by the identical challenge on a larger scale…in the relationship of line to line.
And of stanza to stanzas.
And finally, of poem to poem.
Through it all, Boston crafts words, phrases, images, symbols that stretch the limits of our vocabulary, and of the words we once felt comfortable in believing that we understood.
In some instances, poems present narrative fantasias, as in the teasingly titled piece “Two Nightstands Attacking a Cello,” a meditation on form and function and on the redemptive consequences of “pain and humiliation.” The poem is literally about surrealities—the juxtaposition of opposites: angular versus curved, functional versus artistic, aggressive versus passive, even (in the most fundamental senses) masculine versus feminine. There is an “unprovoked assault,” an unconditional retreat, a seeming victory that abruptly transmutes—“transforms”—into defeat as the cello reaches into the depths of its pain, its suffering, to achieve a “doleful” epiphany and a heart-wrenching transcendence.
In others, lines and stanzas simply stand in opposition to themselves and each other. “Surreal Wish List,” for example, eschews overt narrative for—as the title implies—a simple listing…simple on the surface but ultimately complex and engaging. The poem consists of nine short stanzas, each a straight-forward noun phrase; there are in fact no functional verbs in the entire poem. Yet in spite of that grammatical ‘deficiency,’ each stanza seems to vibrate with implied action stemming from the proximity of impossibilities: “The Roman numeral/for zero” or “A chateau with blue eyes.” Each stanza—and each grammatical subunit within each stanza—invites the reader to stop, to consider, to imagine, to explore.
“Surreal Domestic” transforms every-day objects into phenomena imbued with wonder and surprise…and more than a hint of threat. Speaking of a zipper in the back of a walk-in closet, the narrator says bluntly, “I have never touched it./ Believe me.”
Again and again throughout Surrealities, the reader will encounter, understand, and internalize the persistent theme of the collection, summarized in the final stanza of “Surreal People”: “If surreal people were the world,/the wonders and horrors of existence/would forever begin anew.”
Scattered through the text are half a dozen images—Rorshasch-like patterns in stark black and white with titles such as “Architectonic Dream” and “Butterfly Cinder” that indicate quite clearly that the images are in visual cousins to the verbal poems…explorations of shapes that are not quite shapes, of meanings that emerge from rather than are imposed upon the images. In their own way, they are as intriguing, as thought-provoking as the poetry itself.
Surrealities is not an easy book, nor was it (I think) intended to be so. It teases, it hints, it suggests, but each time the reader feels comfortable with a reading, with an interpretation, the text shifts, twists, turns in unexpected way and forces new understandings. And because of that, rather than in spite of it, the collection is more than worth a reading; it is worth multiple readings and long moments of thought.