No Forbidden Places: On Joyce Mansour’s “Emerald Wounds”

By Ama KwartengDecember 31, 2023

No Forbidden Places: On Joyce Mansour’s “Emerald Wounds”

Emerald Wounds: Selected Poems by Joyce Mansour

IN THE LATEST ENGLISH translation of Joyce Mansour’s poetry, Emerald Wounds: Selected Poems (2023), the word death appears 35 times. “[K]isses die faster than the night,” and a butterfly “dies” in the speaker’s throat. Death is a stand-in for orgasm and is used to describe a lover finishing on “pink sand.” Death looms, arrives in the night, and disappears into the abyss. It is contagious, and there are “death squads of tradition.” Death is not meant to be feared, as “[t]he free man will conquer death.”

Emerald Wounds, translated by Emilie Moorhouse and edited by Garrett Caples, is the latest project that resurrects Mansour’s poems, spanning her entire career from her first book of poetry, Cris (Screams), published in France in 1953, to Trous noirs (“Black Holes”), published in France in 1986. Her work has been translated into English before, but—with the exception of the 2008 publication of Essential Poems and Writings of Joyce Mansour, edited and translated by Serge Gavronsky—most are out of print and difficult to find. This means that, for many English readers, Moorhouse’s translations will be the first time they come into contact with Mansour’s erotic and ravenous work.

Mansour emerges as part of the last decade’s larger literary project centering women writers and artists who risked being left on history’s cutting room floor. Mansour has been brought to our present-day attention alongside notable peers such as Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington.

Death is what catapulted Mansour to poetry. Born Joyce Patricia Adès in 1928 in England to a Jewish family of Syrian descent, Mansour grew up in Cairo. Mansour’s first loss, her mother, occurred when she was 15. At age 19, six months into their marriage, she lost her first husband to the same disease that took her mother—cancer. In a 1977 interview, Mansour said that she “was a sportive girl in the sun until my mother died … then I got married. My husband died also. At that point I became conscious of all this and started to see things. One sees that everything is not rosy. I wrote to get it all out.”

When Mansour met her second husband, Samir Mansour, she swapped English for French: “I met a man who refused to speak anything other than French. So I dropped English and I started reading, writing, and trying to think in French. I started a new life with new thoughts.” Writers choose to work outside their native language for several reasons. For writer and painter Carrington, who worked in English, Spanish, and French, linguistic unfamiliarity elicited uninhibited language. About her time in Spain, Carrington writes, “The fact that I had to speak a language I was not acquainted with was crucial: I was not hindered by a preconceived idea of the words, and I but half understood their modern meaning. This made it possible for me to invest the most ordinary phrases with a hermetic significance.” For Mansour, French allowed her to slip into another reality, allowing for a rebirth, a path forward, while also annihilating her past.

Emerald Wounds constantly evokes the intertwining image of death and desire. In the poem “One Listen to No One Listen to No,” she writes: “O my friends, salute death her leaks her fusions / For her only are there no forbidden places / In the blaze of love’s passion.”

These thematic obsessions pervade her prose as well. In her short story “Marie, ou l’honneur de servir,” the title character is held captive by a murderer who is also her lover. For days on end, “the assassin chased Marie between the zebra-striped walls of the room. She, gagged, quivering, her sex swollen like an overripe pear, screamed with joy and pain.” Then, one day, Marie decides to escape and heads to the train station. Once on board, she shares a compartment where she stares at a mother changing her child’s diaper: “All these people, wallowing in the cloaca of their daily degradation, watched Marie malevolently. ‘I was foolish to run away,’ she said to herself, closing her eyes, ‘I have squandered the ecstasy which was my rightful share; henceforth life will be without spice.” Confronted with the blandness of bourgeois living, and yearning for her past life, Marie chooses to reject convention and rejoin the murderer. She returns to his home “with a feeling very close to joy.” In this piece, as well as Mansour’s work overall, Thanatos is forever bound with Eros. This juxtaposition appears in the poem “A Myriad of More Deaths”: “To slit his throat and drink / The delicious accent of his voice.”

“The mere word ‘freedom’ is the only one that still excites me,” writes Mansour’s close friend André Breton in his 1924 Manifesto of Surrealism. Against “living under the reign of logic,” Breton argues that the dream state is essential to answering life’s questions: “The mind of the man who dreams is fully satisfied by what happens to him. The agonizing question of possibility is no longer pertinent. Kill, fly faster, love to your heart’s content. And if you should die, are you not certain of reawakening among the dead?” The surrealists embraced Mansour in 1953 after Cris was published in France.

The poems in Cris focus on the act of devouring; Mansour’s lines are unrestrained, ravenous, and vulnerable, the tone urgent and violent. The collection, infused with macabre imagery and an undercurrent of sexual energy, completely disrupted traditional expectations of French feminine literature. The enlivened and dramatic energy of eros is exposed in the poem “There are no words”: “Come night and your bliss / And my deep body, mindless octopus / Swallows your excited cock / As it is born.” Mansour’s poetry foregrounds the id; it breaks with the passive surrealist ideas of femininity and disregards the traditional social expectations that have required a divide between private emotional life and the public space. The poems look inward as a means of arriving somewhere unknown; they are a brazen celebration of the erotic.

In Eros the Bittersweet (1986), poet and essayist Anne Carson deduces that erotic love is a triangle: the lover, the beloved, and the space between. The space is both a void we desire to close and an emptiness that can never be filled, leaving the lover satiated yet wanting more. This lack is necessary; if it did not exist, the erotic desire pushing the two people together would disappear. Carson writes that “[o]ne moment staggers under pressure of eros; one mental state splits.” Mansour’s poem “How many loves made your bed cry out?” evokes the simultaneity of pleasure and pain within eros, which Carson refers to as “emotional schizophrenia”:

How many loves made your bed cry out?
How many years have wrinkled your eyes?
Who emptied your drained breasts?
I watched you with my crushing eyes
And my illusions burst

This imaginative bursting is embodied and palpable in the poem “May my breasts provoke you”:

I want your rage.
I want to see your eyes thicken
Your cheeks turn white as they sink.
I want your shudders.
I want you to burst between my thighs

The surrealists’ view of the erotic is, in part, influenced by the writings of the Marquis de Sade. They saw his explicitly sexual work as a genuine expression of freedom. To the surrealists, Sade was an advocate for total liberation through the satisfaction of desire. Mansour reinterpreted this concept by centering the female gaze, transforming the woman from object to subject.

However, it would be inappropriate to read Mansour’s work through a Western feminist lens. She was apathetic to the feminist movement and staunchly committed to surrealism. When asked to contribute to a feminist magazine, she responded: “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” French author Colette, who also emphasized the sensual and the erotic in her work, took a similar stance. While “[s]ome writers could discuss employment for women,” wrote her biographer Margaret Crosland in Colette: The Difficulty of Loving (1973),  Colette “would describe the women she had seen working.” Colette never fought or marched for political battles openly; instead, she pursued them through her life and work.

“To address yourself to the moment when Eros glances into your life and to grasp what is happening in your soul at that moment is to begin to understand how to live,” writes Carson in Eros the Bittersweet. “Eros’ mode of takeover is an education: it can teach you the real nature of what is inside you. Once you glimpse that, you can begin to become it.” Mansour also recognized how the erotic experience could reshape the self, specifically in her poetry collection Carré blanc (“White Square”), published in France in 1965. In “Flowered Like Lewdness,” she writes:

I am relieved to have a hat on my head
Even if your piss holds all the fairytales of marriage
You say that women are canons of delirium
As for myself, alas, I only savor death.

This idea of self-fashioning reappears in “A Myriad of More Deaths,” another poem from Carré blanc:

I leave my home
Happy to escape the historic stage
To throw away my dresses crumpled by too many hasty hands […]
I no longer wait for vulgar affection
I cross moons deserts lakes
I am the animal of the night

Instead of solely exploring these conflicting desires in the mind, Mansour extends this metaphor to the body. Images of disembodiment allow the lyric voice to shift its identity and become both male and female, predator and victim, human and animal. In her poem “Endlessly Midnight,” the ambiguous use of pronouns allows the speaker to inhabit several concurring and abstracted identities:

Eager for big words the woman whispered
Do you still love me
Do you see the death squads of tradition
And their shrines devoted to bones […]

My path forks around your finger
The marrow falls
On the familiar badger

Mansour’s use of the second person feels like a “come hither” to the reader. The poem calls on the reader to experience the voice as an intimate recipient, an emotional participant.

Allowing the speaker to shift roles also reflects a slipperiness of meaning, especially in the postwar era. The relationship between the signifier and the signified grows disconnected, and definitions are no longer fixed. Religious allusions appear throughout the collection as a way for Mansour to manipulate language and undo meaning itself. There are mentions of “Edenic death,” Noah, “a crown of thorns,” and “white olives of Christianity.” In the poem “Pandemonium,” published in France in 1976, the poetic voice states: “One must pet the throat of the one we kill.” Not only does this reflect the dual forces of violence and love within eros, but it also hearkens back to the Old Testament when God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac, and then spares his life.

Mansour borrows from Christian mythology and subverts the traditional meanings to express her view of the world. In her work, eroticism is substituted for religion, transforming what is conventionally seen as transgressive into something that is holy. In “Pandemonium,” Mansour takes her gaze beyond the interpersonal terrain and explores the violence of the colonial experience in Africa:

Hate with its pulsating hands
Drums the skin
Of mysterious
Stand up
So that your armpits glow
So that your sex travels the countryside
Gray purplish crazy with freedom

Mansour envisions a rebellion of the Ugandan people against the colonial regime. There’s the assumption some hold that the web of social structures in our world exists for a reason—that without them, or without hierarchies, there would be havoc, a lack of order. Mansour argues that the real chaotic force, the true “pandemonium,” is colonialism, as her speaker praises rebellion:

Better to die rutting
Than to give up lust
Beautiful fruit of the revolution
The free man will conquer death

Surrealism arose amidst the horrors of the First World War and the failure of “realism.” The movement fought against the rising tide of fascism in Europe through artistic and personal exploration. Mansour herself used desire as a lens to challenge social expectations, historical assumptions, and ideological constructions around femininity; she reworked commonplace stories and created myths of her own. Political change cannot occur without cultural change. In Carson’s erotic triangle, the space between the lover and the beloved is a space where the imagination can flourish: “A city without desire is, in sum, a city of no imagination. Here people think only what they already know. Fiction is simply falsification. […] Whenever any creature is moved to reach out for what it desires, Aristotle says, that movement begins in an act of the imagination.” Mansour echoes this sentiment in “Happy Are the Stunned”:

Happy are the starved
The childish the prolific
Blessed are those whom the belly orders
Sacrifices vile despairs
And secret delights
They will know other planets

Mansour saw in the erotic the possibilities for individual and collective freedom. Inside the void, a reimagining of the self and the world can occur, illuminating new ways to live that contrast with the default world of the everyday. In Emerald Wounds, the erotic offers access to transcendence; it is divine, sacred, something worth getting down on your knees for.

LARB Contributor

Ama Kwarteng is a writer based in Brooklyn.


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