from Poetics.ca #3...
Trailing Nadja: On Writing I Nadja, and Other Poems
What is coincidence? Puff of air, uncanny timing, flipside of déja vu: did you see? It keeps the Weird Sisters busy, anyway. Stirring night after night this swirling mix of lives and hopes: fur of otter, nacre of oyster, a smidgen of moonlight, fraction of an inch of longing, and you’re there at M-moment. It’s the driving force behind André Breton’s surrealist romance, Nadja (1928), a book that has, like a surreal kaleidoscope, crystalized and reconfigured my ideas about the uncanny.
All I know is that this substitution of persons stops with you, because nothing
can be substituted for you, and because for me it was for all eternity that this
succession of terrible and charming enigmas was to come to an end at your feet.
You are not an enigma for me.
I say that you have turned me from enigmas forever.
When I first read Breton’s bold declaration in Nadja, I was utterly transfixed. Transcribing the above passage in my journal, I noted beside it the word “epigraph.” I knew then I would write a book that explored my own fascination with coincidence and enigmas; I sensed I had begun searching for the Nadja-Sphinx. That was in February 1994.
Four years earlier, at the University of Nice, I’d been introduced to the passage describing Breton’s and Nadja’s chance meeting on a Paris boulevard. The theme of the class was first meetings, and this one struck me as the most memorable: Breton meets Nadja not far from the Humanité bookstore. She claims to have a hair appointment, which explains her slightly disheveled appearance. Nevertheless they go together to a café, and an intense conversation ensues. Thus begins their 10-day liaison, recounted in tantalizing detail by a man who, months later, is still trying to make sense of the experience, even after she’s been locked up for erratic behavior and hallucinations, and he has begun another affair with Suzanne Muzard.
I still have the notes I took in class, and on the photocopied passage itself I’d written, “Study this for next week. Le premier regard décisive entraine un dialogue.” It must have been then that I started listening for Nadja’s voice behind Breton’s, and for my own voice in dialogue with theirs. “Qui parle?” my professor, Mademoiselle Jourdain, had told us to ask. I yearned to hear the story from the point of view of the woman who called herself Nadja, because (Breton said she said) “in Russian it’s the beginning of the word hope, and because it’s only the beginning.”
I had another first meeting of great personal significance that year — at a bookstore in Nice. I fell in love, in the breathless way one can while studying in a foreign country. It was a relationship inaugurated and intensified by unbelievable coincidences. Over the next few years, trying to recapture the amour fou I had known with this young man, I began to understand experientially what Breton meant by the substitution of persons.
But I understood it cognitively in 1994, transcribing the passage from Nadja. It wasn’t long after that I met and married a man who wasn’t a substitute for anyone. I gained a new aesthetic distance on the material that still preoccupied me, which I experienced partly as a shift in my approach: I became interested in the dramatic monologue, particularly as I became increasingly aware of the limits of the lyric to explore some of the questions I was formulating.
I knew that what I wanted to write was not just a personal projection of self onto my idea of Nadja, or essentially what I thought Breton had done. Between their first encounter in 1926 and her hospitalization, “Nadja” came to embody for Breton a pure surrealist poetic; she ceased, in short, to be a woman to him. In his text, he figures Nadja as a sphinx, the favoured symbol of (male) surrealist artists for the unknowability of “woman” and the feminized irrational side of the human psyche. She is a riddle to him. For Oedipus, the answer to the riddle posed by the Sphinx is “man.” For Breton, however, it seems to be the self (his own self). Nadja opens with the question, “Who am I?” and the author pursues the answer while pursuing (and sometimes being pursued by) the woman who smiled “quite mysteriously and somehow knowingly” when he approached her on the Rue Lafayette.
Trailing the woman about whom so few details are known (not even her surname), I have become concerned with some of the implications that stem from the question, “Qui parle?” This question has developed into a preoccupation with voice and silence, and the difficulty of speaking for others. I have drawn my inspiration from one of the fragmentary lines Breton attributes to Nadja: With the end of my breath, which is the beginning of yours — and always with the awareness that my purpose must be to let her voice meld with and challenge my own.
Who were you, Léona Camille Ghislaine D? How can I hope to conjure up your voice when I didn’t know you? I hoped to find clues by going to some of the places you passed through. The Sphinx Hotel is no longer there; in its place is something secret and triple-X. (Thanks to the camera and mini-voice-recorder, the thuggish guys in the doorway took me for the police! Only a poet, I nervously tried to reassure them, and they went away nonplussed.) The Place Dauphine on Île de la Cité is still ghostly when the blue wind whistles through it in the evening. At the hospitals, the walls are still made of stone and the trees defiantly blossom. At the Sainte-Anne I was asked to wait in a room to which nobody ever came to meet me. At the Perray-Vaucluse, I could only stand outside the gate, getting a sense (though surely not your sense) of the considerable difference between the inside and the outside. What, after all, did I hope for?
And yet coincidence continues to propel my work on this project. In 2001, when my husband and I moved from Montreal to Vancouver for a year, I was working on I Nadja, and Other Poems full time. One afternoon, at Tanglewood Books in Kitsilano, passing the hour before my appointment at the hair salon, I ran into the student I’d loved in Nice. He was trying to sell his books before returning to Europe. He’d been working (illegally) in Vancouver. I was so stunned by running into him again at all, let alone in a bookstore on a day when I had intended to get my hair cut, that, at the time, I couldn't fully process it all. We went to a café, had a shot of espresso, and got caught up. As I told him about the project I was working on, I was so struck by the weirdness of the coincidence — pulse pulse of the stars, which in Paris, 1926, near the Humanité — I had to hold my cup with two hands.
A few months later, after my reading of some of my Nadja poems at the launch of the Véhicule anthology You & Your Bright Ideas, poet and film producer Tom Konyves approached me, surprised at the coincidence of encountering “Nadja” that evening at the Montmartre Café on Main Street in Vancouver. Doing some work himself on the surrealists, he assured me: “No matter what, with Nadja, you’re starting from the inside of the flower. No matter how it opens up, you’re inside. It flowers.” This much, at least, has proven to be true.
I’d gone to Paris a few months prior to moving to Vancouver, to do research for my book. It was a wild coincidence that I’d stopped and rested at pretty much the exact spot of Nadja’s first encounter with Breton a day before actually setting out to locate the spot by following the vague clues in Breton’s narrative. (A photograph in Nadja of the Humanité Bookstore, which shop is no longer there, shows the street number and reveals the location; Breton mentions an intersection and a church he can’t remember the name of, and that’s all). So it seemed like an even greater coincidence and irony when, on the following Sunday, rummaging through one of the postcard stalls at the Saint-Ouen flea market (Breton’s regular haunt of a Sunday), I found a postcard, circa 1926, of a young woman standing in front of the l’Église St. Vincent de Paul — two steps from where Nadja and Breton first met. I hope to use the image for the book’s cover.
Coincidentally, too, a section of Breton’s studio at 42 Rue Fontaine was on exhibit at the Centre Georges Pompidou, where I saw, among other artifacts, the bronzed glove that is an object of fascination for Breton in Nadja and has been symbolically important for me while working on these poems. Nearly every place I have gone on the trail of Nadja, I have found a black glove: at the Porte St. Denis, beside Breton’s and Nadja’s favourite café, near the Prince de Galles hotel in Saint Germain-en-Laye, where they spent a night. At the beginning of our road trip to Vancouver, where I was going to devote a year to this project, a glove lying in the centre lane of the 401 was lifted by the wind of a passing vehicle, sat up, and waved at us.
Visiting other significant haunts, though, I felt Nadja’s presence in the weather. At the location of the old Sphinx Hotel, where Nadja stayed her first few nights in Paris: hail. At the Perray-Vaucluse hospital: heavy-hanging storm clouds. And at the Sainte-Anne: snow. In late April.
And there was something else. On the grounds of the Sainte-Anne hospital in Paris’s 14th district, trim streets and gardens are named after artists and writers who’ve dealt with mental illness, either first hand, as with Van Gogh, Camille Claudel and Antonin Artaud, or second hand, as in one notable case: witness Allée André Breton — an alley, complete with industrial-size garbage bin overflowing with black trash bags beside the drain pipe.
I have to wonder at the irony that Breton ended up with an alley named after him here. Few people who visit the place are likely aware of the fact that Nadja was actually confined behind these walls in March 1927 before being moved to another hospital and, sometime later, to yet another nearer her family in Lille, where she died. No street bears her real or adopted name. Just a book, his. Which she likely never read.
Other traces of her are elusive and fragmentary: kept under wraps by her family to protect her identity; her correspondence with Breton bundled with his page proofs for Nadja and, in 2003, catalogued and auctioned, kept in a private buyer’s vault, but also — thanks to the auction house of CalmelsCohen — as of April 2003, temporarily drifting in hyperspace. I marvel regularly at this most extraordinary coincidence: Nadja’s letters became accessible to me just as I neared the completion of my work, my search for her. After 10 years of yearning to hear her voice unfiltered by Breton, I am now able to peer, sometimes of necessity through a magnifying glass, at jpegs of lot 2119, the 27 letters Nadja wrote to André; see pixels approximate the muted tones of the envelopes, even the creases in them, the blots in the ink, the increased pressure in the pen coinciding with the increased pressure in the language. The voice, by turns adoring and full of rage, that I had been imagining.
I still don’t know what to make of many random details that seem (to borrow a word from Robert Frost) “nicked” with meaning. Strange juxtapositions, they sit, full of latent and unknowable implications as a single glove on sidewalk. The day Nadja died, Wednesday, January 15, 1941, on a continent across the ocean the Tacoma Suspension Bridge oscillated, writhed and collapsed under the stress of a tornado. Homme de pierre, comprends moi. She’d written that, to Breton, on a postcard reproduction of Moreau’s Orpheus, in 1926.
The curtain opens on Léona, still at home,
giving her blonde hair one hundred strokes.
Winter nights, in the dark of her attic bedroom,
hunched over, beside her small daughter’s palliasse,
she’d pull her boar’s bristle brush
from scalp to tips, emitting sparks
until her scalp was tingling, electrified,
the fly-aways a frail starburst, quivering
like the needle in an agitated compass.
Summer evenings, the lazy light
leaning in doorways, she’d remove kerchief and pins,
and then, with the yellow teeth of her cellulose comb,
the day’s work: all her snarled strands, ends split,
snake-tongued, sun-bleached, a bit of straw, a bit of feather
from the goose she had helped her mother pluck.
And when her daughter jack-knifed from a dream,
Léona’d strike a match, the candle was lit Here, see
she’d sit on the edge of the bed, rubbing her wrists.
Look— (two hairpins, tucked under her nose,
the wires held there by her pursed lips: a crimped moustache
to make the kid laugh, drift back into sleep.) Hush.
The child’s breath, the smouldering wick, the waxy air too close.
2. A dream featuring hairpins is an omen of happy future prospects.
Too close, the air, her daughter’s sticky legs. Léona snags
on the nettles of sleep, clutching damp sheets
answering the telephone ringing in her mattress.
The hairs on her body piqued as antennae,
she starts awake, goes to the window, sees
the white hot moon glide through the sky
quick as sous spilled from a pocket
slip down the sewer grate.
Gone. Before dawn
the door scrapes shut behind her, she bolts down the lane.
Think fire through parched grass—that frenzied pace.
Items shoved into her case: a monkey-skin felt hat, step-ins
and cotton drawers, a dress with turn-back cuffs, hose,
an overblouse in reseda green, hairpins,
Mer Dentifrice, Madame Hélène’s Vanishing Creme.
Too much, not enough. Maybe they’d be relieved she left
behind her one good mistake. And then there was the company
she kept! Staying out late, coming home bruised.
Random connections she snatched out of the air like seedclocks
and blew back into the air, fingers winnowing the unseen wake.
When the cock crowed, Maman read the note
Léona’d stuck to yesterday’s loaf with a hairpin.
Not to weigh down one’s thoughts with the weight of one’s shoes
she walked barefoot to Lille by fields of lady’s tresses, twayblades.
Walked through the Place du Théatre before boarding the train
at the Gare du Lille. A one-way ticket to Paris, a new name.
3. Bending the Truth, Première Rencontre
I’m on my way to a hairdresser
on the Boulevard Magenta, she says,
palm smoothing the flurry of hair
at the nape of her neck,
eyes flitting like a leaf in traffic.
Well, in that case… His fingers
brush her temple pursuing an errant pin. His
tongue hairpins in his mouth.
Votre épingle de cheveux, Mademoiselle:
And she reaches for it then
perching in his fingers like a butterfly.
4. Inexorable Machines
Several times Nadja drew Breton with his hair standing on end
—as though sucked up by a high wind—like long flames.
Did she see her own devouring element in him,
the shivering and twisted filaments linking them
as the pistons and pendulums in Picabia’s erotic machines,
made so that they cannot work, the wonder
and the failure automatic?
Susan Elmslie dreams of dividing her time between Montreal and Paris. Her poems and essays have appeared in several journals, including The Malahat Review and Contemporary Verse 2, as well as in a prize-winning chapbook, When Your Body Takes to Trembling (Cranberry Tree. Windsor, 1997), and in the anthologies You & Your Bright Ideas: New Montreal Writing (Vehicule. Montreal, 2001) and Evergreen: Six New Poets (Black Moss. Toronto, 2002). She is currently at work on a collection of poems about everyday and extraordinary domestic objects. She gratefully acknowledges the support of the Canada Council for the Arts in the completion of the manuscript, I, Nadja, and Other Poems and in the essay published here. She received a PhD in English with a specialization in Canadian literature from McGill University, and has been a poetry Fellow at Hawthornden Castle in Scotland.