The Milk Bowl of Feathers: Essential Surrealist Writings
Edited by Mary Ann Caws
Published by: New Directions Publishing
128 pages, $9.28
Reviewed By Ian Akins
The Milk Bowl of Feathers is a collection of Surrealist writings that include both prose and poetry, as well as a few pieces of art. The pieces themselves vary in subject but all have that certain feeling of etherealness to them that comes with Surrealist works. Overall, the entire collection brings together many writers who were at the height of writing in this subgenre of literature.
Before the book gets into the stories themselves, there is a brief introduction to what Surrealism is and how it came about as a type of writing in literature. The introduction describes the Dada movement as well, telling the reader of the origins and creator of the “Dada Manifesto,” Tristan Tzara. The rest of the introduction helps prepare the reader to know exactly the type of writing they are about to encounter and what they can possibly take away from it. Surrealism itself is a very “out there” type of writing and many pass it off as weird, but this brief description helps make the style seem more inviting and not as intimidating as it may come off normally.
Many of the themes common throughout these pieces are revolution, liberation from oneself, and many other “other worldly” topics. These topics allow the reader to get a sense of exactly what this artistic movement provided to people during these times and allow the reader to be transported to the places with these writers The language of the pieces are often extravagant and help amplify the pieces up and the Surrealist aspect that is a goal to these writers is achieved. The reader of these pieces will get an ethereal feeling from the descriptors used throughout many of these pieces, the words carrying a weight that lingers with the readers for many moments after completing said piece of literature.
These pieces, particularly the poems, play with form. The poems themselves are the strongest points of the book. The Surrealist aspect is benefitted most from the fluidity and beautiful language of poetry. The poets in this book take the usual practice of using this beautiful language in poetry and they run with it, including the extravagant language that goes hand in hand with surrealism.
A lot of Surrealist writing is viewed as “lesser than” by readers who read mostly purist writing, and while all of these stories would not typically attract these readers, these works will give these readers a sense of Surrealism in various levels. Some pieces only contain a small amount of Surrealism that many people who are turned away by the style can appreciate.
“The Automatic Crystal” by Aimé Césaire is a poem that falls on the shorter side. Throughout the poem, a repetitiveness is used and also the form is played with. Césaire’s use of these techniques help the poem strive forward and leaves the reader with a sense of happiness that is not quite explainable. The language use in this particular piece is beautiful, and not overdone.
“Dadamade” by Man Ray is a look into Dadaism, the art form this collection is made after. The narrator discusses how they are the creator of Dada and how they legalized it in New York. This piece of work is very surreal as it is a story about Dadaism itself, and it comments on the absurdism of the form, while also technically using this form. This piece falls towards the back of the book, and it would probably benefit more if it was placed in the beginning of this book, allowing the readers to further realize what they are about to read. This piece does, however, truly capture what this book is about and is one of the strongest pieces, just placed awkwardly towards the back.
Overall, the book has many strengths and all of the pieces present carry Surrealism with them and many of them will stay with the reader after they finish them. I believe that any fan of literature can benefit from this book as it will broaden their horizons and allow them to see various versions of a literary form that is often pushed to the side for being too whimsical or outlandish. This book takes Dadaism and Surrealism and runs with it in the best way possible, churning out some very odd and compelling stories that make the reader think about them for days to come after they have finished the book.