Joyce Mansour (1928 – 1986) was a British-born surrealist poet who grew up in Egypt and wrote in French. Her poetry has recently been revived in France with the publication in 2014 of her collected works and a biography written by her daughter-in-law. She was a close friend of the surrealist Andre Breton, who supported her work.
She is unknown in the English-speaking world and I would like to make her known by publishing a selection of her poems. She has a completely original voice, writing wild yet focussed erotic poetry suffused with brutal surrealist imagery. I was knocked out by her work when I first read her and I continue to be amazed.
Joyce Mansour had an intense and complex emotional life, touched by the death of her mother from cancer when she was 15, followed by the death of her husband, also from cancer, after only 6 months of marriage when she was 18. She married her French-speaking second husband 18 months later.
Joyce and her family had a rich and cultured life in Cairo, which was brought to a sudden end after Colonel Nasser came to power. After the Suez crisis in 1956 she and her Jewish family had to flee Egypt within 24 hours. They settled in Paris where she successfully combined the role of loving wife and mother with that of a leading surrealist writer moving in the artistic bohemian circles of post-war Paris.
Her poetry expresses the erotic yet cruel power of love and desire. Her poems are stark and painful, with an almost frightening and obsessive streak of sadomasochism. The consuming madness of sex and death are fiercely and passionately described with shocking and violent imagery, yet there is often an extraordinary and moving sensitivity in her work. Her vocabulary is precise, every word counts, these poems are bare, spare.
“I want to sleep breast to breast with you/ Contorted, sweat/ Shining from a thousand shudders”
“I opened your head/ To read your thoughts/ I crunched your eyes/ To taste your sight/ I drank your blood to know your desire”
Mansour combines the primal forces of sex and death in her extraordinary imagery. She takes every risk with fierce courage and brutal honesty. Nothing is forbidden.
As an experienced translator I am impressed by her ability to write in a language that was not her first. It makes the creative process all the more interesting. My 30 years as a psychotherapist and sex therapist have helped to give me a focussed insight into Mansour’s sexual scenarios and fantasies, her surreal mental leaps, twists and turns. I have heard many a dark story about the primitive, cruel, consuming aspects of sex that she describes so succinctly.
Sylvia Plath tried in vain to exorcise her demons in her poetry. Joyce Mansour succeeded.
I am committed to making Joyce Mansour known to the English-speaking world. I recently went to Paris to obtain the translation rights from her son, who has given my work his full approval. Here are two of my translations of her poetry.
May My Breasts Provoke You
May my breasts provoke you
I want your rage
I want to see your eyes thicken
Your cheeks whiten as they go hollow
I want your shudders
May you burst between my thighs
May my desires be fulfilled on the fertile soil
Of your shameless body.
Que mes seins te provoquent
Je veux ta rage
Je veux voir tes yeux s’epaissir
Tes joues blanchir en se creusant
Je veux tes frissons
Que tu eclates entres me cuisses
Que mes desires soient exauces sur le sol fertile
De ton corps sans pudeur
I Want to be Naked in Your Singing Eyes
I want to be naked in your singing eyes
I want you to see me crying out in pleasure
May my limbs folded under too heavy a weight
Push you towards impious acts
May the smooth hair on my surrendered head
Catch on your nails that curve in fury
May you stand erect blind and believing
Looking down on my plucked body.
Je veux me montrer nue à tes yeux chantants
Je veux que tu me voies criant de plaisir
Que mes membres pliés sous un poids trop lourd
Te poussent à des actes impies
Que les cheveux lisses de ma tête offerte
S’accrochent à tes ongles courbés de fureur
Que tu te tiennes debout aveugle et croyant
Regardant de haut mon corps déplumé
Carol Martin-Sperry is a writer and translator who lives in London.
Gem Blackthorn is QMT's Sex Columnist, and the author/curator of Lust Thrust Thursdays. Send her your submissions and questions at sexsexsex [at] queenmobs.com