Good to Think With: My Surrealism

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Three Collages

from Nitrate, ‘The Idea of Cinema in the Mind of a Painting’


from Under Austerity Rubble, Ancestral Bird Folk Lay Future Eggs


from Under Austerity Rubble, Ancestral Bird Folk Lay Future Eggs



Sun  Deck  Set  Cogitation: Promenade 3

Scientists word whether
qualifying dawn
according adjective fusion

since referring
clear theoretical morning
regret betrays speculation

this interest oscillates
indivisible aspect
is solar incidence zone

may well be rays
sunlight misses thought
returns remarkable

this different prelude
close phenomenon operas
from each fact

the face foretells
all daybreak nature
immediate lowering dark

it is during weather
we dawn meteorological
clear rosy rest

complete matter guarantee
battles small-scale sunset
it starts the spectacle end

tangible men setting
to the rising thermometer day
elevates the other hand

mysteries combines
patterns the accidents
barometer supplies buoyant middle

sort defeats information
moon repetition tides
the phases of the civilized

birds given physical cold
buffeted beings
rising complementary rain

succeeded rest
the sky can read
sudden fjords glow fluffing

triple beginning
the sudden when
blinks switching footlights

as memory walks
declines itself pleasures
the polished jagged really

eminently able to receive
operates life itself
in brighten fatigues

his boat sufferings
relive summits
opaque war forces

beginning the performance
peasant discs
flashing miser mountains

great different outlines
that eminently is man
short-lived within himself

a hard surface
sinister insignificance
display mists occurred souls

towards mid-career
struggles its clearness
now extravagant

brightness events
have taken some preliminary place
losing precisely

deliberately accumulated
blurred conceal
began to move the Mendoza

rocking that heat curve
felt followed motion
roll normal matter

crossing A to B
on geometrical high seas
foot latitude

paid the impression
unpracticed ocean present
worry invisible itinerary

nothing planet impression
slow to testify
slight normal make

followed knowledge
vex horizon seemed minds
predetermined narrow space

end expatiate
looked forward
exorbitant protracted days

end the other earth
to the sensual ceased
without wander

there was moreover
realized box
did not care to be visited

one could depths
the ship backs ventilator
blue being made

damp passengers
idly paint movement dabs
along the nautical recession

officers vaguely rusty
upwards from the horizon
separated scaffoldings visit them

linked the hooked sea insertion
one might have thought mouldings
towards incomprehensible colours



Good to Think With: My Surrealism

My relationship to Surrealism is not a simple one of influence and admiration – I hold no particular interest in the unconscious, dreams, ‘automatic writing’; or notions of the ‘marvellous’.  Neither does Surrealist poetry per se  hold my attention and  passion often (the fabulous René Char being a constant exception). And yet here I am inside a lengthy project utterly entwined with Surrealism, and a particular historical moment within its development.  Sun  Deck  Set Cogitation, excerpted from in this journal, is itself a book-length project, and is also one panel in a larger triptych The Diver’s Manual. Each panel is a book-length poetry volume formally discrete from the others (composition-by-book and serial works have long been my favoured form, and that makes for a certain reluctance and insecurity in sending out to journals, which tend to favour individual poems). And yet what does intrigue me about Surrealism is what it ushered in that feels very contemporary: a commitment to creative acts as alternate forms of investigative thought, what I have elsewhere dubbed ‘making as knowing’. It fostered a sense of creative method that insisted on formulating an alternative canon and counternarrative of ‘poetic thinking’ that challenged dominant models of epistemology – and its importance lies less in its Manifestoes and orthodoxy as a ‘movement’, than in the mutant strains it initiated in those on the fringes of it, who used it to propel the unorthodoxy of their own thinking. Bataille’s involvement with the magazine Documents, editing its ‘Critical Dictionary’, Benjamin’s Arcades Project, the ‘diagonal science’ of Roger Caillois, Blanchot’s revisitation of the Ancient Quarrel between poetry and philosophy, Vaneigem’s pseudonymous Situationist rake through the ‘radioactive fragment of radicalism’ he still found in Surrealism’s ashes. And Lévi-Strauss.

Another aspect of Surrealism that interests me is its attack on the purity of disciplinary boundaries. It resolutely refused to isolate itself as an Art Movement (it might be synonymous with a certain style of painting, now, but early in its development it was by no means a given that Surrealist painting was either possible or desirable). Politics, science, aesthetics, philosophy, psychoanalysis, popular culture – all were invaded. Sun  Deck  Set  Cogitation is anchored in the interrelationship between Claude Lévi-Strauss and Surrealism. My book folds together two journeys undertaken by the famous anthropologist so influential to Structuralism. In 1935, aged 26, he stood on the deck of the Mendoza, leaving Marseilles – and Europe for the first time – for the first leg of its journey to Brazil. He left with aspirations as a Conradian novelist, and within the journey, he made a forensically detailed notebook description of a sunset. This text, and the Tristes chapter it resides in, are my source material for Sun  Deck  Set  Cogitation. Lévi-Strauss certainly regarded this notebook entry as significant enough to quote in full, even suggesting it had much deeper resonance than the attempt to attend to the ‘supernatural cataclysm’ of his panoramic deck view of the rising and setting sun. It seems coupled in his mind with another foundational epiphany early in his career; of marvelling at the structural intricacy of dandelion heads and contemplating the degree to which their similarities and differences across the plant species were ‘intelligible.’ If Tristes‘s memoir is a collage of different times, my series of ‘treated’ strolls around the notebook open out onto a different deck; a different moment of departure – Lévi-Strauss’s tenure on the Capitaine Paul-Lemerle, as one of many exiles from Marseilles in 1941. He joined other Vichy ‘undesirables’ André Breton, Russian novelist and dissident Victor Serge, painter Wifredo Lam, novelist Anna Seghurs and Aimé and Suzanne Césaire: comrades in fleeing persecution.

I want to suggest his encounter with Breton on the deck of this ship is his third epiphany.

Lévi-Strauss and André Breton conducted an intense exchange of letters, whilst onboard, on the relations between, and relative status of, the original art work and documents; of whether distinctions between composition as an automatic or expert act are workable or desirable. The prescience of this correspondence scratches at present conceptual poetic practice.

How does what Breton believed to be a Surrealist total liberty of the art work chafe against the ‘systematic training and the methodological application of a certain number of prescripts’ that might underpin the ‘spontaneous’ activity of the mind creating? Lévi-Strauss wrestles his sense of Breton’s interchangeable status of the documentary and aesthetic values of an art work. Central to his vexation is that this position threatens ‘the ascriptive privileges implied until now by the term talent.’ With yet more prescience he is concerned by the degrees to which artistic creation can be subjected to ‘theoretical analysis’, and the degree to which it contains its own ‘secondary elaboration.’ This latter possibility interests me; as it refrains from equating Surrealism (or other acts of creation) with irrationality but opens into a sense of making as a unique form of knowing and thinking; something Lévi-Strauss dubs ‘irrational intellection’. The correspondence between the aspiring ethnographer and the established Surrealist is itself a document. When he publishes it, 50 years later, the former stresses it is a handwritten commentary, ‘written in a single sitting’; and particularly stresses the undecipherable crossings out of ten words or phrases in Breton’s text and inter-line amendments. Breton responds to three interpretations Lévi-Strauss gives him concerning the tension and contradictions between art and document by pointing to the ‘aggressive’ and inflexible nature of ‘programmatic texts’ (the Surrealist Manifesto), in favour of his then current position of being happily ‘pulled in two different directions’; towards the ‘pleasure’ of art and his sense that is it ‘a function of the general need for knowledge’. Making as a form of knowing, again. And pleasure in making. Is Lévi-Strauss’s sunset notebook art or document? Its unsettled status for him is equal to the fascination it exerts across his long career.

For Lévi-Strauss the securing of, and voyage in, the Capitaine Paul-Lemerle was ‘so extraordinarily symbolic of the future’. When port gossip and the refugee grape-vine led him from occupied Paris to an icy semi-derelict office in Marseilles, the Official tried to dissuade him from undertaking the voyage: ‘the poor man still saw me as a minor ambassador of French culture, whereas I already felt myself to be potential fodder for the concentration camp.’ Serge described the Capitaine Paul-Lemerle as a ‘can of sardines with a cigarette butt stuck on it.’ (1995, p.494). Its inhabitants nicknamed it pôvre merle (poor blackbird) for its ramshackle state; and, later, pôvre merde (poor shit) for its conditions on the crossing to Martinique. But it was a ship of state for the stateless, with an upper deck doubling as a people’s university with impromptu lectures and conferences; and  a re-visioned exiled floating Paris with onboard emerging zones of nautical arrondisements. La Villette, the place Rosa Luxembourg, Montparnasse, the champs-Élysées and Belleville – all afloat. The decks were even bisected by the ludic borders of card-game divisions: zones for bridge, tarot, rami, belote.

Sun  Deck  Set  Cogitation is my ‘entropology.’ I wanted to re-calibrate Lévi-Strauss’s dandelion; blow on the seed-head of the notebook text; scatter this sunset. I wanted to walk these words elsewhere. I was picking the hands off a clock, scrambling time zones. The dandelion filaments now float onto the future deck of the Capitaine Paul-Lemerle; a refugee ship witnessing a bloody sun setting on European history. My palimpsest diverts the original witnessed sun rays, blows the dandelion filaments; re-seeds exiled ideas, histories, practices. In Totemism, Lévi-Strauss uses the phrase ‘good to think with’ to counter a limited, patronising sense that different tribes choose certain natural species for a functional sense that they are ‘good to eat.’ My interest in Surrealism within the wider Diver’s Manual project, is that it remains ‘good to think with.’

As to my own structuring principles in Sun  Deck  Set  Cogitation, Rebecca Solnit posits the promenade as ‘a special subset of walking with an emphasis on slow stately movement, socializing, and display. It is not a way of getting anywhere, but a way of being somewhere, and its movements are essentially circular’ (2002, p. 66). What better mode of locomotion for strolling the decks of a rolling ship of exiles, restless with the need to be elsewhere. And what better model for my tactical collapse of the borders between reading and writing, circling Lévi-Strauss’s words, playing the decks, charting courses through to that elsewhere.  But there is also the playful presence of one of Lévi-Strauss’s own methods.  He figures his ‘Science’ of myths as ‘anaclastic’, a study of both reflected and broken rays; and irradiation.’

The science of myths might therefore be termed “anaclastic,” if we take this old term in the
broader etymological sense which includes the study of both reflected rays and broken rays
… Divergence of sequences and themes is a fundamental characteristic of mythological thought,
which manifests itself as an irradiation. (Overture, p.5)

I took permission from Jackson Mac Low’s ‘writingways’ ethos, with their pleasure in folding reading into writing.  Each promenade (there are six in the book) irradiates the source text slightly differently. This excerpt from the third section is traced just through the words in the notebook entry. The three-line stanzas, the form of all six sections, mark an unimperious grasp, refuse to resolve what they provisionally hold.

A coda on Collage and Synaptic (and sonic) Foliage

I started making collage in 2001, relatively suddenly, and with no prior visual training. There was just a need to work beyond words. It was liberating. In the last two decades collage has become a significant part of my poetic practice: it’s a physical act achieved with scissors and Pritt Stick, but also a semi-improvisational act of thinking. The resulting images have some dialogue with my poems, though are not simply illustrations of them. The sudden need for collage arose from a specific project: my (alas out of print) book of poems Nitrate. The book, subtitled ‘an essay on cinema’, explores the birth of cinema as a by-product of scientific exploration into the problem of understanding motion, and the specific significance of the French physiologist E. J. Marey and his chronophotography. The title reflects the importance of cellulose nitrate, introduced in 1889 and used until the 1950s as the — frighteningly flammable — basis of film stock.

I made a series collage as part of my engagement and thinking for, and in, the book. It was partly the exhaustion of reaching the end of an academic year, and simply having had enough of words; it was partly a different kind of attention I felt I needed to be able to bring to a project. The collages are almost acts of conduction where the physical acts of cutting, re-arranging and sticking harness ideas and moods in a visual, spatial form.  In 1921 Max Ernst made a breakthrough collage called The Preparation of Glue from Bones. His title is a meditation upon collage itself and its capacity to loosen fixed structures (bones) and to re-assemble them with the glue of poetic attention (a capacity I’ve always described in my own work as “Synaptic foliage”).

One of the fascinations of working in an extended form is to both witness and generate that emergence as ideas, images, reading start to constellate and coagulate. Early on in the formation of what became Nitrate, I had a sudden compulsion to work visually ó despite having had no prior visual training or inclination As a youngster (too young, my parents would say) I’d developed an obsessive fascination with film stills. Dennis Gifford’s A Pictorial History of Horror Movies was my bible. And then I discovered Lotte Eisner’s magisterial book on German Expressionist cinema, The Haunted Screen, in my early teens. This interest was partly re-awakened by the availability of imported obscure silent films on DVD (and therefore a chance to finally see films I’d been reading about for decades); but it was partly also a sense that, despite the wealth of theoretical material on photography (Barthes, Sontag, Benjamin etc) I’ve yet to find something that touches upon the peculiar aura of the film still as a distinct form. So, partly as a meditation on film stills, partly in homage to film maker Chris Marker’s use of still images in his remarkable film La Jetée, I started my visual practice. And working visually, physically dissembling and re-assembling images, I also started to realise that what I was involved in was a different form of thinking, and particularly a different form of thinking about the fascinating ‘chronophotographs’ made by E. J. Marey.

Marey is a key figure in Nitrate. He was a contemporary of the more famous photographer Eadweard Muybridge with whom he shared an interest in motion. Marey devoted much of his career to developing ways of both understanding and documenting movement. Not only was he interested in the way humans or animals move, but also the motion of liquids. Just as Jack Spicer’s serial poems resists a critical vision that reduces poetry to a display cabinet of a stuffed and mounted ex-moment, so François Dagognet points out that, for Marey, ‘neither direct, violent experimentation nor observation would be enough to capture the complications of movement’ (Dagognet 1992, 18). The human eye was not sophisticated enough to see this, and vivisection would end the very motion it sought to understand. So, Marey was forced to experiment with the making of instruments capable of ‘translating’ locomotion. As Dagognet explains the process, ‘If I had to use a metaphor, I would compare the study of natural sciences with the work of archaeologists deciphering inscriptions written in an unknown language and trying several meanings for each sign’ (Dagognet 1992, 62). What is striking for me in Marey’s serial images, in contradistinction to Muybridge’s, is his capture of the discontinuities within continuous movement: the blurs between.

The iconography in my collage ‘The Idea of Cinema in the Mind of a Painting,’ an early image made for Nitrate, relates directly to the chronophotographs. The horse, so dominant in images by Marey and Muybridge, features prominently in the composition. The birds in the cage and the ice in the background dramatize this historical moment of the thaw of still photography and the emergence of the moving picture – and the chimera figure wanting to leap from the frame, with its smashed glass wings and x-rayed camera torso, is indeed the idea of cinema bursting forth from the still photograph. When I’d finished Nitrate (it was published in 2010), I feared I was also finished with collage. That the need for it had gone.

Thankfully this was groundless. Though this practice has since fought more for its independence from the poetry as a different mode of thinking (not entirely successfully). Intermittently, I now note for over a decade, I have worked on a project called Under Austerity Rubble Ancestral Bird-Folk Laid Future Eggs that currently runs to nearly 70 plates. It sits, awkwardly for me, between a ‘collage novel’ such as Max Ernst’s Une Semaine de Bonté, and the ‘albums’ of Ilya Kabakov.  Ernst felt collage’s force lies in its moment of conjunction and re-situation: “when one brings two distant realities together on an apparently antipathetic plane … an exchange of energy transpires”.  The distant realities in Under Austerity I am bringing together initially ran in parallel with a sequence of poems called Newton’s Splinter (a chapbook from 2012). V2 rocket technology turned Britain to a lunar crater in the blitz, and took America to the surface of the moon after WWII. But what followed the war in Britain was no less heroic a step into the unknown. The founding of the welfare state was our own space mission; recolonizing post-war Britain as a fair and just society may well have been taking footsteps on the moon. Looking back at this moment, from our own time of austerity –  ushered in by a financial crisis that has never left, furthered by Brexit, Covid, the cost-of-living crisis –  such heroic change seems an alien feat of social imagination. Under Austerity began in a bid for independence from poetry, crossed paths with it briefly for Newton’s Splinter, formed a further uneasy truce with it via my book covers; and has in some sense provoked and prompted The Diver’s Manual. The ‘ancestral birdfolk’ are certainly descendants of Max Ernst’s alter-ego Loplop, an important figure in the remaining panels of my ongoing triptych.

My other gateway to, and through, Surrealism has been music – particularly the English band Nurse With Wound. They entered my radar as I was (pre-internet) discovering Industrial Music in my teens (Nurse are now thought of as forming a trinity of bands – with Coil and Current 93 – more often now discussed as ‘the esoteric underground’). Initially, it was the album front and back cover for Homotopy for Marie (the original vinyl, not the initial CD reissue) that arrested me. Stephen Stapleton’s visual work, often completed as his alter ego Babs Santini, doubtless stockpiled eventual permission and goads to make collage before I’d encountered Max Ernst. And Stapleton has continuously maintained that Nurse make Surrealist music.  Fortuitously, I’ve recently rekindled these sonic excitements. The composer John Young and I have collaborated on an acousmatic setting of the opening ‘promenade’ of Sun  Deck  Set  Cogitation. It began as a brief composition for a Sonic  art conference at Chatham Historic Dockyards; resulting in a piece for playback through the unique Wave Synthesis system of 192 loudspeakers (In unintentional homage to objective chance, I got Covid and missed the whole thing). Its most extended outcome has been a three-day immersive audio-visual installation at Phoenix Arts Centre in Leicester in March 2023. John composed a 90-minute piece on a loop, for a 9 speaker playback alongside my looped video backdrop. The experience is designed to allow anyone to enter the voyage at any moment, and experience an unfolding moment for whatever timeframe available to them. John and I share a compositional interest in found-text and found-sound, and produced a unique meditation on experience in-the-moment, by playing with existing materials. The compositional analogy extends Lévi-Strauss’s epiphany: I blurred the distinctions between writing and reading, my ‘treatment’ of the source texts scatter and recombine word-seeds in surprising combinations: blowing on a seed-head and spreading palimpsestic filaments. This process is further reflected in John’s acousmatic ‘treatment’ of a recording of me reading; he extracts and processes vocal fragments and works them into a new palimpsest of textual material and digital sound design. John’s sound design and spatialisation disperses the words and sounds in the recording, re-composing them with spatially interwoven sounds evocative of motion and gestural energy: squeaky doors, grinding metal and delicate resonance: sounds capable of conveying—by analogy—the oscillating, constrained motion of the promenade without being directly representational.  We’re keen to find other galleries interested in hosting such an installation: so, interested parties, do get in touch. Likewise, my collages are very much physical materials, not digital, and vary in size. They don’t get out much. Should anyone want to rectify this, and have an interest in exhibiting something, do let me know.


You can find an excerpt from the opening section of  Sun  Deck  Set  Cogitation online here:

Blackbox Manifold – Simon Perril (

You can watch Simon’s  ‘Synaptic Foliage: an Evening of Poetry, Films, Collage, and a Book Launch’ ( that includes a reading from the opening of Sun  Deck  Set  Cogitation) here:


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