Notes After Revisiting Nadja

I read Nadja for the first time in 1995. I was nineteen and in community college. I found my way to Nadja through punk rock and dada, but in Breton and surrealism I found something very different. Mad love, convulsive beauty, objective chance, surrealist objects. Breton’s ideas reinforced my own developing views about the world. Thinking of the fiftieth anniversary of Breton’s death, I decided to revisit Nadja. It had been over fifteen years since I last read the book, but when reading Nadja today, what I found interesting was the everyday and personal Breton, which really is the one hidden in plain sight.

Much of what is written about Breton revolves around his excommunications and disagreements, but the younger Breton was very community-oriented. Like all of us, he needed like-minded people around him. Nadja is an unusual book because of the way Breton used it to promote the people he believed in. He saw the future in his friends. Benjamin Péret, Robert Desnos, Louis Aragon, Fanny Beznos, Paul Éluard, Max Ernst, poets, outcasts, unknowns, people from the underground, all played their part in Breton’s image of Paris. Nadja functioned as a scrapbook of this hidden circle. It’s almost melancholic in how it documented a group of artists and writers as they grew together.

Among those people of the underground was Nadja. She was a damaged person. Breton saw “some obscure distress” in her eyes. She was a person of the streets. She was a mother alienated from her child. She sold cocaine, and maybe her body. She had vague relationships with multiple men, or as Breton wrote, she had “a certain power” over them. And, while Breton seemed to separate himself from the men she was involved with, to me it looks as if he was just another one of those men. Nadja seduced Breton with her helplessness. She was a waif. She made Breton feel powerful and respected, and in return he gave her money and attention. Although his intentions were good, Breton enabled her lifestyle and her problems. Of all the criticisms I’ve read of Nadja, I don’t ever recall anyone labeling their relationship for what it was: codependent.

Toward the end of the book, Breton identified two Nadja’s: the inspirational Nadja, and the troubled, toxic one. He asked himself which one was the real Nadja. I’d like to believe there was room inside of Nadja for both, but due to my own experiences in life, my intuition is at odds with this. The optimist in me wants to believe in the magical Nadja, the one who can predict which windows will light up red. The optimist wants to believe in the wild reckless Nadja, pressing her foot on the accelerator while blindfolding the driver. But the pessimist in me reluctantly believes that Nadja was simply giving Breton what she thought he wanted. The pessimist in me sees Nadja manipulating Breton, like some kind of poor man’s femme fatale. I can’t help but wonder if Nadja even cared for Breton at all, and I’m sure Breton wondered this as well.

In 1999, when reading Nadja in a class on surrealism at Portland State, my classmates were quick to condemn Breton for not visiting Nadja at the asylum. This sort of criticism could only come from those who have never had the weight of loving someone with a mental illness. What more could Breton have done to help Nadja? And, more importantly, how close can someone get to the chaos before they are permanently damaged by it? In this case, Breton did what was right for himself. Sometimes, those like Nadja truly cannot be reached. They get locked up, or maybe they kill themselves, or more often they hurt those around them. Nadja is not a surrealist romance. There is no happy ending where Breton saves Nadja from the asylum. He is not some knight in shining armor, and Nadja is not a damsel in distress.

Thinking of Nadja now, I am reminded of Cass from Charles Bukowski’s story “The Most Beautiful Woman in Town.” Cass was determined to destroy herself. She self-mutilated, sticking needles through her face, and tried to slit her own throat with a broken bottle. Bukowski's compassion was meaningless to her. He couldn’t stop her from self-destructing. It's hard to believe these two men, Bukowski and Breton, could have had anything in common. What they did have in common was their compassion for those shattered and damaged by the world. The official image of Breton is of a stern upholder of “Surrealist Law,” but I think the real world Breton, which has always been right there in front of the reader’s eyes, is the one that gets forgotten in the history books. And I think it’s the Breton I identify with most.

Dreams Covered in Garbage: A Review of Steve Dalachinsky's A Superintendent's Eyes

Several years ago I moved from Portland to New York. It was an ambitious move. I went there with a girl. We were engaged, and we were in love, or at least I was. New York wasn’t what I had expected. It was hard to find the mythic New York I’d seen in movies and read about in books. Several weeks into the move, things started falling apart. My fiancée had all but abandoned me. I was struggling emotionally and felt trapped in a city where no one would give me a chance, and I had very few friends. 

One of my friends was the poet Steve Dalachinsky. Although I’d never met him in person, I’d been writing to him on and off since I was a teenager. Dalachinsky invited me to a reading at A Gathering of the Tribes, a gallery and performance space in the East Village. I made the trek to the venue, just off Avenue C. After walking up a creaky flight of stairs, I found myself in a cramped room with a bunch of folding chairs. I remember Samuel Delany was reading. Off in one corner I saw Dalachinsky, whom I recognized from photographs, sitting on a folding chair. He seemed to be listening to Delany very intently. Although I was thrilled to be at the reading, I was having difficultly concentrating on the reader. All I could think about was that my partner was somewhere in Manhattan with another man. I was very depressed, and I wasn’t even sure if I should be introducing myself to Dalachinsky while I was in such bad emotional shape.

At the end of the reading, a jar went around to collect donations for the venue. One person, a man in a fedora, took money out of the jar instead of putting it in. Dalachinsky shot up from his chair, grabbed the man by the shirt with both of his fists, and told him to put the money back, which the man did. I was impressed by Dalachinsky’s passion. It showed me that he really cared about the community he was a part of. There was also something about his energy that put me at ease, and I felt more comfortable. When I introduced myself, Dalachinsky apologized profusely for the incident, saying he wished I hadn’t seen it. I assured him there was nothing to apologize for, and soon we found ourselves talking on the street. We walked by The Stone, the experimental music space run by John Zorn, and Dalachinsky suggested we go sometime in the future.

Emotionally, that night reinvigorated me. But the next two months were chaos. I had become the caretaker for an abusive, addicted, suicidal, cheating fiancée. I was unable to do anything but take care of her. My time – my life – was hers, and she only seemed to value it when it suited her. I had lost my identity. I felt like I was drowning. When I looked in the mirror I no longer recognized myself. A week after Valentine’s Day, I left New York. Months later, I found myself in the Bay Area, interning at AK Press in Oakland. When Dalachinsky’s book A Superintendent’s Eyes was published by Autonomedia, I was thrilled to see a stack of them arrive at the AK Press warehouse. 

That summer Dalachinsky’s book came to live in my backpack as I took the BART back and forth from San Francisco to the East Bay. The book is a collection of poems covering a long period of time during which Dalachinsky was the superintendent of an apartment building in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood. But the poems aren’t just poetry in the traditional sense. They are also letters, stories, dreams, and diary entries that sketch out the character of the building. Like an urban Matsuo Basho, Dalachinsky’s poems capture something I can relate to: the loneliness and vulnerability of living in New York City, its chaos, and its beauty.

Part of the chaos is in the people Dalachinsky meets. The tenants he writes about and the people he sees on the streets could very well have been people like me. In many ways, the poetry is about their failures and struggles. One longer prose piece, “Superintendent’s Eyes #77: (Shifting Portraits),” showcases many of these people by apartment number. They are broken people, lost and damaged. Many are artists, musicians, addicts, and old-timers adjusting to change. Even Man Ray’s nephew makes an appearance. We see them exclusively through Dalachinsky’s eyes as he shifts between sympathy and frustration. The poetry shows a labyrinth of characters coming and going, drifting in and out of rooms and hallways. It’s full of characters struggling under the stress and anxiety of living in New York, an anxiety that seeps into your brain and into your dreams. 

In the poem “Superintendent’s Eyes #31: (War Dream),” Dalachinsky dreams of the trash cans all lined up and empty, just like he left them, reminding me that these are poems about working and the tension of doing a job. Dalachinsky writes about being under the thumb of landlords and their relatives, dealing with city regulations, and the stress of working a job where bosses give you little respect and tenants are difficult. The poetry doesn’t just document the microcosm of life inside the building but also Dalachinsky’s working relationship with the building. The building breaks. It falls apart. It needs repairs. Rooms morph and transform; two apartments become one. Dalachinsky enters the building’s bowels, the boiler room. He does the dirty work. He keeps the building alive. Arthur Kaye provides the book with supplemental photographs that illustrate the building in a matter-of-fact way, like something you’d see in André Breton’s Nadja or Louis Aragon’s Paris Peasant. Dalachinsky is the only person photographed in the book, and only once. We see him sitting with his back to the camera as he stares into a television screen, reminding me that some of the best poems in the book come from when he is just spending downtime with his wife, Yuko, watching television or flirting.

But the poem I keep coming back to is “A Superintendent’s Eyes #35: (Spring Street).” In this poem, Dalachinsky writes about someone turning away from him on the street as he is also turning away from them. Two people avoiding each other. He then hears a little girl on the street calling out to her mother that she’s drowning.

drowning on spring street
between the bowery
& the hudson
it is late winter or early spring
depending on how
you look at it
we dump our garbage
all over this island of dreams
& borrow what we can

It’s the drowning I really identify with, like something larger than me, something hostile, was smothering me. As a newcomer to New York, I felt lonely and disconnected. There was a looming emptiness. I have no doubt in my mind that New York is the center of the world, but there’s also something about it that made it feel like the most alienating place I’ve ever lived. There was a silence there between me and other people that I was unable to break. I try to remind myself, when I think back to my time there, that I was with an abusive partner, and that I shouldn’t confuse the way she made me feel with how the city made me feel, but it’s hard to untangle those associations. New York will always be a place where love failed.

I’m still unsure whether I will ever go back to New York. In a very short amount of time, it engulfed and rattled me. When I moved there I had three goals in life: to successfully live in New York, to find a job in publishing, and to marry the woman I was in love with. All three of these goals feel as if they have collapsed, and, while two of them are technically still possible, the latter is not a reality. I can no longer tell if these dreams are even relevant to me anymore, or if they have just been covered with garbage. I fear I’ve become content with simply surviving.