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Self-Shadowing Prey just brought out by Contra Mundum is one of the final texts by Ghérasin Luca, a poet and surrealist thinker I had not heard of before receiving this book. He was born in Bucharest in 1913, and spoke a number of languages including German, French and Romanian. In 1952 he was forced to leave Bucharest for Paris where he had connections in Surrealist circles. He committed suicide in 1994 by throwing himself into the Seine, having been evicted from his home apparently for “hygiene reasons.”
As well as being a poet he worked on collages and drawings also performing his works in many countries. I mention this, because it also gives some clues about the text. The book itself has been stylishly produced. It has an elegant cover in a black and white design, with a hint of red on the lettering and has been translated from French into English by Mary Ann Caws, who has previously done translations of French surrealist, and surrealist influenced poets including Paul Eluard, René Char and the “pope of surrealism” himself, André Breton.
The presentation also has significance with regard to the text. Whilst none of the poems in Self-Shadowing Prey are concrete poems as such, there is considerable play with the layout of lines words and stanzas. Even empty pages are used to convey pauses and silences. This may also account for the fact that the English translation and the French original do not appear side by side. They are set out sequentially, which may create some difficulties cross referencing the two, but does give both versions the full flavour of Luca’s layout. This especially applies to a section titled GENERAL sTRIKE which stretches  an almost haiku-like poem over several pages with empty ones breaking the words up further:  “GENERAL/ sTRIKE/ without end/ or beginning/ POETRY/ WITHOUT TONGUE/ REVOLUTION/ WITHOUT ANYONE/ LOVE/ END/ LESS.”
This short section/poem is about the nearest we get to a direct expression of what the work is about. As Caws explains in her introduction this text centres round the problems of language and what it can express. There is also a very strong surrealist flavour. Surrealist poetry can use strange juxtapositions of words and ideas requiring readers to make associative leaps in the imagination- and there are plenty of these here. Yet there is also a degree of narrative line in the sequence if the poems. The first, title poem begins as follows:

at the edge of a forest
whose trees are slender ideas
and each a thought at bay
the vegetal reveals to us
the damned depths of an animal sect”

Immediately, there are questions. What ideas? What thoughts? What are the “damned depths of an animal sect?” These are not directly answered. But I can’t help hearing echoes of Dante wandering into the forest at the start of The Divine Comedy, suggesting the reader is meant to make their own journey into an underworld of unconscious elements that underpin all languages. The “damned depths” suggest this, and the journey leads to what Luca describes as:

 “all these yes and nos that
outside outside of time
of space and weight”

One other point of comment here is also the repetition of outside. Luca is coining a verb “to outside” and the act outside of time.

There is not sufficient space to examine all the twists and turns that this sequence of poems takes. A difficulty that Surrealist poetry can create is that its lines are difficult to parse. But this of course is be deliberate. Some poets relay heavily on the sounds of words as much as their meaning. There certainly is a Joycean relish in the words sounds, repetitions, puns, the creation of neologisms, and homophonous words on display here, and even of parts of words, that are described on the back of the book as “stupors.”
Interestingly, there some examples of Luca reading his work on the web, including a film of the final poem, Uninitialed Crimes. The performance resembles an avant-garde composition. There is huge exuberance in the way Luca reads and even stammers out some of his work which comes through in this text which the translator describes as “linguistically joyous.” The words themselves are largely names of real and fictional ideologies and artistic movements until a turn twelve pages later when the poem concludes with a statement that all these words are “are synonyms” and “homophones.”
Yet before we reach this conclusion Luca has taken the reader on the journey hinted at in the first poem. The poems in this book follow a sequence, from the forest into what Luca calls the Restless Whirlwind, telling us:

“What passes us perfectly immobile
pushes what seems strangely mobile
to pretend it’s fixed and unmoving”

We are in a world of flux, of self-reflecting mirrors and shadows which is what the title has already hinted at. In a number of other poems he describes a woman, perhaps his lover, mentioning movements of her foot and arm. Yet capturing her presence eludes him, as he concludes in a poem titled Madeleine:

without arm or face
                                      arm in arm
                                Madeleine hides Madeleine

In other poems he alludes to whatever lies beyond words heading in a direction Towards the Non-Mental. In a visionary section titled  The Key, Luca moves through visionary experiences that include what he calls “the range of self,” “movements of atoms,” “exploding planets” and his vocation as a poet stating:

                “and you don’t get out of the absurd
                 except through the absurd itself”

The next poem, Ox Nerve moves into the cortex of the brain, explaining  “The Ox Nerve is at the  origin of the information/ which has recently circulated/ as to the polls/ taken by the brain/ from certain torso nerves.” In this phrase again we note self-shadowing words being distorted and perhaps inadequate to experience.
So where are we left at the end of all this strange, playful work? In some ways, it remains baffling and bewildering. There are no answers. Yet like when reading some of the most difficult poems of Paul Celan (who Luca associated with) I keep returning to the pages of this book ponder on the phrases and images in the work, to try an make a sense of what its convoluted and experimental phraseology . Something deep in my psyche has been moved . If that is a problem for readers, it should not be laid at the door of the translator, who confesses in her introduction to a fascination with “the obvious impossibility” translating this work. It is the difficulties of the original that have been brilliantly brought into English here.
Self-Shadowing Prey is a linguistic experiment. English readers might see parallels with Finnegans Wake, another “impossible” work on which the impossible has been done recently when it was translated into Romanian. The difficulties of Luca’s French are perhaps not as extreme as in that work by James Joyce. It is the leaps of imagination that Luca demand of his reader here. Both works confront the impossibility of language, how it can both reflect and distort experience. Whether this experiment succeeds or fails I leave for readers. I suspect any confusions it generates are what we are meant to feel to  inspire further reflection as we move though its paradoxes and distortions. If it does this, it has succeeded.
Self-Shadowing Prey is a book to live with and ponder on. In a while, its secrets may yield, or maybe the real secret is in living with the possibility that the real nature of things always remains hidden.                            Graham Mummery

Graham Mummery lives in Sevenoaks, Kent. His poems have appeared in various UK magazines and he is currently working towards his first full collection. His own pamphlet, The Gods Have Become Diseases appeared in 2006. He also has translated poems from French (by René Char, Yves Bonnefoy and Paul Eluard), from German (Goethe and Rilke) and Norwegian (André Bjerke). Some of these have also appeared in magazines and the anthology of translations from French and German Over the Water (Hearing Eye Press). He collaborated in translating from Romanian into English Deepening the Mystery (EdituraSemene)  by Christiana Maria Purdescu.