Friday, 25 September 2020

No 108 - The dark surrealism of Phyllis Haring's poetry


Haring and (?) husband [MyHeritage]
No doubt there are thousands of minor poets who flare briefly in the darkness and are gone – some of them perhaps deservedly so. Every so often you find a worthy whose ember is barely alive, but you have a chance to blow a little life back in.

I just rediscovered a little volume called A Taste of Salt, by one Phyllis Haring. In a life that lasted nearly a century (1919-2016), she published just 50 poems, 22 of them in A Taste of Salt. But what poems! She is dark, death-obsessed, fractured – but also unflinching, musical, a startling surrealist. She drew on dreams and myths and fairy-story motifs, carrying on fragmentary conversations which are both overheard voices around her and aspects of her own psyche.

Haring was born and died in Johannesburg, and lived there most of her life, except for a brief period in London in the 1950s. As she described it in a letter to Jack Cope, who edited A Taste of Salt, she was a tearaway youth, a “love-addict”, who “married too young, divorced too soon – wanted 6 children and had one.” That one, a son, died young, spinning her into depression and therapy, not for the first time. Yet for decades she also ran a swimming school.

There’s a slippery relationship between the poetic techniques of Surrealism and psychic disturbance. Surrealism – think of paintings by Max Ernst or Salvador Dali – challenged the norms of realism, logic, coherence itself, trying to represent the unfathomable leaps and juxtapositions of dream-thought. Early Surrealists like founder André Breton espoused a kind of automatic writing, writing by pure instinct, with almost religious fervour. Dissenters like Georges Bataille were tougher, materialist, even excremental. The established narratives of religion, politics and nation went out the window. Life had no direction, no goal, no predictable outcome, quite possibly no discernible meaning at all. In short, if you are bordering on mad or just rebellious, Surrealism is ideal.

Phyllis Haring tackled her own disturbances, mostly indirectly through scenes that hint at underlying narratives or parable-like promise, but end with no didactic wisdom. In one unpublished poem, “Found Lunatic”, she represented mental trouble more directly:

             Now that the room

Is mysteriously full of flowers

And your hands are colder by far

Than last winter’s winter,

You don’t need to pretend any longer.

You can get up and go out.

... I’ll just stay quietly here

And try to collect myself.


... I must have been walking worriedly

Towards that sudden second all my life,

Watching myself in shop-windows, admiring myself ...




... And I remember childhood,

The long lane at evening, acorns popping underfoot,

Swimming in summer and small boys in trees.

At seventeen there was no-one to talk to ...



And now that the room is so mysterious

This policeman won’t believe a word I say –

You tell him, darling.

 A cacophony of voices, heading nowhere. Mostly she depicts ordinary life as superficial and programmed, false, mere performance in the shadow of inevitable death. In the 1970s she explained to Cope: 

I now love and admire animals & birds more than people, children more than adults, am still anti-fascist, and am also anti women’s lib. For me the natural world is far more important than the political or religious, or anything, since it encloses us all. If I have a faith at all, it must be more or less the same faith a tree has, & wish I had the same acceptance of the ills of the world. When it is time to die, I will console myself with the thought that in any case in my life time there is no understanding, pity or love between people and things. So, call me a crank!

 Surreal and dark features were evident already in Haring’s very first formally published poem, “The tunnel”. 

Life, and the passage of time,

The days and the nights converging,

And the long tunnel of time. Tell me,

Where are you going, what waits there?

Who dies in the dark there, who dies?

There’s nothing in it for us at all,

Unless you can say to me, “I am going

Here and there, to do this and that,

And I have an appointment with my lover!”




Like this, with only the scream of wires

And the personal idea of a station somewhere,

The silence presses too hard on the head

And heart, and some of us are quietly

Sick on the side. It’s not necessary;

We’re all here, look around, say something!

For God’s sake lift your hat!

See how it feels, getting together,

Getting the low-down on what it all means.

And stop pushing.

 Here is the deceptive simplicity, the unflinching questioning, the mushy hysterics of not-quite-inner voices in conversational drama. Society’s trivial gestures, endured rather than enjoyed, performed rather than valued, hint at a terrible emptiness behind – the pressure of silence. The governing existential questions are repeated in another early poem  titled “Who”. The final stanza is shockingly bold: 

What am I but only a particular

Particle of dust, of nothing but blood and bone

Beseeching, searching, wandering forever

Along the delicate snail’s trail your spirit leaves

In passages and doorways, in halls and auditoriums,

And in books and theatre programmes, in love

With whomever has lips to meet one. ... You stare

Solemnly with the eyes of anyone, you speak to me

With the voice of strangers, calling me onward. ...

To what end? What destination? What new death? 

 As with other poems, the second-person addressee may or may not be an actual or notional outsider, may be a reflection of herself – or both. Is it mere wandering, or a search? If so, for what? Repeatedly, it appears to be for a god whose “name and address” she does not know, for a resurrection, or just for an affirmation that she “too, could be holy”. All putative goals prove elusive or delusory. Even “reality” appears almost mystically friable, if not threatening. As she puts it in “Iscariot”: 

But my hands clasp the heavy shadow

Of a faint reality, in the huger shadow of the world –

Therefore I send myself along regretful avenues,

Towards houses with secretive numbers, relentlessly [...]

 A surreal search for “tantalising fruit” again ends in a question, as if from an already-emptied afterlife: “Will the flown soul/ Return from distant orchards to inhabit me?”  In the poem “The Search”, a narrative is more evident: the speaker is searching for a brother “among markets/ And harbours, among old men and sailors”. I am reminded of Khalil Gibran, with his gently sonorous Biblical prosody, a setting simple as that of a mediaeval allegory, and a figure of a lost pilgrim. But this pilgrimage, if it is that, has already begun unpromisingly: 

The earth asks, and receives rain, the benediction

Of rain and of sun, and the population of seeds.

But the worm inhabits the earth, and multiplies itself

And makes merry in the blind earth above which

The birds suspend themselves, aware of the end. 

People live on, “with talking/ And laughter, surrounded by dogs and by children”, but they are subject to forces far greater than themselves, and the poem, circling back to the imagery of its opening, turns apocalyptic: 

[...] the earth presses upward against their feet

So that they remain upright: but elsewhere

The earth opens and engulfs a city, and perhaps

My brother is hastening towards that city.


– While I, as I lie on my comfortable bed, as the blood

Courses through my hands and my feet, as the blood

Courses over streets and over flagstones, up to the doors

Of houses and cathedrals, over the altars

Of the new religions, over the world, I thrust my thought

Deep into the earth, watching the worm with my mind’s eye:

The worm which devours itself with the beak of a dead bird.

 This is highly self-conscious myth-making by a ‘self’ querying itself through its own imaginings. Is the search really for a way of living in the world which does not feel (as depicted in the poem “Poker-face”) as trivial and depersonalised as being dealt out like cards at a cheap game – or, worse, dealing oneself out like cards? It may be that any authentic being-in-the-world is a fantasy; so she projects it in the poem of that title: 

There are times when the skin,

Where it joins down the middle of my back,

Splits open and lets me out –

And I move quietly among you,

Touching the colour of your eyes

And holding your voice in my hands

Like the light notes of piano

Or the soft sounds chrysanthemums make

When being beheaded in gardens. (“Fantasy”)

 The speaker tries to compensate for that macabre note by encouraging her faceless hearers, “Don’t be afraid”; but as in many poems these ‘conversations’, one suspects, are between aspects of herself; behind this slightly disturbing, insect-like escape from her own “bag of bones” lie opposing fears both of being socially present and of being alone.

 Beneath the surface of apparent fantasy, common emotional truths spark. As R D Laing famously suggested, this “schizoid” quality inhabits all of us, as we balance private self-conceptions with acceptable social masks. In Haring’s case, though, this state of internal fracture can appear positively self-destructive – nowhere more so than in “Attack”, which reads in full: 

I’ll set my anger loose upon you

Like a warm, red beast

To beat your head in

With its hoofs of music;

To gore your breast repeatedly

With sharp, distracted horns

Hidden in honey,

As for a sacrifice. 

That’s an extraordinarily compact poem, its animal-human conjunction redolent of Greek myth. It is ambivalent about the nature of this sacrifice, if it is one. The language is tensed between “warm” and “sharp”, “set” and “distracted”, the double entendre of “beat”, the grotesque deception of “Hidden in honey”. Yet these antitheses are held together by a robust and careful musicality: the internal echoes of “loose” and “hoofs”, of “beast”, “beat” and “breast”, of “gored [...] horns/ Hidden in honey”. It is a fundamentally mysterious yet forbiddingly powerful drama.

 The poems often express such feelings of entrapment (I hesitate to say ‘Haring’, because I don’t think you can unproblematically ‘psychoanalyze’ a writer through their poems; they are fictions, after all, no more so than in this work). No feeling of entrapment is more unsettling than the recognition that, as the cliché would have it, we are born to die. Extinction is implicit in the seed, and therefore haunts even the fruit that is relished in the living interim. The ambivalence is encapsulated in one surreal poem’s very title, “The sun imprisoned”, which reads in full: 

The sun,

Imprisoned in the profound, close house of the apple,

Astringently contained in quinces, caught

For a season in the polished shell of a walnut,

The sun has gone away for Christmas.

Here’s the moon, and carnivals of crossed stars,

All heaven is festooned everywhere with brave lights

   But the dark leans over everything.

The dark ...

And yet, behold the god returning,

The sun enormously an orange in his hand. 

“Astringently contained in quinces, caught [...]”: such a great line! The governing antithesis is ironically counterpointed by the assonance-alliteration of astringently and quinces. The word caught at the end of the line is carefully balanced with Imprisoned at the beginning of the previous line, as well as half-rhyming with walnut in the next. Haring can be as gifted as Yeats in this kind of control, even as emotion spills into broken lines with the advent of “the dark”. Fruitful day returns, powerful as a god, but it is already devilled by darkness. 

So many poems cry out for quotation, but I’ll stop with one of her most-anthologised. In “Foetus”, the poet imagines herself in the space of the womb – an inland sea, as it were, where “bones form themselves quietly,/ Turned on a lathe of tide,” and in which a “disconsolate” and “opaque dreaming” prevails: 

There is slime everywhere,

There are fishes, and powerful anemones,

And an army of snails softly advancing ...


Spread themselves on my face and on my neck, like fungi,

And my skin crawls, my hands clutch and clasp

The warm temperature of the water.


My head leans on the water, sad as a bell,

Surrounded with silence, with heaviness ...

Therefore my arms cross my heart

And with humility I hope to die. 

Phyllis Haring was indeed humble, publishing nothing in the last two decades of her life, dropped from anthologies of South African poetry and never reprinted. But in my view her voice is an unusually powerful and individual one, strangely beautiful in its very gloominess – well worth re-reading.


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