There is nothing like Joyce Mansour’s poetry. It expresses the erotic yet cruel power of love and desire. The poems are stark and painful, with an almost frightening and obsessive streak of sado-masochism. The consuming madness of sex and death are fiercely and passionately described with shocking and violent imagery, yet there is often a moving sensitivity in her work. Her vocabulary is precise, every word counts, these poems are bare and spare.
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.
She is, however, unknown in the English-speaking world, in part because the bulk of her poems are 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 André Breton, who supported her work, spreading the word about her in his circle and beyond.
Mansour was born in England in 1928, grew up in Egypt and wrote in French. She had an intense and complex emotional life, touched by death at an early age: her mother died from cancer when she was fifteen, followed by the death of her husband, also from cancer, after only six months of marriage when she was eighteen. She married her French-speaking second husband a year and a half later.
Mansour 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 twenty-four hours. They settled in Paris where she successfully combined the role of a typical wife and mother to two sons with that of a leading surrealist writer moving in the artistic bohemian circles of post-war Paris.
If there is any direct literary comparison to be made with Mansour, it is with Sylvia Plath. As a 20th century female writer Plath also lived a double life balancing her expected domestic duties with her dark poetic vision as well as dealing with the early loss of a parent. But where Plath only partially succeeded to exorcise her demons in her creative life, Joyce Mansour succeeded – and survived.
My thirty years as a psychotherapist and sex therapist have helped give me a focussed insight into Mansour’s sexual scenarios and fantasies, her surreal mental leaps, twists and turns. In my counselling room I have heard many a dark story about the primitive, cruel, consuming aspects of sex that she describes so succinctly.
I would like to make her known by publishing a selection of her poems and, as an experienced translator, I am impressed by her ability to write in a language that was not her first. It makes the translation process all the more interesting as the constraint of writing in a second language comes across as paradoxically liberating, despite her ease and fluency in French. Perhaps there are things one can only express in a foreign language. From my own experience, I am aware that sometimes the thoughts I have in French are quite different from ones I have in English, not just idiomatically but at an emotional level.
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. Modern Poetry in Translation review are publishing six of my translations in 2016 but I want to give this extraordinary poet a full volume of selected poems. I was knocked out by her work when I first read her and I continue to be amazed.
DO YOU STILL REMEMBER THE SWEET SMELL OF PLANTAIN TREES?
Do you still remember the sweet smell of plantain trees?
How strange familiar things can be after a parting
How sad the food
How dull the bed
And the cats
Do you remember the cats with their strident claws?
Howling on the roof as your tongue searched me
Arching their backs as your nails peeled me
They trembled as I yielded
I no longer know how to love
The painful bubbles of delirium have vanished from my lips
I have given up my leafy mask
A rose bush suffers under the bed
I no longer move my hip on the stones
The cats have fled the roof. .
Connais-tu encore le doux arôme des plantaniers?
Combien étranges peuvent être les choses familières après un depart
Combien triste la nourriture
Combien triste un lit
Et les chats
Te rappelles-tu les chats aux griffes stridentes
Qui hurlaient sur le toit quand ta langue me fouillait
Et qui faisaient le gros dos quand tes ongles m’écorchaient
Ils vibraient quand je cédais
Je ne sais plus aimer
Les bulles douloureuses du délire se sont évanouies de mes lèvres
J’ai abandonné mon masque de feuillage
Un rosier agonise sous le lit
Je ne me déhanche plus parmi la pierraille
Les chats ont déserté le toit.
I OPENED YOUR HEAD
I opened your head
To read your thoughts
I crunched your eyes
To taste your sight.
I drank your blood
To know your desire
And your trembling body
Became my food.
J’ai ouvert ta tête
Pour lire tes pensées
J’ai croqué tes yeux
Pour goûter ta vue.
J’ai bu ton sang
Pour connaître ton désir
Et de ton corps frissonnant
J’ai fait mon aliment.
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.
LYING ON MY BED
Lying on my bed
I see your face reflected on the wall
Your shadowless body scaring mine
Your frantic and rhythmic comings and goings
Your grimaces chasing all furniture from the room
Apart from the bed anchored by my liar’s sweat
And me waiting without cover or hope
For the agony.
Couchée sur mon lit
Je vois ton visage reflété sur le mur
Ton corps sans ombre qui fait peur au mien
Tes allées et venues frénétiques et cadencées
Tes grimaces qui font fuir tous les meubles de la pièce
Sauf le lit ancré par ma sueur de mensonge
Et moi qui attends sans couverture ni espoir
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’épaissir
Tes joues blanchir en se creusant
Je veux tes frissons
Que tu éclates entres me cuisses
Que mes desires soient exauces sur le sol fertile
De ton corps sans pudeur