“Touch of the Marvelous” may be the best known of Philip Lamantia’s poems. It’s certainly one of his earliest. It was written in 1943, at age 15 (!) and published—as seen above—in the February 1944 final issue of VVV, the surrealist magazine edited in New York by David Hare with André Breton, Marcel Duchamp, and Max Ernst. The issue also included two other Lamantia poems, an ardent letter by him to Breton (“To rebel! That is the immediate objective of poets!”), a striking cover by Matta —
— writings by such luminaries as Benjamin Peret, Aimé Césaire and Leonora Carrington, and art by, among others, Carrington, Enrico Donati, Duchamp, Ernst, Wilfredo Lam, Jacqueline Lamba, Yves Tanguy, and Dorothea Tanning.
Even among the stellar array of writings and art in VVV no. 4, “Touch of the Marvelous” shone bright, and still does today. Here again is how the poem looked on the page (go ahead, read it again!):
The energy in this poem is—yes, I will say it—marvelous. I wrote about it about ten years ago, when it appeared in the lead off spot in Lamantia’s Collected Poems (University of California Press, 2013).
But I’m compelled to write about the poem again today, on —yes, I said yes — the 95th anniversary of Lamantia’s birth, in 1927, in San Francisco, because I recently finished—
—The Penguin Book of Mermaids (2019), “a treasury of . . . tales about merfolk and water spirits from different cultures, ranging from Scottish selkies to Hindu water-serpents to Chilean sea fairies,” as the publisher puts it on the rear cover. Edited by University of Hawaii professors Cristina Bacchilega and Marie Alohalani Brown, the book’s a delight, including the general introduction as well as the head- and endnotes for the sixty tales (some are excerpts), including 20 translated into English for the first time. These editors know their stuff, and share it extremely well.
Reading The Penguin . . . Mermaids, I got to thinking on Lamantia’s mermaids in “Touch of the Marvelous” and how they fit with, extend, or differ from the centuries-old folk and literary traditions about the sea-creatures. Shall we, er um, swim around in that for a bit?
Lamantia’s poem fits the folk and literary traditions in its depiction of what Bacchhilega and Brown call “a fleeting interspecies encounter,” which they identify as one of three a common plots in merfolk tales (the others are the taking of a mer(maid)-wife, or the abduction of a human into the water.) In “Touch of the Marvelous,” the mermaids arrive, they depart, and despite trying to hold on to one, the speaker–who I’ve always considered to be Lamantia—ends up “lost in the search to have,” “looking for,” “recalling memories of,” and “looking beyond the hour and the day to find” the mermaid.
However, different from essentially all traditional mer-tales, Lamantia in his poem encounters mermaids not in water or at its edge, but in “the desert.” A desert with a “camel” and “sands,” details which make it seem genuine, and also of course very dry, with all that such metaphorically evokes in terms of—as I read it—a desiccated creative zone. This bringing of sea creatures to dry land suggests the kind of resolution of opposites the Surrealists (and others, including Heraclitus) explored and pondered. It’s also a compelling visual image, and that it happens in the first line of “Touch of The Marvelous” is a high-power verve-charge.
Lamantia’s mermaids also embody the traditional notion that such creatures’ are able to transform themselves; as Bacchhilega and Brown say, “like water, they are shape-shifters that resist being contained.” In “Touch of the Marvelous” the ch-ch-changes begin almost right away, with mermaids described with “feet of roses” instead of the typical tails. But it is with BIANCA, first named in the fourth stanza, that the shape-shifting becomes a tour de force—or is it a chef-d'œuvre? (I say both). The mermaid first turns into two giant lips and then, in the eyes of the poet who seeks her, “the angelic doll turned black,” “the child of broken elevators,” “the curtain of holes / that you never want to throw away,” and, ultimately, “the first woman and first man” (italics added, to emphasis the shape-shifting). These transformations reverie-rev the imagination.
“Touch of the Marvelous” also reflects the relationship between mermaids and Sirens. Professors Bacchhilega and Brown remind that Sirens, in Homer’s Odyssey, and on ancient Greek vases and funerary monuments, were human/bird creatures, with “the power of their song and music— rather than their appearance” their primary trait. Over time, Sirens morphed into human-piscine beings, the professors teach, based on their power, shared with mermaids, to seduce; thus, as early as the 14th Century, Chaucer, as quoted in the Oxford English Dictionary, wrote “[t]hough we call them mermaids here . . . Men call them sirens in France.” But while both seduce—“lead astray, divert, lead elsewhere,” Bachhilega and Brown clarify that the Siren’s lure is not entirely sexual, but “had to do with life and death, or knowing the future . . . .”
Only “mermaids” are explicitly mentioned in Lamantia’s “Touch of the Marvelous,” but I believe “Sirens” are in the poem too. First, BIANCA is said to turn “with the “charm of a bird;” this invoking of the avian leads me right to the bird-women Sirens of antiquity. And I hear the seductive song of Homer’s Sirens when Lamantia writes he is looking for the region where BIANCA’s “eardrums play music . . . .”
In addition to those semi-direct associative references, Sirens are intuitively evoked given that Lamantia’s pursuit of BIANCA is not simply a desire for physical contact, although the references to “boudoir” in the early stanzas do point to a sensual experience, as does the “the mermaid’s nimble fingers” going through the poet’s hair. He wants “the secrets,” to go to a yet unknown region where there conflagration, ascent (“where the smoke of your hair is thick . . . climbing over the white wall”) and music. He believes BIANCA might be found out past all time (“beyond the hour and day”). BIANCA may be a named mermaid in the poem, but she attracts, as do the Sirens, with knowledge and much, much more.
If I had to give BIANCA’s allure and essence a name, I’d say “creative energy”—but of a certain kind, one that’s directly related to Lamantia’s poetics: that which brings on or allows access to “the Marvelous.” In this regard, consider what he wrote in the magazine Arsenal Surrealist Subversion (1976):
I have always dreamed of the ultimate triumph of the Sirens who, it was said, were ‘defeated’ in their poetic combat with the Muses, and who can be deciphered to typify imaginative freedom from the restraints of rationally controlled poetry, whose spokesmen, like all good bourgeoisie, must always recommend that we ‘plug our ears’ against the enchantresses heard by the inspired poet on his voyage to the unknown.