From Book 1: Poems into Plowshares

            Finally he finished, rolled up his rug and stood up, his face collapsing into brown wrinkles as he smiled. He nodded to me, and reached out to playfully slap Artaud’s cheek, again startling the young man. “Peace be with you both!” the Muslim cried, and slipped into the crowd. Artaud’s hand flew to his cheek, but he put his hand down again when he saw that I was laughing.

            I felt a tap on my arm, and turned to see Justine standing beside me in her white dress. “We’re watching you through the window.” She waved a hand at the large window of the restaurant where Roger and Louis sat over their supper. Louis waved back, but Roger began to glance about the room, mocking Artaud’s performance in the Deux Magots the night before. “Come join us! Antonin, where have you been? Don’t you know what’s happened? Please help me put a muzzle on your friend—he’s beside himself.”

            We trailed Justine through the door, Artaud surreptitiously rubbing his cheek, which only reddened it more. Ignoring the waiter’s glare, I grabbed two chairs from a vacant table and pulled them to the window where Roger and Louis were sitting. “Artaud!” Louis exclaimed, barely able to contain his excitement, “have you heard? If you haven’t, then be prepared to turn the other cheek! Breton’s made it official. Here someone, eat this—I can’t.” Completely agitated, he shoved his plate into the center of the table and sat vibrating like a violin string. Spreading her hands, Justine sat.

Artaud took the pamphlet Louis handed him and silently read it. No one touched Louis’s plate, so I eagerly pulled it toward me. Roger and Justine sat and waited for Artaud to react while Louis babbled, “Now I wish I’d joined; then I could resign in protest. A counter-revolution!”

            “Shut up, Louis,” Roger grunted, “you’re getting on my nerves. Done already?” he asked Artaud, who abruptly shoved the pamphlet away and sat back, crushing out his cigarette in the ashtray. “Nothing at all to say?”

            Artaud shook his head.

            “I don’t blame you.” Roger leaned forward, his eyes sweeping the room. “Breton probably has his sentries posted all over this place to take down anything you say or do so he can begin more purges.”

            “André Breton is my friend,” Artaud replied, rather irritably. He waved his hand at the pamphlet in disgust. “I certainly credit him with more intelligence than this.”

            “What is everyone so excited about?” I demanded, when my mouth wasn’t full. Artaud shoved the pamphlet my way and sat glowering. He was like a violin string too, but taut and still. We are not utopianists; we conceive of this Revolution only in its social form, I read, not understanding a word of it. I read half the pamphlet before giving up. “What does this mean?” I felt like a moron.

            “It means we’re all going to beat our poems into plowshares,” Roger quipped, drawing a glare from Artaud. Then he leaned forward and said more seriously, “For some time now, Breton’s been flirting with merging the Surrealists with the Communists. This pamphlet means he’s decided to do it, and make every Surrealist declare his loyalty to the Communist Party. This controversy has nearly splintered the Surrealists, and now it’s sure to break them apart. I’m taking Justine to their Research Bureau in a bit—believe it or not, she and I have been invited.”

I was invited,” Justine declared. “You are receiving my charity.”

“No, I was invited as well,” Roger argued. “Come along, if you like,” he told me. “It should make for an interesting evening.”

            “But I thought—” I turned to Artaud. “You’re their President. Isn’t that so? Who is this André Breton, and how can he make a proclamation like this, obviously without your approval?”

            Artaud made an abortive search of his pockets for another cigarette. “Let me answer this way: In 1914, who was the Kaiser of Austria? Wilhelm II. And who really plunged your nation into war? Count Leopold von Berchtold, without Wilhelm’s permission. N’est-ce pas?” Those eyes of his darted at me from beneath his brows. I nodded, without adding that my family had actually moved to Berlin before the War.

            “Peasants!” Louis sneered. “I mean the Surrealists. Parisian potato farmers of the unconscious, Muscovites in Sunday mackinaws, that’s all they are. Would they sacrifice their suppers and starve, on principle?” He looked meaningfully at me.

            “You offered him your supper,” Justine said in disbelief.

            “Well, now I’m hungry.”

            “I’ve already eaten it,” I said, quickly popping the last piece of bread into my mouth, “and no, today I do not have the money to pay you back, Comrade.”

            “You could eat his vomit, on principle,” Artaud put in sarcastically, “as that is Communism’s essence.” Because I was still chewing I glared at him, and he cut his eyes at me playfully, then stared out of the large window.

            Louis grinned around his cigarette. Justine rolled her eyes. Roger stood up and clapped a hand on my shoulder. “Good evening, Schlafmann!” He left the table and weaved his way toward the counter while making snoring noises.

            “Come with us tonight, Geoff,” Justine pleaded, keeping an eye on Roger as he bought cigarettes. “I mean to the Research Bureau, when we go. I have a feeling Roger’s trying to make a move under the pretext of escorting me there, and I don’t want to be alone with him. I really want to go, but not because of him.”

            Artaud murmured, “If I were you, Justine, I’d watch my step with Roger.” He continued to stare into space as if he’d never spoken.

            Justine looked at me expectantly and I wondered why Artaud couldn’t go instead, since he was her friend and still the Surrealist leader, however precarious his position was. But he continued to glare out the window. “I’ll go with you if you want…” I said reluctantly, and Justine brightened.

Robert Desnos walked in the door and greeted us from across the room with a rendition of the Funeral March—“Dum, dum-te-dum, dum-te-dum-de-TEDIUM!”—delivering his last note at the table just as Roger returned. “Sorry, I don’t know the ‘Internationale.’” He spied the pamphlet and seized it, and pantomimed wiping his posterior with it. “Ah! I feel refreshed!” he proclaimed and stuffed the pamphlet into Roger’s suit jacket, and Roger sniggered along with the rest of our group. Desnos began to entertain the others with his wheezing impressions of this André Breton, thrusting out his chest and squinting behind an imaginary monocle. Justine and Louis burst into laughter. Roger threw his cigarettes onto the table, saying, “Anyone?” With my purloined dinner eaten and having nothing to add to the conversation, I suddenly felt stiff and strange again. They were so casual with each other and with me, these people I barely knew. How had I become one of them? Why did they trust me so easily? It was as if I expected some sort of ritual, or initiation.

Next scene: The Surrealist Research Bureau.

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