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On Andre Breton’s “Free Union”

Updated: Jul 16, 2022

Free Union (Andre Breton)

My wife with the wood-burning hair Whose thoughts are summer lightning Whose waist is the size of an hourglass Like an otter in the teeth of a tiger My wife with a mouth of cockade-ribbons And a bouquet of brightest stars Whose teeth are the footprints of a white mouse on snow Whose tongue is amber and polished glass My wife whose tongue is a stabbed wafer The tongue of a doll that opens and closes its eyes With an incredible stone language My wife whose eyelashes are stick-figures drawn by children Whose eyebrows are the nests of swallows My wife whose temples are the slate color of greenhouse roofs When the windows are completely fogged-up My wife with the champagne shoulders And dolphin head fountains under ice My wife with match-stick wrists My wife with fingers of chance and the ace of hearts With fingers of cut hay My wife with armpits of marten and beechnut And St. John’s Eve Of privet and nests of angelfish With arms of sea foam and river locks And a mix of wheat and the mill My wife with rocket legs With movements of clockwork and despair My wife with the marrow of elder calves My wife whose feet are initials Whose feet are key-rings and the feet of drunk steeplejacks My wife whose neck is unpearled barley Whose throat is a Valley of Gold Whose bed-time encounters are torrents Whose breasts are of the night My wife whose breasts are molehills under the sea My wife whose breasts are ​​crucibles of rubies Are ghost breasts of roses under dew My wife whose belly is an unfolding fan of days Whose belly is a giant claw belly My wife with the back of a bird fleeing vertically With a back of quicksilver At the other side of the light With a neck of worn stone and wet chalk And of a broken glass from which we have just drunk My wife with basket hips Hips of luster and arrowheads And the stems of white peacock feathers And of insensitive scales My wife with a backside of sandstone and asbestos My wife with a back of swans My wife with the buttocks of spring With the sex of brilliant iris My wife with the Sex of Place and Platypus My wife with the sex of seaweed and old-time sweets My wife of the sex of the mirror My wife with eyes full of tears With eyes of a violet panoply and magnetic needles My wife with savanna eyes My wife with eyes of water for prisoners My wife with the eyes of forests falling under the ax My wife with eyes that are the level equal of earth and of water and fire.

—Bob Herz, trans. André Breton, “L’Union libre” (“Free Union”)

Andre Breton (1896-1966), a French writer, poet, and anti-fascist, deeply influenced many other French poets, including Yves Bonnefoy and Louis Aragon. He is known as the founder of surrealism, which he saw as a successor to the revolution launched by Guillaume Apollinaire. He wrote one of the first Surrealist Manifestos in 1924, in which he defined surrealism as

Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express — verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner — the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.

(The larger story in this is that Breton and his group fought for the rights to the term surrealism with another group founded by Yvon Goll. The rivalry was so fierce that at one point the two men physically fought each other. Though the quarrel ended with Breton’s victory, surrealism would always be marked by similar fierce fractures, resignations, and excommunications, with each succeeding surrealist having his or her own view of the issue and goals, though all accepted more or less Breton’s definitions.)

Breton’s poem, “L’Union libre” or “Free Union,” was written in the early 1920’s when Breton was developing his practices of automatic writing and “surrealist automatism.” The catalogue-poem, as it became known, was published anonymously in 1921 and later included in Breton’s limited (240 copies) dream, story, and poetry collection Clair de terre (1923, republished in 1931), a title intended to convey the reverse of a lightning strike.

The “Free Union” title is intended to apply to not only freedom to love in all its forms of praise but also the freedom to associate words and images.  Breton celebrates his wife’s body, from top to bottom and back again, ending with her eyes, in an image train that rebels against and rebuts more conventional or sentimental descriptions as well as any logic of image relation or scene. It is a very odd and even audacious assortment of images at work here, from wood burning fires and lighting to greenhouses, otters, sandstone, asbestos, broken glass, and many more, connected only by their focus as a description of his wife’s body. Used in this way, the poem essentially deconstructs her body, making it part of everything, with everything equally a part of her body. It is not really a personal poem; that is, it is strange that after so many words and images, we don’t know the woman at the end of the poem, or know her name, or even, after all this, what she looks like. Perhaps we have a sense of the force of her and of her impact on the poet. Her “wood-burning hair” and thoughts that are “summer lightning” tells us more about the force of her than anything to do with her actual hair or her thinking. It is odd that these are the first two images that come to the poet’s pen as descriptions of her rather than, say, her voice or her tenderness, or her face.

Does he love her? Even that is hard to tell from what we see here, and indeed, the poem seems to be not so much about love or marriage to a particular person (outside the repeated use of the word “my” with “wife,” which is assertion not a showing of evidence) as it is about the use of free language to describe the other, this unnamed person who is the nominal object of the poem. The commitment to her is there, if anywhere, in the poet’s commitment to the poem, and in the strikingly unusual and sometimes even vulgar images. It is not a love-poem, in any usual sense; rather it is a poem in which great energy expended on behalf of the other. Perhaps we can consider it a sort of mating dance without real end, a psalm of admiration and regard, in which the abilities of the poet are on full display in a kind of other-directed showing off, where the beloved in the act of love becomes the point of contact with the surreal unspoiled world of nature—not a person but a process, a roadway to attainment of salvation.

I’m fascinated by the poem in a kind of push-pull way, attracted and repulsed. I think Allen Ginsberg got it right in his description of the poem:

His list is about his wife, which should be a serious subject and should, presumably, evoke all sorts of nostalgic and sentimental, or romantic, faithful, or sincere improvisations, but what you get is a real twentieth-century dissonance and absolute reliance on the unconscious. And so it’s a portrait of his wife, sort of Cubist (in the sense of, from a lot of different angles) but, at the same time, absolutely ridiculous, and even ugly at times, and then, at other times, very romantic and exquisite.

Others have noted that Breton’s method in imagery in other poems is similar to this one, characterized by yoking together different objects, suddenly shifting contexts, and by what might be called syntactic derangement. These give his poetry the sense of being spontaneous, which it is not. I should mention that there is a formal poetic construct to the poem. It is a 16th century blason, a form that traditionally uses metaphors to praise different parts of a woman’s body. The word blason itself shares a root with “emblazon,” to celebrate or adorn with heraldic markings, and “blazon,” the heraldic coat of arms. A famous and somewhat similar non-French example of such a celebratory poem is Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130, “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun; / Coral is far more red than her lips’ red; / If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun; / If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head…”

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