Pentamerous Man Ray

by Ron Smith

 

“The streets are full of admirable craftsmen, but so few practical dreamers.”

“The tricks of today are the truths of tomorrow.”

 

 

I. “Ernest Hemingway” (1928)

 

Mr. Macho’s yanking your chain if he tells you 

this is a war wound. One Rum St. James 

too many and you can bring down heaven’s wrath

instead of having a healthy flush. St. James 

of the Skylight, let’s say, bestowing something like

a chandelier on the young fictionist who had not

yet said his farewell to arms. In ’28 he was still

 

a good sport, laughing with Ray’s party guests

at his bleeding then bandaged brow. He hadn’t

yet become The Legend who would prohibit

Max Perkins from editing his work and in 

A Moveable Feast bite every friend who’d helped 

his career, bulling his way into bathos after 1929, 

and all his life accident-prone, like every self-destroyer.

 

Here, we’re pleased to see a calm man, gazing off 

into the distance as probably instructed but not

posing exactly, yes, maybe smiling, just a little,

and at his own expense. You can hear him say,

“OK, Man, I’ll wear that silly hat,” thinking, 

perhaps, it would obscure the bandage his later

self would have hidden or simply lied about.

 

II. “Still-Life with Sleeping Woman” (1935)

 

                                1

 

Any way you cut it, Man Ray’s killed her, 

Nature Morte his neighbors would say. 

I say this one’s a “stilled-life”—yes, domain 

of the inanimate, including animals                     

hunted down and rendered so. Here, one

head and one headlike—what? a ball? meant      

to slapback lovely features—pitted skull,                           

a shadow blooming from the blond, darkness

we’ve been trained by film to see as a pool 

of blood, a spill here serrated, tousled, unlike 

the sharpedged circle smooth beyond, circle 

of skullshadow . . . slashing darkness angling in, 

hiding the rest of the curves below her collarbones, 

a spindle upper left, a spindle lower left, the latter 

pointing . . . and that fallen spindle crossed by 

the upper one’s shadow, knobby vertical just 

beyond a—what? a curb? We’re outside

So: Knobby shadow, a top knob and a lower one, 

the spindle lying on what now seems sand, 

the dark, erect one jabbed in what could be clay. 

Mysterious tools (or toys) taking on 

the Hollywood glamour of murder weapons. 

I am drawn up toward the blackest black of the far 

reaches of Man Ray space, top right, where a wedge 

of darkness pushes down, angling chasm of “Eteignez    

tout!” “There!” cries the fallen spindle, Shakespeare’s 

hapless Laertes, realizing more in 1935 than he 

ever managed in Queen Bess’s waning days: “There! 

Look! A Death’s Head!” And in its ontological eye, 

through it, beyond it, spreading, coming down 

like a blade: the deepest dye of nothing.

 

                                         2

 

If you’ve read Breton and Minotaure, seen Rogi Andre’s 

image of her in Le Coliseum’s aquarium, you know 

Man Ray’s flipped her, blacked out her breasts and all 

her “scandalously beautiful” body, her shining, liquid, 

tapering away . . . but that time leaving darkness in her 

invisible loveliness wake. We learn Ray didn’t hide a full 

nakedness, only a bikini top and Capri pants, only all 

of her but the severed head, strip of upper torso, one 

ambiguous shoulder. Does it help that Paul Hammond 

guesses the skull, like the spindles, are from a game, 

similar to cup-and-ball, though more obviously Freudian, 

something a Paris surrealist would find naughty enough 

to leave lying around in a work of art? Items much in

evidence about the time of the French Revolution, perhaps 

literally in the shadow of the guillotine, in a child’s hand, 

this ball to be impaled on a stick through a kind of mouth 

or eye, rather than cradled in a cup. It’s only a game.

How many times have you heard that? 

 

III. “Valentine Hugo” (1935)

 

And here she is, her Surrealist Constellation   

discharged like smoke above her head,

Eluard, Breton, Tzara, adorned with their own

fantasies of nudes and flames, gazing in the same

direction as this one who’s rendered them, this

Hugo born a Gross, delivered of a Mod Rushmore, 

her so serious eyebeams aimed right, our left, 

beyond the mere camera, folded scarf fanning 

leftright, like her luminous hands, left hand 

pointing right, right pointing left against the black 

void that is her once much acknowledged body, this 

woman who punched Breton on 9/9/32 and ended—

something. Slightly off-center, she sits in the Man Ray 

gaze, that is to say (today) mine, which scrutiny

you’ll forgive, I hope, for its default rationality. I think 

she’s contemplating not only that punch in the past,

but her heroes she doesn’t have to turn to see

boiling softly in her world, her work, firmament she’ll 

finish thirteen years from now, a year before I’m born. 

The Spring before The Punch she downed “a vial 

of Gardenal . . ., then some perfume”—what could be 

more romantic? This mere moment in a life, second 

shuttersnapped, this painter, writer, costume and set 

designer, messy muse proclaiming “the collective 

attainment” of the guys. Now, I think I see nearly-

concealed pain in those patrician eyes. She will add 

Peret, Crevel, Char, though broken with and maybe by 

Surrealism. Did you know you had to join? Oh, less 

than a movement, let’s say, but still more than a club . . .

 

IV. “Noire et blanche” (1926)

 

Rotate the mask, don’t ask whether 

she sleeps or feigns, contrast reigns  

in this black and white space, face 

and not-face. Take in (yang and yin?) 

all you can: the hand, the standing

gloss, reclining lady lost in dream

or thought, shady creation, delineation 

of repose, as everybody knows, is art—

apart from the money wrangle, advert

(insert banking angle) consideration,

obligation, shadow on the table

able to echo a logo of the Dark 

(second largest) Continent, mark

imperial of those who spend and sell

this Kiki, European ambiguity, this 

cool jewel tool, Man Ray has parked 

there where mystery meets history,

this beauty, slicked hair, and the unseen

camera’s economic duty . . .

 

V. “L’Ange Heurtebise” (1925)

 

OK, why not? It’s an angel, cerated, levitated 

angeldemon, floating a bit off-kilter because of 

the opium, a gerblegarble of an angel, a teddybear 

thingy, anti-cuddly, ultimate un-toy, and, where 

legs and feet should be, there’s a ginkgo leaf—over-all 

indeterminacy enough to render null the risible, 

OK, . . . Scary, like Chucky the Slasher Doll, Cocteau’s 

guiltgrief, his friendlover dead/neverdead from 

tuberculosis/gnosis—must we ignore the cone, the 

ribbons, the scratches or threads? O, please, let’s. 

Edgar Poe, Conan Doyle, creators of Supreme Rational-

Empiricist Heroes, like Superscientist Theological-

Alchemist Newton before them, might well have 

loved this one. Ergo, Ego: elementary.

 


 

Dalí Wins Wild Eyes Competition Against Ray

16 June 1934

              by Ron Smith


They do it for Van Vechten, five years after the crash. 

Of course, it’s no contest. Ray looks focused, sure, 

maybe a little angry. But Dalí has stepped out of Plato’s Cave, 

is the Ding an sich, Wildness Incarnate, something

 

      from a Dream—both men necktied, though Ray’s

      in shirtsleeves (as they used to say), Dalí sporting

      a sport coat or suit coat with lapels huge to us, 

      though the Spaniard himself’s thin as a fantasy,

 

mustached, hair slicked back, coat hanging a bit off 

Poe-ish sloped shoulders. Man Ray is all there, tangible, 

more man than ray, could be a stock trader on the floor 

in his white dress shirt, nose a little crooked, a boxer’s,

 

      or American kid’s with a history of wholesome 

      schoolyard scraps. Dalí’s shirt is garish for the day, 

      even if the day dawns in Paris—aggressively striped 

      behind the hatched tie. And he’s taller, so much so

 

it’s a shock to notice Ray’s right shoulder’s obscured by

Dalí’s left—but, isn’t bigger-headed Ray closer to the camera? 

He leans pugnaciously forward, into our twenty-first century, 

espresso and Rum St. James, let’s say, on his breath.

 

      Erect Dalí’s an Egyptian shape, abstracted into the  

      extravagant, behind and not behind this Man Ray gent,

      a guy mugging with a celebrity friend he could never

      out-oddball. So what are you looking at? Have these boys

 

just now laid eyes on Adrienne Fidelin? Settle in. Open up.

It’s Bloomsday in the city Joyce decamped to in order 

to glare back at his hometown, to frolic in the great wide world, 

to stay alive as long as he could.

 

(This poem is dedicated to Michael Taylor and Madeleine Dugan.)