In the early years of cinema, filmmakers were aware of the dream-like nature of the medium and its associative powers. They were intoxicated by the possibility of putting one image next to another without their necessarily having anything in common and finding that it produced not just meaning in the minds of viewers, but multiple meanings.
Doors to the irrational
When Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali made Un Chien Andalou, they decided in advance that no image would be included that made consecutive sense with anything that had gone before. This opening of “doors to the irrational” is a possibility that mainstream cinema has all but closed in the decades since.
Not all cinema, though. Long before I wrote poetry, I learnt to recognise it in cinema. My very first encounter with it was via P.K. Nair’s travelling Film Appreciation package, but my first memory of being pole-axed by a film was when I watched Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour.
Was it the opening sequence of entangled bodies covered in – what? – sand? sweat? Was it the words that I listened to with a sense of shocked recognition (what had I recognised?) and then scrambled to copy in the dark, my notes a mess of overwritten lines with the odd phrase shining out of the page? Was it that curious dream-like state I was to become accustomed to, of hearing the words in one language and reading them in the subtitles in another and somehow putting them together in my head into a seamless experience of the film?
Whatever it was, that was the first film I saw, in which I recognised that what had just occurred was poetry, though if you’d asked me for a definition, of course I wouldn’t have been able to give you one.
This conversation from the early part of the film:
SHE: I didn’t make anything up.
HE: You made it all up.
Just as in love this illusion exists, this illusion of being able never to forget, so I was under the illusion that I would never forget Hiroshima.
[Edited version of Hiroshima Mon Amour by Pablo Hernandez]
Marguerite Duras’s fevered, sawn off words against the images made it a film I cannot forget, even as I find I don’t remember large portions of it. Given that it’s a film about memory, the importance of remembering and the impossibility of it, this is entirely fitting.
In later years, as I wrote my own poems, I found myself trying to balance images and words, to undercut the one with the other. I often worked cinematically, defaulting to my training as a film editor, putting lines and words against each other as if I was constructing a narrative out of pieces of film at my editing table. I dreamt in timelines. (No, that’s not strictly true – yes, I dreamt timelines but no, they did not contain poems.)
Mining the subconscious
As poets and the makers of what we now call art house cinema know, the subconscious is a rich mine of material, so long as one does not expect that material to make rational sense. The poems and poets that attract me most share this with the films and filmmakers I like most: they mystify me at the same time as they give me something to delight in.
At noon, the lions are a speck of sand. At noon, the lions are smoke rings, rafts of light, hedges of lace, mirages of salt and emerald. At noon, the lions have closed their eyes to the expectation of night that will see them standing tall and tamed and licking your stomach—the night of blood curdled on your rumps, on your ruins.
- From The Foam of Lions by Pierre Peuchmaurd, translated by E.C. Belli
Cinema and poetry are so inextricably entwined for me that there’s more to say about the subject. And I will.
Earlier in this series:
- 'The poet but for whom I might never have started to write poetry’
- Is a poem best when it’s heard, or when it’s seen?
Sridala Swami's second collection of poetry, Escape Artist, was published by Aleph Book Co. in 2014. She is an alumnus of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa and blogs at The Spaniard in the Works.