Surrealism, Ginsberg, Breton and ‘l’ibis-momie’: some notes

R J Ellis, University of Chichester

This brief note about the intertextual locations of Allen Ginsberg seeks to establish how fundamentally important a co-founder of Surrealism, the writer and poet André Breton was to the development and range of Ginsberg’s long-line poetic. The influence of Surrealism upon Ginsberg has been noted before, most notably by Brian Jackson, who, though most sustainedly emphasising Antonin Artaud’s importance, also noted André Breton’s, drawing attention to how Breton’s poem ‘L’union libre’ uses anaphora to create a steadily building rhythm within the poem (not withstanding Whitman’s and Christopher Smart’s earlier use of this technique), within a driving-energy ‘list poem’ (as Ginsberg calls it) or catalogue poem (the term I prefer):

Ma femme au sexe d’algue et de bonbons anciens
Ma femme au sexe de miroir
Ma femme aux yeux pleins de larmes
Aux yeux de panoplie violette et d’aiguille aimantée
Ma femme aux yeux de savane
Ma femme aux yeux d’eau pour boire en prison
Ma femme aux yeux de bois toujours sous la hache
Aux yeux de niveau d’eau de niveau d’air de terre et de feu

(Andre Breton, “L’union libre’, 1923)

My point will be to suggest that Jackson somewhat understates Breton’s importance to Ginsberg (though it is to ‘L’union libre’ that Ginsberg turns when exploring Breton with his class within a course he gave on ‘Expansive Poetics’ at the Naropa Institute in 1980). This can be best defined by turning to another of Breton’s poems, a somewhat later one, ‘Fata Morgana’, written in Marseilles in 1940 but only published in 1941 in Buenos Aires, since in Vichy France it was regarded as decadent. This in itself would have drawn Ginsberg’s attention to it, for we know how interested he was in Breton from his classes at Naropa. His course also included observations on Pound, Whitman and, more pertinently, the American surrealist practitioner, Philip Lamantia (for whom Ginsberg evinces a substantial respect when considering two closely related New York little magazines, View [ed. Charles Henri Ford, 1940-1947] and VVV [ed. David Hare, in collaboration with Breton, Marcel Duchamp and Max Ernst and including Lamantia on its editorial board, 1942-44]).

In ‘Expansive Poetics’ Ginsberg also showed a substantial interest in Surrealism, even mentioning favourably Breton’s (and Yvan Goll’s) ‘Surrealist Manifesto’ of October 1924.

Breton’s ‘Fata Morgana’ has considerable importance when gauging Ginsberg’s intertextual involvement with Breton’s surrealism. It perhaps needs to be first noted that Ginsberg felt Breton’s writing tended to be ‘flat’, though Ginsberg’s analysis of ‘L’union libre’ is both vigorous and committed. However, if one turns to ‘Fata Morgana’, new dimensions to Ginsberg’s engagement emerge.

Firstly, ‘Fata Morgana’s lines, as we shall see, are noteworthily longer than ‘L’union Libre’, more plainly in line with the long-breath lines found in much of HOWL and Other Poems (City Lights, 1956). Secondly, parts of ‘Fata Morgana’ are intertextually related to the poetry of Whitman:

To me no work of art is worth this little sun-dappled square of grass …

… the carp who upon awakening hands me from the lightless pool a ringlet of your hair

… [is] no more than a hundred years old and did not withhold everything that I must not know in order to remain myself

A new day is it near you I have slept

I have slept so I’ve put on the gloves of moss

Fragments, albeit elusive ones, of Whitman’s sentiments echo in these lines. And when Breton introduces anaphora into these long lines a link-bridge across to Ginsberg is created:

Dans les entrelacs de l’histoire momie d’ibis

Un pas pour rien comme on cargue la voilure momie d’ibis

Ce qui du côté cour rentre par le côté jardin momie d’ibis

Si le dévelopement de l’enfant permet qu’il se libère du fantasme de démembrement de dislocation du corps momie d’ibis

Il ne sera jamais trop tard pour en finir avec le mor-celage de l’âme momie d’ibis

Et par toi seule sous toutes ses facettes de momie d’ibis

Avec tout ce qui n’est plus ou attend d’être je retrouve l’unité perdue momie d’ibis

Momie d’ibis du non-choix à travers ce qui me parvient

Momie d’ibis qui veut que tout ce que je puis savoir contribute à moi sans distinction

Momie d’ibis qui me fait l’égal tributaire du mal et du bien

Momie d’ibis du sort goutte à goutte où l’homoéopathie dit son grand mot

Momie d’ibis de la quantité se muant dans l’ombre en qualité

Momie d’ibis de la combustion qui laisse en toute cendre un point rouge

Momie d’ibis de la perfection qui appelle la fusion incessante des creatures imparfaites

La gangue des statues ne me dérobe de moi-même que ce qui n’est pas de produit aussi précieux de la semence des gibets momie d’ibis

[In the knotwork of history ibis-mummy / A wasted step like taking in sail ibis-mummy / What goes out by the courtyard side returns by the garden side ibis-mummy / If the child’s development allows him to be freed from the dismemberment phantasm of the body’s fragmentation ibis-mummy / It was never too late to end the partitioning of the soul ibis-mummy / And though you alone with all its facets ibis-mummy / With all that exists no more or awaits being I regain the lost communion ibis-mummy / Ibis-mummy of not choosing everything that comes to me / Ibis-mummy who wills that all I can know should contribute to me indiscriminately / Ibis-mummy who makes me equal tributary of evil and good / Ibis-mummy of fate drop by drop where homeopathy pronounces its final word / Ibis-mummy of quantity transforming itself to quality in the shadows / Ibis-mummy of combustion which leaves each cinder a point of fire / Ibis-mummy of perfection that calls for incessant fusion of imperfect creatures / The matrix of statues strips away from me only what’s not the likewise precious product of the seed of gallows ibis-mummy] (Trans. David Lenson & A. F. Moritz. Be it noted here that the phrase ‘ibis-mummy’ is a confusing translation: Breton speaks of a ‘mummified ibis’, presumably Egyptian.)

The lines are held together by inserted conversational transitions, reminiscent of Whitman (‘If the child’s development … / It was never too late … / And though you alone …’) and then these give way to the gathering momentum of a long anaphora, held together by surrealist ‘antilogic’ or ‘alogic’. A related albeit more urban-centred development occurs in ‘HOWL’:

Peyote solidities of halls, backyard green tree cemetery dawns, wine drunkenness over the rooftops, storefront boroughs of teahead joyride neon blinking traffic light, sun and moon and tree vibrations in the roaring winter dusks of Brooklyn, ashcan rantings and kind king light of mind …

Who lost their loveboys to the three old shrews of fate the one eyed shrew of the heterosexual dollar the one eyed shrew that winks out of the womb and the one eyed shrew that does nothing but sit on her ass and snip the intellectual golden threads of the craftsman’s loom

Or, perhaps more obliquely in terms of content but more conclusively, in terms of rhapsodic rhythmic energy and, perhaps, surrealistic juxtaposition, take these lines:

Moloch, the incomprehensible prison! Moloch the crossbone soulless jailhouse and Congress of sorrows! Moloch whose buildings are judgment! Moloch the vast stone of war! Moloch the stunned governments!

Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money! Moloch whose fingers are ten armies! Moloch whose breast is a cannibal dynamo! Moloch whose smokestacks and antenna crown the cities!

It can reasonably be argued that Ginsberg is always more closely autobiographical with his referents than Breton is in ‘Fata Morgana’, and his poems retain more pronounced narrative traces. Yet there are perhaps autobiographical traces in both Breton’s ‘L’union libre’ (in its uxoriousness) and, more significantly, in the ‘mummified ibis’ chorus of Breton’s poem, which might perfectly reasonably be related to the tyrannous structure of Pharaonic Egypt, not unrelatable to that of the Fascist Germany that Breton witnessed, experienced and fled from. Millions of mummified ibis, slaughtered and then mummified have been found in archaeological excavations of Pharaonic Egypt (

Consider also the two tyrannies’ comparably grandiose architectural statements and their use of forced labour. The cruel demagogic power that drove Breton out of Europe and contributed to Ginsberg’s bleak visions of Moloch can be detected in the history of the Pharaohs.

Ginsberg, then, I maintain, was learning heavily from and intertextually interacting with Breton at this important, perhaps vital, stage in his poetic development. To drive home this point I must end with two final observations. First by referencing a phrase in ‘Fata Morgana, where Breton speaks of the ‘incantatory power’ of this poem’s anaphoric lines – an incantatory power that is surely something that Ginsberg also sought. Secondly, I want to quote one particular line, with its echoes of Whitman (I am here thinking of ‘Passage to India’) and its forecast of the sentiments of  ‘Footnote to HOWL’ (and it is worth remembering in this respect that the mummified ibis were slaughtered as part of religious ceremonies):

Is it love those fingers that press the pod of mist

In order that unknown cities may spring from it with their alas dazzling gates

Love those telegraph wires making of the insatiable light an unceasing brilliance which reopens itself

Whilst far from being a surrealist (though we might want to also remember Corso’s surrealistic verbal duel with Ginsberg in ‘Poets Hitchhiking on the Highway’ in Gasoline [City Lights, 1958], which is probably based on an actual verbal duel between the two poets), Ginsberg nevertheless drew heavily upon Breton and his techniques (and so became inextricably engaged with Surrealism), no less than upon Whitman, Blake and Kit Smart.

André Breton, ‘Fata Morgana’, translated by David Lenson and A. F. Moritz. Massachusetts Review, 51.3 (Autumn 2010), pp. 531-39.

Allen Ginsberg at the Naropa institute: “Expansive Poetics” and passim.

Brian Jackson, ‘Modernist looking: surreal impressions upon the poetry of Allen Ginsberg,’ Texas Studies in Literature and Language, 52.3 (Sept 2021), pp. 298-323.