Surrealist Magic: Birds and Birthdays by Christopher Barzak

The newest installment in Aqueduct Press’s “Conversation Pieces” series is Birds and Birthdays, a collection by Christopher Barzak that revolves around “Remedios Varo, Leonora Carrington, [and] Dorothea Tanning: Three of the most interesting painters to flourish in male-dominated surrealism.” Birds and Birthdays is a strange and powerful meditation in the ekphrastic tradition on three particular paintings by these women—”The Creation of Birds,” “The Guardian of the Egg,” and “Birthday.” The volume closes with an essay, “Re-Membering the Body: Reconstructing the Female in Surrealism,” that considers the history of these paintings, their artists, and Barzak’s own position as a male writer listening to and refracting these women’s artistic visions. Two of the stories have been previously published and are reprinted here: “The Creation of Birds” in Twenty Epics and “The Guardian of the Egg” in Salon Fantastique.

The stories in the collection are all fantastic, often bordering on fabulist—and rather surreal, which is unsurprising considering their origins. Each is concerned with issues of identity for women who are themselves artists in literal or metaphorical ways; each employs a transliteration of the visual to the textual; each is definitively interstitial.

The ekphrastic mode has been a tradition in poetry since the Greeks, as Barzak notes in his closing essay, and in Birds and Birthdays it’s put to great use. (Note: ekphrasis is, very basically speaking, a rhetorical device for “capturing”/translating between mediums of art, often visual to textual.) The technique has a tendency to produce artificial or directionless prose; Barzak, on the other hand, embraces the conceptual framework and aspires higher than mere description. In these three stories, the initiating image is an additional flavor of the mind for the reader, but the piece in question is never reliant on it. Instead, Barzak has translated his knowledge of the women painters’ histories, writings, and paintings to capture emotional truths and images of selfhood in narrative form.

On a technical level these pieces are impressive; considered as a whole, they are doing fascinating work with the remembrance (in the Daly-esque sense of the word, to “re-member,” to put back together that which has been pulled apart) of women Surrealists who have been elided from the movement in their time and ours. And, more importantly, the stories are good stories.

“The Creation of Birds” is the most surreal of the lot. In it, a woman who makes birds that come to life is pursued by an old lover, a man who has been pulling the stars and moons from the sky to own them. When they come back together, briefly—and she’s carrying around her psychoanalyst’s talking head, too—she finds a way to release his captured stars back into the sky again. This piece has a great deal to say about obsessive relationships, male chauvinism, and the nature of art. The wildly strange imagery also works, against all odds, and feels entirely natural to the piece. (Making me take the talking head of a psychoanalyst in stride is an accomplishment, I’ll note.)

The next story, “The Guardian of the Egg,” follows a young man as he watches his sister become something magical and not entirely of this world. The point of view in this piece is more directly observational, but in the end, the boy participates in his sister’s “becoming,” protecting and respecting her. The vivid illustration of the sister’s bodily changes—the tree that grows out of her head, at first, and then her growing size—are captivating, because they are not figured as alien or grotesque, but integral and beautiful, especially by the end. She is not becoming Other; she is becoming more herself. When she finally buries herself in the earth with a magical egg of possibility, the land around her transitions to something fey and wild, separate from the modern age. Though the imagery of the story is clearly dreamlike, the narrative is concrete and down-to-earth as the brother does his best to help his sister achieve her realized subjectivity. The art she creates is art of her body, art on the surface of the world.

“Birthday” is the closing piece, in which a woman goes through an entire coming-of-age in one apartment building: through a marriage and the birth of a child, to performing extreme femininity, to becoming the subject of art, and finally to making her own art of and with herself. The figuration of her subjectivity, as she goes from trying to perform what is expected of her—”I became accustomed to receiving love that never matched my expectations” (54)—to an authentic realization of herself as an artist, is rather breath-taking in its understated, simple power. She goes from being gazed upon and framing herself in other people’s images to gazing upon herself in her own skin; that is the journey these three women artists also undertook, and that all women in patriarchal society must undertake to realize themselves. Lovely, lovely work.

The significant moment that brings this collection together, for me, is a closing paragraph in Barzak’s essay exploring the women whose works have inspired his stories. He says:

“I realized a long time ago that this project is complicated by my own gender. Being a man, I wondered, haven’t I only accomplished what the male Surrealists of Modernism did: to cut Woman open and look inside? I considered abandoning my desire to reflect and converse. I didn’t want to do a disservice to the artists or the art. I didn’t want to unintentionally offend. I’d done extensive research, had looked and looked and looked again at their paintings, had thought about their personal histories, their own writing on their work, had read their own scholarship about what it was they were doing—all the sources of their own creations. If nothing else, I eventually told myself, I’ve looked at their own concepts of Self in earnest contemplation. After arriving at the threshold of abandonment, though, I realized that I might have done what the male Surrealists of that particular moment in time hadn’t. I’d listened.

The fictions I’ve made from this looking and listening represent the internalized conversations I’ve had with these women through their art, which is something different from opening them up with surgical precision. My subject is not Woman, but women’s self-representations in Surrealism.” (91)

I’m a bit jealous, from my position as a critic, that Barzak has so succinctly explained exactly what I read into and out of these stories: his honest engagement, his willingness to reflect and inflect these women artists’ paintings and subjectivities in his stories, his sense of the real as grounded in the fabulous—the surreal, ultimately, as a way back into the self.

The essay brings a critical lens into play immediately for the reader of the stories, layering the fiction with Barzak’s directed readings of the paintings themselves. These two refracted views of the paintings—through fiction, through scholarship—infuse the audience’s own readings of the works in question, providing a delightful triple translation of art (painting) to art (fiction) to art (painting) to interpretation (scholarship/fiction). This is what makes the book so definitively interstitial, to my eye: It is many things, in many shades and forms, all looping back together infinitely.

The end result is a joyful tribute to these three women painters in the form of handsome, lyrical fiction and precisely considered scholarship. Barzak’s awareness and sensitivity bring the project full-circle, as he considers the project/process/praxis of translating these women’s subjectivities to the page from his own personally-inflected position in cultural production.

Lee Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. Also, comics. She can be found on Twitter or her website.


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