Sunday Classics: Erotic Surrealist Poet Joyce Mansour

Joyce Mansour (1928-1986) was a Francophone Syrian-Jewish-Egyptian poet who inscribed the erotic, surreal, and macabre:

Born in Bowden, England, Mansour grew up in Egypt. Her young life was marked by vigorous life — she was an avid athlete — and by tragic, wasting death. Her mother died from cancer when she was 15, and she married her first husband young; this husband died of cancer after only six months of marriage. She was 18.

She married a second, French-speaking husband a year and a half later.

Mansour’s first collection of poems, Cris, was published in Paris in 1953. Its blend of the erotic, religious, and mythological brought her to the attention of surrealist poet Jean-Louise Bédouin, and later her work was also significantly championed by André Breton, who painted a portrait of Mansour. Mansour’s Paris apartment apparently became a meeting place for surrealist poets. But while she was well-known among French surrealist poets, she was not — according to Emilie Moorhouse — known beyond those circles.

For a time, Mansour and her husband moved between the metropolises of Paris and Cairo. But Mansour’s family was Jewish, and her family was forced out after the Suez Crisis. She settled in Paris permanently in 1956.

She continued publishing and collaborating with other poets and artists throughout her life, both poetry and short stories. Her final collection of poems, Trous noirs, appeared in 1986, the year she died. She was 59.

Translator Emilie Moorhouse wrote of Mansour’s work, in The Rumpus:

Mansour took much of her inspiration from ancient religions and traditions, including ancient Egypt, where death is not considered to be the end of life, but rather is a transition to another reality. A great deal of Mansour’s work centers around female figures in religion, such as Mary, Lilith, or Miriam. Several of her poems. . .evoke the Egyptian goddess of the sky, Nut, whose naked body was covered with stars and was arched protectively over her husband, Geb the earth god. Nut swallowed the sun god Ra in the evening and gave birth to him each morning.

Post Apollo Press brought out a translation of Mansour’s Screams in 1995, Englished by Serge Gavronsky. The bilingual collection Essential Poems and Writings of Joyce Mansourtranslated and introduced by Gavronsky, appeared in 2008. 

Read her work:

Four poems from the collection Flammes immobiles, tr. Ghada Mourad

May My Breasts Provoke You,” tr. Carol Martin-Sperry

I Want to Be Naked in Your Singing Eyes,” tr. Carol Martin-Sperry

Four poems from Œuvres Complètes: Joyce Mansour Prose et Poésietr. Emilie Moorhouse

I Want to Sleep With You,” tr. Mary Ann Caws

Previous #WiTMonth Sunday classics:

Safynaz Kazem’s ‘Romanticisms’