Written by Charlie Geoghegan-Clements
It is difficult to interview Unica Zürn. A German surrealist who spent the majority of her productive life in Paris living with her lover Hans Bellmer, Zürn is best known for her anagrammatic poetry, her automatic drawings, and her two major works of fiction, The Man of Jasmine and Dark Spring. Zürn was also the model for Bellmer's photography, where she posed nude, faceless, and tightly bound with string.
The difficulty in interviewing Zürn comes not from any language barrier, nor from the surrealist penchant for speaking in nonsense, imagistic sentences or through absurdities, nor even from the fact that Zürn has been dead since leaping from a window in the fall of 1970. Zürn is particularly hard to interview as she seems to enact in each motion and sound the major concern of her writing: the incommunicability of the pain and emotion of everyday life.
Charlie Geoghegan-Clements: I first encountered your anagrammatic poetry when I was a teenager. I had no idea what the poems were about, but there was something important in reading the lines over and over, almost an incantation. Do you feel like the poem made into and out of an anagram in some way represents the inability of language to convey feeling?
Unica Zürn: Zürn turns from the window where she had been sitting on her knees, chin on her opened palms, looking out at the street below, and crosses her short arms in front of her torso, twisting them helically and ending so that her hands meet at the palm, holding one another, closed at her chest. She nods expectantly at a notebook on my desk. I bring the notebook and a pen to her lap and she writes, "I invented a secret language nobody can read except me. Careful, careful, you never know what might happen! There are probably enemies out there who would cruelly oppose my love."
CGC: It does seem that, within language, meaning become hopelessly muddled by the limited means we have to express ourselves. Your poetry seems to be making a kind of joke out of the poetic form, as if you are asking “Why not make the constraint of language explicit? Why not make a kind of game out of our difficulty?”
UZ: Zürn sighs, untangles her arms, and stands. She uses the pen to draw a series of boxes on the cream-colored linoleum floor. She hands me back the pen and then proceeds to hop from box to box in circles around the room, not ever landing outside of a box.
CGC: In the English speaking world your two longer works of semi-autobiographical fiction, The Man of Jasmine and Dark Spring, are read as studies into the darker sides of obsession, creativity, sexuality, and sadness. Do you feel that, while writing these books, you were continuing a project of exploring the limits of language to express strong emotions and did the subject matter itself force the change from verse to prose?
UZ: Zurn returns to the notebook and writes, “In those books I opened out, forming a shining star made of countless new arms and legs and necks and heads; I became a beautiful, flower-like monstrosity.” Zürn continues to move from box to box around the room but is now taking large, balletic leaps rather than frog-hopping. She is not remotely graceful or flexible, but the movements are much less childlike, and much more fluid. With each leap Zürn lets out a high moan.
CGC: That seems almost like a reflection on collaboration. Much has been made of your work with your lover Hans Bellmer, what he called “altered landscaped of flesh.” You both previously had an interest in the erotic and fetishistic so it follows that when together those themes are more strongly expressed. Was your work particularly collaborative, or was he more of a director to your model, tying you up as he saw fit?
UZ: In the notebook Zürn slowly writes, “We invented a howling theatrical language through which it became possible to express the grief of the whole world, a language understood by no one but the two of us.” She sits down on the floor with her legs in front of her, moans as before, and pulls the stocking of her right leg upwards at the knee, making the fabric covering her calf and unshod foot become tighter. To signal the end of the interview she parts her thighs and lowers her head so that, from the front, her face is obscured, and only her hair visible, making some kind of mask hanging limply over the rest of her.
This fictitious interview is not complete fiction. All quotes were taken from Zürn’s work:
Zürn, Unica. Dark Spring. Cambridge: Exact Change, 2000.
Zurn, Unica. Man of Jasmine and Other Texts: Impressions from a Mental Illness. London: Serpant's Tale, 1994.