“Ceiling at Dawn” (1930)

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Ceiling at Dawn (1930)

by Mina Loy

Surrealist Poetics: Ceiling at Dawn (1930)

by Susan Rosenbaum

Of the poems Loy wrote in Paris, “Ceiling at Dawn” (1930) is the most explicitly Surrealist in its themes, techniques, and imagery. The Loy archive at the Beinecke Library includes three handwritten and two typed drafts of the poem, with Loy’s corrections. A fragment of a typed draft states: “MINA LOY / 9 Rue St Romain Paris 6 / August 26 1930,” indicating that Loy wrote the poem in the year that she painted “Surreal Scene.” For my text I have used what I have judged to be the final typed draft of the poem; it differs slightly from the version that was published in Lunar Baedeker and Time Tables.

In this poem Loy evokes the state between dreaming and waking that for Breton and the Surrealists epitomized the surreal.  She sets the poem at dawn, exploring that liminal state when the conscious mind begins to awaken but the remnants of dream remain, charting the encroachment of the light of day and the assertion of a rational, realist perspective.  Loy depicts this liminal state as a kind of “Cinema-Nirvana” with perception tuned both internally and externally. Thus from the start of the poem Loy conflates eye and ceiling, subject and object: the opening line “Afloat in oval of unclosing eye” may refer either to the ceiling that floats above an eye staring up at it from a horizontal position in bed, or to the “epitaphs of dreams”, internal images that float in or remain visible to the mind’s inner eye. Similarly, the opening imagery — “white-washed  / shadow-drifts / of indoor dawn / film idle clouds” — may describe either the actual play of dawn’s light on the ceiling, or the remnants of internal dream imagery, Loy evoking in this way the interpenetration of external and internal perception. The word “Nirvana” in a Buddhist context alludes to a state of transcendence of self, desire, and suffering, a state that Loy suggests is made possible by this moment between sleep and waking.
The ceiling’s “white slab slanted” serves as a blank screen for the surreal “film” created through the mixture of real shadows and the remnants of the dream, a visual projection that Loy progressively describes as “palid ideograms,” “epitaphs of dreams,” “Visual echoes / in blanched rows” and as “the dissolved, derouted / traffic of slumber.” This last phrase suggests that as the dreams of slumber shift into the in-betweeen state between sleeping and waking, the visual sharpness of the dream dissolves.  Already the sleeper begins to see “visual echoes / in blanched rows,” the elusive, colorful dream giving way to the “blanched rows” of the waking mind, which asserts rational order and in exchange loses the color and vividness of the dream. Or as Freud would write in the Interpretation of Dreams, the latent content of the dream gives way to its manifest content, that which the sleeper recalls upon waking. Loy’s language of “epitaph” and “slab” connotes the death of the dream, inaccessible to the waking subject, while “visual echoes” and “ideogram,” a term made famous by Ezra Pound, suggests that recollected dreams take a form that is both visual and verbal, the act of trying to capture or remember the dream inscribing language upon an ephemeral film.
In the following stanza Loy uses natural imagery to convey the increasing distance of the dream from the waking sleeper: “An arid air-flower  /adrowse in the etiolate pasture /of our / arousing.” “Etiolate” refers to the action of bleaching a green plant through the exclusion of sunlight, affecting its growth. Loy inverts this logic, likening the dream to a dry or barren flower adversely affected by the appearance of light, since night is what sustains the dream. The appearance of “droning day” “dilates / in early light/ the spectral acre”: these lines create an image of the light spreading to and illuminating the rectangular edges of the ceiling, but the word “dilates” also connotes an opening eye or camera aperture, so may also refer to the subject’s “oval” eye and/or to the creation of a film.  As the subject moves from a state that balances internal dream and external perception towards full consciousness, she begins to perceive the ceiling not as a screen on which float figments of dream mixed with real shadow, but as a “spectral acre,” a quantifiable space haunted by the dream, and as day arrives, as a “four-cornered sky” under “sunless artifice.” The rectangular shape of the ceiling asserts itself with the complete opening of the eye, implying a return of full consciousness and the assertion of reason. The clouds and pastures that had appeared to the eye in its liminal state between dream and waking at the start of the poem are replaced by a recognition of the “artifice” and unreality of these dream images. All that remains of the dream are “lingering flies” that “convolve their slim-winged circles.”
If we consider the ceiling not only as a film screen but also as a figure for the blank page on which the poet writes the poem, “Ceiling at Dawn” reflects on the fertile creativity of the state between dream and waking, word and image: the poem only ends when day begins and the rational, conscious mind takes over. Loy does not employ tropes of writing but figures that conjoin word and image: rows of visual echoes (suggesting lines on the page), ideograms (which are both verbal and visual signs), and circles (evoking letters) drawn by lingering flies.  In this way Loy self-reflexively engages the visual-verbal mixtures at the center of Surrealist poetics, and locates such mixtures as the product of the poet’s attempt to verbally capture the elusive visual dream, to mediate the visions of the unconscious mind.

Similarly, in her focus on the eye as a projector for internal and external vision and her conflation of the oval eye and the oval of the ceiling, Loy adapts a favored technique from Surrealist film: the close-up of the eye and/or manipulations of the eye as a mean of signaling the inadequacies of realist vision and the shift to the vision of film and dream. Some famous instances of this practice include the scene in Bunuel and Dali’s “Chien Andalou” (1929) when a razor cuts into a woman’s eyeball, and the final scene in Man Ray’s “Emak Bakia” (1926) when we see a woman’s open eyes, only to realize as she opens her eyes that we had been gazing at false eyes painted on her lids. Although Loy would depart from and criticize Surrealism in significant ways, “Ceiling at Dawn” indicates that she took Surrealist ideas and art seriously, and that she shared Stein’s and the Surrealists’ belief in the primacy of the unconscious mind in poetic creation.