J O N  R I C C I O

The Florist's Crossroads

(Content Warning: Trauma) 

I propose a new poetry movement, The Confurreal or Confessional Surrealism, a vehicle for writers who weld kaleidoscope to truth, who bear witness knowing as André Breton did that "Surrealism is the 'invisible ray' which will one day enable us to win out over our opponents."[i]  Substitute demons, failings, or trauma for opponents and The Confurreal has its launch. The Confurreal's groundwork took shape between 2016 and 2020 at the University of Southern Mississippi's Center for Writers where I wrote my first collection, Agoreography (forthcoming from 3: A Taos Press), a disclosure of trauma, mental illness, and the language that lenses these experiences. Working on an earlier draft of Agoreography, I told writer-friends Adam Al-Sirgany and Matthew Schmidt I was at a loss for poets who joined Surrealism with Confessionalism, the combination my poems kept stumbling upon one semester after the next. They said, "You do," nudging me along The Confurreal's path.

Not everyone who strives for confession through poetry comes by this inclination naturally. The first time I received positive feedback on a poem that referenced my illness—“Shoulder Dancing,” a sestina about a recovering agoraphobe who works as a florist, grocery shopping one of his therapy tasks—my greatest fear was I’d be asked to read it aloud. I was fine sharing the anxieties that preluded self-defeat with two or three friends, but a class of eleven? If disclosure’s your aesthetic, a scenario like this is the catapult. Verbal confession wasn’t on the day’s agenda, though I eventually gave a public reading of “Shoulder Dancing,” and, a few years later, collaborated on the piece’s choreography with a university dance department. Outside of the poem, I shop for groceries, suppressing an Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder that triggers an agoraphobic response. Moving this experience into a poem was the personal pivot—the florist’s crossroads—both of us realizing, “Living takes more than breath.” The shock absorber? Surrealism, a kernel of it in “Better luck nailing billboards to the sun than shouldering // [the written word] Love.” Did I mention how grateful I was for setting the poem in a flower shop, its customers signing “To” and “From” cards left and right, eighties radio harkening Devo, “men with heads halfway to bouquets, / synthetic lyrics trellising their breath”? Surreal crevices such as these made confession easier. In that ease of permission lay The Confurreal’s necessity. Herbert Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization introduces us to “the science of beauty . . . the eternal protest against the organization of life by the logic of domination.”[ii] I am in awe of beauty assigned a cerebral province versed in the constraints it seeks to outperform. This is The Confurreal’s fuel.

The most dogeared of my books enjoy this distinction not for narrative clarity or the expectation that their word portraits adhere to straightforwardness. Confusion revives the glint, a nuance of alchemies that, if this were an essay on musical subtleties, would encompass everything from Mahler and Paganini to Scriabin and Gillespie. Literary glints are that Venn middle where a reader’s eyes and ears intersect the page, the work not so much comprehended as uncoiled. I’ve loved poetry’s glint since attending my first workshop in a used bookstore’s annex. Here, a group of Kalamazoo, Michigan, poets met each Tuesday, facilitator John Rybicki’s dog Sparky darting from participant to participant, my creaky chair facing a wall of Time/Life’s Mysteries of the Unknown. Anyone on a paranormal nostalgia binge will tell you these are the go-to hardcovers for phenomena. Prognostication, Sasquatch subculture, Betty and Barney Hill? Yes, yes, and an affirmative spaceship. I’d spend our ten-minute breaks engaged with enigmas, part revision reward, part memory-lane reconnect to an early career goal of UFO hunter. (Theater-makeup tech was a distant second.) As reader and writer, I flock to skewed convention, poetry’s carrying case big enough for The Confurreal’s shimmer. 

Non-tradition arises from hybridizing Surrealism and Confessional writing. Taking Frank Lima’s “Blessed are the poets who invented us as poets”[iii] to heart, I made a Confurreal influence tree. Finding The Confurreal may have been a stumble, but my efforts weren’t without support: Aimé Césaire—Allen Ginsberg—Anne Sexton—Carmen Giménez Smith—Cathy Park Hong—Charles Simic—Dean Young—Harryette Mullen—James Tate—Joe Brainard—John Ashbery—Joyelle McSweeney—Matthea Harvey—Mei-mei Berssenbrugge—Sharon Olds—Sherwin Bitsui—Sylvia Plath—Will Alexander. Imagine these writers on a tour-dirigible of the twenty-first century. Perhaps this is tantamount to putting a cyclone in a suitcase and asking it not to wrinkle the shirts. As Will Alexander writes, “when various knowledges fuse in my writings, insights occur, revealing an inward light whose source is simultaneous with the riveting connection between flashes of lightning.”[iv] The least The Confurreal can do is restructure the lucence.

Such reconfiguring raises the question, How experimental should confession be? There are more traditional phrases that convey admission than

            Somnambulated through the burn-moat

            is what I say about 2000 through 2010,

            

            easier than vocalizing agoraphobia,

            some years more placeholder than others.  (Riccio, “Fire Escape”)[v]

But perhaps none as polysyllabic or diction-rich that metaphorize the sensation of feeling so phobically overwhelmed you’re numb to combustion. One concept escorting readers through The Confurreal—if language is a poem’s most exquisite attire, density is a sartorialist’s best friend—is exemplified near the end of my poem “Introducing The Confurreal”—


            I can’t say the practice gave me 

            my nova, that it crested me to lexography, 

            each polyglot riding out the horoscopes, 

            that Cather novel adapted for Conestoga TV. 


            Not an insomnia goes by without some phobia killing 

            a bit of me. Cleaner, the mind composes.[vi]  


This is unrulier than saying the worst experiences of my phobias and trauma replay when I cannot sleep. The only method I have for declawing them is a poem. The passage’s wildness lies in its use of cumbersome words: Conestoga, polyglot, lexography. You won’t find Conestoga TV on any dish network, but it alliterates with Cather, the realities of television suspended in favor of aurality. The poem’s practice implies a hoped-for yet unattained sustenance, fear-free. The Confurreal’s hoped-for impact? A Surrealist logos that dazzles as much as its Confessionalist pathos.


The Confurreal’s potential pitfall is that linguistically ornamented narratives might shut the reader out. I’m fine with poetry pretzeled surreal, disclosure peeking through, and I’ve racked up enough credits in the department of Your Poem Makes No Sense. Have these words found their way to you? If anything, The Confurreal is an invitation to writers pondering whether or not to put their kaleidoscope away on the chance it helps them produce more parsable poems. DON’T. If it’s a matter of a slightly more navigable piece (one tap on clarity’s GPS versus three), this is where alternation between Confessionalism and Surrealism can de-obscure meaning-making. A tercet from my poem “Bach Fugue State” announces:


            In poems past I wrote about my brother’s friend 

            who coveted me years before my first Bach, 

            this entry revelatory as it is stretto, strato-, atmo-, 


            Brattleboro, Vermont.  

The first and second lines refer to childhood trauma. Entry, a musical term for the first hearing of a fugue’s subject, is flagged as revelatory. The lines’ confession occurs prior to the surreal iambs “stretto, strato-, atmo-.” Stretto, in fugue-speak, connects to the word entryStrato- and atmo- end-rhyme with stretto; this fact is our anchor in a passage where logic is unmoored. Brattleboro retains the r, tt, e, and o of stretto, managing near-internal rhyme with strato- and atmo-. Concretizing devices such as these help The Confurreal strike its two-parent poetry school balance. I leave the Confessionalism-Surrealism ratio to the writer. The movement functions through symbiosis. It’s never a matter of which axis has the upper hand. 

Sparsity is as applicable to The Confurreal as density. There are times when I rely on monosyllabism because overly decorated writing would counteract a revelation’s tonal intent. True, monosyllabism narrows your word choices, but it undergirds specificity. Gary Snyder’s sparser poetry was crucial to the monosyllabic impulse that cools Surrealism’s jets. “I spur my horse through the wrecked town,” “On the dead stump, leaves of mist,” “Time is like sparks knocked off flint”[vii] are three excerpts from his well-known “Cold Mountain Poems” that illustrate the pristineness that accompanies Syllable, party of one. 


As a classically trained violist, I think of poetry’s sound capabilities in symphonic terms. I enter a poem ears-first. Whether it’s the auditory-visual construction of quizzical mezzanine or the oddity-visual of macabre candelabrum (the first r is silent; seeing it in close proximity to a sounding r also partnered with the letter b gives your eyes alphabet-vertigo, no?), The Confurreal’s orchestration is such that as one component—Surrealism or Confessionalism—crescendos, the other does not cede its sonic ground. Just the opposite: it expands, allowing for greater space in which the poetic subject’s exploration continues. I write with volume in mind, be it sound or recombinative language, a term for how I discuss words joined in previously unheard of configurations. The Confurreal encourages writers thinking of their poems as sound laboratories, experiments commencing at the letter level.[viii] An exemplar of aurality that I teach is Harryette Mullen’s “Any Lit” whose theme and variations enrich her sound canvas to the point of linguistic recombination: “You are a ukulele beyond my microphone / You are a Yukon beyond my Micronesia / You are a union beyond my meiosis,”[ix] the opening lines declare. Mullen’s string of long U and back-to-back M-I’s (2*U + 2*MI) is a fantasia-in-sonics that leaves us astonished. One Confurreal prompt has writers create a list of words for each letter of their name, high diction given freer rein: 

J = Jovian, jalousie, jangly

O = Ovaltine, ocular, owl

N = naiad, naïf, neap


R = rigatoni, Respighi, rex 

I = intaglio, isobar, Idahoan 

C = clerestory, chortle, civet

C = clematis, castigatory, coda

I = ipso, inventoried, intermediary 

O = orgeat, oxeye, ossifrage 


Next, assemble these words into sound-centric as opposed to meaning-driven phrases: “Naiad, my Jovian Ovaltine,” “jangly the ocular neap,” “ossifrage isobar an oxeye coda,” “ipso chortle, rigatoni intaglio.” These are Surrealist shoes seeking Confessional Velcro. The Confurreal is more than noise-sorcerer, though noisy magic is often the most restorative kind.


During a January 2010 presentation at the University of Arizona Poetry Center, Jane Miller told audience members, “I used to think the function of art was the transformation of sorrow, but I now think it is the transformation of consciousness.”[x] Transformation has a ring of Sexton to it, her consciousness-airing documented over a ten-volume output. And what is consciousness if not allegiance to the “I’s” cerebral and emotional axes? My favorite Sexton collection is The Book of Folly. In one of its prose poems, “Dancing the Jig,” Sexton entertains the idea of synesthesia—“I can taste the sound of her voice.”[xi] Confurrealists take note: synesthesia is a boon to our movement. Continuing alogically, Sexton shapeshifts her sense organs amid fear:

Or maybe I used the word afraid because I am. I’m scared. Not of the chair; of the total, of the party that makes my eyes a chair . . . a chair that is so mindless that finally I must eat music. I am distant, as plain as a chair, as unmoved, as unnoticeable. The chair says, Don’t look at me, I am nothing. The chair says, I stay the same, sit on me, crack my legs, lean on my arms, but I will not move. Yes, that’s just what I like about a chair, about being a chair.[xii]


Sexton observes partygoers through a state of surreal petrification. Whether this is a panic attack 

or metaphor for the trances she fell into around family, therapists, and lovers alike, Sexton knows:

That’s my worst mistake, thinking I am a chair, trying to stay fixed. I try so that I won’t move, won’t take the music, won’t dance the jig. I try to stay fixed. But I never do.[xiii]  

Fixed refers to a stationary position, but “I try to stay fixed” may be interpreted as commentary on one’s relationship to their demons, failings, or trauma—expulsion from the jig that is everyday life: the aforementioned trio at their worst. Task me with giving The Confurreal a soundbite and I reply, “My stalagmites, they unfurl.” 


If you’re at the florist’s crossroads and decide on The Confurreal, keep in mind:

  • In The Confurreal, a line or sentence’s degree of surreality may be determined by the direction that sound leads it. Individual letters are where the spellcasting begins.


  • Disclosure and puzzlement. Word-lustre in the service of absurdity and vice versa. Such cohabitations are possible.


  • My disclosure prefers density and a higher diction. Other practitioners of The Confurreal will channel different poetic formulas, the best creating theirs from scratch.


  • The Confurreal is a two-way mountain for any aesthetic centered around the belief that the jaggeder the experience, the more it belongs in a poem. 


  • That being said, Surrealism forms an accommodating safety net. 


  • Malleability of language and metaphor are important to The Confurreal because we lack Henri Cole’s “erotic x-ray of my soul.”[xiv] Confessionalism traverses Surrealism’s wavelength when soul-baring is your intent.


  • Truth has ample iterations in prose and lineation. What the poet does with these containers creates art. 


The next step? Let your stalagmites speak. They have The Confurreal floor.  

E N D N O T E S


[i] Breton, André. “Manifesto of Surrealism” (1924). Manifestoes of Surrealism, trans. Richard Seaver and   

  Helen R. Lane, Ann Arbor Paperbacks, 1972.


[ii] Marcuse, Herbert. Eros and Civilization. Beacon Press, 1955.

[iii] Lima, Frank. “The Blessed.” Incidents of Travel in Poetry, New and Selected Poems, eds. Garrett 

  Caples and Julien Poirier, City Lights Books, 2015.


[iv] Alexander, Will. “My Interior Vita.” Compression & Purity. City Lights Books, 2011.

[v] Fire Escape

Somnambulated through the burn-moat 

is what I say about 2000 through 2010, 

easier than vocalizing agoraphobia

some years more placeholder than others.


There I’ve been, prospecting threads

in the leg of a corduroy canal, 


Dick Clark toasting ′04 

as it vaporized into ′05, 


embers calendaring the char.


That January, 

the smoke detectors 

like hats in a barbershop quartet.   


[first appeared in FORTH Magazine.]


[vi] Introducing The Confurreal


Neither carpet crew nor maintenance man hard of hearing

who asks if I collect NASCAR miniatures, but the plumber

looking at pipes in the burst concrete. BURST CONCRETE.

The toothquartz of those Ts, their glottal stationed 

with the neighbor pacer’s insomnia—

highway noises to which he falls asleep, 

the pendular story his eye-bags make. What is it

about cycles, the psychics who see a crude lacquer

when they change my C-note for a fate? Most people

anniversary their admissions, I’ve been in postponement


since 2005, the year lit-land belonged to Elizabeth Kostova.

Now, I recommend The Historian to a student who pronounces

it “ee-vhil.” The towhead with vinyl binder bears a likeness

to fallen Vietnam combatant Roy Wheat, memorialized

in the Hattiesburg Post Office’s perma-display. I gave up


on a synonym for sacrifice, the corporal a photograph will take.

How did I become a man who buys his bestie a leopard-print

Snuggie? She’s a Scorpio like my niece, her father with

the retractable affluence among friends joke-maligning

the LGBTQIA, and by virtue of my logo, me.

I failed a poetry challenge: draft these quintains minus

those letters; see how far your psyche goes. Did alphabet

decanting make a better poet of me? Arizona, was I too OCD 

to ride the streetcar with laureate poems plastered above 

the signal cord? Tucson, where I overcame an illness,


narrative last, ears first. My downfall is micro-imagery:

I’ll give you the snowflake’s papilloma but not the snow.

I scrape pepper off a salmon’s pre-ketchup quadrant, the capers

mini-Death Stars, French fries a lightsaber duel’s length. 

I’ve insured my GI tract, plus the foot that phantom clubs 


to this day. The brain tells my Achilles to straighten out, chunnel 

some self-belief via tiaraed cerebellum. This poem could’ve been

shaped like the Poison Control Man’s fate when germaphobia

drove home maintenance. Successive re-approximation, the ten-

dollar way of saying I out-quelled my qualms, each week a cadre


opaque. Waitress, my watercress, the neologisms I fake. Have 

you tried a thesaurus, I ask the undergrad in Vaderwear featuring 

an AT-AT tank top ragged around the force, the future running 

beard-ready, half my schooling spent shaving sans crème. I had 

manorexia. Saw my neck explode in a stall, mid-BM. The act 


and the degree. We string players at bay onstage; quasi-intimacy, 

a pianist who trafficked in weekend crystallomancy. He’d lie on 

top of me, bathrobe inlaid. I wonder what he derived beyond 

Glenn Gould and a shoulder date. Fingers self-fulfilling like 

the Georgia Guidestones, he’d commence cigarettemageddon, 


his favorite recording artist Sir Alfred Brendel who toured 

this way and back. Crystal blades was twenty-six years 

ago; the psychics reached as far as the phone cord could. 

Maybe shoulder-fucking isn’t for you, but dichotomy mixes 

with my hard-of-hearing ear where Southern men come 


to strip the vinyl of its heaped-upon oneiric, the window 

Venetianed with statistics, carpet skewered of its speech. 

What good is a diphthong to a jackhammer, spokesnoun 

amid two Hs, the jargon-slab’s unease? -Mancy to -macy, 

the former settled my qualms to the nth degree. May 


your skin-mancer wear a Steinway-colored tuft of hair 

across their face. I can’t say the practice gave me 

my nova, that it crested me to lexography, 

each polyglot riding out the horoscopes, 

that Cather novel adapted for Conestoga TV. 


Not an insomnia goes by without some phobia killing 

a bit of me. Cleaner, the mind composes. 

Survivorabilia, a region’s vocalise. 

These stalagmites I outspeak. 

Their ventriloquy concrete.  


[First appeared, in slightly different form, in MANNEQUIN HAUS.]

[vii] Snyder, Gary. “Cold Mountain Poems.” Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems. North Point Press, 1959.


[viii] A paraphrase of musicians I’ve heard in master classes or lessons who reframe the practice room as  

    laboratory.


[ix] Mullen, Harryette. “Any Lit.” PoetryFoundation.org,

  https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/51631/any-lit.


[x] Miller, Jane. Faculty Poets Panel in the University of Arizona Poetry Center Reading and Lecture Series, 

  January 29, 2010, https://voca.arizona.edu/readings-list/24.


[xi] Sexton, Anne. “Dancing the Jig.” The Book of Folly. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1972.


[xii] -----. Ibid. 


[xiii] -----. Ibid.


[xiv] Cole, Henri. “Self-Portrait as Four Styles of Pompeian Wall Painting.” The Visible Man. Farrar, Straus & 

     Giroux, 1998. 

 

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Jon Riccio received his PhD from the University of Southern Mississippi's Center for Writers. He's the author of the chapbook Prodigal Cocktail Umbrella (Trainwreck Press) and the forthcoming full-length collection, Agoreography (3: A Taos Press). His chapbook Eye, Romanov received a shared second prize in the 2020 James Tate International Prize and is forthcoming from SurVision Books. He serves as the poetry editor at Fairy Tale Review.