Translating Desire: The Erotic-Macabre Poetry of Joyce Mansour


Not in the Reviews” is the title of a 1966 article that appeared in Books Abroad about the desire-filled erotic macabre poems of the surrealist writer Joyce Mansour. The article lamented Mansour’s lack of recognition from literary critics who seemed intent on ignoring her because what she had to say was audacious. Even today, Joyce Mansour remains unknown. Given the entrenched sexism of the literary world, it is no surprise that a woman’s honest and provocative writing on sex and death has been shunned by the establishment.

In the fall of 2017, I was preparing for a literary translation workshop and looking for poems to translate. A few days after I began my search, the #MeToo movement went viral and put a new spotlight on sexism and the abuse of power in our cultural industries. What most hit home amongst the ugly stories of assault, harassment, silencing, and coercion that were breaking on a daily basis was the extent to which our culture is obsessed with satisfying the needs and desires of men while working overtime to dismiss and deny those of women.

I set new parameters on my search: I needed to translate the writing of a woman, preferably one who spoke openly and shamelessly about her desires. I knew that as I looked further back in time I’d find that any woman who spoke her truth was likely to have been ignored, forgotten, dismissed, or worse. After all, if abuse and silencing of women was widespread in 2017, how many texts by women were gathering dust in the dark corners of history? Without a doubt, there were works that had been shelved and forgotten for the sole reason that they had been held to different standards than those written by men; women’s writing has often been deemed too dark, too sultry, too frigid, too hysterical. If the pre-2017 world had not been ready for these voices, I hoped perhaps we were finally ready to listen to them now.


It is especially interesting to go treasure hunting for this sort of writing in literary works from France. Simone de Beauvoir’s birthplace has experienced periods of exceptional openness in publishing that benefited women writers (for example, French-Canadian poet Anne Hébert moved to Paris in 1954 when her work was considered too dark for Canadian publishers), and yet, French culture, like many others, is fiercely loyal to its romanticized ideas of female submission and male domination. This dichotomy meant that while certain controversial literary female voices were indeed published, such as Renée Vivien, an openly lesbian British poet who wrote passionate love poems in French, or Colette, who was denied a Catholic burial by the Church due to her nefarious lifestyle, women’s voices were still subjugated or eclipsed by those of men. Such was the perceived misogyny of France’s highest literary award, le Prix Goncourt, that in 1904, a year after its creation, twenty-two literary women launched an alternate prize, the Prix Femina, awarded by an all-female jury. To this day, the jury for the Prix Goncourt hasn’t taken the hint: Since its creation, a mere twelve women have received the prize.

It was in this context that I came across the erotic macabre poems of cigar-smoking, Egyptian, surrealist writer Joyce Mansour, whose first collection of poems, Screams, was published in 1953. Her work is defiant; even by today’s standards it smashes taboos around female expression and desire.

Like her poetry, Mansour’s life story is fascinating. Born in England in 1928, she was raised in Cairo in a cosmopolitan family of Jewish-Syrian descent. Early on, she experienced two tragedies that haunted the rest of her life: When Mansour was fifteen, her mother died of cancer, and three years later, just six months into her first marriage, Mansour’s young husband, who had been an athlete, also died suddenly of cancer.1 Her work became a kind of exorcism for the pain that came from the unbearable early loss of these two first loves. Years later, when asked why she did not have the violent character of her poetry, she answered: “If I did not write, perhaps I would embody my words. It’s a kind of conjuration…”2 In her work, love and death are inseparable. Rather than fearing the duality that traumatized her youth, she explored it, writing toward the demons that haunted her. She eventually suffered the same fate as her mother and first husband and died of cancer in 1986, at the age of fifty-nine.

Mansour, whose native language was English, switched to writing in French when she married her second husband, Samir Mansour, a Franco-Egyptian whom her family disapproved of due to his reputation as a womanizer. The couple was exiled to Paris when Nasser solidified his power in Egypt and most of her family’s assets were seized by the government. Her childhood home now houses the Greek embassy in Cairo.

It was in France that Mansour became more deeply involved with the Surrealists. As a teenager from a wealthy Cairo family, she had been an athlete who excelled in high jump. She was used to being surrounded by men and knew how to hold her own against them. The founder of the Surrealist movement, André Breton, took an immediate liking to her work and the two remained close friends until his death in 1966. Mansour dedicated several pieces to him, including two poetry collections, Carré Blanc and Les Damnations.


Translation requires re-inhabiting the original process of creation in order to understand the author’s thought process and to interpret the meaning of their words into another language. It asks for an intimate reading, as though one is slipping on a piece of clothing the author might have worn, like an actor wearing a costume to better interpret a role. Mansour’s poetry is both a challenge and a pleasure to translate due to her cleverness. Her words are heavy with emotion as she tests us with constant provocations and inversions of traditional narratives and beliefs. Our accepted logic dictates that what is dead rots, but she uses phrases like “all that is alive rots”3 and in another poem (“Worn Shadow”) describes life as  “painful for the dead.” In “Flowered Like Lewdness,” the objectifying gaze of an unidentified man clashes with Mansour’s morbid version of the feminine. For him women are “canons of delirium,” to which the speaker replies that she only “savour[s] death.” In “Nursery Rhyme for a Courtesan,” magnolias, normally a symbol of beauty, femininity, and purity, become “cannibalistic.” Beauty is repulsive, orgasm is death, death is life, and fantasies, like women, become all too real.

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, including the untitled one excerpted below, 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.4

A woman created the sun
Inside her
And her hands were beautiful
The earth plunged beneath her feet
Assailing her with the fertile breath
Of volcanoes
Her nostrils quivered her eyelids drooped
Weighed down by the heavy silt of the pillow
It is night… 5

It’s not difficult to see how a narrative with a goddess—rather than a god—of the cosmos inspired Mansour to imagine a richer and more complex story about life, death, and gender than what was on offer in her adopted country of France. While her writing has strong feminist leanings, she remained independent of the movement: “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she responded when asked to contribute to a feminist magazine.6 Still, she struggled to be taken seriously as an artist even with the Surrealists, who were mildly more progressive toward women than previous French literary movements, but still limited women to the role of muse or femme-enfant, woman-child.7 Meret Oppenheim, who eventually distanced herself from the movement, famously said, “The [Surrealist] women were loved, but only as women.”8 While Mansour remained a lifelong Surrealist, her work clearly defies those confines by evoking both the creative and destructive sides of female power.9 Her version of femininity is authentic and complicated. It mixes irony, rage, and vulnerability while mocking the superficial ideal of women as innocent, submissive, or delicate objects of desire. In the poem “Dowsing,” Mansour uses her signature dark sense of humor to satirize articles like the “The Good House Wife’s Guide” published by Housekeeping Monthly and unleashes her anger in her advice to women experiencing the sting of neglect or betrayal in their marriage. “Husband neglecting you?” she asks, and then suggests: “Invite his mother to sleep in your room … piss in his soup when he lies down happily next to you”.

I translated two poems from her 1965 collection Carré Blanc. The title literally translates as White Square and refers to the symbol that appeared on French television to alert viewers to adult content. Mansour wrote the poems during a prolonged separation from her second husband after she had grown tired of his frequent infidelities; his betrayals caused her to re-experience the traumatic losses of her youth.10 The poems’ speaker moves between rage, desire, and sadness, unashamed of her frustrations and solitude.  In several poems of the collection she is angry and defiant: In “Woman Warrior in Love,” she promises to devour “he who would broadside me” and advises that “one must learn to wait to take revenge.” In “Sun in Capricorn,” translated below, the speaker struggles with her longing in the face of an impassive interlocutor: “I can’t breathe without your mouth” and “Your hand thunders indifference.”

As poet Alain Jouffroy said of her writing, Mansour delivers “indiscrete truths” and her absence of modesty “is a kind of feminine rebellion against the sexual despotism of man who often makes eroticism his own exclusive creation.”11


Mansour was known within Surrealist circles because André Breton was a champion of her work, but beyond those circles, she was ignored. Her use of irony mixed with the erotic macabre shares similarities with the work of much more renowned French poets: She is a Baudelaire minus the shame or a George Bataille au feminin. And yet her books, once published by surrealist presses, are out of print in France. A collection of her complete works in French—which includes both short stories and poetry collections—was published in 2014 by Michel de Maule but is increasingly difficult to find. That same year, her daughter-in-law published her biography, but it too is becoming rare. Over the years, there have been English translations of selections of her work, but most are also out of print (with the exception of a bilingual selection of poems translated by Serge Gavronsky).

Giving Joyce Mansour her rightful place in literature is no easy task. She was an immigrant in post-war France and her favorite subject matter happened to be two of society’s greatest fears: death and unfettered female desire. “Even in death I will return to this world to fornicate,” is an often quoted statement from Mansour’s short story collection, Les Gisants Satisfaits (The Satisfied Statues).12 If writing, for her, was a conjuration of her own demons, then surely translating her words can serve to summon a spirit so keen to return from the world of the dead. There is no better time than now for Mansour to make a comeback and be given the space and recognition that her work rightly deserves.


The following are four original translations of her poems, with the English translations following the French.



La mort est une marguerite qui dort
Aux pieds d’une madone en chaleur
Et les mille délicates puanteurs
Sombres comme une aisselle, saignantes comme un cœur
Dorment elles aussi dans les corps des femmes nues
Qui couchent dans les champs ou qui cherchent dans les rues
La fraise mal dorée de l’amour



Death is a daisy that sleeps
At the foot of a madonna in heat
And those thousand delicate odours
Dark like an armpit, bloody like a heart
Also sleep in the bodies of naked women
Who bed in the fields or search the streets
For the poorly gilded strawberry of love

(Mansour, Joyce. “Déchirures, 1955.” in Œuvres Complètes: Joyce Mansour Prose et Poésie. Paris: Michel de Maule. 2014)



Votre mari vous néglige?
Invitez sa mère à passer la nuit dans votre chambre
Puis affalée dans l’armoire près du lit
Projetez votre oméga plus une poignée de salamandres
Dans le miroir où l’ombre se dandine
Votre mari vous échappe?
Le céleste directeur a besoin d’un régime
Urinez dans sa soupe quand heureux près de vous il s’allonge
Soyez douce mais habile à farcir l’oie grasse
De poulpes de messages
Et de poils de mandragore
Taquinez ses penchants avec un blaireau de soie
Saupoudrez son phalène de sang et de suie
Et surtout souriez quand dans vos bras il se meurt
Malgré lui c’est à vous qu’il pensera


Je ne connais pas l’enfer
Mais mon corps brûle depuis ma naissance
Aucun diable n’attise ma haine
Aucun satyre ne me poursuit
Mais le verbe se transforme en vermine entre mes lèvres
Et mon pubis trop sensible à la pluie
Immobile comme un mollusque flatulent de musique
Se cramponne au téléphone
Et pleure
Malgré moi ma charogne fanatise avec ton vieux sexe débusqué
Qui dort



Husband neglecting you?
Invite his mother to sleep in your room
Then sprawled in the armoire next to the bed
Project your final word along with a handful of salamanders
In the mirror where the shadow sways
Husband avoiding you?
The divine director must be put on a diet
Piss in his soup when he lies down happily next to you

Be gentle but skillful stuffing the fat goose
With octopus messages
And mandrake roots
Tease his kinks with a silk brush
Sprinkle his moth with blood and soot
Be sure to smile when he dies in your arms
Despite himself he will think of you


I do not know hell
But my body has been burning ever since I was born
No devil stirs my hate
No satyr pursues me
But the verb turns to vermin between my lips
And my pubis too sensitive to the rain
Motionless like a mollusk flatulent with music
Clings to the telephone
And cries
In spite of myself my carrion fantasizes over your ousted old cock
That sleeps

(Mansour, Joyce. “Rapaces, 1960.” in Œuvres Complètes: Joyce Mansour Prose et Poésie. Paris: Michel de Maule. 2014)



Tu dis que les femmes
Doivent souffrir se polir et voyager sans perdre haleine
Réveiller les pierreries embellies par le fard
Chanter ou se taire déchirer la brume
Hélas je ne saurais danser dans un marais de sang
Ta figure brille de l’autre coté de la rive heureuse
Tout ce qui est vivant pourrit

Tu dis que les femmes
Doivent savoir se dépouiller de tout même
Du nourrisson encore rétif
A l’amour
Ta figure bleuit à mesure que ta fortune grandit
Et moi je veux mourir vautrée dans la sauge
Orgueilleusement mauvaise dans l’immobilité de l’exil

Tu dis que les femmes
Doivent se détruire pour ne pas enfanter
Et attendre attendre la solide volupté qui serpente
Hélas je n’aime pas faire l’amour sur le tapis
Belzébuth roucoule dans la gorge des pigeons
Ta bague brûle ma cuisse
L’émeraude est la virginité
Du riche

Tu dis que les femmes
Sont faites pour nourrir
La fumée repentante qui halète à l’église
Les truies pales et pleines piquées de soies souillées
Les têtes coupées aussi et pourquoi pas après tout
Étonnantes nuits du pôle aux silences sanguinaires
Je crois que maintenant je peux te laisser partir

Tes jambes volent haut dans la sacristie
Des genoux
Comme autant de prédicateurs
Je suis bien contente d’avoir un chapeau sur la tête
Même si ton urine contient toute la féerie du mariage
Tu dis que les femmes sont chanoines du délire
Hélas moi je ne savoure que la mort



You say that women
Should suffer primping and travel without losing their breath
To wake the precious gems embellished with makeup
To sing or shut up to tear the mist
Alas I would not know how to dance in a swamp of blood
Your shape shines on the other side of the cheerful shore
All that is alive rots

You say that women
Should know how to strip away everything even
The newborn still restless
For love
Your face turns blue as your fortune grows
And I want to die wallowing in sage
Proudly wicked in the stillness of exile

You say that women
Should destroy themselves to avoid childbirth
And wait wait for that solid and snaking delight
Alas I do not like to make love on the carpet
Beelzebub coos in the throat of the pigeons
Your ring burns my thigh
The emerald is the virginity
Of the rich man

You say that women
Are made to nurture
The repenting smoke gasping in church
The pale and pregnant sows stitched with soiled silk
Heads chopped too and why not after all
Stunning nights of bloody silence at the pole
I think that I can let you go now

Your legs fly high in the sacristy
At the knees
Like so many preachers
I am relieved to have a hat on my head
Even if your piss holds all the fairytales of marriage
You say that women are canons of delirium
As for myself, alas, I only savour death

(Mansour, Joyce. “Carré Blanc, 1965.” in Oeuvres Complètes: Joyce Mansour Prose et Poésie. Paris: Michel de Maule. 2014)



Trois jours de repos
Pourquoi pas la tombe
J’étouffe sans ta bouche
L’attente déforme l’aube prochaine
Et les longues heures de l’escalier
Sentent le gaz
A plat ventre j’attends demain
Je vois luire ta peau
Dans la grande trouée de la nuit
Le balancement lent d’un beau clair de lune
Sur la mer intérieure de mon sexe
Poussière sur poussière
Marteau sur matelas
Soleil sur tambour de plomb
Toujours souriant ta main tonne l’indifférence
Cruellement vêtu incliné vers le vide
Tu dis non et le plus petit objet qu’abrite un
corps de femme
Courbe l’échine
Nice artificielle
Parfum factice de l’heure sur le canapé
Pour quelles pâles girafes
Ai-je délaissé Byzance
La solitude pue
Une pierre de lune dans un cadre ovale
Encore une insomnie au jointures rigides
Encore un poignard palpitant sous la pluie
Diamants et délires du souvenir de demain
Sueurs de taffetas plages sans abri
Démence de ma chair égarée



Three days of rest
Why not the tomb
I can’t breathe without your mouth
The wait warps the coming dawn
And the staircase’s long hours
Smell of gas
Flat on my stomach I wait for tomorrow
I see your skin gleam
In the great breach of the night
The slow sway of a fine moonlight
On the inland sea of my sex
Dust on dust
Hammer on mattress
Sun on beating drum
Still smiling your hand thunders indifference
Dressed cruelly tilted towards emptiness
You say no and the smallest object housed in a
woman’s body
Arches the spine
Artificial Nice
False perfume from the hour on the couch
For what pale giraffes
Have I abandoned Byzantium
Loneliness sucks
A moonstone in an oval frame
Yet another insomnia with rigid joints
Yet another dagger pulsing under the rain
Diamonds and deliriums of tomorrow’s memories
Taffeta sweat homeless beaches
Madness of my flesh gone astray

(Mansour, Joyce. “Carré Blanc, 1965.” in Œuvres Complètes: Joyce Mansour Prose et Poésie. Paris: Michel de Maule. 2014)


The poems, in the original French and Emilie Moorhouse’s English translations, appear with the permission of and thanks to Cyrille Mansour and the estate of Joyce Mansour.


Rumpus original art by Elizabeth Schmuhl.


1. Desvaux-Mansour, Marie -Francine. 2014. “Le Surréalisme à Travers Joyce Mansour Tome 1.” PhD Thesis. Paris: Université de Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne. 25…/6832d455-5fd3-4ae3-ad61-1dd4384ae368 viewed July 14, 2018

2. Desvaux-Mansour. ‘‘Le Surréalisme à Travers Joyce Mansour Tome 1’’. 385

3. Mansour, Joyce. 2014. “Carré Blanc.” In Oeuvres Complètes Joyce Mansour: Prose et Poésie. Paris: Michel de Maule. 406

4. Hollis, S T. 1987. “Women of Ancient Egypt and the Sky Goddess Nut.” The Journal of American Folklore 100 (398): 496–503

5. Mansour, Joyce. 1960. Rapaces. Paris: Editions Seghers. 78.

6. Desvaux-Mansour, Marie-Francine. 2014. Une Vie Surréaliste: Joyce Mansour, Complice d’André Breton. France-Empire. 111

7. Preckshot, J. 1991. “Identity Crises in Joyce Mansour Narratives.” In Surrealism and Women, edited by Mary A Caws, Rudolf Kenzli, and Raaberg Raaberg. Massachussets: MIT Press. 98

8. Papalas, Marylaura. n.d. “Female Violence as Social Power: Joyce Mansour’s Surrealist Anti-Muse.” In Rebelles et Criminelles Chez Les Ecrivaines d’expression Française, edited by F Chevillot and C Trout. 204

9. De Julia, M. 1991. “Joyce Mansour and Egyptian Mythology.” In Surrealism and Women, edited by Mary A Caws, Rudolph Kuenzli, and Gwen Raaberg. Massachussets. 117

10. Desvaux-Mansour. “Le Surréalisme à Travers Joyce Mansour Tome 1”. 488

11. “Joyce Mansour Oeuvres Complètes.” n.d. Michel de Maule. on July 14th, 2018

12. Mansour, Joyce. 2014. “Marie Ou l’honneur de Servir.” In Oeuvres Complètes Joyce Mansour: Prose et Poésie. Paris: Michel de Maule. 46

Emilie Moorhouse is a bilingual writer living in Montreal, Canada. She has a background in environmental activism and recently completed an MFA at the University of British Columbia. Her work has appeared in the Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star, Prism Literary Magazine, and the National Observer. More from this author →