:: Article

Every Thing Belongs to Someone

By Elisa Taber.

Peter Dellolio, A Box of Crazy Toys (Xenos Books, 2018)

Enter a dreamscape inhabited by the belongings of people you do not know, everything there means something to someone else. The narrator of Peter Dellolio’s A Box of Crazy Toys always feels like a stranger. This collection of eighty-seven surrealist poems is meant to subvert what we consider real by blurring the distinction between what occurs in waking and sleeping states, but they also feel deeply personal. They are surrealist, in the sense Breton gives to the term, “Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express (…) the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.” The poet does not reveal who each thing belongs to and what role that human being plays in the narrator’s life, or his own. This resistance is consistent with the dictates of Breton’s 1924 Manifesto of Surrealism. However, I believe that by yearning to know the reader intuits that the author wants to say, more.

The desire is assuaged by watching the films he references. After watching Night of the Living Dead, Strangers on a Train, and The Big Sleep, among others mentioned, I could close my eyes and see the face of a character congealed in an expression of fear or malice. This had not occurred to me since childhood. This poetry collection encapsulates the fear of other people. The smell, colour, shapes, materials, and sounds of places are described; as are the professions, clothing, meals, and belongings of human beings. Yet the reader cannot visualize a setting, cast or plot—only things, some intangible, floating in space. It is as though Dellolio expunged the aforementioned malicious or frightened faces and left only what surrounded them. Each poem depicts one or various of these uninhabited film stills.

Nothing happens in the poems, other than a slap-stick version of violence, thus, lyric poetry and not narrative, is the right medium for the author’s verbal descriptions of images. Each of the eighty-seven poems consists of one to three sentences, each a description of a different image, split into lines of up to seven words; each names a part or something that resembles the thing. The poet’s use of metonymy and metaphor is so pervasive that every word is a stand in for something else. Likeness can even be reduced to the way a word sounds. Take this as an example:

A silvery sombrero breakfast
investigates a circular
flapping diary sandwich while

The costume and meal merge to become the server and the likeness of dairy and diary leads to the substitution of the first with latter, it is alive too, it flaps. It is the mise-en-scène of a film that the author anthropomorphises but, despite the fact that non-human entities interact with each other and traverse through space and time, it feels like a still life.

There are ways of making something or someone feel alive that have nothing to do with movement, Dellolio might reduce a scene to a still, but it is through his sensorial description of atmosphere that he makes the reader experience living with things. He resembles Michael Snow in so far that he applies the tradition of photography, in which the focus of the attention is on scrutinizing the still image, to poetry. Yet, unlike photography, the elements in a room can be felt, smelt, heard, and even tasted, through description. The epigraph to the book is:

“But these words have no meaning!”

“At the moment, no, but they will. Or rather they may eventually acquire meaning…”

It is a quote from Stanislaw Lem’s The Futurological Congress. This is a science fiction novel with world-making intent in so far as it depicts an Orwellian dystopic future in which humanity is manipulated by psychochemical technologies. In an interview Lem explained that this was a metaphor for the Polish government’s use of lying propaganda. Dellolio does not offer a critique of the US government’s manipulation of their national population; he only shifts our focus from human beings to their belongings and from structures to their components. It is what happens to time through movement, which feels unresolved, until we realize that it is in suspension, the way whether it is light or dark outside ceases to matter while we are in a cinema.

The poet is not the director of a film but a filmgoer that loses the thread of the plot, distracted by the mise-en-scène, he wants to experience the atmosphere more fully than the medium allows, he wants to smell the tobacco smoke filled air, taste the whisky in their glasses and feel the fur coat that barely covers an actresses shoulders. A soundtrack or the sound of an instrument accompanies each poem. They’re named. One of the more memorable performances is described in the poem ‘Slab of Hypnotized Bubbles’:

One of the bubbles,
an Anarchist with an
advanced thyroid condition,
sings an aria from
La Traviata.

The character in question is not human and barely inanimate, an ephemeral bubble, yet he contains an essential humanity, he is both flawed, sick, and beautiful, talented. The music is not described but it is named. References like this allow the reader to intertwine reading with haunting scenes and songs, in each there is a death.

The plot of these songs and films reveals the essence of the form, what Barthes called “the Spectrum of the Photograph, because this word retains, through its root, a relation to ‘spectacle’ and adds to it that rather terrible thing which is there in every photograph: the return of the dead.” Furthermore, all the references are dated and, in fact, the performers are deceased. All that is left of Harpo Marx is his “dishevelled raincoat.” Yet it is not life and death but the otherworldly that interests Dellolio. In addition to referring to actors and their characters, he recurrently speaks of “magicians” and “clowns.” Even the animated inanimate entities are masked or outfitted in costumes as decadent as “tight red / rubber Dutch clothing.” There is something ominous in this composition of a mise-en-scène, it feels like something will or did happen. At times it has, a murder occurs in ‘Droplets of Blood’, but is minimized, a veil of uncertainty covers every act of violence alluded to. In the end is only the things that remain, even if they are tinged by the passing of their owners or what their owners have done.

Surrealism supposes that all the imaginable can happen. Violence can be imagined, even if in a suppositional realm inhabited by the inanimate. Furthermore, Breton calls for the suspension of judgment. In reference to pornography, George Steiner’s criteria for humane literacy is the respect “for the sanctity of autonomous life in the characters of the novel.” Returning to aforementioned “tight red / rubber Dutch clothing”, I clarify that the outfitted characters are children. They are described as sipping soup and then making “hammers out of the pasture” in the same poem. These personages are given no interiority or characteristic consistency in their actions, they are simply dressed and instructed to perform. This is further complicated by the suggestion of sensuality, through their costumes, and violence, through their actions. The sexualization of children is omnipresent in film. A justification for this passage is that it critiques the latter but that would betray the dictates of the Manifesto of Surrealism. Automatic writing exempt from moral concern is meant to blur the limit between the dreamt and the real. The question remains—what occurs when the unconscious reveals a criminal desire? Imagine someone dreamt of you in costume, performing for them.

In the same way that visual descriptions make use of metonymy and metaphor, the elements sensed with other senses are not the thing but like it or a part of it. The analysis of words in order to discover the individual or structure they represent only leads to the unveiling of more layers of artifice. This is not waking reality or the plot of narrative but a dreamscape. In ‘There Are Four Men in My Dream’ the narrator describes a cup of coffee in a Diver Dan costume pouring cream and sugar into, the desire to taste it arouses from his slumber:

I awake and drink the coffee.
Around eleven a.m. I chew
some gum to get the fishy taste
out of my mouth.

The oneiric, hallucinogenic or fictional merges with his descriptions of the inanimate in such a way that they cease to point to anything else. All the parts of a mechanism, the “hinges” and “knobs”, and of a structure, the “windows”, “elevator”, “staircase”, and “wallpaper”, never come together. They congeal with other mismatched elements to form a monstrous whole, which like Frankenstein, comes to life. Benjamin describes the grotesque as “the only legitimate form of the fantastic” and clarifies its function as follows: “the imagination does not de-form in a destructive fashion but destructively over forms over-forms.” The question remains whether the narrator’s dreams intend to communicate something to anyone other than the dreamer, and if the surrealist symbols express something true, even if surprising, about human conduct.

Peter Dellolio recedes into the realm of the imagination, whether catalysed by sleep, drugs, or fiction, because he judges reality too harsh. His critique is stated through the act of turning his back to the world. The inanimate characters in A Box of Crazy Toys are not symbols, they belong to someone, the author, I suspect, and substitute the company of others. However, the act of sharing them with his readers is a communicative act. The dream is a burlesque and what we see when it is over, as when the screen in a cinema turns black, is a human being in a room, asleep. Dellolio is a man with interior life, whether he is writing, playing a record or watching a film. For a moment he chooses to suspend time and believe, as in the end of the three films I mention at the beginning of this review, that there is somewhere beyond this reality where justice is served. However, there is violence in these poems, as in films and in life, but poems and films are renditions of life, or the surrealists take on the dream-reality realm, and thus the artist’s intention must be to denounce. Every thing, especially words, should be cared for; they might mean something to someone. This collection of poems incites the reader to care for things, to imagine they belong to someone, and that the violence endured by a belonging harms the owner, as though by empathetic magic.


Elisa Taber is a writer and anthropologist. She explores the interstice between translation and epistemology in the Nivaklé narratives of the Paraguayan Gran Chaco. Both her stories and translations are troubled into being, even when that trouble is a kind of joy. Elisa was born in Asunción, raised in La Paz, New York, Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, and Jakarta, and currently lives in Montreal.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, October 10th, 2018.