5 0 5

In Dreamtime, Patrisha McLean's Flower Girls Blossom


Back in 2006 when I first wrote about her work, portrait artist Patrisha McLean was tired of her Flower Girls series, ready to abandon the project for a new one.  At the time, I didn’t think her portraits could get any better, and she may have agreed.  But she persevered with the series, proving us both wrong.

Instead, McLean explored new territory, and the results are breathtaking.  Like the masterful artist she is, McLean has plumbed the depths of the Flower Girls concept, and in doing so explored the deepest parts of our collective psyche.  

Hers is a remarkable photographic journey that begins in photo realism (the language of journalism) and ends in Symbolism, the language of dreams. Symbolist painters, such as Gustave Moreau, Gustav Klimt, Odilon Redon, and Edvard Munch used mythological and dream imagery. Often, like McLean, they created a timeless atmosphere of utter stillness and silence.

Though she began her career as a journalist, McLean’s editorial photography revolves around The Maiden’s Voyage, the mythical coming-of-age of young women.  McLean’s portraits ask "Will the Flower Girl survive her passage to adulthood, with its impending ‘de-flowering?’"  Parents have worried about this since the dawn of mankind, so The Maiden’s Voyage is a common story.


McLean’s 2008 portrait Lydia with Antique Mirror (above) sums up The Maiden’s Voyage (or perhaps The Heroine’s Journey) in one lovely stroke.  Lydia explores an unknown forest, surrounded by vegetation that seems about to consume her.  But unlike Clara with Rhododendrons (2006), Lydia doesn’t look to the viewer for help.  Reaching the center of the forest, Lydia has stumbled upon herself.  She’s traversed her own labyrinth, a one-way path to the center of her psyche.

In historical myths, a maiden was often seduced by a god in disguise (i.e. Leda and the Swan) at her coming-of-age.  In modern versions, the seduction is watered-down, and the maiden simply loses consciousness at her transition, as in Sleeping Beauty or The Wizard of Oz. The growing importance of the unconscious dream-state in McLean’s work becomes clear when it’s viewed in serial fashion:


Above (Nora with Old Roses, 2006), an alert young girl is compared to roses.  The message is simple.  Nora is a rose. This is realism.


In Riley With Old Roses, Dreaming (2006), McLean tentatively approaches Symbolism.  She depicts Riley’s dream, but we 
aren’t in the dream.  We must guess at the dream’s contents, represented by the multi-toned roses swirling around Riley’s head.


In Becca with Summer Flowers (2008), McLean has taken the plunge.  She’s immersed in her subject’s dream, and so are we.  Becca has taken control, raising her arms and summoning flying flowers to do her bidding, as one might summon the elements.  This is Symbolism.  McLean’s portrait seems to take place in aboriginal dream time, an atmosphere of timelessness, utter stillness and silence.


Although McLean’s work retains elements of her photo-journalism (who’d expect the gaunt Flower Girl above, with her world-weary stare and her choker of roses?), she now works largely in the realm of the Symbolic.


Never shy about exploring the dark side, McLean has created a stunning dualistic illustration of the Sleeping Beauty myth.  A daytime Sleeping Beauty is paired with her haunting doppelganger, a vampirish nocturnal beauty. Together, these portraits make me wonder whether Sleeping Beauty will survive her journey to adulthood, awakening in the light as a woman. Or will she remain as adults would have her, forever a little girl, in stasis and in the dark?


McLean’s most surprising new portrait may be Harper with Old Roses (2008).  There’s something unexpected in this image. With her sensuous face, claw-like nails, and explosion of roses, this is a rapturous Flower Girl who’s come of age, innocent no longer.


I think Eliza with Peonies and Pearls best sums up McLean’s new work.  The Flower Girls are at the end of their dangerous journey, no longer lost in a forbidding forest.  Some look directly and knowingly at the viewer. 

While the leash of the world still tugs at them (every girl wears a choker or necklace) the young women are now masters of their universe.  Individuation is complete.  The Flower Girls have found themselves, become whole, and blossomed.

Patrisha McLean’s daughter entered college in 2008, and I think her maternal relief, as well as her pride in a job well done, are evident in the Flower Girls series.  There’s a touch of Botticelli’s Venus in the latest Flower Girl images, a sense of joy in presenting the world with a lovely, newly-formed young woman.  By chronicling The Maiden’s Voyage as her daughter grew, McLean has given voice to parents everywhere.

All photographs copyright 2011 by Patrisha McLean, reproduced with her permission. Image resolution has been lowered for online publication. To contact McLean or see more of her work, click here: PatrishaMcLean.com

Article copyright 2013 by Ann Marcaida.

5 0 5

Children of the Reef (Revision; Thanks to Brad, Umar, and Chris)


I. Neptune's Theater

A wandering rock spins smooth

as its warm sea calcimines.

And turquoise Neptune in his cloudy blue bath bath

drips epochs of lace from his fingertips

Sculpts a submerged eden of crimson and emerald

where painted parrots chat up cardinals

butterfly and angel fry sway with wave pulse

and foliated coral fingers beckon from arched windows.

Neptune’s children are flat and bright, spined and notched

free yet entangled in lace mesh ecosystem

beneath an array of bioluminescent stars

as a gangly pretender watches and blows bubbles.

II. Sapien Siege

The hot acidic hand of death grasps

the mesh rends and tangles

the ecosystem shattered

reef’s loosed children scream beneath planet’s stars.

Butterflies impaled

cyanide-swooning damsels

mesh-tangled angels hauled heavenward

coral to potash, corpses to coal.

The pretender to the throne blinks

rubs blurry lenses,

kicks plastic fins

and moves on to the next show


Unseeing and unaware

of the luminous filament in his wake.

Self-appointed divinity,

deus ex machina.




Ann says: All of the animal and human characters in this poem (except Neptune and The Pretender) are named after coral reef fish. Coral reefs, one of the most diverse ecosystems, are expected to be largely extinct within one human generation.

Copyright 2013 by Ann Marcaida.

Images:1. Andrey Narchuk 2.  Neil Craver Photography

4 0 4

What a Gorgeous Music Video Reveals About Movie-Making

Note to readers:  This essay is about a music video, and it probably won't make much sense unless you see the video.  You may prefer to read it here on Tumblr, where you can see the video as well as the text.


Back in some other lifetime I was employed as a professional film reviewer. I’ve searched for a way to share what I learned without giving a pedantic lecture or presenting a long series of film clips.  As soon as I saw this lovely 2004 music video, I realized that I had everything I need.  All the important elements of film are contained within.  

This beautiful broad-brush piece of art is probably the best and most universal music video I have seen.  Surprisingly, I couldn’t find it on any of the “Best Music Videos” compilations I checked.  It should have received a lot more attention than it did.

The lyrics (below) form a sort internal dialog, describing the narrator’s thoughts and feelings at six different ages ranging from 15 to 99.  But this is clearly a universal, not a personal, voyage.

The words describe a progression similar to Shakespeare’s seven stages of man: first love, marriage, parenting, a middle-age crisis, old age, and death (symbolized by the empty piano stool in the last shot).  

The face, gender, and ethnicity of the characters change constantly. One person (narrator and singer-songwriter John Ondrasik) seems to be playing everyman, containing all the other characters within him.

You may notice that, although this film was shot in color, the palette is very muted and controlled.  It’s composed mostly of soft blues and browns— “earth tones” or “natural” colors.  When color is muted like this it takes a back seat, allowing other cinematic elements to assume center stage.

The setting here is pure earth, sun and sky.  The video declares early on, by coloring everything similarly (including the characters) that it will have a universal message.  All the world is a stage.

Even the sun plays its part in the background, appearing low in the sky (a morning sun) at the beginning, but nearly to its zenith at the film’s climax, which happens around 3:00 minutes in. It flashes obligingly over the narrator’s shoulder when he yearns for “just another moment.”

This video is packed full of triangular images, which form its main visual motif (theme). The setting includes mountains, the angles of the branches attached to the tree, and the framing of the players as seen through the piano. The triangle motif (along with the fact that one of the characters climbs the tree) make it clear that this is a song about progression and ascension.

The depiction of the middle-age crisis is sublime.  As the narrator realizes he is no longer young, the character representing his younger self falls out of the tree with a silent crash, and the camera slowly trails over storm-broken branches littering the ground. According to the lyrics, wisdom and “moving on” follow soon after.

I find this video’s’s message particularly touching.  We are not really separate, but share a collective human consciousness and life story.  We inhabit this worldly stage together.  And when we recall the highlights of our life or have a near-death experience, all of our lifetime is contracted to fit  within a few moments.  The time and space separating us is an illusion.

The earth-toned setting, progressive lighting, brief plot, dialog (song lyrics), images of climbing, and citizen-of-the world characters come together beautifully to deliver a universal message.  Although our lifespans today are the longest humans have ever known, it still seems we have too little time to live and too much to experience and learn.  

Footnote: Sometimes comparison is the best way to see the quality of a film. The story here is rendered largely in symbolic terms, giving it a universal message. Another professional video of this song has been produced, but the interpretation is literal rather than symbolic. You can see it here.  Notice how a literal interpretation narrows the video to a particular place, time, and culture.


Copyright 2013 by Ann Marcaida

100 Years lyrics:

I‘m 15 for a moment
Caught in between 10 and 20
And I’m just dreaming
Counting the ways to where you are

I’m 22 for a moment
And she feels better than ever
And we’re on fire
Making our way back from Mars

15 there’s still time for you
Time to buy and time to lose
15, there’s never a wish better than this
When you only got a hundred years to live

I’m 33 for a moment
Still the man, but you see I’m a “they”
A kid on the way, babe.
A family on my mind

I’m 45 for a moment
The sea is high
And I’m heading into a crisis
Chasing the years of my life

15 there’s still time for you
Time to buy and time to lose yourself
Within a morning star

15 I’m all right with you
15, there’s never a wish better than this
When you only got a hundred years to live

Half time goes by
Suddenly you’re wise
Another blink of an eye
67 is gone
The sun is getting high
We’re moving on…

I’m 99 for a moment
And time for just another moment
And I’m just dreaming
Counting the ways to where you are

15 there’s still time for you
22 I feel her too
33 you’re on your way
Every day’s a new day…

15 there’s still time for you
Time to buy and time to choose
Hey 15, there’s never a wish better than this
When you only got a hundred years to live   (100 Years written and performed by Five for Fighting).

1 0 1

Damn Vietnam

Damn Vietnam

you have been home
some forty years
your rifle
under your pillow
each night
while you fire away in your sleep
I wonder why
for the war is over

Damn Vietnam

but it
is not over
it is 1966
all over again
the NVA
has just crossed the
you are in the middle
of the biggest battle yet
five thousand
you head north
Operation Hastings
Dong Ha
you have
arrived in hell
and air power drive
them back
finally, after so many

Damn Vietnam

you say nothing
until the whiskey
burns your throat
and the rage begins
its long climb up
as you attempt to
vomit out your hell
your war still there
on the surface
anger roiling
through your blood
you should be asleep old man
but your wounds are

Damn Vietnam

last night looking up
into the trees
clouds sailing
across the moon
crows speaking
I listened
while they spoke
of knowledge
of wisdom
of healing that would come
to my brothers
who were there

Damn Vietnam

3 0 3

Three Guys Masturbate: A Jungian Primer (Humor-- I Dare You to Review This!)

I swore that my next article would have nothing to do with sex. Really. I'd been working on a set of essays about the relationship between Jungian personality and religion.  They were difficult and took months to complete.  (You can find them here if you are interested-- or not.).

But in the meantime, I was in a predicament-- all Junged up and nowhere to go.

Then it dawned on me that two of my proofreaders had written articles about masturbation. (Something they will shortly regret). So had my friend David L.

Clearly, these guys didn't pay attention when their mothers told them not to masturbate in public. By the time I'd read all three fantasies, I was so overdosed on Jung and voyeuristic pleasure that I became quite disoriented.  Mixing Jung and sex can be dangerous.

Here, for your voyeuristic pleasure, are quotes from three artful masturbation descriptions by my male friends. Here also is my badly misplaced Jungian analysis of their personality types, based solely on their auto-erotic adventures.  

So you see, this article isn't my fault at all. They drove me to it. Lay off it, guys, will ya?


Carl Jung on Personality:

We humans have been classifying ourselves forever.  Plato classified four inborn (genetic) personality types, as did the Roman physician Galen and later, psychologist Carl Jung.

Today's psychologists have this temperament thing down to a fine art. You can take a test (known as the Myers-Briggs or Jung test) online and, in less than 30 minutes, be told all sorts of facts about yourself.

For Instance:

1. Are you an Extrovert (E) or an Introvert (I)? Do you love being with people, and get recharged in their presence (E)? Or do parties exhaust you?  Would you rather curl up in a corner with a book (I)?

2. Next, are you a Sensor (S) or an INtuitor (N)?  Are you practical and grounded in the details of the physical world (S)?  Or are you a dreamer, sometimes impractical, but always looking for the "big picture" behind things (N)?

Let's examine our three subjects and see what their masturbation fantasies tell us about their personalities.

The Subjects:

Rushmore Judd: A World Party

Gather.com's premier erotica writer wants ALL of the women he's had sex with, or, better yet, all of the women in the world, to watch him masturbate.  When it comes to extroversion, Rushmore is the hands-down winner.  To say that he's energized by the presence of others is an understatement. Although he writes erotica, Rushmore is not the type of guy to curl up in the corner with a book:

"Can I show it to the world?  Can we get all the women in my life together and let them watch?  All the women who I have lusted after?  Let each one come and give me a kiss while I masturbate for them.  In a public place."

OK, so Rushmore is a flaming extrovert.  But is he a Sensor or an Intuitor?

Sensors like things to be "practical" and "realistic."  Intuitors are interested in things that are "dream-like" and part of  "the big picture." Need I say more?  Rushmore is an Intuitor.  (If you think the picture can't get bigger than "all of the women in the world," just wait until you get to John Reed's fantasy.)

Rushmore Judd's personality type: EN (Extroverted INtuitor). Famous people with personalities like this*:  Barack Obama, Whoopi Goldberg, Elizabeth Dole,  Franklin Roosevelt, Mark Twain, Abraham Lincoln.


David L.: Lost in His Senses 

David L. (aka Kowboy) is eminently sensible about masturbation. Kowboy doesn't think that sex is a spectator sport.  He doesn't wish for an admiring crowd.  He simply misses his lover and wishes she were present. Forever a practical guy, Kowboy refers to himself and his lover in the same line:

"Where are you? Dripping, Dripping, Dripping..."

Kowboy is a mild extrovert. He's a long way from being Rushmore, but at least he wants another person present when he plays.

In contrast to Rushmore, though, Kowboy's fantasy makes no mention of the outside world or any "big picture". He's completely caught up in his own sensations and memories.  David L. is a Sensor:

"When scent of you comes/Calling mind's erection/Nostrils flare, muscles tighten"

David L.'s personality type: ES (Extroverted Sensor). Famous people with this personalities like this*: Hillary Clinton, John McCain, Bill Clinton, Sam Walton, Ernest Hemmingway, Mae West, Lucille Ball, Harry Truman


John Reed: His Own Big Bang

At first glance, John Reed's fantasy has nothing to do with masturbation. It's homage to French writer Mallarme's poem Afternoon of a Faun (which inspired Claude Debussy to write classical music of the same name).

John is on another plane altogether, and it's not quite an earthly one. Extroversion isn't an issue here, as John has bypassed people altogether.  There are no humans in this fantasy, and John Reed himself appears as a faun (horned, with cloven hooves). This poem's disinterest in people reveals its author's introversion.

And what is the object of John's fantasy? As far as I can tell, he wants to make love to the universe and merge with all of creation:

"electric storms of lust

blows him

all the way to heaven...

exposed as sun's caress

body pressed in hot sand

bathed by surging tide"

The lusty faun is "really, hopelessly, hopefully, addicted in love with one and all".

Masturbation is John's personal version of the Big Bang.  Faun's ejaculation celebrates, merges with, and even re-creates the universe. The picture can't get any bigger than that. John Reed is a strong Intuitor.

John Reed's personality type: IN (Introverted INtuitor). Famous people with this personalities like this*: Martin Luther King,  Albert Einstein, Helen Keller, Jane Austin, William Shakespeare, Goethe, Chaucer, Socrates

In case you're wondering, I didn't make up this psychology. If you're curious about your own personality type, use one of the links below to figure out your Myers-Briggs (Jungian) personality profile. Your answer will contain four letters (this article has dealt with only the first half of the profile). There will be no mention of your masturbation habits--  I promise.

http://www.humanmetrics.com/ (Take "Jung Typology Test")
http://www.similarminds.com/ (Click on "16-Type Jung Personality Tests", then take "Jung Tests IESNFTJP".)
http://www.personalitypathways.com/ (Abbreviated version)


*A full personality match would require all four letters of the Myers-Briggs profile.

Special thanks to my subjects, who have been tolerant of my depraved whims and gentlemanly beyond the call of duty.

Personality types of the presidential candidates courtesy of http://www.npr.org/.  Personality types of other famous people courtesy of Joe Butt and Marina Margaret Hess, http://www.typelogic.com/. Photos from Google Images.

8 0 8

Ghost of Earth Future (Revision With Thanks to Umar and Chris Brockman)

As the water table rises you seep upward

a chilly ghost levitating

fluid limbs spread as the sun heats your body

water pools in finger lakes.

Water-striders wander the four directions of your surface

etching ripples in their wake

grass-kelp undulates as diving beetles

plumb the hollows of your headwaters.


As lotus roots take hold and deepen  

you rise slowly on north-facing feet

white petals burst through your visage

and a broad smile cracks your mud-encrusted face.


Ghost of earth future, risen.

1 0 1

The Poetry of War - Writing It

Why and how can a woman who has never endured combat and never been in military service to her country possibly write poetry about war, and be impassioned with doing so? Another question may be how can she do this with any authenticity? And here in lies the need to describe an experience that I in 2005. The experience has transformed my life. It was an experience filled with extraordinary joy and extreme pain. It definitely looked as though I was having a mental breakdown and it took unimaginable strength to hang on to my sanity. But I did so with a strategy. I will share the results of this experience before I attempt to share the experience. Following are many of the results.


1) I acquired a knowledge that: "we are all one" while in China the spring after my experience. As a result I spontaneously addressed a Chinese workers protest on a Saturday night by running up to the participating seated workers. They looked hopeless. This group was protesting the torturous and bloody treatment endured by a number of employees. I went from one end of this group of about two hundred to the other end. As I did so I clapped my hands loudly while yelling "yes, yes." Now this was a crazy thing to do in China - but it was NOT something I thought about. They, the workers, in turn got up and started clapping. Smiles came upon their faces and we each knew that indeed "we were as one."


2) I learned to fly a 1947 Luscombe 8 tail-dragger at 60 years of age.


3) 5 different Vietnam Veterans who had seen combat chose to share their burden of war with me anonymously. Please understand veterans of war do not speak of their experiences to anyone but another veteran if at all. These veterans just came to me like a magnet.


4) I acquired a deep and abiding love for veterans of war. Whereas in the past I had thought of the veteran 3 time s a year.


5) I volunteered for 2 years at the VA.


6) I express my appreciation to veterans when I see them.


7) I made a spontaneous decision to give up my fear of heights and did so as I stood with my feet on the edge of a 2600 ft drop (no fence or railing) at Machu Picchu in 2007.


8) I came to a deep understanding of the love my father had for me (which had seemed to disappear when I was only 6-8 years old). After this experience I was bathed in his love and came to understand that it seemed to disappear as a result of WWII Combat PTSD. He was dead when I had this experience.


9) I discovered my mother's WWII scrapbooks from the time that she had lived in London as an American employee of the OWI during the bombings. Yes, her personality too was shaped by war and very likely by Combat PTSD. I say combat because to endure bombing and have no ability to retaliate - well that is the worst kind of combat to endure isn't it? My mother was not nice to her children. And that is a kind manner in which to explain her mothering.

Because the spiritual experience that I had was so complicated I shall simply relate the bare bones of it. As is my way I put out there; "OK what next? What do you wish me to do?" I soon found myself looking for my father's WWII history in a number of places on line, especially in a WWII forum. I met a Vietnam Veteran there, a B-52 pilot. He too was looking for his father's WWII history. He assisted me in my search. Then I wanted to know about his own war experiences. I was persistent. He was hesitant. I persisted and he in a halting manner shared some of his experience. This sent me into a tailspin of contemplation quite literally. I was unable to eat (trust me I never stop eating) and the need to walk, walk, walk (I don't exercise) took up most of my time. I lost a good bit of weight. I set myself up with an energy worker to keep me grounded and a personal trainer to help me do the same. At the end of this I went to someone who "sees." She was only slightly helpful. This is key, I experienced this Vietnam Veterans "pain" associated with his war. That was the hell of this experience. I went on to do what I always do which is decipher things for my self. Now this happened in 2005 and the last thing that I learned from this experience, I learned in 2011. I went on to study war. After the experience itself was over, I came to understand that this was a shamanic initiation. I have studied and practiced shamanic healing experiences for many years. Please understand this is not a religion. I know much more than the average person about shamanism. Throughout my spiritual path beginning at 15, I have like many, asked for a "teacher." The answer has always been "no." I have always had to do everything in life on my own. That statement sounds like "poor me." It is quite the opposite and is evidence of significant personal strength. Throughout the experience I practiced certain shamanic rituals to help me deal me with the emotional pain and confusion that I was experiencing at the time. I came to understand (feel) that war is the most addicting of all addictions. I also fully understand why it is so. I have a Christian background intermingled with indigenous spirituality, a smathering of Hindu, Unitarianism, Jewish Theology, Buddhism and what ever other languages God created and gave to the world's different cultures so that they could each grow spiritually and communicate with the creator.


I have written this as an explanation or prelude to my writing a collection of "War Poetry." I am going to attempt at some point create a separate page here upon my blog for those poems. I wish to have them published. Today I have been newly inspired or mused by "The Headlines of War." Now I realize that I need to widen that inspiration to simply "The Headlines." Thank you for taking the time to read my words. I have a great appreciation for your time. Below is the first poem of war that I wrote after my experience. There is shall we say "language" in the poem that might off.



I remember them.
Large black fins
in 67 & 8.
We’d drive to Kadena, 
park the truck
watch them circle
like sharks
behind the security fence.
All we saw were black
shark fins … taxiing for take off,
B-52s lined up for Vietnam.
The NVA called them 
Whispering Death.
Three years…860,000 pounds
of carpet bombing.
Rolling Thunder
coming out of U-Tapao,
Anderson and Guam.
They came in threes … Arc Light!
Coming from the 9th, the
22nd, the 91st, 99th, the 306th, the 454th, and
the 461st, they flew at 50,000 ft,
subsonic speeds, refueled in mid air,
carried 70,000 pounds of mixed ordnance.
Known with affection as BUFFS
Big Ugly Fat Fuckers
Operation Linebacker.
Ten, twelve hours in the sky
peeing in a sleeve,
freezing or scorched while
flying towards hell.
Clear left, limbs seen hanging
clear right, friends literally falling from the sky.
Then, the Christmas Bombings, SAMs brought them down
U-Tapao lost two in mid-air
One in each cell…one on final…the entire crew lost.

6 0 6

To My Dinosaurs (Revised)


I buried them in a shallow grave

outside the sunroom where their cage hung

rain washed their bones into a deep earth cellar

Where I descend by night with my lone candle

to find them fixed in strata, yet not fixed

scaled claws striking Jurassic dragonflies


My shadow flickers and dissolves

as I sit at the sunroom desk

Tiny scaled claws strike my head

Pinioned dervishes scold:

My suit of black and white feathers

my smooth hands and my scientist's smirk

my two-finger typing and opposable thumbs

my missing wings and manifesting teeth

We dinosaurs live on, incantations of ancestral rebirth

templates used, discarded, and used again

as our sphere cycles on, now warming, now cooling

the uniforms change, the costumes evolve

but the sudden-death scrimmage is forever.



Thanks to Otello17 for his excellent feedback and suggestions!

Poem Copyright 2013 by Ann Marcaida

Image: Virgo Paraiso

7 0 7

Surrealism: Speaking the Language of Dreams (Essay)




Native Australians believe that the dream world (dreamtime) is "realer" than reality. They may be right.

In the real world, we are realistic.  We solve practical, everyday problems using our conscious, logical minds.  But when we dream, our unconscious minds take over.

In the dream world, we are surrealistic.  The linear flow of time breaks down, and images and relationships become illogical, often bizarre.  While our conscious minds deal with waking reality, our unconscious minds give vent to our more instinctive thoughts and feelings.

Good artists in all media know how to access their unconscious mind.  It's the wellspring of human creativity, and its language is universally understood.  This is why I agree with aboriginal Australians that dreamtime is at least as real as waking reality.




The language of the dream world is also the language of art and myth.  Although surreal art is as old as mankind, Surrealism as a cultural movement is much newer, dating back to the 1920's.

The founding Surrealist artists and writers, such as Salvador Dali and Andre Breton, regarded their work as a philosophical movement, establishing new standards for art and literature.  Surreal artists desire, above all, a free flow of material from their unconscious mind to their art.  The hallmark of their work is a jarring juxtaposition of ideas and/or images that resembles those in dreams and nightmares.

Surreal art in any form (literary or visual) usually includes one or more of the following (the most important characteristics are bolded):

1. A dream-like quality.

2. Bizarre or illogical juxtaposition of ideas or images in a thought-provoking way.

3. Non-linear flow of time.

4. Breakdown of logical thought.

5. Symbols or archetypes that speak to our conscious as well as our unconscious minds.

6. A dark and/or ironic sense of humor.




In surrealism, ideas often manifest as archetypes (universal symbols), making it possible for surreal art and literature to be understood by everyone.  Deep psychological truths and connections may be revealed in symbolic form.

Salvador Dali suggests this connection in what may be the best-known of all surreal paintings, The Persistence of Memory (above).  The clue to this jarring image lies in the title.  As suggested by his melted clocks, the past is gone forever, except in our memories.  

But when we sleep (as suggested by the sleeping walrus-like creature) our mind makes sense of our memories by ordering them and converting some into archetypal symbols.  A clinical study recently demonstrated that, while asleep, we replay our dreams many times, gradually reducing the emotional content and increasing the symbolic content. 




French writer Arthur Rimbaud (forefather to the Surrealist movement) takes a simple plot-- a boat-ride down a river-- and turns it into a lucid nightmare.

In his poem The Drunken Boat, crew members die at the onset, but this doesn't concern the narrator, who wants his boat to drift so he can explore uncharted waters.  Logic and linearity are discarded, a clue that we are entering surrealism.

As the narrator sinks deeper into his unconscious, his boat also sinks, and he is left floating on the sea in a death-trance:

And from that time on I bathed in the Poem
Of the Sea, star-infused and churned into milk,
Devouring the green azures... entranced in pallid flotsam.

Rimbaud's wildly creative language amazes me, even in translation. The poem of the sea? There's no way that these words originated in his conscious mind.  Notice how he uses only two words (which aren't normally used together)-- "pallid flotsam"-- to conjure up a floating, moonlit corpse.

If you'd like something more modern, try these lyrics by Australian poet/songwriter Steve Kilbey of The Church:

"They're going to send you away" she said
Psychic angels spread on the top of her head
And in the compartments of my dread
The rush hour crush travels home to bed

"You never seem to hear" she smiled
Statues tiptoe for a glimpse of the child
The lawns are always lush and wild
Spacious floors bejeweled and tiled

"How are you getting home" she laughed
Mermaids drowned but I clung to the raft
It's just the water in the bath
An interlude for the busy staff



Drowning is a theme here as well, but it's only part of the story.  This is an evocative picture of a psychiatric hospital visit, complete with a look inside the heads of both the visitor and the patient.  Kilbey's point of view is deliberately enigmatic-- the anxious visitor may see a deluded woman, while the patient seems to see the hospital as her palace and her bathtub as a sea inhabited by mermaids.




What about traumatic events (and their resulting dreams) that cannot be reduced to symbols and/or archetypes?  In my experience, these are particularly difficult to resolve. 

When society experiences important events that cannot be understood as existing archetypes, it's up to artists to create new ones. Above, David Bowers does just that in his portrayal of global warming as a femme fatale.  This artist suggests that global warming is a lethal event driven by our greed and lust.



Surrealism is a particularly relevant art form in times of turmoil and social upheaval. What is the current state of our governmental gridlock if not surreal?  I think Derek Nobbs (above; notice the background pattern) agrees with me, as he portrays one of the most frightening archetypes I can imagine-- a cruel and nihilistic ruler, in this case with his head emptied of all knowledge.


Photo credits: 1. Virgo Paraiso, A Taste of Paradise; 2. Untitled by Maura Holden, 3. The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali, 3. Untitled by David M. Bowers, 4 and 5: Artists Unknown 6. A Hole in the Head So All Knowledge May Pass by Derek Nobbs.

Artist web sites: Virgo Paraiso, Maura HoldenDavid BowersBeinart Surreal Art Collective 

Copyright 2013 by Ann Marcaida.

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I joined an online writing site five years ago with almost no knowledge of literature, and I made some inane comments on creative writing during my first year. 

However, with the coaching of online writers, my skills have slowly improved.  I’m writing this article to share what I have learned with anyone interested in commenting on literature.  It seems to me that creative writers deserve more that just a few (or a few hundred) presses of the “like” button.  We need to give then real feedback as to what their words make us think and feel.


According to Wikipedia, An essay is often written from an author’s personal point of view.  Essays can consist of a number of elements, including… political manifestos, learned arguments, observations of daily life, recollections, and reflections of the author.”

The key here is that the author is talking about real events and offering his or her opinions and reflections. When I think about essays, I think about the work of Mike Firesmith,* John Philipp, and Greg Schiller, among others. (I also consider myself an essay writer).

Essays are easy to comment on.  Because the author has expressed his or her opinion on one or more topics, you can agree or disagree with their opinions and give your reasons for doing so.

Or, if you prefer, you can simply state that the author has argued their thesis well, and tell them why you find their statements convincing.  For instance, although Mike Firesmith and I disagree on many issues, his essays are so compelling that I often find myself nearly persuaded to his point of view as I read.  This is the sign of a good essay-writer.

In addition, humor is often a large part of essays, so picking up on a strand of humor and continuing the joking (check out John Philipp’s or Greg Schiller’s comment threads) is a great way to give feedback.




Fictional prose (short stories, novel chapters, or writing exercises) can be complex, made of elements such as plot, character development, settings, theme, and underlying message. This makes commenting difficult, so I find it best to remark on what strikes me most about the writing. For instance:

a. Does the piece have a strong sense of mood? How is this created? By a detailed description of the setting or the internal state of the characters?  Any author that sets a strong opening mood is off to a good start, and this is worth commenting on.  One online author who does this very well is A. F. Stewart.

b. Is the plot brisk and easy to follow, even in the case of an installment piece?  Instead of spending a lot of time describing characters and settings, many authors rely on a compelling plot to keep their readers’ interest.  If the plot drew you in and was, above all, unpredictable, this is a good thing to comment on.  One of my favorite online plot writers is Magi, who is able to maintain a brisk and entertaining plot in long stories that include many installments and complex characters.

c. How real are the characters?  Some authors focus mainly on the people. For them, the creation of “real” characters and depiction of their inner growth is paramount. This is accomplished by describing their mental states and/or actions in detail.

When I of someone who creates excellent characters, the writing of Sandy Knauer comes to mind. Any character Sandy writes is likely to be so realistic that they jump off the page.




Poetry is probably the hardest form of literature to comment on, but I find it to be the most fun.  And there’s a secret to commenting on poetry: You need not understand the entire poem and all its nuances in order to write a good comment. (More on this in a minute).

Some accomplished poets write very straightforward, easy-to-understand poetry (John Beck and Stephen Berwaldt, for instance), while others pack their work with metaphor and point-of-view changes, making a puzzle to be deciphered (See the work of Atticus or Smaragdus) .

If the poet is writing about their personal life, with themself as the narrator, they are writing confessional poetry. However, you should never assume that poetry is confessional unless the author explicitly says so. Poets write in many different voices, and it is customary to refer simply to the “narrator” of a poem without assuming this to be identical to the author.

So— what’s the best way to comment on a challenging poem? Below are some options I find helpful:

1. Copy and paste your favorite lines into the comment box (be sure to put them in quotes or italics), and explain why you like them.

For instance, do you like with the message they present?  Did the mood strike you in a certain way?  Do you admire the wording, or did you learn a new word?

2. Many poets paint pictures with words. Comment on the “pictures.”

Any poet who works hard on the imagery in their poems will appreciate you describing in your own words the mental pictures they conjure up, or what they remind you of.  They have no other way of knowing the exact effects of their words on the minds of their readers.

3. Did the poem resonate with you in an emotional way?

Many (perhaps most) poets seek to tug the heartstrings of their readers, and will be interested in hearing your emotional reaction to their work.

For instance, did something in the poem trigger an emotional memory for you? If so, the poet will probably be interested in hearing about this (briefly). Or do you sense a predominate emotion to the poem? If so, you may be close to understanding the entire poem, so write about your reaction!

4. Comment on the Pace of the Poem

There’s no need to understand rhyme and meter to discern when a poem slows down or speeds up.  Reading it aloud should prove sufficient. Does the pacing of the poem fit with its content, its highs and lows? If so, comment on this.

As an example, consider Craig Lawson’s gorgeous poem Skiing Alone.  If you read it aloud, you’ll hear that Craig has written in forced pauses at a few spots in an otherwise smoothly-flowing poem.  (For instance, the beginnings of lines 6 and 11, if I am reading correctly).  These may represent changes in the direction of the skier’s path.

5. If you read the poet’s work on a regular basis, compare it to their other work.

Poets appreciate it if you remember their work. For instance, if you are reading one of your favorite of their works, say so, and explain why.  If it reminds you of another of their poems, point out the similarities, or compare and contrast the two.

For more information on the elements of poetry, click here.




Most literature includes symbolism, that is, word(s) which have a meaning beyond what they literally represent. It is not necessary to fully understand the symbolism to comment on a piece of literature.

However, the study of symbolism is fascinating, and the symbols in literature are more universal than you might think.  If you are interested in literary symbolism, I have included some references below.

Scribd list of literary symbols

Wiki answers list of literary symbols

Ask Jeeves reference on symbols in literature



Try To Make Your Comments Unique

If you are going to comment, you should make your comments unique. The problem with standardized comments (such as “nice” or “I love this”) is not that the author doesn’t appreciate the fact that you have commented.  The problem lies in the fact that they can’t tell whether you have read their work.  And ask any serious author on the site— they are here to be heard!

What have I omitted?


* (Note that the authors I mention are members of the online site Gather.com and/or Inkstained)


Copyright 2013 by Ann Marcaida

Image credits:  1. Erato, Muse of Poetry, by Sir Edward John Poynter 2. professorbaker@wordsmith.com 3. passonapoem.com 4. shutterstock.com 5. Poetry Reading by Charles Bukowski