Shapeshifter

by: Alice Paalen Rahon

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Shapeshifter by Alice Paalen Rahon, translated by Mary Ann Caws / ISBN 9781681375007 / 220-page paperback, bilingual English/French, from NYRB Poets

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Poetry by one of the most powerful female figures in twentieth-century surrealism, now collected in English for the very first time.

Alice Paalen Rahon was a shapeshifter, a surrealist poet turned painter who was born French and died a naturalized citizen of Mexico. Her first husband was the artist Wolfgang Paalen, among her lovers were Pablo Picasso and the poet Valentine Penrose, and over the years her circle of friends included Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Joan Miró, Paul Éluard, Man Ray, and Anaïs Nin. This bilingual edition of Rahon’s poems confirms the achievement of this little-known but visionary writer who defies categorization. Her spellbinding poems, inspired by prehistoric art, lost love, and travels around the globe, weave together dream, fantasy, and madness. For the first time in any language, this book gathers the three collections of poetry Rahon published in her lifetime, along with uncollected and unpublished poems and an album of portraits, manuscript pages, and artworks.

Alice Paalen Rahon (1904–1987) was born Alice Marie Yvonne Philippot in Chenecey-Buillon, France. Her father, a painter, taught her to draw; visits to her grandparents in Brittany introduced her to Celtic legends that had a lasting effect on her imagination. In 1934, she married the Austrian painter Wolfgang Paalen, who would be invited to join the surrealist group by André Breton. The couple’s circle of friends in Paris included Breton, Joan Miró, Paul Éluard, Roland and Valentine Penrose, and Pablo Picasso, with whom Alice had a passionate love affair. In 1936, she traveled to India with Valentine Penrose, another lover, and upon her return Breton arranged for the publication of her first collection of poetry, Même la terre (On Bare Earth), with a frontispiece by Yves Tanguy. Developing an interest in fashion, Alice Paalen worked as a hat designer for Elsa Schiaparelli and modeled for Man Ray, and in 1938 brought out a second book of poetry, Sablier couché (Reclining Hourglass), with art by Miró. Alarmed by the threat of war, the Paalens left Europe in 1939, and after visiting New York, British Columbia, and Alaska—where they were drawn by their interest in indigenous art—they settled in Mexico, where Alice devoted herself to painting, although a final book of poetry, Noir animal (Bone Black), appeared in 1941. After divorcing Paalen in 1946, she took her mother’s maiden name, became a Mexican citizen, and married the cinematographer Edward Fitzgerald. In 1959 Wolfgang Paalen committed suicide, and in 1960 Rahon and Fitzgerald divorced. Rahon continued to exhibit her work regularly both in Mexico and abroad until 1969, when, after breaking her hip in a fall, she stopped painting and became increasingly isolated. She died in a nursing home in Mexico City.