Before the Law

January 28, 2007 at 4:32 pm (Surrealist Anthology)


Yes, I humor the old doorkeeper. He thinks he is guarding the light, but the light is everywhere – he can’t do anything about that… But I humor him by making requests, asking for advice, and entreating him as if he were an important person. For without me, he has no occupation, he must close the door. I know that. But then what will he do? At his age? So I humor him.

When he falls asleep, which is often, then I enter. Once I got as far the as the third court. There is a magnificent library there which rises seven stories into the air and disappears into a stained glass vault that is a heaven unto itself. Along the sides of the vast circular library are ten great marble archways rising high and wide each lined with books.

As I sat staring at this, one of the King’s own family came up and gave me a small text. As she handed it to me she said, “If you read every book here, you would not find what you can find in this one text.”

I took this text with me and came back. It was everything she said it was. It was any book and all books, every book written and every book that would be written, and every book that could not be written. It was all that and more. 

I will become rich and famous once these wonders and marvels are revealed I thought. But of course that didn’t happen. I was silenced.  Sure I could write whatever I wanted but my gift came with a curse – prophesy all you want – no one will listen or comprehend. It was like writing on water. 

It took me a long time to realize that, but now that I do there’s not much reason to stay around.  It’s getting late in the day and I have an appointment in paradise. You’ll have to keep the doorkeeper amused in my absence.  Get him intoxicated then you can slip past. Then once you’re out– well,  it’s another world out there. 

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White Hotel

January 23, 2007 at 10:30 am (Surrealist Anthology)

Erich Cohn 


When I checked in late one autumn evening, I didn’t know I was the first guest the Hotel had seen in over forty years. The blond receptionist did not show any surprise as I stumbled, still a bit dazed, into the ornate baroque lobby.

 “Beautiful,” I said staring all around me.

“Yes. My name is Michelle. Welcome to the White Hotel.”  

“Can I have a room with a view of the ocean,” I asked

“All of our rooms have a view of the ocean,” she said smiling. “Do you need help with your luggage.”

“No thank you. I didn’t bring any.” 

She smiled, “Of course. Here is your key. Room Nine is at the top of the stairs on the right. If you need anything just call.”

I entered the room and collapsed on the large antique white bed near the windows. I fell asleep listening to the sounds of the waves against the shore, and the cry of an owl.

Rooms?  What rooms?
There are no rooms at this Hotel
Why did she say that?
You can’t remember can you?

It is not so bad being dead, she said. To think of a place is to be there. To desire an object is to have it instantly appear. Everything appears as you would like. The black rivers at your feet speak like ancient oracles. You will learn to love the corners of mirrors.

The ravens on the telephone line
The coyote that stared from the ravine
The wind blowing in circles
The smell of freshly turned soil

You can do a lot she said, but no one ever does. There is no one to impress. No one who needs anything from you. No one to give to. No one who wonders what you did or didn’t do. When people come here, they mostly just sleep.

You are mistaken 
I came only to see the ocean
I want to feel the water against my skin
After a few days I’ll go back

 I’ll only be staying a few days I told Michelle as I walked out to the water. She laughed,

“If you leave, take me with you.”

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City of the Black Spider

January 19, 2007 at 4:58 pm (Surrealist Anthology)

 Erich Cohn

You wake up in an empty apartment in an unknown city, wearing a black suit

with nothing in the pockets. It is late afternoon. A weak sun falls across the dusty floors and disappears in a dark corner. You look out the window at an old movie house across the street. The bells of a distant church toll over the faint sounds of traffic. Tough looking men are standing at the street corner smoking cigarettes, letting you know they’re waiting.

 You take the back door and walk out into the night. At a seedy café, an old woman hands you a card. You turn it over in the dim street lamp: 87 Strasshofner. When you ring the doorbell some time later a disheveled man in an out-of-date suit opens the door and says sharply, “What do you want?”

“Nothing,” you answer. He opens the door, looks you over and lets you in. The front room is like a doctor’s waiting room only shabbier. The magazines on the end tables are dated 1939, which is two years from now. The room is empty except for the two of you. “I will let them know you have arrived,” he says and leaves.

You sit on a gray sofa that looks like a bad piece of taxidermy and wait. After twenty minutes you grow impatient and open the door across from the one you entered. There is a long hallway with rooms on either side. Each room has a number. There are 12 in all. You walk to the end of the hall and stop. There are no sounds from any of the rooms. A bare light bulb hangs in the hall. After a few minutes you notice a blue fog curling under the door of room number seven. You open the door and slowly walk in.

Two women in cocktail dresses are at a table drinking and talking. To the left is a small bar with a single bartender. You sit down at an empty table and a man brings you a tall glass filled with a dark liquid. You sip it slowly. After some time the women get up. One goes to the back of the room and the other comes to your table.

 “I can help you,” she says.

 “Can you?” you reply.

 You go through another room of tables and out into an alley. A black roadster is waiting with a single driver in a trench coat. You get into the back seat and the car speeds off. You drive for hours. You sit very close to each other but say nothing. Through the window you can see the city flying past, then trees. The car slows down and comes to a stop in front of a large villa. As you and the young woman get out, the car drives off and disappears down the black road. You walk toward the house where a doorman escorts you to a ballroom. Several dozen people in evening clothes are gathered. A distinguished older man walks over and greets you.

 “You have found him.”.

 “Yes, he was where you said he would be father,” she replies.

 “I am sorry to have brought you here under such circumstances,” he says, “But you know why such precautions are necessary.”

 You smile. You don’t know why at all.

 “For now enjoy yourself. My daughter will see to your needs.”

 He hands you a drink and she takes your arm and escorts you to where couples are dancing.

 “Do I know your father,” you ask.

 “Probably not as he appears,” she answers.

 As you dance you look out the bay windows and see that a full moon has risen. The woman whose name you still do not know nestles her head against your shoulder. “Don’t do that,” you say, but it is too late.

 The warm notes of the saxophone expand like waves of sunlight and you lose all sense of place. You feel her lips against yours. Then the room is quiet. The city disappears and you are alone.  In a different room, in a different dream you open your hands and a small black spider runs out and disappears between a crack in the floor. You walk over and pick up a letter someone has slid under the door.

 “I’ll call you,”it says. It is unsigned and undated. You walk over and drop it on the desk next to dozens just like it.

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Blue Photographs

January 17, 2007 at 11:13 am (Surrealist Anthology)

Erich Cohn

There are blue photographs in a book you can only purchase at night from an old man who stands outside the closed doors of a battered, white monastery. You take the book home and show it to your wife who is unimpressed.

“It is very strange and full of death,” she says.

You start to explain to her what the pictures mean but lose her in the crowd of people who have slowly been filtering into your living room holding cocktail glasses and laughing to each other. You recognize your high school girlfriend who is sitting quietly by herself in a corner. She is beautiful. You walk over to talk to her and show her the book you have found. She wants you to take her to the monastery where you bought it. You would like to but don’t remember how you got there.

Then you find yourselves in the basement and start walking through a passageway that leads into a bare shrine room. It is very damp and musty like a crypt. You look at your girlfriend and want to tell her how much you love her but she is frozen pointing to an entryway across from you where a headless monk is standing quietly in front of deep maroon curtains.

“We can go back now,” you tell her.

She nods and you are back in the living room where the party continues. A thin Chinese man is tugging at your sleeve wanting to talk to you, but the party is too noisy to hear what he’s saying. Your girlfriend has left and your wife is gone too. A tanned young woman is starring at you from across the room. You walk toward her and slide your hands under her shirt and over her breasts. She jumps back because your fingers are as cold as ice.

“I’ve been downstairs,” you say by way of explanation.

She doesn’t seem to understand. You start to unbutton her skirt but she stops you. “There are too many people here,” she says. You look for somewhere to go and realize that it has gotten light outside and the images in the room are blurring. “I don’t want to leave now,” you tell her. She laughs, “You can’t do anything about that.” It’s true. The light pouring in from all sides is unstoppable.

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Magnetic Circles

January 14, 2007 at 5:23 pm (Surrealist Anthology)

 Erich Cohn


Everywhere there was the rushing sound of temple monkeys darting in and out of blue waterfalls. That was just before the stone walls collapsed, leaving young women defenseless in fields of thick bamboo. The postman was not due before 3 o’clock yet the streetcars were already circling past on their way to the circus. Rope ladders hung down from the attic windows where airline attendants were reading Japanese romances. Thin girls in tie-dyed t-shirts skated down the cobblestone streets handing out cards with holograms of the Buddha. They waved at the postman who has stopped to eat the tender blue artichokes growing in the stream beneath the sunken antique bridge.

She was still quite aloof even though office workers in burgundy suits had spent days trying to climb the translucent walls of glass. Debussy was walking the streets searching for carnival tickets ignoring the words of Indian teachers who rested calmly beneath the gray and blue traffic signs. Now that Jerusalem has once again fallen under the horizon, the flocks of dispersed songbirds will need new gardens. We can no longer depend on the prayers of dolphins to lead us to invisible cities, nor can the white girls chanting vodoun spells be counted on to pause for tea and biscuits when the public television station comes on. Still, if we only knew the size of Japanese pebbles necessary to create ponds for white chrysanthemums, we could send out for new windowpanes and shutters. Politicians are sending invitations to the funeral of the Sun. I am desperately in love, but can never find postage stamps when I need them.

The policemen are asleep now, but the children are careful not to untie their shoes. Dusk sweeps the city like a solemn river, and the rooftops resign themselves to an incomplete astrology. Boats depart for small towns upriver on the Amazon. I stay at the hotel desk registering guests ignoring what appears to be a hurricane coming in from the shore. Mexican soldiers play cards in the bar under the ceiling fan, while blue herons rest quietly in the thick green leaves of the mangrove trees. She steps out of the shower playing the flute. I notice all the windows are open and the monsoon rains are cleaning out the dusty corners of the empty Victorian ballrooms. I am writing postcards constantly, but there are still no stamps.

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Sunday Afternoon

January 12, 2007 at 6:56 pm (Surrealist Anthology)

 Erich Cohn


At the beginning there are trains, trains with boxcars of federal eagles, a barn on a hill with open doors, talk oaks bending into air, black crows that become girls in red dresses who step past you as you stumble up the stairs. You turn on the radio but the words run away. Mercury hovers above the traffic. Samurai bedecked with pearls glide past. You glance past the bank urns to see all points of the horizon converge at an immense dead tree. It follows you in a rusted, faceless car until you lose it in the dust. You arrive home to find everyone missing and begin to fast.

As the full moon rises surrounded by haze and conversations about prophecy and sinks into a dark oak, you begin to make lists of symbols, connecting the dots, until a blue heron flies past and snowflakes fall to the ground. A tunnel emerges. You walk slowly through the trees down to a silent pond where black bats dance in the dusk.

You attempt a clear explication, but so much sleep has fallen, so many years of sleep have fallen. In all this time books have become lines, lines words, and words just fragments of ghosts. On abandoned dirt roads, you build perfect houses. Afternoon becomes evening, shadows deepen, displaced spheres succumb to the weight of circles. The door opens. The first numbers are called.

White dove, silver moon, fever of desire. Trains rumble through the window, setting the clouds on fire. She makes an oblique reply, expressing regrets in quarter notes and long-stemmed scripts. We look across the room at the broken window and mentally try to put the pieces together.  Everything passes into profound quintessence, which is taken as a foretaste of the afterlife.

The servant speaks softly, “The window. May I close it now?”


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Just the Way You Left It

January 11, 2007 at 1:08 pm (Surrealist Anthology)

I thank everyone for the kind comments I have received on my recent ‘Winter’ series and my account of the ‘Lost Poets’. Recently while browsing my library, I came across this collection of seven short pieces by Erich Cohn that were published in the Surrealist journal Sturmvasser in Vienna in 1937. I have tentatively translated them into English and although more time would allow for a more polished presentation, in light of certain considerations, I decided to bring them to print quickly.
–Von Josti


Airplanes descend from the snow mountains of the South. I am walking along the beach looking for a path. There is a loud crash in the distance and the sound of chanting as if remote African tribes were camped just over the next dune. Once I reach the top I see the strewn pieces of glass and metal mixed with pages from unwritten books. There is a white schoolhouse with a young woman inside giving lessons to my grandparents. I would like to bring them the books from the airplane but the pages are all blowing in the wind now, blowing over the cliffs into the lake. Behind me blue ghosts flutter as I walk along the edge between the sand and the water, wind blowing in my face. If I could just reach the schoolhouse which hovers quietly in the distance, fading in and out amid sudden flurries of cold white snow, I would tell her: It’s all there–just the way you left it.

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