Henri Michaux's distance and nearness

à propos Henri Michaux : « A distance », Mercure de France, 1998

by Jean-Michel MAULPOIX

Translated from the original French by Catherine Wieder


Recently unpublished papers found once again, texts in Journals or brochures, but never recaptured by the author in his major published journals, here are gathered together about 60 poems by Michaux, which had remained unknown unto this day or at least difficult to be found. Twelve years after the author's death, a year before the publication of the first volume of a most awaited one for the Pleiade Collection, that work closes its editing trajectory and yet no other remains more open, mobile and calling out in poetry today.

Micheline Phankim and Anne-Elisabeth Halpern edited these poems following the presumed chronological order of their composition. A trajectory delineates itself which leads from the 20's to the 80's, sweeping the totality of his work. The most regular reader thus finds once more significant periods or edges marked by a thematics or by specific forms : verbal invention (« An encounter in the forest », « Speaking population language »), trial and exorcism of war (« In Memoriam »), the pain of a broken arm (« Doors overlooking on the fire »), writing in sketches (« A Universe of drawings »), imaginary creatures (Tchimbou, Oulouba, Aribar, Mulal, Téké …), and so on. Nothing in here, like in other miscellanies seems approximative, uncertain or unaccomplished as a few « dusty bottoms of drawers » might seem to be. All these poems are vigorously determined by the very same constant concern to some close to « the problem of being ». They fall in with successive thrusts of writing come from the « space of the inside ». Yet it is also some kind of a working site since Michaux's work, forever and at every single moment, was digging, excavating and erasing ceaselessly the lines of both language and face : « rasping in the Muse/rasping in the heart of angels », « whining over gatherings », « verrucas on doctrines », «punches on anonymous voices » … That book, having reached us from beyond the grave, as if it were a posthumous anthology, more or less chancy, is not the work of the author but rather his work's work whose echoes propagate, whose paths are being followed and erased, thus reopening manuscripts. That a few pages here and there should be missing or remain of some kind of unsure reading, with corrections, variations, sometimes blanks (at least the editors do warn us thus), here is what doesn't create a flaw but, on the contrary, the opportunity to reach much closer the very task of writing and its multiplication of passages all over the place. « In the distance » shows the feverish quest, questioning, searching for the right term, jibbing and protesting endlessly all along Henri Michaux's work. Through its bent and own logic, it is indeed liable to become an anthology, not a collection of chosen texts, but, rather, a multifariousness of approaches. The author of « The space of the inside » insists that « literary genres are enemies who never miss the mark if you missed them on your first blow ». The only thing that matters is to preserve through writing the interlocution of the contradictory and the uncertain, and reach, whenever possible, some kind of balance. The poetics of distance inflicted or cultivated in aggressive fictions or glossolalia of less recent texts, gradually turns itself into a poetics of restraint enabling both weightlessness and nearness in the later poems.


The itinerary thus delineated in this volume that looks as if it had been drawn from all the others &endash; at least from their working sites and borderlines &endash; thus moves forward through impulses, sequences and successive cristallizations. Michaux is there again found deeply concerned with his decisive plan of coming closer to the « problem of being » and variegating to the extreme his speeds, rhythms, forms and means. It is only a chancy editing project or due to necessity inherent to the logic of the « Work » if such a posthumous book, born of a gathering of pages written at very different times, however seems altogether to offer a heart. The poem entitled « In the distance », located right at its center and giving its title to the whole (one should here give a complimentary tribute to its editing team) is also its most painful point. Published for the first time in « Le Disque Vert » in 1953, five years after the tragical death of Michaux's wife, this poem is chronologically in the middle of the anthology. Without speculating too much on the biographical circumstances that may have inspired his writing, how can one eschew putting into perspective the posture of remoteness it delineates and the poetics of abuse enacted with the very task of mourning which was the author's lot ? Such a text seems to reverse pain into cruelty to try and exorcize it. Doesn't it precisely attempt at decisively putting in the distance the unbearable promiscuity of the pain of the bereavement inflicted and expressed in « Both of us, still » (a text not to be found in this volume), « Loitering from the world of passion to the world of horror », moving forward through a superimposition of anger to love, transforming affection into an economy of hate, he manipulates feeling, exasperates mourning, takes care and thus comes even closer to the very distance which the loss of the loved one has inflicted. A poem on distance or a poem at a distance, it could then serve as a counter-tomb. It may only be a hypothesis but if it is the case, it would be one of those which Michaux's work entails one to make whenever violence becomes too extreme, too systematic or too unfair but to lead to a counter-reading, hearing it backwards as the unhappy expression of a lost proximity. Even if it may appear as devoid of links with the 1948 loss, this text strengthens the power of exorcism specific to Michaux's poetic writing who makes such an effort in language to keep the environing powers of the hostile world in the distance.


Loitering in the distance, such is Michaux's behaviour. He is at grip with space, exploring the « far-away insides », always moving the landmarks and props, shuffling the orders, multiplying in writing both elipses a nd short-circuits, tensed between lyricism and irony, praising the hiatus, vacancy and inadaptation against the fossilizing style and the regimentation of both signs and knowledges. Nothing is worse to his eyes than conformity to a style : « a bad sign of unaltered distance ». Reading Michaux means thus « as if by surprise » from one figure to another and witness a vast array of events. It means becoming the viewer of a fantasmagoria into which everyone is invited to watch himself and recognize his own self.


Even to a reader who has been long familiar to his work, such a book brings quite a few huge surprises, such as that « Encounter in the forest » which is read as an erotic version of the « Big fight » : » First, he spies her through the branches / from far, he breathes her in, in Saligoron, in Nalais/ She, a dreamy fair creature a little vatte », or this long listed dirge entitled « Somewhere, someone » stating a vast array of identities and ordinary or unseemly actions as if to go round humanity in 160 lines on the mode of the whatever or whoever.


« Somewhere, someone is a dog and barks to the moon

Someone is born a Chinese and she's now 17

Someone is is fair and her sister is vivacious and truly petulant

Someone her father is a highlander

Someone … and then it fell upon his kidneys and now it's over, he says he'd rather die in the hospital

Someone he has big joists on his house

Someone, he wants some more cream but the other one, someone is being quibbled about by the existence of God (…) »


With Michaux, the subject is a crowd both countless and nondescript. He is never alone in his own skin. He produces bodies and antibodies. Nothing more plastic than identity nor more delete. « Erected on an absent column », the ego never stops going out then coming back into the self. Multiplying the tos and fros, it is however looking for a house, but it has to be a transparent one, built with only one joist and a few beams, which everything comes through, even the very mud of the path. Such an attempt to work out a space of personal backup open to all fluxes is declined all along the texts and, for example, comes to uncover in children's drawings the pattern for a liable setting up at the very heart of a desire of independence.


« Here an isolated dwelling, rigid with silence

symmetrical, orderly, intolerant

but therefrom surges some kind of light, a swift smoke that won't be caught. »


Trying to catch the aerial disentanglement of such a smoke one can't catch, freed from the nets and admonitions of the earth that would be the ultimate pattern of his writing, Michaux's poetry creates some unheard of by inventing new names, striking syllables as if they were drums, doubling the blows, fleeing in a flurry of feathers, waking itself fluid among fluids, the brain of a dreaming child, the hoop of child at play, a plain thread binding the void of being, a makeshift arm, an unclosed shape endlessly reshapened.

To the structure that traps it, it substitutes the axis of its own direction. to the absence of standposts, it replies with the rhythms. To lost identity it replies with a fever of faces. In such a way that distance being such an antidote to promiscuity when all is said becomes the paradoxical mode of proximity, the shape of some modesty, now oddly vehement but always understanding. Restraint, dismissal, vacuum, all the several forms of distance and absence condition the access to what quite a few may call some kind of presence, here called agreement. One of the unpublished poems inserted in this volume called « Murali » doesn't say anything else but this final approach to some kind of peace beyond cracks, to which Michaux's work ceaselessly tried to come close and which he allowed himself to reach by delving deep into the folds, coils and recesses of the « problem of being » :


« Instantaneous Sunday, almost

a holiday on the spot


deaf to cries

to standstills all over


no more interceptions

and a long lasting ceaseless circuit

substracted to tearings off


a wide communion

where ? how ? nonody cares

a prerequisite here we are

a prerequisite to a wider communion

to a communion it will be impossible to stop

to hold in one way or other, to lessen, to forget

enchanted restraint has become an echanted blooming

with no ceremony

no clapping

achievement of achievements

with agreement, total agreement

of the heart caught again, found again, collected

and all around collected too

a resurrection of the capital

a slab, an endless slab, sacred ( ?)

as if it were weightlessness

far from the barricades

of the frivolous

crossings, ceilings, floors

and ended, dispelled repulsions. »