by Jerome Keeler
The writings of Henri Michaux (1899-1984) won the admiration of such figures as John Ashbery, Allen Ginsberg, Ezra Pound, Jorge Luis Borges, and Octavio Paz. It was no small admiration: Michaux’s contemporaries understood him to be a genius. Yet Michaux’s major works, despite the fact that they have been available in authoritative French editions for decades, have for the most part not been translated into English.
Darren Jackson’s translation of Life in the Folds, originally published as La vie dans les plis (Éditions Gallimard, 1949) marks a small step toward rectifying this situation. Indeed, it is fair to call it something of an event. Quite apart from the quality of the translations, which are in large measure more lively than earlier efforts, Mr. Jackson has simply made a wise choice in translating a work in its entirety, rather than offering another volume of the selected-and-edited options already available. And he has chosen a particular type of Michaux work that, rather incredibly, has never been translated into English. One can easily find volumes describing Michaux’s mescaline experiments, or either of his travel journals, or works combining non-fiction, drawings, and verse, but until now there has been no way to access his more strictly poetic books except in selected form. This is a significant absence, for it is in such writings that Michaux’s artistry is on its fullest display.
Michaux is certainly not alone in such a fate—it is shared by any number of major twentieth-century poets who did not write in English. If we cannot really complain of this, then, we can at least note the results. These consist, I think, principally in an overselling of a certain side of Michaux: his quirkiness. If you’ve encountered any previous translations from Life in the Folds, such as those available in Darkness Moves: An Henri Michaux Anthology, 1927-1984 (University of California Press, 1994) or Someone Wants to Steal My Name (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2003), you might imagine Michaux to be some sort of comedian. In fact, throughout much of his work, and particularly in Life in the Folds, Michaux is primarily occupied with suffering.
The collection opens with a section titled “Freedom of Action.” Most of the selections from Life in the Folds that have previously been translated elsewhere are drawn from this section, and it is not hard to see why. The most memorable piece is certainly the first, “The Sack Session,” which begins with the sort of setup characteristic of Michaux:
It began when I was a child. There was a big cumbersome adult.
How to get revenge on him? I put him in the sack. There, I could beat him at my leisure. He cried out but I didn’t listen. He wasn’t interesting.
I sensibly kept this childhood habit. I don’t trust the possibilities for intervention one learns as an adult, and besides, they don’t work very well.
You don’t offer a chair to someone in bed.
“Freedom of Action” continues to explore such imaginative acts of violence. In “The Sausage Cellar,” the speaker swipes an enemy marshal and other personages from the streets and grinds them into sausages. Elsewhere, to deal with the family, he makes a rapid-fire “slapping gun” out of his hand. Such scenarios display the primary mechanism of Michaux’s art: the displacement of concepts, or psychological states, to literal situations. The immediate reaction of a new reader to this gesture, I believe, is likely to be, and perhaps should be, a smile, or a chuckle. But it is the smile one smiles when reading Beckett, or Kafka, for instance—an uneasy one. As the title “Freedom of Action” suggests, Michaux knows what we are really in for: freedom amounts to no more than the possibility of imagining such a notion. It is reassuring, perhaps, to use the imagination to achieve revenge, but in reality it is oneself who will become the sausage, the marshal who will do the grinding. It is encouraging, then, in a perverse way, to see that there is a lot less to laugh about as Life in the Folds progresses.
Michaux witnessed, among other horrors, the occupations of Belgium and France, the Nazi death camps, the destruction of the great centers of European culture. And he perceived, as intensely as any modernist master, the effects of these events on the individual historical subject. The extent to which the camps in particular are central to his work becomes clear in Life in the Folds in a manner never approached by previous selections. His particular insights are most evident in the tensions between the pieces in “Freedom of Action” and those in the book’s second section, “Apparitions.” Here, the weaponry is no longer in the subject’s hands. It remains largely in the imagination but as a threat rather than a means of revenge. Michaux explores this in chilling ways. “The Danger in The Associations of Thoughts” begins with the cool observation that beauty can be appreciated whether the subject of contemplation is a pair of human lungs or the violent cutting action of a saw. Then the fireworks begin.
But how miserable it is, a pair of lungs under a saw that approaches, imperturbably, how miserable it is, especially when these lungs are yours, and why did you start thinking of the saw when your body alone is what interests you, to which the saw, for this reason, will inevitably draw near? And in a time of blood such as ours, how could it not cling to it? And there it is, entering as if it were at home, sinking in thanks to its magnificent teeth, calmly cutting its furrow into the lungs that will be of use to no one, no one, isn’t that obvious?
For the imagination, the only element of the spirit that survives a near extermination, suffering is the only thing left to imagine. There is certainly nothing to smile about in this section, which occupies almost half of the volume. A catalogue of tortures is presented. Speakers envision being thermocautered, disembowled, trepanned, and assaulted with a sword so long that at the point of entry into the flesh it has tapered to the point of invisibility. To make matters worse, one simply gets used to it all: “A war comes. A war passes. Before passing it consumes a lot. It consumes enormously. So it’s natural that it crushes some skulls here or there.”
If Life in the Folds contained nothing but these sections, it would be a remarkable achievement. But Michaux has something more up his sleeve: “Portrait of the Meidosems,” a 28-page account of the aspirations and sufferings of an imaginary race of creatures who find themselves embodied fleetingly in a variety of forms. It is a dazzling, dizzying account, every bit as primitivistic and initially mystifying in French as in English (certain sections might give the impression that this is a clumsy translation, when in fact Jackson has simply chosen not to interfere with the effect of the original). When people describe Michaux as unclassifiable, “Portrait” is the kind of thing they have in mind:
The herd that’s coming, like slow pachyderms, advancing single file, their mass is and is not. What could they do about it? How could they carry it? That heaviness, that stiff gait is only something they’ve taken on to escape their lightness, which eventually terrifies them. And so goes the procession of enormous bladders, trying to deceive themselves.
A body of insightful French criticism exists on this poem, but much commentary in English seems to focus on the notion that the suffering of the Meidosems holds a mirror up to our own. But within the context of Life in the Folds, it seems more accurate to understand the Meidosems as unlike ourselves. If “Freedom of Action” and “Apparitions” are concerned with the sufferings of beings in the flesh, “Portrait” imagines the destiny of creatures who are, in terms of corporeality, neither here nor there. Shuttling between “the cold of Nothingness” and a variety of awkward bodies they cannot choose or control (knots, spears, bloated sponges, waterfalls, condensation on a mirror), the Meidosems pass their existence always on edge. They wouldn’t mind something a bit more permanent. Yet perhaps their fate is not so awful. For the embodied, as the speaker at one point breaks in to observe, there’s nowhere to go but down: “Scattered organs, broken races, intentions trapped in stone. The solid has you. In shards of yourself. The solid you so desired has you at last.”
Wakefield Press (2016): $14.95
First published as La vie dans les plis. Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1949.
Jerome Keeler is a freelance writer living in Princeton, New Jersey.
by Liz McGehee
“We are…the ruthless blood of ancestors” (19).
Imbued with the aching linage of immigrants, Ewa Chrusciel’s contraband of hoopoe is as astonishing as it is honest. Chrusciel’s bright plumage of language builds an ever-displaced nest for her readers in what manifests as pastoral of the relocated other.
Contraband, present in the title, meaning the smuggling or illegal import or export of goods, is more applicable to persons than “goods” or physical objects. The smuggling of souls, traditions, and ways of being are ever-present in Chrusciel’s second book of English language poems:
“Smuggling is translation…It is—for those who are unable to let go—nesting in two places at once…Both translation and smuggling come from longing for presence. From a loss. They speak of insufficiency of one life, one language.” (55).
The emblematic bird melees with clipped wings against her cultural erasure. Neither blending nor allowed to be. Moments of directness juxtapose with symbolic animal imagery, tethering the treatment of immigrants in the west to that of something less than human and to a clear system, which enforces such practices. The ugliness glossed over in American history becomes fully exposed in the radiance of Chrusciel’s prose.
“When I cross the border, I start hiccupping. The officer stares at my
nipples. I carry wonder inside me. I bring abundance. I stir the wings
within him” (13).
Chrusciel said in an interview with Colby Sawyer College that, “Writing in English is the work of smuggling metaphors from one language into another. It is a work of mistranslation. I am a smuggler because I do not like to renounce anything. I want to keep both of the languages and both of the worlds.”
The poems enact this division with the juxtaposition between the direct and indirect, the rapid transitions between animal poems and immigrant poems that take two contrasting approaches on the same subject. “Smuggling” never disappears for long in the text. The narrator deliberates [about] metaphorically “smuggling” her mother’s heirlooms back into the United States. She knows that keeping or bringing things from her homeland is punishable by law, and implicates any form of dissent from Americanization and cultural assimilation an act of treason charged by these new surroundings. The relocated are suspect merely by existing, trapped as other in a strange land.
countries there was paper, but no truth to write on it. We knew the
truth, but had no paper. No paper to wipe off the system. We carried
it like a turf on our asses. What is this culture that cannot regenerate
itself by healthy digestion? This is where we beheld the system” (16).
Here, we see traces of the implemented literary tests after the Immigration Act of 1917 meant to exclude immigrants on their ability to convert to the conquerors language. This poem enacts the disability of such people to perform in foreign tongue as well as the squelching of diversity encountered at western borders.
The author’s direct confrontation with human experience, a range of animals, trees, and prayers follow us from poem to poem, embodying dislocation in this tyrannical landscape. Chrusciel invokes the great flood myth of Noah’s Ark, a myth existing across nearly every culture in one form or another but only recognized in the west via the bible.
Early in Chrusciel’s text Noah appears as smuggler:
“Noah smuggled a blue-footed booby in his resin boat. But how was
infinity smuggled in the blue feet of the booby? It crouched in his
webbed feet and chanted madrigals. Booby, you strut your blue feet in
the air and point the human species to the sky. No smuggler can get
hold of your blueness. You are the incarnation of the sky…” (30).
Noah is simultaneously savior and oppressor. In the poem, he takes it upon himself to save the booby, which has no desire for rescue, forcing it into the post-flood world now dictated by Noah and God. He embodies the insidious western, Christian colonization virusing its way across humanity. Noah’s prayers later develop into fins, allowing him mobility through this new domain where the animals become fixed.
No hierarchy of the soul exists but we witness a crafted system of inequality implemented by individuals with disproportionate power. Life dwells not only within animals, but trees, and other parts of nature in the text, ascribing to pre-colonized religions. Chrusciel creates a totem pole, always honoring the ancestors, always championing equity, and revealing a naturalized system.
“There is no life for them in the old Continent, these pigeons called
rats. They have acquired the wrong reputation. They coo their litanies.
They sing to the faces of their landlords. They congregate on balconies
To interfere with Sunday hymns. The pigeons are better worshipers,
There is something akin to the oral tradition of the American slaves running through the book. Perhaps to remind us the law once protected that slavery, and likewise, immigration laws continue to subjugate the other, the non-conformist, and the diverse, stifling languages and deviant voices. Chrusciel reminds us that we are still being internally colonized.
The hoopoe, which hails from Africa, is referenced in the Quran (verse 27:20) and Chrusciel quotes this verse on the very last page, “How is it that I see not the hoopoe, or is he among the absent?” The reply in the Quran (not mentioned in the text) states:
“But the hoopoe tarried not far: he compassed (territory) which thou has not compassed …” Quran 27:22.
We can interpret this in contraband of hoopoe as the internal, the soul, a territory that can never be subdued, though many will try. Despite the overwhelming assault of limitation, Chrusciel leaves us with this hope of inward mobility.
“The most fantastical truths can be smuggled only through the windy labyrinths of our body’s cavity” (19).
That is that, when the body cannot travel, it is the soul that must fly.
contraband of hoopoe can be found on Omnidawn’s website.
Liz McGehee is an MFA candidate at the University of Colorado Boulder.