Tag Archives: French poetry

Rereading Michaux

Michaux: a writer I have tried to dislike–self-absorbed, self-fascinated, tripping on mescaline, driven to the semi-silence of the sign, flippant, sliding in and out of mockery, in and out of savage honesty, cloud writer of seamless syntax, a shape shifter, flight straight out of costume, writing the human nude.

Michaux. I am reading Michaux again.

If you are new to Henri Michaux, two translations of selected writings are readily available. David Ball’s Darkness Moves (U. of California P, 1994) provides a wide selection, including excerpts from the mescaline chronicles and a couple of notes on ideograms and art. Ball can be more accurate and more plain spoken, but I still prefer Richard Ellmann’s Selected Writings: The Space Within (New Directions, 1968). New Directions Paperbooks are the perfect size for my poetry reading habits. Unassuming white, black, and gray tone covers; 5×8 inches, and less than an inch thick; this is the measure of a book that you can carry around, one thumb in the spine, until the pages come unglued. I also enjoy the en face translation; with the French on the left page and the English on the right page, the reader can be a full partner in the translation … or at least, one can presume to be one. A left eye for the French, a right eye for the English, a nose for the bridge.

Ball’s Darkness Moves is a fine translation, and it’s not his fault, but I hold a grudge against California Press for having rendered Mallarmé’s Collected Poems as a coffee table book. Like the cover, the translation is full of pastels and cloying sentiment. Although not nearly as large as the Mallarmé book, Darkness Moves is also too big and likewise burdened with too much commentary from the translator. I prefer poetry at a slow walk and Ball’s translation is just too unwieldy for a single hand. It’s a read-it-on-the-couch book. Ball can be too serious as well. It’s a difficult quality to put your finger on, but it’s there, a wooden tone. The diction is fine, but Ellmann’s translation is warmer. Ball reports the poems in English; Ellmann lives them.

The beginning of Michaux’s “Intervention”:

Autrefois, j’avais trop le respect de la nature. Je me mettais devant les choses et les paysages et je les laissais faire.
Fini, maintenant j’interviendrai.

Ball’s translation of the above:

In the past, I had too much respect for nature. I would stand before things and landscapes and let them do what they wanted.
That’s over and done with: now I will intervene.

And Ellmann’s translation:

In the old days I had too much respect for nature. I put myself in front of things and landscapes and let them alone.
No more of that, now I will intervene.

I read French with a dictionary, which is to say, I do not read French. So, maybe the original shares Ball’s want of humor. How would I know? And why should I care? Sometimes, however, Ball wins for clarity. From the beginning of “Nuit de Noces”:

Si le jour de voces Noces, en reentrant, vous mettez votre femme à tremper la nuit dans un puits, elle abasourdie. Elle a beau avoir toujours eu une vague inquiétude…

Ball’s translation of the above selection, “Wedding Night”:

When you come home on your wedding day, if you stick your wife in a well to soak all night she is flabbergasted. Even if she had always been vaguely worried about it…

And Ellmann’s, “Bridal Night”:

If on your marriage day, returning home, you set your wife in a well to soak for the night, she will be dumbfounded. No comfort to her now that she has always had a vague uneasiness…

So Ellmann is stranger and Ball is plainer. At any rate, if you want as much Michaux as you can get in English you’ll need both translations. Ball retranslates only “thrity-three pages” from the Ellmann book and leaves much of the early Michaux writings (the really fun stuff) untouched.

Not many people can be a Richard Ellmann, but I hope, someday, an equal talent will take on a few of the single Michaux volumes and translate them as entire books. If you’re reading this and you think you can write, please start with Mes propriétés (1929). By my count, Mes propriétés includes fifty-nine poems. Ball and Ellmann together translate only twenty-four of these. “Intervention”, quoted above, is from My Properties and so are many of my favorite Michaux poems. Because I’m lazy (“The soul loves swimming”, see Michaux/Ellmann’s “La Paresse”/”Laziness”) and I’m getting tired of this, I’ll end with a few sentences from “A Dog’s Life”, also from My Properties, the Ellmann translation, of course:

As for books, they wear me out like nothing else. I don’t leave a single word in its own sense or even in its own form.
I trap it and after some struggling I uproot it and turn it finally away from the author’s flock.
In a single chapter you have thousands of words all at once in front of you and I have to sabotage them all. I feel I must.


Michaux, Henri. Darkness Moves: An Henri Michaux Anthology, 1927-1984. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997. WorldCat | Amazon
Michaux, Henri. Selected Writings: The Space Within. New York: New Directions Pub. Corp, 1968. WorldCat | Amazon
Mallarmé, Stéphane, and Henry Weinfield. Collected Poems. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994. WorldCat | Amazon
Michaux, Henri. Mes propriétés. Paris: J.O. Fourcade, 1929. WorldCat