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Darkness Moves: An Henri Michaux Anthology, 1927-1984

Selected, translated, and presented by David Ball
Copyright Date: 1994
Edition: 1
Pages: 270
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  • Book Info
    Darkness Moves
    Book Description:

    Henri Michaux defies common critical definition. Critics have compared his work to such diverse artists as Kafka, Goya, Swift, Klee, and Beckett. Allen Ginsberg called Michaux "genius," and Jorge Luis Borges wrote that Michaux’s work "is without equal in the literature of our time." This anthology contains substantial selections from almost all of Michaux’s major works, most never before published in English, and allows readers to explore the haunting verbal and pictorial landscape of a twentieth-century visionary.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-92040-8
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-IV)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. V-VI)
    (pp. VII-VIII)
    D. B.
    (pp. IX-XXIII)
    David Ball

    Henri Michaux died in 1984 at the age of eighty-five. He was the author of more than thirty books of poems, prose poems, narratives, essays, journals, and drawings; his writings were translated into more than half a dozen languages, his paintings amply displayed in the major art centers of Europe and the United States. His place in world literature and art was secure, but difficult to define. Michaux stood alone.

    When people who know his work try to relate Michaux to some movement or tradition, they don’t come up with schools of poets, but with a range of great individual...

    (pp. XXIV-XXXI)
    H. M.
    (pp. XXXII-XXXIV)
    D. B.
  7. 1927-1929

    • from WHO I WAS
      (pp. 3-4)
    • from MY PROPERTIES
      (pp. 5-20)

      In my properties everything is flat, nothing moves; there is a shape here and there, but where can that light come from? No shadows.

      Occasionally when I have the time, I look around, holding my breath, on the alert; and if I see something emerge, I shoot out in a flash and jump on the spot, but the head—for usually it’s a head—sinks back into the swamp; quickly I start digging, it’s mud, just ordinary mud or sand, sand…

      All this doesn’t open on to a fine sky, either. Even though there is nothing over it, seemingly, you...

    • from THE NIGHT MOVES
      (pp. 21-42)

      The room, the poet… andThe Night Moves:in visions, and in narratives that dramatize currents of consciousness and sometimes take on the status of myths. Which is, perhaps, why Michaux putMy Propertiesinto this book. Like the title text of the 1929 collection, the later “My King,” for example, can be read as a myth of the imagination; it is a representation of the Son in perpetual, unavailing revolt against the Word of the Father. Hopeless, but funny, it feels like Beckett as much as Kafka.

      In his “Drawings with Commentary,” the artist-poet introduces a project he will...

    • from PLUME, preceded by Far-Off Inside
      (pp. 43-80)

      Michaux continues to turn his fears and magical interventions into poetry, and sometimes into strongly-rhythmed prose poems like “Song of Death.” It is the more prosaic texts in this collection, however, which are no doubt his most famous: those in the “Plume” sequence. In a sense, Plume continues the adventures of the narrators of “My Properties” and “My King” in a still more comic mode. Michaux himself saw all these texts as versions of his own being:

      you can’t write something like “My King” unless you have the idea of pushing things through to the end… I lose myself [in...

      (pp. 81-94)

      The title of this little collection of poems and prose texts (121 pages in the original edition) could define much of Michaux’s work. Its Preface is particularly important: in it, he explains the function of art-as-exorcism and its reason for being: “to ward off the surrounding powers of the hostile world.” As inFacing the Locks,a collection he published almost ten years later, some of the texts inOrdeals, Exorcismsreflect, more clearly than usual, a reality outside the self—in this case, the Nazi Occupation of Europe. If Michaux’s basic situation is one of exploring the sicknesses of...

      (pp. 95-100)

      Although Michaux included this piece inPassages 1937–1950and again in the expandedPassages 1937–1963,it was first published separately in 1950 and written in 1945. It is closer to “My Properties” or even “Space of the Shadows” (inFacing the Locks) than to the other texts inPassages, most of which are essays.

      In this work, Michaux deals concretely with a problem that may be formulated abstractly as follows: if we have no sense of being solidly centered in our bodies, how can we construct a more or less stable self, a center of consciousness? how can...

    • from ELSEWHERE
      (pp. 101-140)

      This volume includes texts composed over a ten-year period, from the 1936Voyage to Great Garabandto the 1946Report from Poddema. “The author has often lived elsewhere,” as he says in his Preface, and in fact will continue to do so: Michaux’s “reports from abroad,” often in the form of letters or explorer’s descriptions, precede the publication ofElsewhere. We find them in his two “real” travel books, of course (Ecuador, 1929, andA Barbarian in Asia, 1933) but in other works, too; and he will keep on sending out these “reports” long afterElsewhereis published. Why not?...

    • from LIFE IN THE FOLDS
      (pp. 141-160)

      In this collection the author’s magical “interventions” often take the form of comicsadistic inventions, grouped in a section called, appropriately enough, “Freedom of Action.”

      The lengthy “Portrait of the Meidosems” (more than 150 pages in the original) could appropriately have appeared inElsewhere. Like the strange peoples described in the previous volume, the Meidosems arehere,too, and in a special sense: delicate, constantly injured, suffering but surviving, “clamped to their weakness,” they could collectively compose a portrait of Henri Michaux.

      The subtitle of the original volume ispoèmes,but only half a dozen texts in this volume are written...

    • [Illustrations]
      (pp. None)
      (pp. 161-192)

      Michaux’s wife died, accidentally, “as a result of atrocious burns,” in 1948; from 1951 to 1953, Michaux says he “writes less and less, paints more.” YetFacing the Locks(1954) is one of his strongest collections of writing. It contains the incantatory “Poetry for Power,” two parts malediction-exorcism, one part chant of salvation here and now; pages of aphorisms (“Slices of Knowledge”); and the amazing “Space of the Shadows” (1952). On one level, this long prose poem reflects the death of his wife: it is tempting to think that she—or Michaux’s imagining of her on the Other Side—is...


    • [Introduction]
      (pp. 193-194)

      The very titles of these volumes speak eloquently to the kind of experience Michaux had with mind-altering drugs; in his foreword toMiserable Miracle,in his epigraph toKnowledge Through the Abyssand elsewhere, he comments amply on what the books are about; so does the Introduction to the present anthology. Two further points may be helpful here.

      First, if “knowledge” and not pleasure is, as he says, what the poet is after in this enterprise, it must be admitted that he was fascinated by that very particular kind of knowledge and attracted by hallucinogens moare than he wanted to...

      (pp. 195-208)

      This is an exploration. Through words, signs, drawing. Mescaline is the thing explored.

      (…) As for the drawings I began immediately after the third experiment, they were done with a vibratory movement that stays in you for days and days—automatic, blind, you might say, but thus precisely reproducing the visions I had undergone, going through them once again.

      Since I could not present the manuscript itself, which directly translated the subject, rhythms, shapes, and chaos all together, as well as the inner defenses and their breakdowns, we found ourselves in great difficulty, facing a typographical wall. Everything had to...

      (pp. 209-210)

      Something incredible, something desperately desired from childhood on, apparently denied me, somethingIcertainly would never see, unheard of, inaccessible, too beautiful, sublime, forbidden to me—it happened.

      I SAW THE THOUSANDS OF GODS. I was given that marvelous gift. Faithless as I am (without realizing the faith I might have had), they appeared for me. They werethere,present, more present than anything I’ve ever looked at in my life. And it was impossible and I knew it, and still. Still, they were there, arrayed in their hundreds one beside the other (but thousands followed, hardly perceptible—even more...

    • from KNOWLEDGE THROUGH THE ABYSS Drugs bore us with their paradises. Let them give us a little knowledge instead. This is not a century for paradise.
      (pp. 211-216)

      All drugs modify your supports. The support you had from your senses, the support your senses had from the world, the support you had from your general impression of being. They give way. A vast redistribution of the sensibility takes place, making everything bizarre—a complex, continual redistribution of the sensibility. You feel lesshere,and morethere. Where “here”? Where “there”? In dozens of “heres,” in dozens of “theres,” that you didn’t know, that you don’t recognize. Dark zones that used to be bright. Light zones that used to be heavy. You no longer end up in yourself, and...

    • from THE GREAT ORDEALS OF THE MIND (and the Countless Small Ones)
      (pp. 217-224)

      For a long time now I had wanted to take cannabis indica at high altitude and then go look at a mountain skyline. That’s why I had come to this place. To see if it would have any effect on me, and which. A few days went by. Finally I took the substance, one coveted at other moments. Time passed. Nothing. I can feel no change. The mountains in front of me look exactly the same. My health over-restored, perhaps. Then, as meals sometimes have a catalytic effect, I go down to the dining room.

      Night came too soon. I...

      (pp. 225-230)

      Michaux apparently wrote this book because he was asked to; he seemed particularly well suited to write about sleep and dreams. But in actual fact, as he says again and again, dreams don’t interest him—at least, not night dreams. He nonetheless reports a fair number of them in this volume and analyzes them in his own poetic (not psychoanalytic) way.

      The two dreams below are related to basic longings in the poet: to understand and actually become part of another world, an extrahuman world, and to find “a language in which everyone really under[stands] everyone else at last.”


    • from MOMENTS: Crossings of Time
      (pp. 231-240)

      This slim volume of poems—and here, for once, the poems meet the simplest definition for poetry, as none have justified right margins—shows that Michaux’s lifelong interest in the philosophy and religions of Asia has increased. Thus “Yantra” is the term for a Hindu drawing designed to aid meditation and religious awakening; it symbolically represents the moving, evolving cosmos and the unity of its contrasting principles, such as male/female: for example, triangles with their apex up are male, and triangles with their apex down are female. Michaux’s poem is a verbal cosmogram.

      Also behind these poems lies Michaux’s attempt...

      (pp. 241-254)

      The title echoes the earlierFacing the Locks.

      One of the hiding or “vanishing” phenomena Michaux wishes to confront is that of pain: we have all felt it, of course, but can we really remember intense pain, hold on to it? Can we learn from it? Pain comes up again and again in the poet’s work; it is never rendered more strongly than inBroken Arm. The lesson he draws from his experience—damaging one arm, “discovering” the other—is a traditional Asian one of unity in contrast and opposition (here, left and right) as in Hinduism. He will meditate...

      (pp. 255-290)

      Almost half of this collection is devoted to prose pieces Michaux wrote about paintings by mental patients—but this poet-artist doesn’t write “about” art; he recreates it in words. He did this throughout his career, from the early “Drawings with Commentary” (The Night Moves,above) through his later “Reading” of lithographs by Zao Wou-ki to “Adventures of Lines,” his remarkable 1954 “essay” on Paul Klee (both inPassages,below), or his 1972Dreaming From Enigmatic Paintings. In “Ravaged People” the artists are insane, clinically defined as such, and in trying to understand them Michaux is pursuing another lifelong project. As...

      (pp. 291-306)

      “The material becoming mental,” as Michaux says at the end of “A Crowd Coming Out of the Dark” (with some irony in context), and vice versa, we might say: that’s what he is writing about in this posthumous collection that contains eight works published between 1982 and 1984. In a sense he had been exploring this relationship all his life.

      We may find it troubling that the intense religious experience described inThe Exalted Garden—that mystical sensation of witnessing the divine heart of the universe in motion—should begin with “a bit of the prepared product.” Another mystic or...

    • from PASSAGES
      (pp. 307-343)

      These are collected meditations (essays, poems, and unclassifiable prose texts) on art, music, writing, and living—hence the names I have given to the subsections inPassages—written over a twenty-six year period and published in various journals; they seemed an appropriate Afterword for this anthology. Ironically enough, for an artist who constantly displays the fragmentation of the self, their unity is striking. So is their eccentric wisdom.

      A word about his “Reading” of Zao Wou-ki lithographs and “Adventures of Lines” in Paul Klee’s still lifes: traditionally, poems based on works of art move between precise description and general reflection;...

  9. Back Matter
    (pp. 344-344)