I learned only recently that Henri Michaux was a painter as well as a poet. I had gone to the British Library to reread A Barbarian in Asia for the purposes of this article, intending to take a wrong turn in his travelogue and conveniently sidestep into a tale of my own travels in Romania. Yet scrolling through the Library’s online catalogue I was struck by the following title:
Untitled Passages by Henri Michaux / edited by Catherine de Zegher; interview by John Ashbery; essays by Raymond Bellour… [et al.] (Exhibition) (2000: Drawing Center). New York: The Drawing Center; London: Merrell, 2000.
Exhibition? What exhibition? What academic popinjay was trying to get away with a newfangled interpretation of Henri Michaux’s writing as painting? My face scrunched up further when my eye caught “interview by John Ashbery.” What was Ashbery doing sniffing around Henri Michaux? Is this man never going to go away? Ashbery’s work is the opposite of what makes Michaux’s poetry so intriguing. Michaux’s language never stoops to the ornamental. His writing is an obsessive and neurotic extension of himself, unashamedly so. But he is not obsessive or neurotic about language: his poems never call out to be liked. They are populated with giant caterpillars, dwarves, midget oaks, an alter ego by the name of Plume, places called Billooli, China or Inwinki, and Hieronymus Bosch-like creatures such as the Meidosems, “clamped to their weakness,” and the Pourpianes, “with green, quivering anuses.” The poems don’t for a moment shy away from a destructive rage, the desire for physical violence and a burning curiosity about “elsewhere.” At the heart of his work lies an unrestricted belief in the truth as it is in poetry: “I put an apple on my table. Then I put myself inside the apple. What peace!” (from My Properties, 1929) The language is transparent and doesn’t fondle itself. And to avoid such fondling in French is brilliant enough in itself: “In my properties everything is flat, nothing moves; there is a shape here and there, but where can that light come from? No shadows.” (idem)
Now I was being asked to regard his poems as paintings, as highly personalized ideogrammatic gestures. More curious about the things that rile me than those that please, I ordered up a copy of Untitled Passages from the library’s dungeons.
Three days later a cache of books was waiting for me in the Asian and African reading room. I opened Untitled Passages. How could I not have known Michaux was a painter? The proof was right there in front of me. Flicking through the plates I was baffled, captivated, enthralled, in short, I was heaving with envy. A painter, too? I abandoned my initial plan of exploring how Michaux’s strange and original poems inform my own writing and instead decided to share a first impression of Michaux’s drawings:
- The drawings are an intricate simplicity of lines in Indian ink.
- Are they a flock of birds or the bark of a felled oak?
- Is what we see inescapably something we read?
- Dancing insects, a scattering.
- Is what we see an abstraction or a narrative?
- Are these drawings Henri Michaux’s attempt at finding the point where the abstract and narrative converge?
- Does such a point of convergence exist?
- Familiarity. Is something we think we have seen before a familiarity or a further alienation?
- The drawings are dense yet brimming with intervals and space.
- The drawings are preoccupied with movement and time, with the flow and speed of something.
- Ants in his pants.
- Is it speed or is it musical tempo? Do we read or are we listening?
- Why have I not seen these before?
- Are the brushstrokes calligraphy, personalized ideograms, after all?
Inevitably my admiration for Michaux’s poetry coloured my first impressions of his drawings. Henri Michaux’s drawings communicated to me very much a writing. According to the poet Geo Norge, a classmate of his at primary school, the young Michaux was inspired by Chinese calligraphy and insects, which he would, “examine at length under a magnifying glass from which he was never separated” (Le Magazine littéraire, June 1985). I wish I could remember the first time I traced a finger over these highly enigmatic characters, reformulating the ancient and highly sophisticated signifiers that to my examining finger were indecipherable gestures. Certainly Michaux’s first ‘sign’ drawings, the Alphabet and Narration series, are compositions of vaguely pictorial signs that resemble writing yet are impossible to make out. Are Michaux’s paintings a way of de-conditioning himself from the verbal? The drawings do seem to point to a distancing from verbal expression without abandoning his fascination with language as pictorial signs and in the introduction he asks, “Isn’t it obvious I paint so as to leave words behind?”
As a young sailor Michaux caught the travel bug. In Ailleurs he writes, “He who sought to escape the World becomes its translator too” (1948). Another means, besides painting and writing, of translating intention into expression, is sign or body language. It’s a language that is both figurative and as gestural as writing. Body language is a language with its own subtleties, dialects and inflexions. As with Michaux’s drawings, I wonder what determines its grammar – the movement of thought, or the speed of the hands moving?
A rudimentary biography
- In early boyhood Michaux was deeply religious.
- He liked ping-pong.
- After dropping out of medical school he enlisted as a sailor in the Merchant Marines and went to sea.
- He met Salvador Dalí in Spain, Picasso in Paris, Jorge Luis Borges in Buenos Aires. Jean Fautrier and Georges Braques. André Breton.
- In 1948 the nylon nightgown of his wife Marie-Louise Ferdière caught fire on an electric heater and she died of the burns she sustained.
- He hated his portrait being taken and was rarely photographed. One of the few portraits of him was by Claude Cahun, a photographer who died on Jersey. Curiously her portrait of him is a double take.
- John Ashbery described his face as “pleasant and gentle.” Not so.
- In 1935 in Uruguay he met and fell in love with the poet Susana Soca.
- During his final years in Venice Ezra Pound embarked on a translation of Henri Michaux’s Idéogrammes en Chine but was too frail to complete it. Gustaf Sobin instead published it in 1984 under the Poundian Imprint of New Directions.
- Henri Michaux first started self-administering mescaline in his mid 50s, probably to capture the origami-potential of a single line, “I wanted to draw the moments that end to end make life, to show the inner phrase, the wordless phrase, the sinuous strand that unwinds indefinitely and is intimately present in each inner and outer event.” (Untitled Passages)
Earlier this year I travelled to Bucharest at the invitation of the Writers’ Union of Romania, to read at their poetry festival. I stayed a couple of nights as the guest of the great Romanian poet Ioana Ieronim, who suggested I visit the monasteries of Bucovina in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. Dragonmirna Monastery lies tucked into the fold of a valley dotted with birches buckled with age. The monastery’s 16th century stonework dominates the landscape. I arrived on Pentecostal Sunday and hundreds of Roman Orthodox Christians had flocked into the fortified monastic enclosure from the surrounding district to attend the walk-in / walk-out service. Outside its walls a village fête was underway. Pocket-sized icons, prayer ropes, bootlegged missals on cassette tapes and crosses ranging in size from XS to XXL had been laid out on wooden trestle tables under brightly coloured parasols. Children with their faces covered in candy floss darted between grownup legs, carrying toy guns and pulling on helium balloons. Loud gypsy music blasted from speakers strapped to the trees with nylon cord. In a small trampled field an Octopus whirled its mechanical tentacles through the air. It was all very Pieter Brueghel. Inside the monastery walls a throng wandered in and out of the church, chatting and gossiping, some, for the most part women and monks, falling to their knees and rising again in what resembled sun salutations. It crossed my mind that body language is as figurative and gestural as script. And prayer a re-enactment of the Word.
“Moments that end to end make life”
I was the only foreigner there, possibly the only foreigner for miles around. No one I spoke to spoke English. It took all my sun salutations, hand flutterings, facial contortions and shoulder-twists to explain, then to persuade a nun to take me to the library. The monastery’s library houses two copies of the Four Gospels, two missals and a Psalter, all of them copied and illuminated by calligrapher, illustrator and writer Anastasie Crimca, founder of the monastery and scriptorium. None of these manuscripts have left the monastery in over four hundred years. I had come to the monastery to look at them on display in their glass coffins. What I hadn’t realised was that these manuscripts were written on parchment in an ancient Slavic script.
Henri Michaux Untitled (from Narration), 1927
I had never seen writing like this before. In between the vivid reds and blues of the illustrations stood these rather childlike stenographic marks. Read together they resembled the progress of a rudimentary game of hangman. The handwriting was so astonishingly beautiful and its meaning so beyond my understanding that it, well to my surprise the sight of it moved me. I was moved by their mysterious unfamiliarity, by how these mute signs sheltered a world of interconnected allusions that was sealed off from me. Yet because I had recognised it instantly as writing, there was a familiarity to it too, as if I was staring into a sump waiting for my reflection to appear, while below its dark-skinned surface lay dormant the universal stretch of my imagination. I was experiencing literary vertigo.
My nun swished from manuscript to beeswax candle to an embroidered cape or altar cloth – I couldn’t have cared less which. Previously our body language had established a web of unspoken intimacy between us. But now those lines were broken. How was I to explain to her the effect these manuscripts had on me? I muttered, “It’s beautiful, it’s beautiful”, over and over. She nodded blissfully but I don’t think she understood what I was trying to tell her. I tapped the display cabinet with both hands and pressed them to my heart. She took me by the elbow and tried to guide me to an icon: clearly she did not. So I took out my notebook from my bag, placed it on the display cabinet, pressed pencil to paper but the word I most wanted to express I couldn’t draw: BEAUTY.
The Beauty of Henri Michaux
one or two or three lines meeting, now forming a thicket, a plait, further on joining battle, rolling into a ball or rising up, arrogance, pride, or castle or tower… that could be seen, that I thought should have been seen but that, to tell the truth, almost no one saw.
Henri Michaux in Untitled Passages
Scribbled in a margin on my notepad “HM ⇔ Susana Soca, Uruguay, 1935.”
Please could someone tell me: WHO IS SUSANA SOCA?
So all that, for all this:
by Jorge Luis Borges
With slow love she looked at the scattered
Colours of afternoon. It pleased her
To lose herself in intricate melody
Or in the curious life of verses.
Not elemental red but the greys
Spun her delicate destiny,
Fashioned to discriminate and exercised
In vacillation and in blended tints.
Without venturing to tread this perplexing
Labyrinth, she watched from without
The shapes of things, their tumult and their course,
Just like that other lady of the mirror.
Gods who dwell far-off past prayer
Abandoned her to that tiger, Fire.
Translated by Mildred Boyer and Harold Morland, from Dreamtigers, University of Texas Press, 1964.