Sleepy Time with Henri Michaux

Are you sleeping well? Even though rocked into slumber, like the lullaby tells us, move past the hummed assurances of “Rock-a-Bye-Baby” in the treetop. Parse it a bit as we all would have done, deep in the subconscious of our downy young heads—“rock-a-bye-baby in the treetop.” Are we kettles hanging from branches in a surrealist vision of security? “When the wind blows, the cradle will rock / When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall / And down will come baby, cradle and all.” Well, that’s how we sleep now—restless, tossed, disquieted, the world rocked by trauma, peril and violence. Fragmentation and splinters make an uneasy bed.

Maybe French poet, writer and artist Henri Michaux can help. “I always need to have recourse to dissolution as a necessary prerequisite,” he wrote in Emergences/Resurgences (1972, published by Editions d’art Albert Skira in Geneva)—a prerequisite to making anew. Spurred on by mescaline, Michaux found the hallucinogenic state wildly, exotically productive. He used hallucinogens for 10 years and then at the age of 67 stopped, but he wrote that the siren “call to fragmentation remains,” its being consistent with his process of doing and undoing in an endless regenerative cycle. The vividness of the drug experience was strongly, visually evident in his drawings and paintings, but still he was able to identify the potential danger there. It’s more than interesting to recognize how profound was his self-control in setting drugs aside, and to which he also referred in his own writing as a supra-awareness of how to live a life. Writing about the fluorescence of work while experiencing the effects of mescaline, he said, “Whoever has known the devastation and illuminating states of psychedelic experience can recognize, upon seeing these ‘reflexive’ paintings, the space from which they emerge and speak, without being able or really wanting to leave it. Whoever has undergone, in less than an hour’s single metamorphic jolt, a spectacular change in Weltanschauung, knows and recognizes this.” It’s here that he refers to the persistent call to fragmentation and describes the work of this period as having been named “drawings of disaggregation,” but counters, “Despite the analogy, they are rather drawings of reaggregation.” Still, he left behind the chemistry that had “distorted and shorted out the workings of the mind. Over and done with the unbearable voltage.”

Richard Sieburth’s translation of the original edition of Michaux’s A Certain Plume (NYRB/Poets, 2018) includes his trenchant Translator’s Afterword, which describes Monsieur Plume as Michaux’s Chaplinesque double. It seems apt. Plume is a fragile, earnest, bumbling, comic and dear, rapier-minded figure. Absurd misadventures fill the book of life tales, which Michaux characterized as prose poems. He early found affinity with Paul Klee, writing that Klee’s work provided “a glimpse of what goes on behind the scenes—in images and events that take place elsewhere,” a destination to which Michaux was always purchasing a ticket.

Let’s use Michaux and his alter ego, Plume, to cradle and soothe our insomnia. Detached from the situation and soon to be unattached to his index finger in the section of A Certain Plume titled “Plume’s Finger Was Aching,” he visits a doctor to inquire, at his wife’s suggestion, about the source of the minor pain. The doctor, quick to act, suggests amputation and replacement with an artificial digit. “Plume cast a melancholy glance at his finger and begged to excuse himself.” Growing increasingly concerned and experiencing fondness for the finger, he nonetheless remained in the doctor’s office. Anaesthetized, the surgery completed, and now returned home, Plume finds himself berated by his wife, who, he learns, “is not particularly fond of men with stumps.” She tells him further, “Once your hand is so depleted, don’t count on me anymore.” She extrapolates his diminishment into his becoming sadistic. Plume’s sunny response is to tell her not to worry about what the future might bring because, as he says, “your character might well change.” A preventable mishap becomes an irreversible alteration and a rebuke delivered like a boot to the derrière, and, for Plume—equanimity.

You can find balance and sleep with some words from the section titled “Birth” and the cinematic pictures drawn there. In this he could find fellowship with surrealist writer and painter Leonora Carrington. “B was born of an egg, then he was born of a cod which he proceeded, once born to explode, then he was born of a shoe … then he was born of a rhubarb leaf at the same time as a fox; the fox and he glared at each other for a moment, then raced off into their respective directions.” Later in this endless natal process, “He was born of a zebra, he was born of a sow, he was born of a stuffed she-monkey, one of her legs attached to a fake coconut tree, the other hanging free,” and here the rhythms of his language do prevail. “He emerged smelling of oakum and proceeded to bawl and whistle in the office of a naturalist who threw himself onto him with the obvious interest of taxidermizing him, but he managed to elude him,” and now we have the non-sequential but credible sequence of watching our own dream, and we must be asleep.

Misfortune is a frequent visitor and sometime guide for Plume and Michaux. In “Fate” Plume continues on his travels. “We were already on the boat, I was already on my way, well out to sea when, suddenly falling on me like a debt come due, misfortune, ever mindful of the past, turned up, saying: ‘Listen, it’s me, time to turn back!’ And it promptly whisked me off and returned me back home, like a retracted tongue.” This is delivered with a breathless sense of hurried, mid-story telling. We are transported, as Michaux wished to be—to Klee’s elsewhere. “Already on the boat, already the many-voiced ocean lithely parting its waves, already the oh-so-modest ocean parting itself, generously curling its long blue lips into itself, already the mileage of distant shores, already … but then all of a sudden …” On Michaux’s boat we are offered a sensorium: the sounds of the ocean’s voice, the sexual parting of the waves, the blue lips, the curl and offering separation. Without being indiscreet he introduces lust, with which he grapples later. And then misfortune, always a potential player, reappears. “When misfortune follows the path of one of its fellows and finally manages to lay its huge paw on his back, misfortune is most pleased with itself.” With begrudging regard for its success, Plume/Michaux considers the contradictory operations of good fortune and misfortune. One misstep and good fortune is out of luck, but, in the way that villains always do prevail, an error in judgment, a misdirected plan is of no moment, “misfortune always gets another shot.”

Then, on the one hand you have jaguars; on the other, gazelles. “Jaguars unanimously agree that the company of gazelles is annoying!” Why, Plume wonders, “don’t gazelles learn Turkish from the jaguars?” “Why,” he continues, “don’t they go into learning to become jaguars by going on a diet of blood-soaked grass?” He wonders how jaguars would respond to this and concludes, here sounding like Nabokov, “Between the gazelle and the jaguar there throbs an unbridgeable abyss.” As a child he admired the acute prowess of a sword swallower but still felt they fell short. What he was waiting for, avid as a child would be, was a blow-swallower. That, he feels, would draw a crowd.

It’s in “Moments of Interior Being” that lust as the interior being appears. Here is Michaux’s beautiful and at the same time economic, spare, visual language, “When lust tows its fever boats across the immense landscape of interior being … Come again? What is this rising mist doing here?” He continues, “Interior being collaborates with lust, be it out of joy or caution. But it is always hounded by this swollen invader.” He grapples with his interior being, he is restless, attacks and withdraws, but finally capitulation is inevitable and “bearing down on a man already defeated, when Fear … Sweeping everything aside in its regal entrance, when Fear takes its sovereign seat, lounging amid the tipped-over chairs of all the virtues, … Despair and fatigue now conjoin, and the sun sets off in another direction.” The ridiculous, absurd, futile, puniness of our best efforts, Plume’s best efforts, end in a fizzle, a lack of interest, failing to hold the attention of the celestial orb, and the sun, rising and setting for all eternity, moves off.

The section titled “Nature:” speaks to Michaux’s inclusive, eyes-open generosity. “I do not know whether trees speak or houses do. But I at any rate speak to them.”

We are coming, finally, to recognize that our anthropocentric perceptions, our rigid and demeaning hierarchies are a miserable and destructive hindrance. Good riderance. Michaux knew that and he addresses the world around him: “Hey tree over there, big old plane tree …; Seine, little Seine, what if one tossed you into the air …; And hey, Escout, tell me, are you advancing or retreating?; St Mark’s Cathedral, old frog, you too, what if one yanked you out of your Venice and all its pigeons …; and Vesuvius how long have you rested on your laurels.” He concludes with conjecture. “The branches of the Amazon belong where they are. Of course, one knows this, one knows this only too well, one’s not that dumb. But still, one of these days, if only for a split second …” He moves inside and out; is part and apart.

In Emergences/Resurgences Michaux said he was his own contradiction; he painted to make the world more “remarkable,” at the same time resisting or refusing what he called “behavioural realism.” “Signs,” he wrote, “my first and foremost quest. The world reduced to a minimum.” But also, recognizing it is not abstract. Instead, “The world is in fact heavy, thick, encumbering. To tolerate it, you have to reject much of it one way or another.” At the same time, and on the other hand, he’d tried leaving and living outside realism and this, too, was wanting, and where he found himself “empty-handed and shame-faced.”

While Michaux suggested that all of A Certain Plume was written in the form of prose poems, the final section is presented in short-line stanzas and appears to be more typically poetry. “In the Night” is a night built of words that are images and ideas as well as full constructs. He recognizes the night, inhabits it, claims it. “In the night / In the night / I became one with the night / The night without end / The night. / Mine, lovely, mine.” The tone becomes soothing, a rocking to sleep: “You who invade me / Who go seaswell seaswell / Seaswell wherever I dwell,” and then the comforting large, benign presence of a cow is conjured: “Thick, steamy / Lowing / Night.” And night as a dark, safe and enveloping blanket: “Beneath the night / Night. We drift off.”

He replicates or calls us to see his bodily self in “My Blood.” “The broth of my blood through which I trudge / Is my bard, my wood, my women.” A lovely solipsism—he is just as he is, as he is and he is sufficient.

On loss and restoration, he writes “She, the Love Reft From Me,” and finds consolation. He speaks to someone, perhaps mourners or attendants, telling them they can take her corpse and can keep it if they wish. “As for me, during the long years I knew her / I fashioned her into a small ball without her being aware. I’ll keep her.” He has made provisions against this loss, is contained in his loss and is unto himself.

While a sense of alienation, of being not entirely at home as he grew is expressed, in none of his writing does Michaux evidence any disconnection from the natural world, and much of his language slips between human and nature and its many aspects and inhabitants. I earlier mentioned parallels in sensibility and language between Michaux and Leonora Carrington; she, too, in her total engagement with nature and creatures, drew no lines or distinctions. Here is Michaux’s “The Young Budapest Girl” who is like, and then becomes, a tender close landscape. He joins her there. “In the warm mist of a young girl’s breath, I took place.” He goes on, “Her arms weigh nothing. One meets them like water / Whatever is wilted disappears before her. Only her eyes / remain, / Long lovely plants, long lovely flowers growing in our / field.” Michaux concludes the postface with something of an explanation, a kind of summing up, but all of A Certain Plume has come together to make itself clear; there is no need. Still, Michaux wanted to say: “SELF makes itself out of everything.” Also, “Self is never more than provisional” and “One wants too much to be someone.” And finally—provisos, excuses, elaborations, digressions, astonishments, complexities and many small deceptions recorded, “Amid these things, refusing to settle down, the author grew a life.” Indeed. ❚