Some Notes on God: In Praise of Henri Michaux
ONCE IN A great while you meet a writer who is a god. Or perhaps a ghost of a god, if the writer is dead.
That is, if gods have ghosts.
It happened to me once. I remember it as if it were yesterday. I was a senior in college, taking a class with David Lehman. We had a conference to discuss my work. I don’t recall clearly, but it seemed that there wasn’t a lot of it to discuss.
To fill the time, David began reading poems to me. Gertrude Stein. I don’t think I was paying much attention. I wasn’t crazy about Tender Buttons at the time. I kept looking at his jacket, hanging in the corner, dripping snow. I thought how it looked like a dead sheep. And his matching cap. David, I asked. Where did you get that jacket? That’s how much Stein I heard. Then he read me a Henri Michaux piece. I started listening when he read the line:
For instance I always go out with my bed now, and when a woman pleases me, I take her and go to bed with her immediately.
Afterwards he asked what I thought.
Only a god would write that, I responded enthusiastically. A regular Zeus of a man. I should be on my knees.
God? David asked.
Maybe he thought of a god as Yahweh, the SOB in the Old Testament. Well, I love Yahweh. I have a thing for creepy men. Most gods, under close examination, are pure SOBs. Good role models. My favorite Yahweh appears in the book of Job, with lines such as: Who dug the gullies for the torrents of rain, or made a path for the thunderbolts?
And: Who decreed the boundaries of the seas when they gushed from the womb? Who clothed them with clouds and thick darkness, and barred them by limiting their shores, and said, “Thus far and no further shall you come, and here shall your parted waves stop!”
A woman can get drunk on lines of men like these. Lines of men of power. Michaux and Yahweh both, who dare to tell it like it is.
But what of women of power, and how would a woman, or goddess, say the same sort of thing? That was my question years later when I wrote “The Talking Pussy.” Under the influence of Henri Michaux, I began: Whenever I go out, I carry a pussy with me.
To some readers, a pussy might not seem very heavy, not like a bed. But they are mistaken. Because a pussy can be quite a load. Yet unlike a bed, a pussy has a mind of its own. And a voice, though few actually listen.
And, like a god, the pussy can’t be stopped. Who would dare command it: Thus far and no further shall you come?
There are, of course, all kinds of gods-SOBs, pussies, angels, heat-seeking missiles-for all kinds of people. Sometimes we don’t even know who or whose gods they are, or why. Nevertheless we kneel down and obey. We let them tell us what to do.
Then, creatures of habit, we live with them, day in and day out. They become our invisible bosses, our logic, our structure.
Sometimes we even forget they are there. Who invited them in anyhow? Who cares if we even know their names, who cares if they keep us imprisoned?
And many prefer life behind bars. Didn’t Kafka say we’re like birds in search of a cage?
But it’s nice, once in a while, to have a god who opens the gates, forces us out, so we might feel the wind beneath our wings, even if, like chickens, we don’t know how to use them.
Such a god is naturally abusive. (Otherwise we’d stay inside, ignore the exit door. Few ever go willingly.) This god breaks all our rules, all expectations. Terrible things happen in the places where such gods rule: wars, famine, betrayal, plagues. A man endures suffering of named and nameless dimensions. To get a man to move, to change is no small task.
It’s as easy as teaching a statue to walk, as Henri Michaux suggested with his poem, “The Statue and I.”
And his poem, “The Manlauncher,” begins: I’ve got my slingshot-for-people, too. You can launch them far, very far away. You have to know how to load them. However, it’s hard to hurl them far enough.
Many of Michaux’s characters are as worthy as the best of us of being hurled off. These are not the noble souls of confessional poetry. They are rather the ignoble souls of “unconfessional” poetry, souls as enthusiastically defective as our own. Souls of those who would happily sleep with every pretty woman in sight, for example . . .
Henri Michaux’s poetry includes aspects of the self one wishes not to tell, confess, admit, know.
What a relief to see the truth exposed! When confessional poetry is the norm, unconfessional poetry is the antidote.
Once upon a time I feared that only the rare eccentric, as perverse as I, would appreciate Henri Michaux. But I have discovered, happily, this is not the case. I am in good company.
Many writers, both well known and lesser, are Michaux enthusiasts. For example, Paul Auster, Richard Howard, Sydney Lea and David Lehman all count among his fans. John Ashbery interviewed Michaux, as did Allen Ginsberg. (Of Allen Ginsberg, Michaux commented that his energy was trapped in his sexual chakra, but that he sang in a charming way in a taxi once.)
Then somehow, word escaped that I intended to do this project, a book of Michaux translations, and I was deluged with unsolicited translations, many of which were wonderful. Each translator had his own twist, his own particular way of interpreting Henri Michaux. If I’d had my way, I’d have included them all.
After all, how does one translate god? Better to have a few options, just in case the first one doesn’t suit your personal needs or tastes. (Sort of like dress shopping, or getting married, you don’t just take the first one off the rack. You try each one on for size.)
And who wants just one?
There is no such thing as enough when it comes to Henri Michaux. The book due out later this year from Cleveland State, a sample of which follows — translations by Ann McGarrell, Steven Reese and myself — is only the first book I plan to complete, honoring this great Belgian poet. —Poland, Ohio, December 23, 2001