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|Simplicity: The Prose Poems of Henri Michaux|
|by P. G. R. Nair|
Born in Belgium in 1899, Henri Michaux (1899-1984) defies common critical definition. He was educated at a Jesuit school in Brussels. He contemplated entering the priesthood then enrolled in medical school before abandoning his studies and becoming a merchant seaman. A painter as well as poet, he travelled widely in Africa and Asia and also supported himself in Paris as a teacher and secretary. His voyages inspired two travelogues on Ecuador and Asia. He finally settled in Paris, where he began to write and paint. In 1948, Michaux's wife died after accidentally setting fire to her nightgown: devastated, he began to take mescaline, a hallucinating drug, painstakingly recording his experiences in prose-poems accompanied by distinctive calligraphic line drawings. He has authored more than 30 books of poems, prose poems, essays, journals, and drawings. Whether in poetry or prose, his weird visions seem to emerge as messages from his inner space.
In the above poem, the immediate scene is a restaurant; one diner takes a dislike to another; instead of letting his hatred build and struggling to control it, he simply lets go and attacks the man for no apparent reason.
I think Michaux is talking here about the restlessness of human beings and their predisposition to indulge in power games. One can take it is a metaphor for violent emotion, for an emptiness arising out of hate, for dissatisfaction, for needing something "strong" to distract one from existential angst etc. What I like about him is that Michaux is very good in casting psychological insight in physical terms rather than mental terms.
Let us consider another interesting prose poem titled ‘Simplicity’.
What man has not fantasized some version of complete sexual freedom as described by Michaux in this poem? Though tongue-in-check blend of surrealism, common sense, and outrageous male egoism, the poet arrives at the ultimate reductive male version of the ‘good life’: good work and good sex. Another underlying theme may be that he wants to eliminate the superficial and artificial and liberate the core of his self from the external problems.
One aspect we can notice from the above two poems is that they are devoid of beautiful phrases and embellishments. Michaux fundamentally distrusted beautiful language.
In the last poem I have quoted here titled “The Jetty”, an old man tosses back into the ocean an entire lifetime’s worth of treasured moments, memories which no longer hold for him any value, but their weight eventually pulls him under the water.
To conclude, Michaux writings are purposefully impersonal and unembellished. They celebrate every aspect of the self. As the translator Nin Andrews rightly observes - “ It was as if the poems were written by a detached and bemused observer, a witness both above and beneath the normal “I”. No matter what spiritual heights a Michaux character aspired to, there was no depth to which his character wouldn’t plunge, no temple he might not desecrate. Happily, many an “I” was not sophisticated, holy or resplendent. In fact, many were what one might call the unconfesssed “I”, the “I” one might deny, repress, ignore; the “I” who often makes no sense and is logical as a dream , a serious as a clown, as gentle and mannerly as a rhinoceros, loose on streets. The “I” in Michaux’s work was often the socially unacceptable one a person might delete from family photo albums or from memory.”
For some, reading Michaux could be like undergoing multiple weather changes, display of thoughts that might last in their realm for a few days or moments and then vanish without leaving trace. For others, he might be an icon who clearly and clinically presents the algebra of human sufferings in spare, almost antiseptic terms. The truth is that we are enchanted by his writings at every reading.
It is common place to say that great writers augment our experience realm. I have no doubt that Michaux does that more than most.
As Gide rightly remarked, “Michaux excels in making us feel intuitively both the strangeness of natural things and the naturalness of strange things.”
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