Literary Hub

J.M.G. Le Clézio on the Expansive, Immersive Quality of Great Poetry

What is surprising in Henri Michaux’s poetry is its strength, strength combined with great silence. There is probably no other poet in this Western world (his poems are naturally closer to Eastern poetry, and the quest for economy of the haikai no renga / hokku) who can say so much with so few words.

The power of those words is one of action, because they are not illustrative, not pretext, but immediate creation like a gesture, like a dance. We are struck by the urgency of what is said, of what is shown: hidden things, sometimes sacred things, which we were unable to see and which had remained in the background of consciousness; things we kept, unbeknownst to us, as if hidden in the back of our head, and the pain of which we confusedly felt. New, unusual things, too fast for our eyes, too distant for our senses; things on the edge of infinity, at the limit of sound, color, taste, heat. Because it was sometimes things meant for bats and for fireflies rather than for humans: thus the resurgence of Qui je fus [Who I Was] or the magical notations of Passages.

Michaux knows how to capture these things, then to offer them through the vibration of a few syllables. We should talk about his animal senses, that natural magic, of that sense that he also gives us, sometimes, when he wants.

Poetry has the unique ability to convey this feeling of being in a place, standing on a land.

The gaze of an eagle, the ear of a coyote, the skin of a snake, the speed of great sharks, the aerial speed of flies, or the slowness of jellyfish. All those living secrets are in his words, because they are born of a rhythm, an act, and not out of logical thought. It is difficult for us to perceive everything, to receive everything. Messages explode, images burst forth, words streak through space, erupt; or, on the contrary, there are long, weighty movements that hold us back, freeze us in their mass; fear, the anguish of “Ralentie,” the darkening dream of “La Grande Garabagne.” When a poem ends, however, we feel the terrible silence, and we want to live in the poetry for ever. It takes us many days to reach the end of only one of these features. It takes an entire life, perhaps, to dare to see the what is around the unknown territory where the poet has already found his home.

“Iniji,” “Icebergs,” those two extreme poems of the French language (written decades apart), are among the most beautiful borne by the language, the purest, the truest. What do the artifices of style, technical prowess, hidden meanings matter when the poetry is this force, this instinct, this act tied to the elements of life in the universe? I want to read Henri Michaux’s poetry the way one travels: following the whims of the rails, the roads and the ocean currents, sometimes in reverse, or facing the future, discovering lands one had never dreamt of. Poetry has the unique ability to convey this feeling of being in a place, standing on a land. Michaux’s words distance us from our world, guide us to adventure, offer us another world. To read is to travel, for we forget who / where / what we are, we hear a new language.

Who hasn’t wished that they could pass through an image, and live in it?

One need only listen to the words of Henri Michaux.

15 June 1978


We wander, and wander, lost on the vast, opaque expanse where there are no words, without knowing where we are going, not guided by any light, abandoned, and who will come look for us where we are? We don’t hear. We can scarcely see, as if through sheets of fog, in regions where there is no longer land and not yet sea. We don’t feel. We drift along rudderless, but we are separated at birth from life, we can’t see the point where the sun rises.

There are words that travel over the opaque expanse. They go by like birds, quickly, following their incomprehensible route. But we can’t follow them. They fly north, to regions where the air is pure, where one can see for miles on end.

We have been drifting rudderless for so long. Perhaps we no longer have a face, perhaps no more hands. Or perhaps we have fallen asleep, the sleep of the exhausted, because we no longer want to wait.

Something will appear. That is certain. It is impossible that that won’t happen. In their sleep, prophets dream, they suddenly see, through a gap, the marvelous light, the very great beauty beyond the fog. Above the masts, the crows nests watch. On the cliffs, the lookouts constantly watch the sky and the sea, their eyes are hardened, they want to pierce a tiny hole in the depths of space.

The air is made of stone, the water is made of stone.

The mind is made of stone, hardened by the cold, scrambled by the fog, and words are as foreign as meteorites. Where are we going now? No one knows yet. We look at each other, we hold out our hands and we touch our bodies, when we happen to meet. We are on this huge barge pierced with portholes traveling on the sea. We hear the hesitation of the engines, the sound of the rods, the screeching of the pulleys, the pounding sea that strikes the bow, the cliffs, wave after wave. We hear hearts beat.

“Where are we going?”

But it’s mainly the sound of the sea that we constantly hear, day and night. It never leaves us. It is a familiar and distant sound that fills all the streets and all the avenues, parks, esplanades, more powerful than the sound of machines and people; it arrives intermittently, the sound of waves that crash, the sound of the surf, the constant murmuring of water that wears away, of water and wind. For we have left on a voyage. We know we are sailing, now, on the open sea.

Language, beauty where we no longer act, but it is we who have become verbs, nouns.

The plains of grey asphalt are vast, and in the distance we see the white line of buildings that grow more distant. We have departed, perhaps without any hope of returning. Oh, if that could be the final departure, and then the connecting rods and the gears would never stop, the wind would never cease blowing, the birds would never cease squawking, and in the dark depths torpedo-like fish would follow!

The last houses still hold us, with their walls and their enclosures. Telephone lines unwind around us, cables, cords we must cut with the blow of an axe to be free. We’re leaving! We are borne on the wide deck, far away, on the endless sea! We advance, we cross borders. Perhaps the movement is in us now, a slow, calm and strong movement, a breath that expires, at length, and we are traveling on the wind that comes out of that mouth.

Language, beauty where we no longer act, but it is we who have become verbs, nouns. The one who has begun to speak now, in the poem, opens the expanse of the ocean, under the sky, traces the circle of the horizon, and we depart, we advance, we travel across its domain . . .

Sometimes during the day, and sometimes at night, we continue on the route it creates, carried by the wind of its words, vibrating with the energy of its life, lit by the light of its gaze.

Even when the words cease, we cannot forget them. They continue to echo in space, blending with the sound of the sea. We have no other memory.

We are on an asphalt esplanade, at two in the afternoon, in the sun, not very far from the road where cars are rumbling. The top of the petrol station tank is very white, the wind kicks up little clouds of dust. We smell the odor of the heat. Human shapes move silently on the ground, like shadows. Here, no one speaks, no one. There is only the distant movement of cars, shadows, clouds of dust, the bursts of reflections on glass and steel.

We are here, and yet the voice of the poem continues to push us on the sea, thousands of kilometers away, behind the high bow that cuts through the waves. The entire city is moving, on the silent deck, it advances in the middle of the sea with its buildings, its skyscrapers, its parks, it trembles, it wavers, it creeps under the sky. It is the voice of the poem that carries us, like that, effortlessly, towards other regions on earth, northwards.

Even when the words cease, we cannot forget them.

Who doesn’t know? They go to the railings, to the vantage points, they climb to the tops of skyscrapers, they lean out of balconies; they seek subterranean rooms where perhaps there are hidden machines, then head off to the outskirts, groups of men and women with troubled faces, intent on possessing space. Sea birds fly along the coasts, squawking. Sometimes the wind blows and sweeps away the fog, and storms beat against the rocks.

Without the voice that speaks to us, we would run aground. We would be immobile, not seeing anything but the dry expanse of stone and sand, a few puddles, a few streams and the low sky filled with fog. We wouldn’t see the sea. We would be prisoners of our cells, locked up, alone, we would no longer see the sky or the birds, we would no longer go north, to the calm and cold land that awaits us.

How did this voyage begin? The voice doesn’t say a lot, it is the voice of a man of few words. It is a distant voice, which doesn’t want to say too much. It speaks with strange words that are cold and pure, words that strike just once, that shine with a single fixed burst, like a star.

But they are strong. They shine with a single light, like the shine of eyes, and that light illuminates space. Powerful words push us forwards, pull us away from our inhabited coasts, they make our bodies vibrate and our hearts beat faster. The words make something inside us turn around, and that is why we are traveling. It is a voice for our motor, a voice to open up the routes over the expanse of the sea, it guides us and helps us with each of its words. The voice speaks softly, never stopping. The words appear, they are written on the white page. They come right side up, upside down, they shine, they fade, clouds of dust pass over them. But we always find them, in their place, just like points in the firmament.

Are they indeed words? I don’t really know any more what words are, nor images, nor ideas. No, they are things, which shine and weigh down with all their strength, calm and beautiful things, visible everywhere, signs without mystery, clear drawings, bodies that dance, shout, the slow flight of cormorants, rapid sharks in the icy water, snow-capped mountains in the distance, valleys, bridges, the wake of ships, the vapor of reactors, footprints on the sand. The words of the voice that speaks are like that, and many other things, too.


From Mydriasis Followed by To The Icebergs by J. M. G. Le Clézio translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan. Excerpted by permission of the publisher, Seagull Books. Originally published in French as Mydriase suivi de Vers les Icebergs. Copyright © Mercure de France, 2016. ‘Iniji’ by Henri Michaux © Éditions Gallimard, 1973. First published in English translation by Seagull Books, 2019. English translation copyright © Teresa Lavender Fagan, 2019. 

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