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Darkness Moves: An Henri Michaux Anthology, 1927-1984

Darkness Moves: An Henri Michaux Anthology, 1927-1984

by Henri Michaux

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Henri Michaux defies common critical definition. Critics have compared his work to such diverse artists as Kafka, Goya, Swift, Klee, and Beckett. Allen Ginsberg called Michaux “genius,” and Jorge Luis Borges wrote that Michaux’s work “is without equal in the literature of our time.” This anthology contains substantial selections from


Henri Michaux defies common critical definition. Critics have compared his work to such diverse artists as Kafka, Goya, Swift, Klee, and Beckett. Allen Ginsberg called Michaux “genius,” and Jorge Luis Borges wrote that Michaux’s work “is without equal in the literature of our time.” This anthology contains substantial selections from almost all of Michaux’s major works, most never before published in English, and allows readers to explore the haunting verbal and pictorial landscape of a twentieth-century visionary.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
French painter Michaux (1899-1984) explored the subconscious mind and the effects of such hallucinogens as mescalin not only in pigment but in poetry. Here, poet Ball offers a generous and delightful selection from Michaux's published works; his translation skills bring Michaux's words to life in English, giving them the same energy and nimbleness they have in their original French. Many of the works in this anthology are prose poems, but this is essentially a collection of verse, one that requires continual reading the way a bag of peanuts requires continual eating. Observations on human interactions, as well as the life of the mind, abound. Highly recommended for most public and academic libraries; this poetry should have wide appeal. (Photos not seen.)-Francisca Goldsmith, Berkeley P.L., Cal.
Elizabeth T. Gray
David Ball has assembled and translated a stunning selection of Michaux's works.....We feel the fears, hysteria, and humor, and respond to the beauty and awe. -- Elizabeth T. Gray

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University of California Press
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Read an Excerpt

Darkness Moves

An Henri Michaux Anthology, 1927-1984

By David Ball


Copyright © 1994 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-92040-8






    He grabowerates him and grabacks him to the ground;
    He rads him and rabarts him to his drat;
    He braddles him and lippucks him and prooks his bawdles;
    He tackreds him and marmeens him
    Mandles him rasp by rip and risp by rap.
    And he deskinnibilizes him at the end.

    The other hesitates; he is bittucked, unapsed, torsed and ruined.
    He'll be done for soon.
    He mendles and marginates himself ... but in vain,
    The far-rolling hoop falls down.
    Abrah! Abrah! Abrah!
    The foot has failed!
    The arm has broke!
    The blood has flowed!
    Gouge, gouge, gouge,
    In the big pot of his belly there's a great secret
    You hags all around us crying into your handkerchiefs,
    We're amazed, amazed, amazed
    We're watching you
    We're looking for the Great Secret, too.




In my properties everything is flat, nothing moves; there is a shape here and there, but where can that light come from? No shadows.

Occasionally when I have the time, I look around, holding my breath, on the alert; and if I see something emerge, I shoot out in a flash and jump on the spot, but the head—for usually it's a head—sinks back into the swamp; quickly I start digging, it's mud, just ordinary mud or sand, sand ...

All this doesn't open on to a fine sky, either. Even though there is nothing over it, seemingly, you have to walk with a stoop as in a low tunnel.

These properties are my only properties, and I've lived in them since childhood, and really very few people own poorer ones.

Often I wanted to lay out fine avenues in them, I'd put in big landscaped grounds ...

It's not that I like grounds, but ... still.

At other times (it's a mania of mine, it comes back again and again after all my failures), in life outside or in an illustrated book I see an animal I like, a white egret for example, and I say to myself: now that would be nice in my properties, and then maybe it could multiply—and I take lots of notes and try to learn about everything in the animal's life. My documentation gets fuller and fuller. But when I try to transport it into my property, it always has a few essential organs missing. I struggle. I already have a feeling nothing will come of it this time, either; and as for multiplying, on my properties there is no multiplying—as I know all too well. I busy myself with the new arrival's food, with its air, I plant trees for it, I sow grass, but such are my detestable properties that if I turn my eyes away, or if I'm called out for a moment, when I come back there's nothing left, or only a layer of ash that might, at most, reveal a last wisp of scorched moss ... at most.

And if I stick to it, it's not that I'm stupid.

It's because I am condemned to live in my properties and I've really got to make something out of them.

I'm going to be thirty soon, and I still don't have a thing; naturally I get upset.

I do manage to form an object, or a living thing, or a fragment. For example a branch or a tooth, or a thousand branches and a thousand teeth. But where can I put them? Some people effortlessly succeed in making clumps of plants, crowds ... whole arrangements.

Not me. A thousand teeth, yes, a hundred thousand teeth, yes, and some days in my property I have a hundred thousand pencils in front of me, but what can I do in a field with a hundred thousand pencils? It's not appropriate—or else let's throw in a hundred thousand draughtsmen.

Fine, but as I work to form a draughtsman (and when I've got one, I've got a hundred thousand), there go my hundred thousand pencils up in smoke.

And if I'm preparing a jaw for the tooth, or a digestive and excretory system, as soon as the envelope is ready, when I'm putting in the pancreas and the liver there go the teeth—gone!—and soon the jaw, too, and then the liver, and when I'm up to the anus, only the anus is left; I'm really disgusted, because if I have to go back to the colon, the small intestine and the gallbladder again, and everything again and again, in that case, no! No.

In front and in back, right away it disappears—it just can't wait a second.

That's why my properties are always absolutely bare of everything, except for some living thing, or a series of living things, which only reinforces the general poverty and is like a monstrous, unbearable advertisement for the general desolation.

So I rub everything out, and only the swamps are left, without anything else, swamps that are my property and will drive me to despair.

And if I persist, I really don't know why.

But sometimes it all becomes animated, life swarms all over. It's visible, there's no doubt about it. I'd always had a feeling there was something in it, I feel full of zest. But now here comes a woman from the outside, she's riddling me with innumerable pleasures, but so close together that it's all only one instant, and carrying me away in the same instant many, many times around the world ... (As for me, I haven't dared to invite her on a visit to my properties in the state they're in, of poverty, of quasi-inexistence.) Fine! on the other hand, worn out as I am from so many trips I can't understand at all, which were just so much perfume, soon I run away from her, cursing women once again. And now, utterly lost on this planet, I go wailing after my properties which are nothing, but which are familiar ground all the same, and don't give me that impression of absurdity I find everywhere else.

I spend weeks looking for my land, humiliated, lonely; you can insult me as much as you like at times like this.

I sustain myself with the conviction that it's impossible for me not to find my land, and, in fact, one day, a little sooner, a little later, there it is!

What happiness to be on home ground again! It has that look, no place else has it. It's true there are a few changes, it seems to me it slopes a bit more, or it's a bit moister, but the texture of the earth—it's the same texture.

Perhaps there are no abundant crops there. But that texture, you see—it really means something to me. If, however, I go up to it, it blurs into the mass—a mass of small halos.

No matter, it's clearly my land. I can't explain it, but confusing it with other lands would be like confusing myself with someone else: it's impossible.

There's my land and me; then there are foreign places.

Some people have magnificent properties, and I envy them. They see something elsewhere that they like. Good, they say, this will be for my property. No sooner said than done, there it is in their property. How is the transfer carried out? I don't know. Trained in acquiring, in accumulating, from early childhood, they can't see an object without immediately planting it in their property—it happens automatically.

You can't even call it greed; call it reflex.

Some of them are not even quite aware of it. They have magnificent properties that they keep up by the constant exercise of their intelligence and their extraordinary capacities, and they're not even aware of it. But if you should need a plant, however uncommon it may be, or an old carriage of the kind used by Juan V of Portugal, they leave for a moment and immediately bring back what you asked for.

Those who are good at psychology—I mean, not book psychology—may have noticed that I told a lie. I said my properties were land. Now, that has not always been the case. On the contrary, it is quite recent, although it seems so old to me, spanning a few lifetimes, even.

I am trying to remember exactly what they used to be in days gone by.

They were like whirlwinds; like huge pockets, slightly luminous pouches, and they were made of an impalpable though highly dense substance.

Sometimes I go out with a woman I used to be quite close to. The tone of our conversation quickly becomes distressing. Then I brusquely take off for my property. It has the form of a bishop's staff. It is vast, luminous. Light pierces this luminosity and steel crazily trembling like water. And I feel good there; it lasts a few moments, then, out of politeness, I return to the young woman, and I smile. But this smile is such that ... (no doubt because it excludes her), she walks out and slams the door.

That's how it goes with my friend and me. It's always like that.

We'd be better off separating for good. If I had big, rich properties, of course I would leave her. But as things are, I'd better hang on for a while.

To come back to the "land." I was talking about despair. No, on the contrary, a piece of land gives you reasons to have all kinds of hope. You can build on a piece of land, and I'll do it. Now I am sure of it. I am saved. I have a base.

Formerly, since everything was in space, with no ceiling, no ground, naturally if I put in a living thing I would never see it again. It would disappear. It disappeared by falling, that's what I hadn't understood—and I thought it was because I hadn't built well! I would come back a few hours after putting it in, and every time I was astonished by its disappearance. Now that won't happen to me again. It's true my land is still swampy. But I'll dry it out little by little and when it's good and hard, I'll set up a family of workers on it.

It will be nice to walk around on my land. You'll see what I can do with it. I have a huge family. You'll see all kinds of types in it, I haven't showed it yet. But you'll see it. And its development will amaze the world. For it will develop with the avidity and passion of people who have lived a purely spatial life longer than they wished, and who wake up beside themselves with joy, to put on shoes.

Also, in space, any living thing used to be too vulnerable. It wasn't decorative, it stood out like a sore thumb. And all the passersby would smack at it like a target.

Whereas land, once again ...

Oh, it's going to revolutionize my life.

Mother always predicted I'd be wretchedly poor and utterly worthless. Fine. Up to this land she has been right; after the land, we'll see.

I've been the shame of my parents, but we'll see about that, and besides, I'm going to be happy. There will always be lots of company around. You know, I used to be very lonely, sometimes.


I always go to bed very early, dead tired, and yet you couldn't find any tiring work in the course of my day.

Maybe you couldn't find any.

But what suprises me is that I can hang on till evening, and that I'm not forced to get into bed by four o'clock in the afternoon.

What tires me out like that are my continual interventions.

I've already said that in the street I fight with everybody; I slap some man, grab women's breasts, and using my foot as a tentacle I sow panic in the cars of the Metro.

As for books, they harass me more than anything else. I just can't leave a word with its original meaning or even its form.

I catch it and after a few tries I uproot it and lead it definitively away from the author's flock.

There may easily be thousands of sentences in a chapter and I've got to sabotage every one of them. It is absolutely essential to me.

Occasionally, certain words remain like towers. I have to go about it a few times and then, when my demolition has already gone pretty far, all of a sudden, while passing by an idea, I can see that tower again. So, I hadn't knocked it down enough, I have to go back and find the poison for it, and I spend an endless amount of time in this way.

And once the whole book has been read, I lament, for I haven't understood a thing ... naturally. Couldn't enhance myself with anything. I stay thin, and all dried up.

I used to think that when I had destroyed everything, I would be well adjusted, right? Maybe. But it's long in coming, it's really long.


A whitlow causes atrocious suffering. But what made me suffer most was that I couldn't scream. For I was in a hotel. Night had just fallen and my room was in between two others where people were sleeping.

So, I started taking some big bass drums from my skull, and brass, and an instrument with more resonance than an organ. Now, using the prodigious strength that the fever was giving me, I made a deafening orchestra out of them. Everything was shaking with its vibrations.

Then, sure at last that my voice would not be heard over this tumult, I began to howl, to howl for hours, and little by little, I managed to get some relief.


While circulating through my accursed body, I came to a region where the parts of myself were few and far between; to live there, you had to be a saint. In times gone by, I had truly aspired to sainthood, but now that illness was forcing me into it, I struggled against it and 1 still struggle, and it's obvious that I'm not going to survive like this.

If I had been given the opportunity, fine! but to be forced into it—no, I just can't stand it.


In the past, I had too much respect for nature. I would stand before things and landscapes and let them do what they wanted.

That's over and done with: now I will intervene.

So, I was in Honfleur and I was getting bored. Then I resolutely put a bit of camel into it. That did not seem particularly appropriate. No matter, it was my idea. Besides, I acted on it with the greatest caution. First I brought them in on the most crowded days, Saturdays on the Market Place. The traffic jam that followed was indescribable, and the tourists said: "Oh, what a stink! The people here are so filthy!" The smell gained the port and began to overpower the odor of shrimp. People were coming out of the crowd covered with dust and hairs of the lord knows what.

And at night, you should have heard the pounding of the camels' hooves as they tried to cross the canal locks, bong! bong! on the metal and the beams!

The invasion of the camels was carried out with order and safety.

The inhabitants of Honfleur could now be seen squinting all the time with that suspicious look peculiar to camel drivers when they inspect their caravan to make sure nothing is missing and they can continue their journey; but I had to leave Honfleur on the fourth day.

I had also launched a passenger train. It sped out of the Grande Place and rolled resolutely forward with no regard for the weight of the material; it shot forward, saved by faith.

It's a shame I had to leave, but I doubt very much if calm will soon return to that little town of shrimp and mussel fishermen.


Sometimes, when I'm feeling really low and I'm always alone too and I'm in bed, I have my left hand do obeisance to me. It raises itself on my forearm, turns toward me, and salutes me. My left hand is extremely weak, and quite distant toward me. Lazy, too. For it to move, I have to force it a bit. But as soon as it has begun it keeps on going, with a genuine desire to please me. It goes into such genuflections and is so courteous to me that even a third party would be moved.


As I went farther west, I saw nine-segmented insects with huge eyes like graters and latticework corselets like miners' lamps, others with murmuring antennae; some with twenty-odd pairs of legs that looked more like staples; others of black lacquer and mother-of-pearl that crunched underfoot like shells; still others high legged like daddy longlegs with little pin-eyes as red as the eyes of albino mice, veritable glowing coals on stems with an expression of ineffable panic; still others with an ivory head—surprisingly bald, so that suddenly one had the most fraternal feelings for them—so close, their legs kicking forward like piston rods zigzagging in the air.

Finally, there were transparent ones, bottles with hairy spots, perhaps: they came forward by the thousands—glassware, a display of light and sun so bright that afterward everything seemed ash and product of dark night.


It's a shapeless animal, one of the hardiest, three-quarters muscle, and all muscle on the outside, which is almost one foot thick all over. It can climb any rock, even smooth ones.

That skin, normally so amorphous, turns into crampons.

No animal attacks it; too high off the ground for a rhinoceros to crush, it might knock the rhino over instead, as it lacks only speed.

Tigers would break their claws without putting a dent in it, even a flea or a horsefly—or a cobra—can't find a sensitive spot.

And although it is marvelously aware of everything that happens around it (except apparently at the height of summer), absolutely no senses have been found in it.

To eat, it goes into the water: there is a lot of bubbling and above all movement in the water, and fish—perfectly intact—come floating to the surface belly up.

Deprived of water, it dies; the rest is mystery.

On the banks of the rivers where the Emanglom spends a good deal of time, it is not unusual to find crocodiles all smashed to bits.


Excerpted from Darkness Moves by David Ball. Copyright © 1994 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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