A Certain Plume, by Henri Michaux, translated by Richard Sieburth, New York Review Books, 2018, 240 pages, $16.00
Gide may have infamously rejected Proust’s manuscript of Swann’s Way, but in 1941 he was right about then-obscure poet Henri Michaux. In a lecture Gide prepared but was prevented from delivering—it apparently offended the Légion française des Anciens combattants, a Vichy organization—he tells his imagined audience, “Rest assured, if I’ve come to tell you about him, it’s because he’s really worth it.”
Indeed, Michaux later emerged as one of the major French-language poets of the twentieth century, though he never subscribed to—nor can he easily be classified into—any of the Modernist literary movements. His works range from comic prose poems to travelogues to mescaline-fueled texts. He was prolific, too, with dozens of publications to his name.
But curiously, he doesn’t mention any of his publications in his brief autobiography, “Some Specifics about Fifty-Nine Years of Existence, by H.M.” Instead, he refers only to the activity of writing, perhaps to gesture at the value of writing itself rather than that of being a published writer. In fact, he seemed to scorn prestige: he is the only author ever to reject the canonization of his complete works in the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, France’s preeminent editorial collection.
It was judicious of translator Richard Sieburth to open A Certain Plume, a new English translation of Michaux’s most famous book of poetry, with “Specifics,” even though it was written decades after the collection first appeared in 1930, when the author was thirty-one. Indeed, Michaux’s idiosyncratic autobiography, organized as an austere timeline, reveals the bleak outlook that drives the poems. He is perpetually dissatisfied with his circumstances, beginning in early childhood.
But Michaux’s discovery of books and language soon offers him escape from his surroundings; in the dictionary he comes upon “words you could put to use however you pleased.” Latin quickly becomes “a gorgeous language which set him off from the others, which transplants him: his first departure.” Michaux finds solace in more literal departures as well. In 1929, “He travels against. To expel the country he was born in, his various attachments, and everything that despite himself he carries within himself.” His Belgian origins, a mark of inferiority in his eyes, seem to overshadow all that he accomplishes.
And so he traverses the globe, visiting New York, Ecuador, Turkey, Italy, and North Africa. But it is only when he goes farther east, to India, China and Indonesia—“countries about which he will have to meditate and ruminate for years to come”—that he seems to find a cure for his bitterness. Later in life, drugs and art also offer a sense of release. He would experiment with hallucinogens, primarily mescaline, and devote himself to painting in his final decade.
A Certain Plume is the product of a pre-revelation Michaux, however. Cynicism and animosity permeate the collection, providing the undercurrent to the lighthearted poems about Plume, his alter ego, and palpably emanating from the serious, more introspective pieces. Michaux writes his way out of his Belgitude through Plume, which means “pen” in French. Plume also means “feather,” and like his namesake, Michaux’s protagonist floats from one thing to the next. He is meek and milquetoast—traits that become all the more apparent when Michaux throws him into absurd situations. Take “Plume at the Restaurant,” which finds Plume enjoying a chop before the maître d’ accuses him of ordering something that isn’t on the menu. Plume, flustered, apologizes profusely:
—What happened is that I was in such a rush that I didn’t bother to consult the menu. So I just asked whether by chance I might have a chop, thinking that there might be one available if not here at least somewhere in the neighborhood, but also completely ready to order something altogether different should there be none on hand. The waiter, who did not seem particularly taken aback by my request, brought me the chop shortly thereafter, so here I am…
The situation escalates, as Plume must explain himself to the owner of the restaurant, then to a policeman, then to the chief of police, and finally to the interrogators of the Criminal Investigation Department. The chain of events recalls The Trial, with Plume assuming the role of Josef K.
Many of the comic prose poems follow a similar narrative, as Plume responds passively to the increasingly absurd circumstances in which he finds himself. But it never feels like Michaux is simply writing the same poem over and over again. Rather, he finds fresh and vivid ways to convey the uncanny. He creates worlds that closely resemble reality but tweaks logic just enough to make an otherwise mundane situation spiral out of control.
Plume can respond to an incomprehensible world only with commensurate irrationality, either through his unquestioning acceptance of his circumstances or through the opposite: extreme violence. “The Night of the Bulgarians,” for instance, opens as follows:
—So there we were, on our way back. We took the wrong train. And finding ourselves with a bunch of Bulgarians who were babbling away and wouldn’t sit still, we decided to deal with the situation right then and there. We drew our revolvers and shot them.
Michaux describes the scene with ironic detachment, as violence becomes ordinary and even sensible. We laugh, not because we’re in on the joke—as is the case in poems that feature the hapless Plume accepting the absurdities of the world—but because the joke’s on us this time. He gets the better of us, foreclosing rational narrative with violent death.
By shifting logic as we know it rather than overhauling it, Michaux sets himself apart from his contemporaries, namely the surrealists who sought to transcend reality. Yet, he occasionally borrows from surrealism, particularly the practice of juxtaposing disparate objects. But unlike Breton, who saw “convulsive beauty” in such juxtapositions, Michaux uses them to caricature the chaos he seeks to escape, especially in later sections of the book where the name Plume is dropped almost altogether in favor of short journal-like entries. “The Night of Impediments,” for instance, consists entirely of images such as the following:
And this pillow now all crawling with octopuses!
And should the necktie become sticky glue.
And should the eye become a young blind sparsely tufted mallard, about to be slain by the first frost.
However surrealist these descriptions may seem, they are ultimately objective correlatives of a despair that distances Michaux from the surrealist project. This becomes clear at the poem’s end, when he asks, to no response, “How escape from all this? How escape?”
These questions haunt him throughout the collection. In one sequence, he bemoans his subjection to fate, misfortune, and death, yet he somehow manages to hold onto “a scintilla of hope” in spite of it all. But if “The Portrait of A.,” in essence an autobiography, offers any indication, that hope is unfounded. The life of A.—“one of these nondescript existences”—is characterized by Michaux’s insecurity, despair, and inaction. He attempts to navigate himself and the world only to confront mortality time and time again. “But soon he’ll die…” And with that ominous ellipses, the poem ends.
In the preface to A Certain Plume, the late British writer Lawrence Durrell calls Michaux “The Poet of Supreme Solipsism.” The epithet is fitting, as the self was everything and nothing to Michaux. “SELF makes itself up out of everything,” he proclaims in the post-face. Later, he asserts that “There is no single self. There are not ten selves. There is no self. SELF is but a point of equilibrium.” That he contained multitudes may have offered the greatest remedy to his self-loathing: how could he detest himself if there was no self to detest?
Michaux’s many selves are embodied in his poems, which might be considered a series of self-portraits, whether he transforms into his alter egos or dissolves into a world of objects. But he always remains Plume in name—a feather floating from self to self and a pen writing his varied and singular selves into existence.
Michaux translated his selves into written expression, but did he think the poems themselves could have multiple selves in translation? When approached by Durrell about translating the Plume poems, Michaux expressed skepticism: “He was doubtful about what he described as ‘the propriety of the act.’ He had always felt that one poem belonged to one language. Would the Delphic oracle yield its meaning to a foreign tongue?”
Despite his initial apprehension, Michaux was apparently cooperative with Durrell, who became his first translator. Richard Sieburth, meanwhile, was on his own. A Certain Plume appears in English 40 years after Michaux’s death, meaning that Sieburth never received the poet’s blessing nor had the luxury—or burden—of consulting him. But Michaux likely would have approved of Sieburth’s versions, even if, or rather because, Sieburth often rejects the more literal, commonplace, and expected translation. By favoring more daring solutions, he preserves the salient qualities of the French, particularly the colloquial register, ironic tone, and fluidity of the prose. And his achievement does not go unrecognized: A Certain Plume recently received the PEN Award for Poetry in Translation.
This should come as no surprise: Sieburth is a leading translator of French and German literature and has produced especially fine versions of Maurice Scève’s Délie, Louise Labé’s Love Sonnets and Elegies, and Hölderlin’s Hymns and Fragments. A scholar of Modernism, he is also no stranger to Michaux, having written on him and translated his poetry on two previous occasions (Stroke by Stroke and Emergences-Resurgences, two formally experimental works published late in his life).
With A Certain Plume, Sieburth has done a great service not only to English readers but also to readers of French, in that he revives the out-of-print 1930 French edition, as the original collection graces the left-hand pages in the NYRB edition. The right-hand pages, meanwhile, showcase Sieburth’s masterful English renderings.
Aside from inviting close scrutiny of the translation, the en face format more immediately draws attention to the discrepancy in length between the French and English versions. More often than not, Sieburth’s translations are longer than Michaux’s poems. This is rather peculiar, as French-to-English translations tend to be shorter than their original counterparts. Whereas French prose inherently uses Latinate words and accommodates longer sentences, English writing favors short Anglo-Saxon words and stresses economy and concision.
Sieburth says that he sought above all to capture the “velocity, [the] sense of breakneck acceleration (and its attendant accidents)” in his translations—a goal that would seem to go hand-in-hand with shorter translations. Yet he achieves that sense of speed by using more words rather than fewer. Often, what allows for the speed in the French is the informal tone, which Sieburth sustains through lively idioms rather than shorter, more straightforward solutions. “Tooting away on his whistle” for “en sifflotant” [whistling], “let him have a crack at it” for “qu’il le fasse” [let him do it], and “fine and dandy” for “bien” [good] are just a few examples of Sieburth’s many delightful renderings.
One particular example stands out in this respect, as it involves an unexpected case of wordplay in translation. At the beginning of the comic prose poem “The Yanking Off of Heads,” an unnamed character pulls someone’s hair, at which point the head falls off “in one fell swoop.” Michaux/Sieburth then offers the following words of wisdom for what to do with the bleeding head:
When a head is no longer sitting on its shoulders, you have a problem on your hands. You have to give it away. But first you’ll need to wash it, because it will stain the hand of the person you’re giving it to. The head definitely needs to be washed. Otherwise the person who has received the head, his hands bathed in blood, will grow suspicious and start looking at you like someone awaiting further explanations.
The wordplay comes in the first sentence, with the idiom “you have a problem on your hands,” which can be taken both figuratively and literally. No such wordplay, however, exists in the French, which simply reads “elle [la tête] embarrasse” (“it [the head] poses a problem”). Sieburth adds the wordplay, an appropriate choice given that Michaux is making light of this voice of “reason.” One might argue that translators should never add their own flourishes, but Sieburth knows better than to abide by such an absolute. Sieburth considers what Michaux might write if he were writing in English, and enriches the poem in the process.
There are times when Sieburth arguably goes too far. In the collection’s opening poem “A Peaceable Man,” for instance, Plume, asleep in his home, is continuously woken by increasingly absurd circumstances, none of which bother him in the slightest. He simply goes back to sleep, indifferent to it all. “So it goes,” he says twice, first after he notices that his house—walls and all—has been stolen and second after he finds that his wife, who was lying beside him a moment before, has been dismembered by a train. “So it goes” is far from a literal translation; the French reads “Bah, la chose est faite” (“Well, the thing is done,” or more idiomatically, “what’s done is done”) in the first instance and “Mais puisqu’il [le train] est déjà passé…” (“But since it [the train] has already passed…”) in the second. Sieburth also makes a kind of anachronistic reference by opting for “so it goes,” which brings to mind Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, published in 1969. If examined in isolation, these translations might be considered “unfaithful,” but in the context of the poem—and indeed the entire collection—“so it goes” captures Plume’s sober yet comical resignation, which aligns him with Billy Pilgrim and brings out the black humor of Michaux’s poetry.
One has to wonder if Sieburth’s predilection for looser translations might have something to do with his interest in Pound. To be sure, he does not go as far as Pound, who produced infamously free translations (the chorus in his version of Elektra, for instance, cries “'God, where the hell are you, Zeus?”). But Sieburth has internalized Pound’s Modernist injunction to “make it new.” For a translator, this is a challenge to take risks, to opt for the livelier, if more controversial, rendering rather than the obvious—often duller—solution.
Sieburth, of course, does not always choose the riskier translation—sometimes the obvious solution is in fact the best. But he takes risks when it counts, when a sentence or phrase has the potential to dazzle, to make the prose that much fresher, with the addition of a lively phrase, resonant idiom, or whatever it takes to animate the words around it. If the task of the translator is to “make it new,” to bring a work into English prose that both pulses with life and does justice to the original’s salient qualities, then Sieburth shows in A Certain Plume that it pays to be bold.
Alice Yang graduated from Yale in 2019. She is the former editor-in-chief of the Yale Journal of Literary Translation.