Tuesday, September 1, 2009

“I Am Writing To You From A Far Off Country”

Since I started Translation Tuesday, I’ve thought about posting my version of Henri Michaux’s justifiably celebrated poem, “Je vous ecris d’un pays lointain.” Michaux’s original is a poem I truly love, & I believe my translation has some merits—but I held off posting the poem because, by blog standards it’s practically an epic. But I’ll not let that deter me! Here’s the poem without further ado. The original also is in prose by the way—like a great many of Michaux’s poems.

“I Am Writing To You From A Far Off Country”


    Here we only, she says, have sun once a month, and just for a short time. We rub our eyes days in advance. But it’s no use. Inexorable weather. Sunlight only arrives on time.
    Then we have a world of things to do, as long as there’s light, so much there’s scarcely time to look at each other a little.
    Trouble for us is we have to work at night, and we really have to: dwarves are born constantly.


    When you walk in the country, she confides to him further, you may happen to run into some considerable masses in the road. These are mountains and sooner or later you have to kneel down to them. It doesn’t do any good to resist, you couldn’t go any further, even if you did yourself harm.
    I don’t say this to be hurtful. I could says other things if I really wanted to be hurtful.


    Dawn is gray here, she says to him further. It wasn’t always like this. We don’t know whom to accuse.
    At night, the cattle’s loud bellows grow long and flute-like at the end. We have compassion, but what can be done?
    The odor of eucalyptus surrounds us: a blessing, serenity, but it can’t protect us from everything; or else do you think it really can protect us from everything.


    I’m adding another word to you, a question rather.
    Does water flow in your country too? (I don’t remember if you’ve told me) and it gives the chills, if it’s the real thing.
    Am I fond of it? I don’t know. One feels so alone inside when it’s cold. It’s altogether different when it’s warm. So? How do I decide? How do you others decide, tell me, when you talk about it with no disguises, with open hearts?


    I am writing to you from the end of the world. You have to realize this. The trees often tremble. We gather the leaves. They’ve got an insane number of veins. But what’s the use? Nothing more between them and the tree, and we scatter, embarrassed.
    Couldn’t life on earth continue without wind? Or does everything always have to tremble, always?
    There are subterranean disturbances too, and in the house as well, like rages that come right up to you, like severe beings who want to wring out confessions.
    We see nothing, only things it doesn’t matter to see. Nothing, and nonetheless we tremble. Why?


    Here we all live with lumps in our throats. Do you realize that, although I’m very young, in the past I was even younger, and my companions likewise. What does that mean? Surely there’s something horrible in that.
    And in the past when, as I’ve already told you, we were even younger, we were afraid. Someone might have profited from our confusion. Someone might have told us:
    “Look, we’re going to bury you. The time has come.” We thought: “It’s true, we could very well be buried this evening, if it’s been established that it’s time.”
    And we didn’t dare run too much: Out of breath, at the end of a race, coming right up to a ditch, and no time to say a word, not a breath.
    Tell me, what’s the secret in this connection?


    There are constantly, she tells him further, lions in the village that stroll around without the least constraint. Providing we pay no attention to them, they don’t pay any attention to us.
    But if they see a girl running away from them, they won’t excuse her anxiety. No! they devour her immediately.
    That’s why they stroll around constantly in the village where they have nothing to do, since they could yawn just as well elsewhere, isn’t that obvious?


    For a long, long time, she confides to him, we’ve had a dispute with the sea.
    Those rare times she’s blue, mild, we could believe she’s content. But that can’t last. Her odor says it anyway, an odor of rot (if it wasn’t her bitterness).
    Here I should explain the affair with the waves. It’s insanely complicated, and the sea... I implore you, have faith in me. Would I want to deceive you? She isn’t just a word. She isn’t just a fear. She exists, I swear: she’s seen constantly.
    By whom? Why we, we see her. She comes from very far off to quarrel with us and scare us.
    When you come, you’ll see her yourself, you’ll be completely astonished. “Hey!” you’ll say, since she’s stupefying.
    We’ll look at her together. I’m sure that I won’t feel afraid anymore. Tell me, will this never happen?


    I can’t leave you with any doubts, she continues, or with a lack of faith. I’d like to speak to you about the sea again. But there’s still this quandary. Streams go forward; but she doesn’t. Listen, don’t be annoyed, I swear I’d never dream of deceiving you. She’s like that. However strongly she stirs, she stops for a bit of sand. It’s a huge impediment. She certainly wants to move forward, but facts are facts.
    Later on maybe, someday she’ll move forward.


    “We’re more than ever surrounded by ants”, says her letter. Uneasy, bellies against the ground, they kick up dust. They don’t take any interest in us.
    Not one raises its head.
    It’s the most closed society that could exist, although they spread constantly outside. It doesn’t matter, their fulfilled schemes, their preoccupations... they’re among themselves... everywhere.
    And up till now not one has raised its head toward us. It’d rather be squashed.


    She writes to him further:
    “You can’t imagine everything that’s in the sky, you have to see it to believe it. So, here you go, the... but I’m not going to tell you their name just now.”
    Despite an air of being very heavy and despite taking up almost the whole sky, they don’t weigh, big as they are, as much as a newborn baby.
    We call them clouds.
    It’s true they give off water, but not by squeezing them or by pulverizing them. This would be useless, since they hold so little.
    But provided that they take up lengths upon lengths, and widths upon widths, and depths, too, upon depths, and that they swell up, in the long run they let a few drops of water, yes, water, fall. And we get good and soaked. We run away furious at having been trapped; because no one knows the moment when they’re going to let their raindrops loose; sometimes they hold off for days without letting them loose. And one would stay home in vain waiting.


    Education about chills isn’t handled well in this country. We’re ignorant of the real rules and when the event arises, we’re taken by surprise.
    It’s Time, of course. (Is it the same where you are?) One has to get there sooner than it does; you see what I mean to say, no more than just a little bit beforehand. Do you know the story of the flea in the drawer? Yes, of course. And it’s so true, isn’t it! I don’t know what more to say. When are we going to see each other at last?

Henri Michaux
translation John Hayes © 1990-2009


  1. What a wonderful job you did translating this. I think I may have to read it several times to even come close to understanding it's meaning. It's very personal.
    This would be a great poem to just sit and discuss for a bit.

    Peace - Rene

  2. Yes! It is the same where I Am! :).
    .......they don’t weigh, big as they are, as much as a newborn baby.
    We call them clouds.....
    Wonderful.Thank You Sir.

  3. I was going to mention the same bit about the clouds, but I see Tony has beat me to it. Very lovely piece. I love the flow of the prose.

    I wonder about the flea in the drawer.

  4. It's a fine translation and a fine version (the two things all too rarely coinciding in translated poetry.) You've both captured the epistolatory nature of the piece and served the not-quite-surrealism of the content so well.

  5. Hi Rene, Tony, Willow & Dick:

    Rene: Yes there is so much to explore here. One thing I might have mentioned in the intro--the speaker always uses the more formal "vous" form for "you" & not the more intimate "tu." This is important, I think.

    Tony: Thanks for stopping by!

    Willow: Yes, there are so many enigmatic details in this poem; it's kind of maze-like in its details.

    Dick: Thanks for those kind words. I guess as a translator one always tries to balance the necessities of "translation" & "version." Since I have a background as a poet, I think sometimes I've fallen more on that side--after all, by being so faithful to an original that it comes out as poor English poetry (because of the syntactical etc. discrepencies) it's pretty hard to convince someone that a given poem might be really good in the original!

  6. I enjoyed reading it and I couldn't get the feeling that there was something blog-like about it. A succession of related image posts all around a central theme. It could have been a Theme Thursday entry about sixty years early.

  7. My! What a job in translating. I agree with Rene - this would be wonderful for discussion, but it's almost too much to tackle here. There's so much in there. May we come over and sit on your porch awhile?

  8. Hi Alan & Karen:

    Alan: Glad you liked it. Interesting thought re: being blog like. I suppose blogs--at least many of them--have a sort of letter-like quality.

    Karen: Thanks! I'd love to have you all come over & hang out on the porch! I'll tune up the banjo & we can talk about Michaux!

  9. this is the peom that i gotta do for my assignment, and the questions are: who is speaking in this poem? Is it the poet, someone else, a fictional speaker the poet has inveneted?
    WHo is the speaker talking to?
    What is the speaker's main concern in this poem/?

    I think the water is speaking and it is talking to clouds or wind. is it right ..?? not quite sure..? and what is speaker's main concern...???


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