Thousand Times Broken: A Conversation with Translator Gillian Conoley [Part I]

The writer Henri Michaux had two great missions in life: to explore the darkest parts of human consciousness, and record what he found in those explorations in the clearest possible way. That’s according to Gillian Conoley, a poet, the founding editor of Volt, and a translator who teaches at Sonoma State University. She’s recently published the first English translations of three of Michaux’s books. Thousand Times Broken is a collection of three works by Michaux which he wrote while experimenting with mescalin, a drug he believed would help him explore “a state in which one part of the brain remains unillusioned and lucid during vision, fantasy, or hallucination.” Gillian Conoley joined Peter Biello (of the Burlington Writers Workshop) on behalf of Three Percent to talk about Thousand Times Broken, a collection of three books published by City Lights. This is Part I of the interview; Part II will be published tomorrow.

Peter Biello: Who was Henri Michaux?

Gillian Conoley: He is one of the most influential French writers of the twentieth century. He was Belgian. And he was a double artist in that he was equally renowned in a visual art career. His work was shown in the Guggenheim and it’s collected in museums all over the world. The Museum of Modern Art in Paris. His visual career almost eclipses his writing career, and they were simultaneous activities. He first started writing when he was 22, and when he was 24 he started painting and drawing.

He was born in Namur, Belgium, which is a little town. His father was a lawyer, and his mother was from Wallonia, which is the southeast region of Belgium. She spoke Walloon, which is a dialect of French. So, growing up, there were three languages in the house: Walloon, formal French, and then Flemish.

When he was about six years old—he never got along well with his parents—they sent him to a boarding school in Antwerp. Everything was taught to him in Flemish. He was from the middle class, but the boarding school was a boarding school for the peasant class. Why they did that, I have no idea, but when he became an adolescent, they sent him to another boarding school in Brussels. All of his classes were taught in French in that school. And he describes them as these cold, dark places.

He was in the boarding school in Brussels during the German occupation, and most of it was shut down for quite a long period, except for the library, so they let the students roam around in the library. And that’s when Michaux read The Christian Mystics. And they were very influential to him. He very ardently wanted to become a priest.

PB: Why did he want to become a priest? Did he ever explain why?

GC: He just did. He had faith. His father was dead-set against it and encouraged him to go to medical school instead, so Michaux enrolled in medical school in Brussels. He stuck it out for a year. Then he experienced a kind of religious crisis because he couldn’t go do what he wanted to do, and he dropped out and joined the merchant marines. And he traveled in Asia for a couple of years and returned to Brussels for one year. And then, in 1924, he left Belgium, never to return again, and moved to Paris.

1924 is the same year that André Breton published The First Surrealist Manifesto. And Michaux saw the work of Paul Clay and Salvador Dali and Max Ernst and started to publish in literary magazines that were going on at the time. He taught and worked as a secretary to support himself and became an artist and a writer. And those two activities—writing and the visual work—went on throughout his life, up until his death in 1984 at the age of 85. He published over 30 books of poems, prose, travelogues, journals, and also just a really prodigious output in his visual career. I hear there’re something like 20,000 or 30,000 drawings in his oeuvre. And then there’re the paintings. Just a whole lot of work.

PB: How did you first discover Michaux?

GC: I first read Michaux in the 1970s when I was a young poet. He was one of the first poets I really loved. I have a vague recollection of just picking up one of his books in a bookstore and it was Richard Allman’s translation that was a selected translation of Michaux.

PB: And so, years later, you decide to translate three of his books. What made you want to translate his work?

GC: I was talking with another friend about the visual art career and the writing going on at the same time. I had been invited to give a talk the Poet’s House in New York. It’s a wonderful place. Every poetry book in the country that gets published is sent there, and they have an amazing archive right there on the Hudson. They have talks, and they asked me to give a talk, and I picked Henri Michaux. In preparing, I did a lot of research, read all the criticism about him, and there was a book I had that was specifically about his visual work coming into the written work and how it does that. It was Henri Michaux: Poetry, Painting, and the Universal Sign, by Margaret Rigaud-Drayton. In that book, she wrote about a book of his, 400 Men on the Cross, and that book is the only book where you see Michaux shaping his poems in to visual shapes. The book ties up with his lost Catholicism. He wrote this book in 1956. All three were written between 1956 and 1959. And in the book, he’s trying to draw and write the crucified Christ, and each one is a failure, and they’re shaped. Some of them are shaped into actual crucifixion; some are just part of the crucifix, like a wooden joist. And sometimes there’ll be a text within a text, like he’s carving in wood, almost. And it just sounded really interesting and unlike anything I’d ever read by Michaux because it hadn’t been translated. And I wanted to read it. So I started to translate and I was just sort of fooling around. I didn’t go to the project initially with the idea of taking it as far as it went. It just sort of took off on its own.

400 Men on the Cross is about 36 pages long, which isn’t long enough for a full-length book. Most full-length books of poetry are somewhere between 48 on up. But I went ahead. I tried to stretch it out as much as I could, and sent it to City Lights because they have a great tradition of publishing surrealist poetry, and I thought they might be interested, and they were. They said, “This is great, but it’s too short, so go find a couple of other texts to go with it.” So I went back to his original French oeuvre complet and found the other two books, Watchtowers on Targets and Peace in the Breaking, which are also considered mescaline texts.

PB: With the mescaline experiments, you write in the introduction that he’s trying to break down the barriers between language and consciousness. He’s really struggling with the ways language is insufficient.

GC: In all of his work, you find dissatisfaction with his medium, his tools, with language as a medium, and also with drawing and painting. And he complains about them. But then he goes ahead and uses them anyway, quite decisively.

What he’s interested in doing is exploring the unconscious and, in doing so, having part of the brain be rational as he’s looking at the irrational, so that he can report back. [Laughs] If that makes any sense.

PB: Yes, it’s his best attempt at making sense of it.

GC: He’s like a rationalist mystic. So that’s what’s unusual about his work, and it’s the same desire no matter what he’s writing. It’s all the way through from the very beginning to the very end.

PB: Let’s talk a little bit about the books. Peace in the Breaking starts with drawing and ends with personal essays and a poem. Describe the relationship between the visual elements and the text.

GC: There are 14 drawings at the beginning, and those are all seismographic, spine-like drawings. And when you look closely at them, you’ll notice that there are pieces of them that look like handwriting. It was one of his dual occupations along with delving into the unconscious mind, which was to create a universal language that was somewhere between picture and word. So each of those drawings is simultaneously sort of an alphabetic sign or gesture. In Peace in the Breaking, those drawings are more seismographic, body-like, with little pieces of handwriting. If you know the rest of his visual work, you’re going to make the link between each of those. The overall shape of each drawing is acting like a sign, like an alphabetic letter that is illegible.

He wanted that book to be printed in a scroll because that would have given it the sense of flow. But what he settled for in the original printing was that it was printed in the style of a legal pad, with the binding at the top, so that when you lifted up one page, you could have two drawings before you at the same time.

PB: It would give the reader the sense that the drawings were connected.

GC: And that was the closest to coming to what he was experiencing on mescaline.

PB: We should mention that Michaux was not a drug addict.

GC: No, he wasn’t at all. He was a teetotaler. The reason he did mescaline was that he had a neurologist friend who knew his work, and knew what he was doing and said, “If you’re interested in having the rational mind observe the irrational mind, that’s one of the properties of mescaline. One part of the brain stays completely lucid, while the other hallucinates.” And he was hesitant. He was 57 when he first took mescaline and apparently did mescaline a handful of times. And then he quit all together when he was 67.

So anyway, back to the drawings in Peace in the Breaking. The title poem of that book is shaped like the seismographic drawings are. It tumbles down the page, is centered, and some lines are longer, shorter, so that they look a whole lot like the drawings look. And that poem is a poem of complete ascent, the uniting of the rational and the irrational brain. There’s a peak of the sense, and there’s the pull of the poem going down the page, so it’s quite a dynamic sense of movement and energy that goes through that poem.

There was a lot of humor in his work, an arch skepticism, irony. I think the title alone is poking a little fun at that kind of critical essay, because the meaning of the drawing is like, how could someone say what that is? It just seems sort of mildly wry. But the actual writing that follows those titles, especially on the subject of Peace in the Breaking, is very beautiful. They’re sort of like prose poems—especially in that last paragraph where he talks about a poem a thousand times broken, broken to resurrect us.

Stop by tomorrow for Part II.


Gillian Conoley is the author of seven collections of poetry, including Peace , The Plot Genie , Profane Halo , Lovers In The Used World , and Tall Stranger , a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Conoley earned a BA in journalism at Southern Methodist State University and an MFA at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She is founder and editor of the long-standing journal Volt.


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