Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Darkness Moves, Henri Michaux

An Henri Michaux Anthology, 1927-1984, selected, translated, and presented by David Ball, University of California Press, 1997, 340 pp.

From the Introduction: "Henri Michaux died in 1984 at the age of eighty-five. He was the author of more than thirty books of poems, prose poems, narratives, essays, journals, and drawings; his writings were translated into more than half a dozen languages, his paintings amply displayed in the major art centers of Europe and the United States. His place in world literature and art was secure, but difficult to define. Michaux stood alone.

When people who know his work try to relate Michaux to some movement or tradition, they don't come up with schools of poets, but with a range of great individual figures in literature and art: Kafka, Hieronymous Bosch, Goya, Swift, Paul Klee, Rabalais....His strangeness has occasionally led him to be classified with the Surrealists (some critics feel they have to put him somewhere), but he never used their techniques: no cadavre exquis, no free associations, no abstractly formulated attempt to destroy tradition and logic. A sentence like Breton's 'The color of fabulous salvations darkens even the slightest death-rattle: a calm of relative sighs' could never have been written by Michaux, who tries to render his dangerous, magical world as clearly and concretely as possible. Whether in poetry, prose, India ink, or paint, his weird visions are not the result of some theory about the nature of art: they are messages from his inner space. In a sense he inhabits the realm the Surrealists merely longed for.

No group, no label for him. John Ashbery defined him as 'hardly a painter, hardly even a writer, but a conscience--the most sensitive substance yet discovered for registering the fluctuating anguish of day-to-day, minute-to-minute living.' Wild and druggy enough to be venerated in the sixties by a poet like Allen Ginsberg (he called Michaux "master" and "genius"), and by the French rap star M.C. Solaar in the nineties, an inventor of fictions brilliant enough to be admired by Jorge Luis Borges ("his work is without equal in the literature of our time"), who was Henri Michaux?"

This fascinating anthology is the perfect place to start looking for an answer.

George Seferis also admired Michaux; in a 1970 Paris Review interview, in answer to Edmund Keeley's question about lack of a sufficient audience for his poetry, Seferis had this to say: . . . ."this situation of not having a very large audience has something good in it, too. I mean, that it educates you in a certain way: not to consider that great audiences are the most important reward on this earth. I consider that even if I have three people who read me, I mean really read me, it is enough. That reminds me of a conversation I had once upon a time during the only glimpse I ever had of Henri Michaux. It was when he had a stopover in Athens, coming from Egypt, I think. He came ashore while his ship was in Piraeus, just in order to have a look at the Acropolis. And he told me on that occasion: 'You know, my dear, a man who has only one reader is not a writer. A man who has two readers is not a writer, either. But a man who has three readers'--and he pronounced "three readers" as though they were three million--'that man is really a writer'."

Friday, June 26, 2009



Morning: Lorine Niedecker,
American Poet (1903-1970)


in our thickly
twinned cy-


the ooh-ah-
ooh of mating

mourning doves
call your

ah you


(First published in Poetry Salzburg Review #2, Autumn 2002.)

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Composition #5


a low mottled moving blue-
white canopy a

swaying field of tall yellow-
green mustard

riddled with red wind-
Not So Recently Linked: A belated note of thanks to Skysill Press of England for providing a link to my blog some time back and which I became aware of only a few days ago.

To a Neophyte Poet Blinded by the Light

You have the gift
Of offhand sleight,

Though naught it seems
As touch to sight.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Punch-Drunk Down And Out in Tijuana

What's missing, slugger,
Is the zing in the mescal,

The bat out of hell, worm in
Your belfry loud as a bell.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Bad Seed

It kept well, conserved
In the niggard's dark pantry,

Till prosperity undid the latch,
And off it went spoiling,

Spilling into the light,
To be preserved

For posterity.

(First published in NO/ON: journal of the short poem, Spring 2009.)

Monday, June 15, 2009

Malva Sylvestris Vazambam

Two years ago, Eleni and I gathered various wild mallow seeds and scattered them throughout our garden. Measuring in at 3,5 meters, this is the tallest of the 30-some mallows that we now have. Not bad, considering the ordinary mallows found in the surrounding countryside seldom get much over a meter.

NB: This post was originally saved as a draft on June 15th but owing to an enormous Blogger anomaly, it could not be posted until today (June 20th).

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Variation on Stevens' "Of Mere Being"

What is the palm saying
As it sways in the wind?

It's time to be leaving,
Time to be born again.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Generation Gap


To so much laid-back cool
young flesh laid bare,

the two wizened
white-haired black-clad

hags en-

in animated

conversation under the hot pink
beach umbrella

are neither here nor there.

Friday, June 5, 2009

When Lower Is Higher

When I first came back to Greece in 1959, there were far more donkeys in residence than there were people who could speak English; that is no longer the case, since the number of donkeys has alarmingly fallen to the point where some children wouldn’t recognize one even if it came up to them and brayed, “I am an ass! What are you?” On the other hand, the number of Greek children now able to speak and understand English has risen dramatically—thanks to the countless number of private language schools (frontistiria) scattered throughout Greece.

When I returned to Greece again in 1972, there were certainly many fewer such schools than there are today, but the measure of any school’s success was and continues to be its track record vis-à-vis how many students manage to pass either the Cambridge First Certificate (“The Lower”) or the Michigan ECCE examinations held twice a year in various venues throughout Greece.

Students usually sit for these examinations after six years of studying English as a Foreign Language, and the certificate issued after successful completion of the Cambridge test is usually referred to as “The Lower”—as it used to be called up until the early 90s—but which term the vast majority of Greeks still use when referring to this particular (cough) “diploma.”

Back in the late 90s, there was a spirited national discussion carried on within the private foreign language teaching community as to who is better qualified to teach English: those with university degrees in English, or those with so-called “Proficiency in the language,” i.e., those who lack a university education but who have successfully passed either the Cambridge or Michigan Proficiency Examinations—usually taken after eight years of study at an English Language School.

This question of who is better qualified remains controversial; what is beyond questioning is the unsettling fact that more and more parents are relinquishing their responsibility to find the best language school for their children’s foreign language education. Looking back on my 30 years of teaching English in the Greek boondocks, I have to conclude that though there are parents out here who are truly concerned with the caliber, qualifications and experience of English teachers, and who do make their selection of schools accordingly, there is an ever-increasing and thus unsettling number of parents who just don’t give a damn one way or the other.

Decisions about where to send children are often reached at the hairdresser’s and/or as a result of door-to-door campaigns carried out by industrious language school owners who also enlist the help of relatives, politically affiliated cronies, hoi polloi, you name it—and all the while thinking up every conceivable wile to drum up business, including free lessons for kids in kindergarten, free school bags, free notebooks, etc.

Peer pressure also plays its part and lets many a parent off the hook—the children assume the responsibility of selecting their own school—which means the more lemmings, the merrier; and if it’s also the cheapest place in town, so much the better. Get the picture? If not, let me tell you the following true story. It illustrates what many conscientious English teachers are up against when it comes to dealing with the great majority of Greek parents.

When Lower Is Higher

Quite a few years ago, in the late 70s, Eleni was working in one of Meligalas’s two tailor shops as an apprentice to a man who had spent 19 years in various concentration camps after the Greek Civil War. He had been a member of the Greek Underground and his period of imprisonment was his reward for fighting against the Germans during their brutal Occupation of Greece. It could have been much worse for the tailor—hundreds of his compatriots were either murdered by roving bands of Rightist thugs after the Occupation, or put on trial and executed by a series of US-supported Rightwing governments up until the early 50s.

In the late 70s, I was heavily involved in party politics as a founding member and local secretary of the
PASOK organization. Back then (how times change!), PASOK was considered by many of my area’s residents as more Leftist, more radical and perhaps more dangerous than even the Greek Communist Party! Zounds! To understand the region’s fear and loathing of Communism and its cousin, Socialism, we have to go back to September 1944, when Meligalas was the scene of a fierce three-day battle between Greek partisans and the
Security Battalions set up by the retreating Germans to protect their rear as they were leaving the country.

The Security Battalions lost, summary people’s trials were held, and those found guilty of collaboration were taken to a site just outside the village of Neochori, shot and thrown down a well. Estimates vary, but there were at least 1,400 men, women and children executed. The battle and resultant executions left an indelible mark on the area’s residents and makes it easier to understand why Meligalas is today such a bastion of conservatism. It does not satisfactorily explain why so many Messenians and locals swore an oath to Hitler, donned German uniforms and fought against the partisans as members of the Security Battalions.

So, it was in this former partisan’s shop that I would drop by one or two times a week to spend a pleasant half hour or more talking with both the tailor and, of course, Eleni. One morning, a client of mine dropped by the shop while I was being measured for one of the two suits I eventually had made as an excuse for stopping by the shop to see Eleni. Never wore them but they were well worth their price in more ways than one! Anyway, after dispensing with the usual social amenities, my client asked me about his son’s progress in English. After telling him his son was unfortunately not progressing, the following exchange of vast pedagogical import took place.

“Ah, I see. Thank you, Vassilaki; that is interesting. Now that I think of it, just where was it you learned your English?”

“Well, Mr. Banias, thank you for asking! You know, I’ve been teaching for ten years and you’re the first parent who’s asked me that—most of them just want to know how much I charge. Let me see. My parents took me to the US when I was four; I went to elementary school for six years; then another six years of junior/senior high. After that, I went to university for four years, got my BA in English, and then did two more years of graduate school for my MA, also in English. After returning to Greece, I taught for two years in Athens before opening my school here. That’s about it.”

Mr. Banias hesitated, but only for a moment.

“Well, all that’s fine and well, Vassilaki, but can you tell me please, HAVE YOU THE LOWER?”

NB: Written two years ago as a part of the Messenias supplement to
Elizabeth Boleman-Herring's excellent website on Greece; unfortunately, due to circumstances beyond Elizabeth's control, the supplement was never published.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

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