Heir Apparent

Issue #21: March 2014

Henri Michaux & Roberto Matta; Gillian Conoley, trans.

An Excerpt and Introduction

Watchtowers on Targets, published in 1959, two years after L’Infini Turbulent, and three years after Miserable Miracle, is a collaboration with Chilean abstract expressionist Roberto Matta, the painter with whom Michaux felt the closest affinity. Matta and Michaux set up the following rules for their project: for the first two sections, Michaux would respond to Matta’s etchings, and for the third, Matta would work from Michaux’s writing. With its quick starts and abrupt stops in narrative, and without the overall narrative arc (however tentative) one usually sees in Michaux, the book is unusual within Michaux’s oeuvre. Early on, a crime is committed, but this storyline vanishes, only to be replaced by characters, beasts, and insects who appear unannounced, often disappearing as quickly as they appear. What remains central throughout the book is the activity of the eye in the flux of perception, in the rapid-fire correspondence between the visual and the verbal as supplied by Matta and Michaux.

Watchtowers on Target’s title enacts the ever shifting, tilted perspective of the book: a watchman, who, from his observation post, also becomes the target of observation, so that the very activity of “watching” turns back upon itself. The book is unedited and unrevised, most likely to keep the quick pace of response between Michaux and Matta intact. As though in continual correspondence, the whirlwind qualities of Matta’s etchings and Michaux’s quickly shifting verbal tableaus create a sense of upended spinning and multiplying that only ceases with the book’s last line, “Sun that is able to reunite.” This final line, which declares a re-stitching, or coming back together of the sun, Michaux takes care to italicize, to indicate a repair of, or response to, “sun’s slit throat,” the infamous last line in Apollinaire’s great poem “Zone.”

The middle section, “Correspondence,” is the only epistolary writing Michaux was to create. Playing with both the visual and verbal qualities of a postcard—and with its qualities of being “sent” and “received” within a correspondence—Michaux uses the word “card” in naming each of the six sections, and numbers them in sequence. This distinct, separate quality of each “card” draws attention to the individual world Michaux builds within each correspondence. In response, Matta presents each of Michaux’s “four observers” folded over the image of a playing card. The four observers, seated at a card table, are as intent upon the card as object as they are upon the spinning world of their own individual psyches, all while simultaneously engaged in the activity of exchange in a game of cards.

In his notes on Watchtowers on Targets in Oeuvres complétes, Raymond Bellour writes: “Actions and accidents, codes and phenomena crop up, making themselves known and disappearing just like dead stars . . . ”

It remains unknown whether it was Michaux or Matta who created the title, but Matta, who died in 2002, eighteen years after Michaux, often spoke of how, years after their collaboration, he experienced Michaux’s writing still “playing around in his head.” Matta explained, “Death interrupted me, I was counting so much on his presence, on the watchman. He was vigilant against my enthusiasm that could be a little too spontaneous at times, he restrained me and that was friendship. Now I am an orphan of this vigilance and I am becoming a target exposed to everything.”

—Gillian Conoley

(The entire text of Watchtowers on Targets will appear with two other Michaux texts in Thousand Times Broken: Three Books by Henri Michaux, forthcoming with City Lights in June 2014.)



 The water from the Gulf is hot, always hot. It swells with fish. Bribdolette is doing well, but you must not be feeble with her. It’s not about looking for obstacles, you understand, but it’s the intrigue that bothers her, that’s all.

 Mahouque is good.

 You will have trouble with the Omerose.


 Here, everything speaks of above, comes from afar, stops short. No means however of passing the buck along. You guide yourself from great to greater. From greater to even greater yet. Then, you will be able to gather all who are small.

 At the moment, we are with the Davas. Shoulder to shoulder. From there we are going to see the Tarasses. The Tarasses from Bloubios. Always equal, always brothers. We exchange wheels. Next are the Prissis from Oppropisis. That’s a necessity. And the tribe from Abbrassias will be taken. Always equal, always up to standard. Afterwards, it’s different. After, heads will be able to change.

 In the meantime, we have to put some of our oil on it, you understand? Don’t reply with a tune. Reply frankly. I haven’t come here to milk the papayas.


I speak as a man, not a bird in a cage. Leave the stinking marsh. I’m not jealous. I don’t know him, your Ottolutre. Who takes care of an insect, if he isn’t scratched by it? The crux of the situation is here. I will bring the dead branch back to life. Otherwise in the fire, and no weeping. I don’t want a soft welding. It always falls apart at the worst moment and you find yourself on the ground, pronto.


What’s wrong with you now? Looks like you are drenched. Make them be quiet, damn it. We didn’t ask for their opinion. I don’t want a fuss from wide open mouths. You stop them, you hear, and now. Don’t lose your bow in the reeds.


Lippa dismissed.

Dot discarded.

Glemmeche dismissed.

Yes, yes, quite the feat, I don’t deny that, but the standards are not yet up to scale. Examine the brave, and you will find one who is deaf. Then you might say, what can I do with someone who’s deaf?

Risia discarded and how! I’m not listening to you. Don’t waste your breath. Don’t come back on this trill in the air. I never come back to an abandoned alley.

Orquendon, why didn’t I keep him? He lacked a good grip if you must know. His exploits, always falling in, rolling around inside, that’s it, his adventures. Did you see where he held the levers? I’m telling you, he lacks a solid grip. What use would I have then, for a plug the water can remove?


Your letter slapped me in the face. You’re going to tell me that you were mistaken. You’re just a trembling calf. I vomit on your face, there that’s what I’m doing to your face. And don’t talk about Vena anymore. The furthest points are close when a being is injured and opens himself up to revenge. Shut up, meddler, and stop looking to do everything all at once and giving your opinion when you don’t know anything.

I’ll come back, on horseback, to the country, you can be sure of it. Soon, I’ll hold all of the palm leaves in my hand. It will be time then, not now.

Listen to the living first, and then you will respond to the dead. Remember this, shaken from the night-cap. I am not a cucumber, and the blood, you should know, flows easily from the chests of the weak. It flows abundantly, and they lay sprawled out on the ground until the end of time. I have known others, gossips who fell silent, their tongues, which they had thought to be so solid, but which could never stay in their little mouths, lay hanging out onto the floor.



Then solidly fixed

he watches

him, the block, the one

perfectly aimed

the Charlemagne of machines

lowering his eye, conquering device…

The second is also here

money changer


image dealer

ready to be a woman if necessary

to be the other if necessary

to be a clown if necessary

Judas who will betray himself for the image

Operation swap and currency

The third is also here

the double, the two in one person

triple sphere

the argument on three points and seven pillars

the equilibrium, the supple, the seal

the being of regular deliveries

of inclined planes

combined differences

he who takes

who distributes

who spaces things out at intervals

…and the spectacle, presented in stages, comes to him

Calculated operation

The fourth, the fourth is also here

tied up, embarrassed, padded

sometimes in strings, sometimes in fog

looking for the problem in “there’s no problem”

and dreams and caresses the problem

Operation of winds

…but who will churn?

Below, quiet in their midst

divided as an empire

common as accomplices

dense as a millstone

dispersed like snowflakes

entrenched like one who is strong

open like the arenas

the object lies between the observers

However each witness

himself is four

four torn

looking to be “one”

by the grace of the object in sight

which seems simple

which seems as one

seems autonomous

which seems fixed

but, which, observed

starts to show its parts

and then in pieces

turns from here to there, jolted along

to be united in twinning, in outrageous pairings

(or remarkable or beautiful or comical)

in distant places

or loses itself on the spot, spangled object, in the light

excessive object

object in itching of objects

in a litany of objects

in a panorama of objects

in a sea of objects

of objects

of objects

of objects

as well as the said observer himself







small in the wind

small and lacunary

hurried and knowing that quickly he must know

small, particular, in his own galaxy


and by doing so, perpetually in fourths

in his automotor, his autocorrecter

in his little amount of peace

in his no peace at all

rustling under the shower of a thousand alarms






thinking himself flesh

wishing himself in a palace

but living in the pulleys

countless and fragile

a watchmaker nonetheless

and a fetus as well, commanding through the squalls

aimed at

broken into




struck with redoubled blows

engraved like a plaque

clicking like a teletype



his mirror broken a thousand times



not wanting to be lost

drawing plans

of the plans drawing themselves in him

contradictory plans

foreign plans

plans bouncing back

infinite plans

struggling with plans

never quite submerged

and he will even smile soon

and then believe that life is happiness and sighs

and soft bodies brought close together,

in taught strings

and distraught notes

then again reversed


then a new alarm

in danger of being stopped



redoing plans,


plans of oppositions

in obscurity

into futurity

in indeterminacy

a pilot

pilot as long as he can

pilot until the end

pilot or nothing else

a target in midflight who scrutinizes

who draws plans

more plans


He who was born in the night

again and again will remake his Mandala


Under the downpour which rains on him

under the incessant splashing

in the bubbling

he receives

what does he receive?

Difficult knowledge

difficult knowledge to know

Behind four screens

in his darkroom

he receives

The takes are multiple

the abandonments are multiple

Between 12 times knowing, 11 times doubting

and the wind,

the infinitesimal wind

wind coming from the unknown

the wind of uncertainty

the wind for the perpetuation of uncertainty.

Ubiquity through voices

through sounds

through tomorrows that advance and shout already

Ubiquity through the remains of old births

through contemporary howls

through recalcitrant absences

that require presence, intimate shrewd presence.

Trouble now

trouble similar to a peace turned upside down

peace similar to sea elephants

on an inhospitable beach

Reduced powers.

more powers

dust of powers

rain of rain


bush of blades

that flees

that had fled

finished efforts…

The precious observatory plunged into the sea of senses.


time passes

manna of time

what time?

From the depths however an incessantly flying apparatus arises

over the circles of the sleeping being

It is the hour where the poor and the fallen

like the rich and the important

gather a surprise harvest in unknown fields

where each, upon returning home, lives with its parasites

but a broom swept in turn

brings the outside in

the outside coming closer

one perceives

one perceives that one perceives


Surge of oneself

surge against surge

And predator understands

Sun that is able to reunite