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The Reconstructed Man

The never-before translated diary of poet Gaston Miron

Gaston Miron was born in 1928 in Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts, Quebec. One of Quebec’s major poets—a French-language Walt Whitman, you might say—Miron’s work is defiantly keyed to the province’s social and political history as well as its “raboteux rabotés” (rough planed) vernacular. He was one of the founders of the influential publishing house l’Hexagone and a leading indépendantiste (he ran twice as an NDP candidate in the late 1950s before turning to separatist activities in the 1960s). In 1970 he achieved international fame with the publication of L’homme rapaillé (The Reconstructed Man), his second book of poems and one of the most important cultural texts of the Quiet Revolution.

The laborious, disorderly, endless genesis of L’homme rapaillé stretched from the start of the 1950s until its publication. This struggle was the result of an intense process of reflection. What is the truth of the poem? What is the writer’s share in the responsibility for that truth? What must he shoulder from life, from thought or from history? And what does it mean to be a real poet? For Miron, at the time, these questions, and the incessant revisions they demanded, pushed his creativity to the brink of paralysis.

Seldom systematic—proceeding, rather, by bits and pieces, by soundings and aphorisms—this self-analysis was part of the development of the poems. Miron never ceased annotating and commenting on his own work, examining himself as a man and a poet in a language that he felt was hobbled by his “poverty from birth,” his sufferings in love and his inefficacy as a man of action. The drafts of these poems, now deposited in the Fonds Gaston Miron in the archives of the Bibiothèque Nationale du Québec, may attest to this demanding self-examination. But there is another group of papers, not yet widely known, which illustrates it even more eloquently.

The archives that Miron was still holding at the time of his death in December 1996 contain more than just an imposing mass of drafts and sketches; there are also copious “Notes,” as the poet titled them, consisting of several hundred sheets. Some are clean, typed and dated copies of reflections recorded elsewhere. Other pages are entirely handwritten, some dated and some not. These fragments are found in scribblers, notebooks, writing pads or in bunches of loose sheets held together by paper clips.

Aside from passing references to events, meetings or, more rarely still, to what he is reading, Miron’s notes record the descent of an afflicted man into inner chaos—a man struggling to find meaning in his destiny, and for whom the adventures of poetry and politics are profoundly ambiguous. To find salvation through literature, or to find escape from literature: these opposing movements are constantly running into each other. 

Not intended for any particular reader (except maybe an imaginary one), none of it is organized. Nothing here is meant as a creation. In its raw state, the writing moves forward in flashes and its impulses are almost always interrupted, sometimes abruptly, in the middle of a sentence. Some of the longer texts attempt to sum up or synthesize ideas—then it all fragments again. 

If L’homme rapaillé was an immense poetic effort to unify self, community and world, then these extracts show us an exploded Miron, a Miron constellation: particles of words and thoughts, scraps of poetry, shreds of wounded love and combative loneliness, sketches of analyses, projects to be undertaken and commitments to be fulfilled. A blizzard of words and phrases, yes. But also, as he remarks in a tiny fragment written in 1962: “a hurricane of silence.”

— Pierre Nepveu

 

26th of May, 1954

For two years now, I’ve been alone and grievously injured ... What’s more, wherever I happen to be,
I’m bored.

Everything going on inside me, this self-destruction, this despair, this hellish corridor, this edge against others, above all this unattainable love, all of it, strangely, is an incurable disease, I’m telling you, incurable in the soul, in the marrow of the soul. And has nothing to do with the body (in all my anatomical, biological, physiological and sexual functions, I’m perfectly normal).

I’m noticing maybe that my poetic procedure, at one level, embodies the decadence of my western civilization, in the sense that I’m participating in it. Until just recently, I’d always thought these forms, these procedures for self-destruction, these projections into the future, represented precisely this world or heralded this new world. No, our enterprise, for many of us, is that of putrefaction.

Memory. For me, Memory or memories have the effect of a mass or a sledgehammer. A sledgehammer memory-mass. I forget almost all detail, I mean, but do feel the presence of a mass, obscure but operative, that is my past and my memories.

 

Undated, from about 1954–1955

Inner bedrock—the little chill snapping the soul’s blade.

Through the night’s strata of ash
... I wasn’t sure I should go on living
shoving my life along like a piece of old furniture
my body for the worms filled with days of failure
the light has putrefied in the marrow of my woes
the taste of humus years was rising to my lips’ edge

you are she who returns me to myself
I was afflicted with the whole dumping
my suffering coloured by my blood’s heat
on the cross of the world without you
spring of my flesh where crickets amplify the days
your face my inheritance from the sun

 

Paris, Winter 1960

The Canuck can’t understand, all he’s got is his suffering. His actions are generosity only, often inefficient. He doesn’t know how to go about it.

When it comes to Art the Canuck is naive. The purpose of Art is the affirmation of man in his liberty and his responsibility. Through art, the Canuck is trying to reach universal consciousness, by the introduction of his vision of the world, however naive that may be. The Canuck serves art while at the same time using it as a weapon. The Canuck is aware of his originality, of his deficiencies, of his vital striking force, but he’s not hung up about it because he accepts himself, such as he leads others to think him to be. He’s not ashamed, because he is an innocent ...

Sudden awareness. Left its mark on him. And from the moment he grasps this ambiguity, this misunderstanding or malaise, he becomes a Canuck (it’s no doubt a certainty that, by dint of events and choices, this situation will one day be cleared up). Our fathers were unequivocally French Canadians. As for us, we are not and never will be French, but aren’t entirely American or English either. We could have been Québécois, but it seems that is not to be our road ...

Unhappy awareness: [he] wonders about his collective destiny, for one of the characteristics of the Canuck writer is that these two destinies are inseparable.

One of the reasons (or causes) for me to have finally arrived at failure, namely my powerlessness to write, in poetry, was my attempt to find my place, too quickly, in the voracious contemporary world. The result was a point of impact, and I woke up with my grey matter exploded into a thousand pieces, all my thought circuits in disarray and no longer able to function. Now I have to set about a re-cellulation of myself, through my thought, and that will take time, so much time that it may be too late ...

Today, February 22nd, Borduas has died. And I’m walking though Paris, treading in my own steps, I want to meet those who knew him, I want them to talk to me about him ... My life is made up of missed meetings ...

 

Paris, September 1960

(my friends my comrades the month of May
is blooming as always in lilac time)

(I leave off gabbing on the score of life
I enjoy our common struggle
the images and the incantation can come later)

now is a weather of big bluster
the unholy bluster of life our lives
standing fine and tall like the wind

—Poverties (title of collection)

 

1962

13/1/62
My lucidity, often very cruel, very sharp, very keen and clairvoyant, owes more to instinct than to consciousness. This is how, on certain occasions, I’m acutely aware of my secret and unforeseen determinisms, without being able to make any difference when the thing happens, as if I were seeing myself living in advance.

Lucidity = reflex = above all, vision. I have absolute perception of what belongs to the perishable and what does not, of what should be classed as useless or not; and all this in a flash and forever, on the threshold of the act ...

34 years old. All is lost forever now, not the dreams, and not the illusions belonging to the ages of 20, 25 and 30, but what could have been. Nothing, not even days of ripe age, or wisdom, or the taste of experience, can make me forget that. Refusal.

11/6/62
My poems stand for moments in my life that did not happen, that’s why it seems to me absurd to see them published; intolerable. They’re a prospect missed, a chance crushed. They give me a glimpse of what my life might have been if a little happiness had passed across it. In short, they do not represent a place inhabited or a moment lived; they’re not a “historic” period of my life, that was spent laying the way for a further phase. There was never any further phase, there was never anything. [My poems] are longing only. They’re “wishful thinking” [in English in the original]. They never had the luck to be embodied, to find their weight in flesh and soul.

The whole business becomes complicated when these lines assume meaning for a reader and serve as nourishment for him, outside of any relation with the truth that is mine. For him they become “true.” That too is intolerable (no doubt I’m “jealous” when that happens?), to have to realize that for me they’re a void, a despair and no help at all. It was a struggle against my own fate—my little destiny.

Alone. I’m as solitary as a stone and like a stone have had all feeling rubbed away by time.

1/11/62
Loneliness is not black, but white. When this limit of resistance is reached, it becomes translucent (livid), then transparent (lifeless). There’s only one more step to take ...