Thursday, May 28, 2015


Here is a poem by Louise Michel. This is a picture of a microfilm reproduction (hence the low quality) of its appearance in Le libertaire, in the Dec 28-Jan 4 (1895-6) issue. This was an anarchist newspaper, which Michel had co-founded together with Sebastien Fauré earlier that year. Born in 1830, Michel would have been in her middle 60s. She had spent a significant amount of her life in exile, although she had been back in France for more than a decade at this point. She'd recently published a book of poems, but I haven't looked to see if this was among them or not.

Of course I’ve read about Louise Michel, particularly in the context of the Paris Commune, but also about her later agitation. I had not realized that she published poems. I was looking at Le libertaire—which had her name all over it, especially at first, since of course she was the famous one—and was struck by this. Plenty has been written about radicalized poets, about the aesthetics of anarchist violence, Mallarmé-as-anarchist, and so forth. But there was also a great deal of more didactic poetry, even in the nascent Marxist press in the 1890s, material which was neither (apparently) out for literary capital nor very closely connected to the chanson and other oral traditions.

This poem is not exactly didactic. In fact it is gnomic and abstract enough to be symbolist. But it also has features that appear to me typical of the revolutionary world that was, at this moment, passing away. For instance, “éocène” is a geological term, here applied to the “genre humain.” Perhaps in, say, Elisée Reclus it has specific meanings beyond simply ‘dawn.’ Swords, haloes, prisons: there is a nice anarchist trinity of evil. The second two stanzas though, I find difficult to interpret. The discourse remains in some way scientific. The natural instincts of man have taken over in the second stanza. People are grouping naturally, strong and self-aware, everything seeing and following its right path. But what is meant in this context by “Le givre tombe sur le givre,”? I have not the slightest idea, beyond a rhyme for “suivre.” The final line of the second stanza gives us our transition to the third and final stanza, indicating that this instinctive impulsion now being followed by humans beings is, perhaps, common also to the material world. And in the third stanza, everywhere—stars and islands—“les atômes sont attirés.” And this disjunction reaches what I suppose is its sharpest articulation, which I also find incomprehensible: “Poussières d’êtres ou de sphère,” to the night or the light, both “choses, êtres.” So here we have a principle of universal attraction, or at any rate a universal principle of movement and action, whose advent also means a new dawn for humankind. And this, as the title tells us, is upon us even now. I'm surprised by the abstraction of this poem, by the compression evident especially in the final lines. 

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