Posted on Leave a comment

Poet of the Week – 9: Jane Draycott


Jane Draycott’s first two publications from Two Rivers Press were projects of characteristic collaboration and partnership, each published with accompanying images created by TRP’s visionary founding editor Peter Hay: Christina the Astonishing, a meditation with Lesley Saunders on the life of the medieval saint reputed to have flown like a bird from her own coffin, was published in 1998, followed in 2002 by Tideway, a collection of poems about the Company of Watermen and women working on the London river (including work first published in TRP’s Waterlog journal and shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem).  Storms Under the Skin, her most recent Two Rivers publication, is a collection of translations from the artist-writer Henri Michaux and is a Poetry Book Society Recommended Translation. Other collections include The Occupant (a PBS Recommendation), Over (shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize), Prince Rupert’s Drop (shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Collection) and a translation of the medieval dream-elegy Pearl – all from Carcanet Press.

Jane’s interest in dream narrative and elegy has led to developing associations with mental health-care professionals, including writer-psychoanalysts Adam Phillips and Caroline Garland, via the British Psychoanalytical Society, the NHS Tavistock Centre and the Freud Museum London, and to performances for Medicine Unboxed.  Other collaborations have included three projects with the British Film Institute: Essentially British (2008), Psychopoetica (2011) and Poets for Pasolini (2013). Jane teaches for the Arvon Foundation, the Paris Institute for Critical Thinking (PICT) and the universities of Oxford and Lancaster. She is an Advisory Fellow for the Royal Literary Fund and co-producer on their Writers Aloud podcast series.

Jane Draycott writes about Storms Under the Skin:

In 2011 I discovered the poetry of Henri Michaux in Edwin Morgan’s wonderful Collected Translations (Carcanet 1996) and was immediately caught by the wry, mercurial invention and psychological truth of his poetic imagination.  What kind of mind, I wondered, thought like this:

Carry me off in a caravel,
in a sweet and antique caravel …
In the false velvet of snow.
In the breath of a little knot of dogs.
In the nerveless ranks of dead leaves.

The more I read of Michaux’s work, the more I knew that his was a poetics I admired and envied in equal measure – playful, searching and serious, operating with all the strange and seamless logic of dream.  I wished I could write like him. In essence I began translating poems from his collections of the 1930s and 40s partly as an act of advocacy – more people should know about these! –  and partly as an apprentice to his hallucinatory poetic world, treading as closely as I could in the traces of his extraordinary imaginative mind and alert lexical ear.

Born in Belgium in 1899, a friend of Gide and Supervielle and a companion of the Surrealists, Michaux was as self-effacing as he was original, shunning publicity, declining France’s Prix National des Lettres, rarely photographed. Outside France he is perhaps best known for his work produced during his mescaline experiments of the 1950s, but few people this side of the Channel whom I asked seemed to know of his poetry. When I wrote to TRP editor Peter Robinson proposing a book-length collection of translations, I had no idea whether the concept would appeal. I count myself eternally lucky that he said yes and that Michaux could become an addition to the Press’s growing strand of European poetry in translation, joining Geoff Sawyers’ Rimbaud (The Drunken Boat – so finely and unforgettably illustrated by Peter Hay) and Ruth Spiers’ translations of Rilke.

So began my third Two Rivers adventure in what has always felt wonderfully like a collaborative process towards publication – Peter generously editing the growing manuscript, Sally Mortimore steadfastly pushing through the painstaking permissions process, and Nadja Guggi and Sally Castle turning it into a beautifully designed publication finally in 2017.

Seamus Heaney wrote of translation’s value to the writer as an act of refreshment and – in Dryden’s term – of transfusion, of writing by proxy. When I began work on Storms Under the Skin, I was just finishing the manuscript of a collection of my own poems and was indeed in serious need of refreshment. Like writing a new poem of one’s own, each new translation was an attempt to find what pieces of the work would glow in the dark, trying hard to really hear what was there, and to know why that might matter. Discovering the work of Michaux gave me the chance, in the words of Zoran Anchevski’s ‘Translation’ as rendered by Sudeep Sen, to sleep ‘on the pillow of someone else’s dreams’. Two Rivers gave readers the chance to discover just how extraordinary the dreams of Henri Michaux are.


In the warm mist of a young girl’s breath I placed myself
and then withdrew. I have not left that place. Her arms
weigh nothing. Coming to them is like coming to water.
Every faded thing evaporates beside her – only her eyes remain.

Fine long grasses, fine tall flowers grew in our meadow.
So light a burden on my chest, how heavily you weigh there now.
How you press on me, now that you are not here.


Icebergs – no safety rail, no lifebelts –
where storm-tossed ancient cormorants
and the new-dead souls of sailors lean upon their elbows
in the far spellbinding northern nights.

Icebergs, icebergs: religion-free cathedrals
of eternal winter, draped in the ice-sheets
of planet earth. Such height and scale,
such purity of profile born from purest cold!

Icebergs, icebergs: backbone of the North Atlantic,
noble frozen Buddhas in un-contemplated seas,
death’s shining lighthouses that lead the way to nowhere
where the wild cry of silence echoes on for centuries.

Icebergs, icebergs: lone solitaires, lands going nowhere,
needing nothing, far away and vermin-free.
Parents of small islands and of well-springs,
how well I see you now, how familiar you are to me …

[from Henri Michaux, Storms Under the Skin: Selected Poems 1927-1954 trans. Jane Draycott]

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.