Michèle Métail
(France, 1950)   
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Michèle Métail

The French poet Michèle Métail was born in Paris in 1950. She read German and Chinese at university and later became affiliated to the renowned OuliPo group – an extremely divergent group of writers, all of whom adhered to the same basic literary principle in that they observed self-imposed writing constraints. 

The novel La disparition by Georges Pérecs, in which the letter ‘e’ does not occur at all, constitutes a famous instance of such a restriction. Inspired by her long walks through Berlin where she lived for a while, Métail composed for example a series of poems all consisting of ten lines with fifteen letters in each line:

winter leafless
rising up between
walls, a triangle
dark angles where
thick branches are
tiers at mid-growth
when up at the tips
one bud has split
one day to the next
its bursting burst

12 April 2000: chestnut tree in the courtyard
Métail’s 10 x 15 dimensions idea derived from the standard measurements for photographs. What is particularly striking is the way in which such a rigid form manages to produce exciting poetry which does, indeed, remind one of a snapshot and which somehow lends the poetry a certain visual quality. Each time the resultant poem is at once concise, even rigid and yet vivid. It has the specific quality of a diary entry whilst simultaneously maintaining a universal appeal. The translator Kiki Coumans correctly draws a parallel with the traditional Haiku and with Chinese landscape poetry.

Though Métail might in this way have framed her work in accordance with her self-imposed rules it is, on the other hand, free from all traditional restrictions. In the case of Métail, poetry surpasses the barriers of paper and language. Her work has many points of similarity with both visual art and music. Métail is famous for her performances which can sometimes last for hours. During such a performance she might, for instance, unwind a toilet roll as though it were a scrolled manuscript while declaiming her verse in a range of varying pitches and tones; whisperingly soft, babblingly or loudly and seriously. One cannot, however, describe Michèle Métail as a writer of nonsense rhymes. Her work deliberately crosses all the boundaries. Together with Bernard Heidsieck she founded Dixit, a movement which sets out to merge the different artistic expressive forms rather than to emphasize the differences between them.

The poetry of Métail is an ode to the apparently unlimited possibilities that language, image and music have to offer. It is also a skilful demonstration of control since the language is constrained to its limits while at the same time being kept very much alive.
over lapse, a hole
this hollowed-out
hole of hollowness
abyss of we forgot
its facts sucked out
and as these tracks
time traces then
effaces in the act
of leaving in or out
at roadworks, past
20 April 2000: Potsdamer Platz

© Mischa Andriessen (Translated by Diane Butterman)


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