I put my hand inside his cranium, oh we had such a brainiac-amour
But no more, no more, I gotta move from my mind to the area
(go Rimbaud go Rimbaud go Rimbaud)
And go Johnny go and do the watusi,
Yeah do the watusi, do the watusi ...
—Patti Smith, Land
I had hoped, when I picked up John Ashbery’s translation of Arthur Rimbaud’s Illuminations, that I’d find a way into it without need of the commentary that swirls about Rimbaud and his work. I figured, since I’d not read a line of Rimbaud and didn’t know a thing about him, I could come at Illuminations “fresh.”
I was stumped at the first line of the first poem, After the Flood: “No sooner had the notion of the Flood regained its composure.” What on earth could that mean? I knew I was likely being too literal-minded, but I had trouble with the concept of a notion having, letting alone losing, its composure.
I looked to the French, which, in the book, is helpfully placed on the facing page: “Aussitôt après que l'idée du Déluge se fut rassise.” Alas, I recognized all but the crucial phrase, “se fut rassise.” After a vain effort to determine what it meant, I decided to leave it go, plow through the poem, and, after that, the rest of the book. Surely something would catch hold and resonate for me.
I discovered many beautiful lines—After the Flood is notable for them, in fact. Here is one:
. . . a hare paused amid the gorse and trembling bellflowers and said its prayer to the rainbow through the spider’s web.You can see it, can’t you? A hare’s-eye view of the world, the spider’s web sparkling with water drops, the sun refracting them into the colors of the rainbow.
And there was this:
Stalls were erected in the dirty main street, and boats were towed toward the sea, which rose in layers above as old engravings.I thought of the sense of perspective in ancient Chinese scrolls, where the sea does exactly that.
Rimbaud piles image upon lapidary image, evoking the whole of earth revealed again after the Flood. But then he writes this:
. . . Waters and sorrows, rise and revive the Floods.Boring? Where is he going here?
For since they subsided,—oh the precious stones shoveled under, and the full-blown flowers!—so boring!
I read through the remainder of the book, trying to find a thread, but failed to find any I could follow. I read the book through again, with the same result. Finally, desperate for an explanation, I turned to Edmund White’s biography of Rimbaud for clues.
I learned quite a bit about the man Rimbaud, not much of which appealed. He seemed, all in all, to be a nasty piece of work. But that, as we know, hasn’t a whit to do with the quality of the poetry, and Ashbery claims Illuminations to be “one of the masterpieces of world literature.”
Early on, Rimbaud declared his poetic manifesto. “Let the new writers denounce their ancestors!” he wrote. As White explains:
The “Letter of the Seer” is remarkable because it makes a clean break with the past and calls for a radical reinvention of poetry. The poet is a seer who achieves his visionary powers by disordering his sense through alcohol, drugs, madness, disease, and crime.Later in life, Rimbaud left poetry behind and took up a career as a trader in Africa. For the views he’d held so passionately as a younger man, he had only contempt.
When his boss Bardey, for instance, asked him about his time in London, he dismissed it as “a period of drunkenness.” And when another curious colleague in Africa asked him about his career as a poet, Rimbaud said, “Hogwash—it was only hogwash.”Who, then, are we to believe? Rimbaud the poet, Rimbaud the trader, or Rimbaud as interpreted by countless others? As to that, from which of the Rimbauds should we pick among the many White lists:
. . . Rimbaud the Symbolist, Rimbaud the Decadent, Rimbaud the Surrealist, Rimbaud the Cabbalist, Rimbaud the Magician, Rimbaud the Saint, Rimbaud the Fascist, Rimbaud the French patriot, Rimbaud the Communard, Rimbaud the Bolshevist, Rimbaud the Honest Bourgeois, Rimbaud the Voice of the Ardennes, Rimbaud the Man of Action, Rimbaud the Adventurer, Rimbaud the Thug, and Rimbaud the Pervert!If there was one constant that ran through Rimbaud’s life, it was boredom, a boredom he valiantly tried to forestall, if not to smash, again and again. Of living in his childhood home of Charleville, he wrote, “I am decomposing in dullness.” Yet despite throwing his poetic life over for that of a trader, he found himself in the same psychic place. As he wrote to his family, Aden, Africa, was “the most boring place in the world, after the one you live in, that is.”
Which brings me back to the place I started, After the Flood. By now, I’d got past that first line, though it still made little sense to me. Other translations, after all, use “abate” or “subside.” Even Ashbery uses “subside” in his introduction. But perhaps composure, its loss and gain and loss again, fits best what the poem is about. After all, what does Rimbaud do in the poem? He reminds us of the comforting beauty of the everyday world, entices us to fall in love with it a bit, then throws it over and calls for a return of the Floods.
To hear Antique, from Illuminations, as set by Benjamin Britten, click here.
Credits: The quotation at the head of the piece is from the lyrics of Patti Smith’s song Land. The quotations from After the Flood and about the work as a masterpiece are from John Ashbery’s translation of Rimbaud’s Illuminations. The quotation about Charleville’s dullness is from Arthur Rimbaud, Presence of an Enigma, by Jean-Luc Steinmetz. The quotation about Aden is from Selected Poems and Letters (Arthur Rimbaud). All other quotations are from Edmund White’s Rimbaud: The Double Life of a Rebel. The photographs of the book are by the author of the post.