RIMBAUD IN AFRICA
A review of Somebody Else - Arthur Rimbaud in Africa
by Charles Nicholl, Jonathan Cape, London, 1997
ODI ET AMO
When I was seventeen, I fell in love with a sodomite.
His eyes were a dazzling blue, and he had the face of an angel. His hands were large and awkward, with dirty nails: a peasant’s hands. He was a poet, and I thought - and I still think, in my middle age - that he was one of the most brilliant poets the human race has ever seen. He belongs in the company of Callimachus, and Sappho, and Horace.
No, not Horace, who was shrewd and successful, at ease with his rich and powerful friends, the Seamus Heaney of his age - no; he was more like Catullus, the spoilt kid from the north whose frank and erotic poems scandalised Rome: odi et amo, Catullus had written. I hate you, and I love you. That says it all.
I fell in love with a ghost, an illusion, one I’ve been trying to shake off ever since. By the time I came under the spell of his beautiful lies, his body - minus the amputated right leg - had been rotting in a lead-lined coffin in the damp earth of northern France for seventy years. World War One had rolled over him, with its terrible thunder, and then World War Two. He’s been dead, now, for over a century.
Arthur Rimbaud wrote poetry for a few brief years, while he was still in his teens, from about 1870 to 1873. He could never have imagined the extraordinary influence his slim collection of poems would have over the following century. It seems that with every generation, young people rediscover Rimbaud for themselves - Rimbaud the teenage rebel, that is. There was another very different Rimbaud, and we’ll meet him in due course, focussed under the sympathetic lens of Charles Nicholl’s book.
Arthur Symons, who’d been a friend of Mallarmé, introduced Rimbaud’s work to an English public in his book The Symbolist Movement in Literature in 1900. Henry Miller venerated his memory in Paris in the 1930s. A photograph of Rimbaud (retouched to show him wearing jeans) graced the barricades of the student revolt in Paris in May 1968. His prose poems (Les Illuminations) were set to music by Benjamin Britten; poets from Auden to Dylan Thomas and popular entertainers from Bob Dylan to Jim Morrison have hailed him as an inspiration. The painters Sidney Nolan and Brett Whiteley both did him the homage of painting his portrait. The popular movies based on his life include Paris Blues (1961), where Paul Newman plays a jazz musician called ‘Ram Bowen’, and Une saison en enfer (A Season in Hell), the garishly-coloured 1972 French-Italian co-production shot in Ethiopia, starring blue-eyed Terence Stamp.
Enid Starkie, an Oxford don, devoted the main part of her life to a thorough biography of Rimbaud. There are several translation of his poems available in English, including Oliver Bernard’s excellent Penguin edition, which I quote from here.
But all of that would have meant nothing to Rimbaud. He had abandoned the world of literature long before. When he was nineteen, he gave in to a mixture of rage and pig-headed pride, and threw his marvellous talent onto a bonfire, along with his manuscripts. By the time his anger had eaten its way through his soul, he could not speak of poetry without contempt. He lived another eighteen years, wandering from one end of Europe to the other and as far afield as the East Indies. He joined the Dutch Colonial Army and was sent to Java, but deserted and returned to France. He got work in Cyprus, as an overseer of a stone quarry, but his temper got the better of him - ‘I have had some quarrels with the workmen,’ he wrote, ‘and I’ve had to request some weapons.’ He collapsed with typhoid and hurriedly returned home. In March 1880 - he was twenty-five - he left France for the last time. He found work in Cyprus again, as foreman of a construction gang in the mountains. He got involved in another quarrel and, it seems, threw a stone which hit a local worker on the temple and killed him. Rimbaud fled, travelling through the Red Sea - further and further from Europe - and ending up in the British port of Aden, a sun-baked volcanic crater perched at the gateway to the Indian Ocean on the coast of Yemen. He spent the next eleven years as an exile, working as a trader in Aden and Abyssinia.
Charles Nicholl’s book is chiefly the story of those years, from the time Rimbaud disembarks at Aden in 1880 to his death in Marseilles in 1891, at the age of thirty-seven, from the cancer which had started in his right leg. It is very stylish, thoroughly researched, and shows a great deal of insight into the character of this angry and bitter man.
Arthur Rimbaud’s adolescent rebellion was so brief and the flowering of his talent so violent and astonishing that it has overshadowed his essential character. His life is often seen through a Romantic blur, and the astringent view of his career that Nicholl presents in this book is a useful corrective.
Rimbaud was born in the northern French town of Charleville in October 1854, the son of a 40-year-old army captain and a farmer’s daughter. There were two younger sisters, Isabelle and Vitalie, and an older brother Frédéric, who was a dullard and lived out his life as a bus driver. The father, who had spent some years in Algeria and in different parts of France, found provincial life stifling and family life difficult. He was often absent. Rimbaud was six when his father left for the last time, never to return.
His mother was a dour, hard-working woman of peasant stock, impatient with her husband’s fecklessness, and embittered by his final desertion. For most of his life Rimbaud was like his mother - devoted to hard work. As a child he was obedient, studious and even rather prim. In his final school examinations he swept the board, as Starkie says, winning all the prizes in his form except for two.
In his sixteenth year, everything changed. Two catastrophic public events shook France, and a private calamity changed Rimbaud forever.
The French emperor Napoleon the Third declared war on Prussia in July 1870. It was an ill-advised move. The German armies swept through north-eastern France, the countryside where Rimbaud had grown up, and within six months the French had been defeated.
In the aftermath of the Armistice in January 1871 the people of Paris, republican to the core and disgusted with their government, set up a Commune. Eventually French government troops put it down, killing twenty thousand French men and women in the streets of Paris in a single week in May.
Rimbaud had run away from home to join the Commune, though it’s unlikely he was there during that week of horror.
He had his own, personal nightmare to live through. At some time during this visit to Paris he was raped, perhaps gang-raped, probably by a group of soldiers at the Babylone barracks. The evidence is indirect but - as Charles Nicholl says, and most biographers agree with him - it is persuasive.
He went home to Charleville in a state of profound shock and confusion. He sent batches of his poems to important poets in the capital, Banville and Paul Verlaine among them. Verlaine summoned him to Paris and to his fate. It was September 1871 - Rimbaud was sixteen; Verlaine twenty-eight. Verlaine’s pretty young wife was pregnant.
The two men - rather, the man and the schoolboy - became lovers.
The older poet Banville lent him an attic flat for a while as a favour to Verlaine. Rimbaud became friends with the musician Ernest Cabaner, who also put him up for a while, the novelist Jules Claretie, and the poets Charles Cros and Germaine Nouveau. These bohemians were scandalising the bourgeoisie with their sexual indiscretions, their immodest writings and their indulgence in absinthe and hashish and opium. Rimbaud outdid them in every respect.
He made many enemies. Verlaine’s future biographer Lepelletier disapproved of his influence on his old friend Verlaine, and Rimbaud responded by calling him an ‘inkshitter’. When Lepelletier told Rimbaud to shut up, the boy threatened him with a table knife.
He called poor Banville an ‘old cunt’, he stabbed the photographer Carjat with a sword-stick, he repaid the hospitality of Cabaner by going into Cabaner’s room when he wasn’t there and masturbating into his cup of milk. In short, he was an arrogant, bad-tempered little shit.
In July 1873, less than two years after they had first met, Verlaine shot Rimbaud in a fit of drunken jealousy. The boy was wounded in the wrist, and Verlaine burst into tears and begged his forgiveness. The next evening while they were out walking in the street he turned ugly again and pulled the revolver from his pocket. This time Rimbaud called out to a passing policeman. They were in Brussels; the police discovered evidence of their homosexual relationship, and incriminating letters. Rimbaud tried to take back the charges, but it was too late. Verlaine was sentenced to two years’ hard labour in a Belgian gaol.
A SEASON IN HELL
In the collection of prose poems and verse fragments that make up the short book A Season in Hell, begun in April 1873 in an outbuilding at the family farm at the village of Roche and completed by the end of August, he looks back in despair over his life as a poet. In one of the fragments, titled ‘Ravings number two’ he talks about ‘the history of one of my follies’. ‘I invented the colours of the vowels!’ he claims, and goes on: ‘I flattered myself that I had created a poetic language accessible ... to all the senses ... I expressed the inexpressible. I defined vertigos ... I ended up regarding my mental disorder as sacred.’
He draws a picture of his affair with Verlaine in cynical terms, painting Verlaine as a weak and foolish virgin and himself as an ‘infernal bridegroom’, a monster of cruelty. It wasn’t far from the truth.
The last chapter of A Season in Hell is titled ‘Farewell.’ It has an air of exhaustion and relief about it. ‘I have tried to invent new flowers, new stars, new flesh, new tongues. I believed I had acquired supernatural powers. Well! I must bury my imagination and my memories. A fine fame as an artist and story-teller swept away! I! I who called myself magus or angel, exempt from all morality, I am given back to the earth, with a task to pursue, and wrinkled reality to embrace. A peasant!’
It was finished in August 1873. He somehow persuaded his thrifty mother to pay to have the book printed in Belgium. He sent his six author’s copies to his friends and to men of letters in Paris.
Many people see this manuscript as his farewell to literature. It certainly reads like that, but I’m not so sure. I believe (with Starkie) that it was his farewell to a kind of literature - visionary, mystical, growing out of the selfish and hallucinatory lifestyle that had crashed to a halt a few months before with his shooting and the gaoling of Verlaine - and a commitment to something more humble and realistic. ‘Well, now I shall ask forgiveness for having fed on lies,’ he wrote. I think he hoped that the French literary world would offer him the forgiveness that he was now prepared to ask for, and give his book favourable reviews. He went to Paris to see how his book had fared.
Favourable reviews? He must have been mad. To those literary men, the dilettantes he had mocked and despised a year or two earlier, Rimbaud was the insolent catamite who had destroyed their old friend Verlaine: sponged off him, wrecked his marriage, corrupted his soul and ruined his life, and then, when he had used him up, had turned him in to the police to face hard labour in a Belgian gaol.
We have a eyewitness account of Rimbaud on the day when the last door in Paris had been slammed in his face, at the moment when he realised that the literary career he’d embraced so passionately was over.
It was the evening of the first of November, 1873, a holiday, and the cafés and restaurants were crowded. The poet Poussin had joined some writer friends at the Café Tabourey. He noticed a young man alone in a corner, staring into space. It was Rimbaud.
Poussin went over and offered to buy him a drink. ‘Rimbaud was pale and even more silent than usual,’ he later recalled. ‘His face, indeed his whole bearing, expressed a powerful and fearsome bitterness.’ For the rest of his life Poussin ‘retained from that meeting a memory of dread.’
When the café closed, Rimbaud - who hadn’t spoken to anyone all evening - set out to walk home through the late autumn countryside. It took him about a week. When he got to Charleville he built a bonfire and burnt all his manuscripts.
He didn’t bother to collect the remaining five hundred copies of his book from the printer - they mouldered there until they were discovered by a Belgian lawyer in 1901. That should have been the end of it.
But he couldn’t quite let go. The following year in London he carefully copied out his prose poems, gathered under the title Illuminations. The year after that he tried to get them published. Giving up poetry must have been like pulling out a tooth, or weaning himself from a drug.
A LEFTOVER LIFE
Nicholl gives a perceptive summary of these years of turmoil, but his focus sharpens as Rimbaud steps ashore in Aden in August, 1880. There he is on the edge of Africa, at twenty-five, burnt brown by the sun, worn out by fever and tiredness. He’s on the run, with very little money, no profession, no degree, no training, and no prospects. This was the first day of the rest of his life.
What had he written, on the last page of his only published book? ‘...let us go ... All the filthy memories are disappearing ... at dawn, armed with a burning patience, we shall enter into the splendid cities...’
He got work in Aden as a foreman for a French coffee trader named Alfred Bardey. He already knew Latin and spoke English, German, and some Italian and Greek. He picked up some of the native languages and dialects, and learned Arabic, studying the Koran thoroughly.
Once he’d learned the ropes and proved himself useful and trustworthy, Bardey asked him to set up a branch of the business in Harar, five hundred kilometres from Aden as the crow flies, in the highlands of Abyssinia, as Ethiopia was known then. It was dangerous work. The caravan routes were infested with murderous Danakil tribesmen who prized the testicles of their victims as souvenirs. In 1886, a caravan to the Abyssinian highlands was attacked and the French trader Barral, his wife, and twenty Abyssinian guards massacred. The raiders had meant to kill another trader, Chefneux, who passed by the scene a little later, and found ‘the remains of corpses half-devoured by beasts and birds of prey, mutilated beyond recognition.’ He thought he recognised, by a gold tooth shining in the sun, the severed head of Barral’s young wife.
Rimbaud certainly wasn’t a tourist. His letters home were practical and filled with details of business schemes, expenses, and profit calculations. From those letters, mostly to his mother: ‘I am like a prisoner here’ - 1880. ‘I am by now completely habituated to every form of boredom’ - 1882. ‘My life here is a real nightmare. Don’t imagine I am enjoying it at all’ - May 1884. ‘I feel that I am becoming very old very quickly, in this idiotic occupation, in the company of savages or imbeciles’ - September 1884.
Albert Camus (in The Rebel, 1952) talks about how these letters are not what we want to hear: ‘To sustain the legend one had to be unaware of these decisive letters. They are sacrilege, as the truth sometimes is.’
The explorers and traders he worked with are very clear about the kind of man he thought he was. Here is a selection of their words: ‘he had certainly given up his old ideas ... Poetry was dead for him ... he always expressed satisfaction that he had turned his back on what he called the pranks of youth, on a past which he abhorred ... disgusted by the Bohemian life ... never spoke about his previous existence, nor about literature ...’
When Bardey, his employer in Aden, stumbled on the secret of his past and asked him about his time as a poet, Rimbaud was visibly shaken and angry. ‘Absurd,’ he spat out: ‘Ridiculous, disgusting!’ The poetry he had written? It was just slops, he said: ‘rinçures’, dregs.
These ‘hard-bitten men’ as Nicholl calls them, ‘who didn’t suffer inefficiency gladly,’ variously said that he was ‘a good merchant’, ‘a passionate trader’, ‘entirely devoted to commerce’, ‘a very serious man, experienced in business affairs,’ and so on.
Nicholl makes the poignant point that these ‘references’ were highly valued by Rimbaud. ‘He attains,’ Nicholl says, ‘at the end of his long journey, a kind of luminous ordinariness.’
By the end of the 1880s, installed in Harar as a commission agent for the trader Tian in Aden, and trading on his own behalf as well, he had developed a circle of friends among the Africans as well as the Europeans. He had a devoted servant, a beautiful Abyssinian mistress, and a busy schedule. He’d earned the esteem of the society he’d chosen to join.
He had become somebody else.
And yet ...
Bardey: ‘If I speak of him as having wasted his life, it is because he himself often complained of doing so, saying, as his excuse, that he had only taken up this empty and pointless work [in Aden] in order to escape from a more pressing difficulty.’ The ‘more pressing difficulty’ is whatever he left Cyprus in such a hurry to escape; the killing of the workman, perhaps.
For two or three of his teenage years, from the ages of sixteen to nineteen, Rimbaud had been the most brilliant poet of his age. He demanded mystical insights, and was prepared to go through any suffering to get them. Enid Starkie believed that he tried to make himself the equal of God.
Rimbaud’s great contribution was to lead poetry away from the polite chatter of the Parisian drawing rooms and out into the streets of the modern world. In a parody of the conservative Banville, he wrote ‘from your dark poems ... let strange flowers burst out, and electric butterflies! See - it’s the century of Hell! And the telegraph poles, the iron-voiced lyre, are going to adorn your magnificent shoulders!’ This in 1871, forty years before T.S.Eliot’s urban aperçus, and fifty years before Stephen Spender thought of writing about power pylons.
‘One must be absolutely modern,’ he writes, in A Season in Hell. But the modern world presented him with an insurmountable problem. Edmund Wilson in an essay on Rimbaud points to the contradiction inherent in the role of poet at that time. In the utilitarian society which had been produced by the industrial revolution and the rise of the middle class, he says, ‘the poet seemed to have no place. For Gautier’s generation [the poet Gautier lived from 1811 to 1872], the bourgeois had already become the enemy; but one took a lively satisfaction in fighting him. By the end of the century, however, the bourgeois’s world was going so strong that, from the point of view of the poet, it had come to seem hopeless to oppose it ... one simply did one’s best to ignore it, to keep one’s imagination free of it altogether. The poets of the end of the century, when they happened to be incapable of Naturalism or of social idealism ... were thus peculiarly maladjusted persons.’
Nicholl’s book is sensitive to these issues. He reads Rimbaud’s poetic project with insight, yet he is sympathetic to the poet’s much longer career as a hard-working petty capitalist who despised the bohemian ideas he had relinquished. Nicholl takes Rimbaud as he finds him: intense, vain, bitter and deeply human.
by Dale Smith
Right now, I'm depraving myself as much as I can. Why? I want to be a poet, and I am working at making myself a visionary: you won't understand at all, and I'm not even sure I can explain it to you. The problem is to attain the unknown by disorganizing all the senses. The suffering is immense, but you have to be strong, and to have been born a poet. And I have realized that I am a poet. It's not my doing at all.
(Arthur Rimbaud to Georges Izambard, May 13, 1871)
I was just another suburban fuck-up, sans genius, mired in self-delusion. Unlike Arthur Rimbaud, my ruling daemon lacked focus and brilliance. I knew nothing about the young French poet who wanted "to attain the unknown by disorganizing all the senses." It tested my youth instead. I drank myself into the dark unknown each weekend, blackened my teeth in fights and pushed fate behind the wheel of a car. Maybe it's a typical suburban childhood by now, I don't know. No experience of my life has been more violent. What I remember was an immense confusion that only shifted when my senses were lit. I wanted to be drunk or high. I could think of no better way to live in my American loneliness.
It's odd to think of that loneliness now, how far in myself I was centered in it, or that it was really a loneliness of the imagination. Only I didn't understand it as center or imagination. Moody, arrogant and reclusive I played an electric guitar, prayed to the gods of Rock-n-Roll to deliver me from the tedious death cult of the American middle class. So when I was 16 I turned to Rimbaud first for comfort, and then validation.
In him I found a comrade. Maybe I read his name in the pages of Rolling Stone, or perhaps his image in a mist of images struck my wandering and hungry eyes. I know only that his words carried the seeds of my first awakening. They strengthened my heart and embodied my chaotic emotions. By his first poem, a translation of Horace, I, who could translate nothing, crowned myself by authority of his genius and inspiration, poet:
As a boy, once, beside the Vultur
In Apulia, not far from my house,
Tired of games and of sleep,
Wonderful doves covered me
With new leaves.
I was crowned with sacred laurel
And with myrtle, not without
On weekends around this time I'd come home late with bottles of Chablis. Then I'd play music and write the struggling details of my own seasons. I filled the lined pages, becoming drunk as evening passed. First blue patches of dawn broke through branches at my window, my family sleeping, me drunk and alone lost in a kind of glowing stupor. Pages blurred, stained with wine and ink. A white light lit my head and I'd follow it into the bulb at my desk, and try to catch the meaning.
While the red-stained mouths of machine guns ring
Across the infinite expanse of day.
My imagination trapped me in myself. I didn't see it for the terrifying thing it really was, a power so magnificent it would take years to learn how to live in it without falling. In those days it forced on me a self-induced alienation. I sipped Chablis as my parents slept. I opened a window and gagged on cigarettes. But words came to me. They entered my pen at least, if not exactly my head. Pages filled with my scrawl. Versions and visions of my seasons, mostly in hell, training myself to acquire an evil so natural to the kid behind the fine English of Schmidt's translation. But I was good by nature and upbringing, bourgeoisie good. There were manners I observed and affectations I learned. But in my mind I practiced evil and romance. "Black A, white E, Red I," he wrote in "Vowels," "green U, blue O-vowels, / Some day I will open your silent pregnancies: / A, black belt, hairy with bursting flies, / Bumbling and buzzing over stinking cruelties." He was far away, a voice from what seemed a truer place and time.
Eros guided my wandering attention, but nothing lasted. I wanted love, or thought I wanted it. Being in love and being drunk were enough for me. There's nothing like feeling alive in a dead place, the sensation of life a fine substitute for it.
A young woman drew my attention. She moved in tight jeans partially hidden by a formless red smock that tied behind her waist. She sprayed perfume from tester bottles on the counter, mixing scents of sweet and spice depending on the mood of the evening. Silver shrimp-loop earrings attached with clinical care to her lobes. We worked nights together. After one Friday shift, as I put away the mop and dumped the grey contents of its bucket, she asked if I wanted a drink. She was a college freshman and I was still in high school. She had vodka and cranberry juice in her car. We drank it, went back to my house and fucked on the floor in my room in the dark. I played music so my folks wouldn't hear. It was dark and I wanted to see. I turned on the light. Drunken laughter and whispers accompanied our movements and autumn wind howled.
But in the morning-a battlesome morning in June-
I ran like an Ass,
Braying about the wood, brandishing my grievance,
Until the Sabines of the suburbs came,
Came leaping at my breast.
My father woke us. Embarrassed silence in the house. Stains on my clothes, cranberry red in the corners of our mouths. The rest of the day is a fog now. I kept to my room. Nothing about it was said again. I was embarrassed and my mother cried.
Jennifer, an angster my age also worked with me. She disapproved of Dawn and would taunt me for "doing that preppy bitch." I was nervous around her. A long bleached strand of hair reached her chin. She stood out tall and skinny, dressed in thrift-store finds. What attracted me too were her records--exotic collections of Sun Ra, The Wailers, Steve Reich and Violent Femmes. We listened to Sibelius on a mattress in her room, tense with confused desire.
I remember once in a cliché of summer moonlight how we managed to lie close in damp grass, her baggy shorts an open gate. Cold beer, an urban skyline, moon and stars above moved with a regular rhythm, moonlight on white limestone and the wet smell of grass under our knees. I offered no response to her taunts. I was silent, discussion an awkward discomfort. Why submit to that? I didn't not like her. But I was piecing it together as I went along, a slow, inarticulate doofus.
One night in late winter we gathered for cold beer under a black sky. Someone brought vodka, whisky, marijuana, speed. There were Jocks, Ropers, Druggies and Preps. My friends were nobodies, like me, but we moved between groups with relative ease. Music lifted thin sounds through fat car speakers into dumb night air. If it had been summer there would be boats, that sort of thing. But in winter we huddled with our clans, talking about the girls we wanted to fuck. I noticed Jennifer alone with someone, but her eyes kept catching mine. A fire burned on shore near the water. Boys and girls stood by, shotgunning Buds while others slipped off to piss or grope in the dark. We excused ourselves, and I slowly moved with Jennifer into the dark too. I'd left my clan behind to warm by the fire. She tugged my coat sleeve. "Come here," she whispered, vodka on her breath. Her shirt was slightly open and her eyes shined drunk.
And then, when I have swallowed down my Dreams
In thirty, forty mugs of beer, I turn
To satisfy a need I can't ignore,
And like the Lord of Hyssop and of Myrrh
I piss into the skies, a soaring stream
That consecrates a patch of flowering fern.
She slurred her words, and I kissed her. My friends chuckled as I moved further away with her. She staggered, leaning on me for support. In the grass I kissed her again, then went through her shirt for her breasts. "You really look good with her," she said. "You're so cool." I ignored her words, opening her bra instead. She pulled away suddenly, the breath visible between us. She didn't say anything and walked a few feet from me, unbuttoned her jeans, squatted and pissed into the weeds. Then she laughed a little and pulled herself up on me. "I wanna stand," she said, and we stood. She put her mouth on mine. I felt her ass but she stepped back, laughing. "Can't do that here," she teased, and walked away toward the firelight and the tinny laughter of nameless others.
My friends were drinking gin, and they gave me some. The fire warmed us, and my face glowed in its heat. Later I looked for her again, going group to group. Thick-necked jocks stared me down, cool motherfuckers.
I remember as the gin burned up to my skull the drunken desire to find her again. Flames lifted out from orange coals against the vast black liquid calm of the lake. By the time I found her words slurred through me, my vision a blur. Someone was with her, their faces vague outlines in the laughter and voices falling behind vision's wavering field. She staggered away from me, the many voices trailing off behind us as I followed her to a car. She crawled in, locked the door, leaning her face against its cold window. I shouted to her through the glass but she slumped into sleep as a group came up behind me.
"Who the fuck are you, her boyfriend?" someone asked, in my face, threatening to download the privilege of his muscle onto my thin body. As I answered with a cool, clean Fuck You his fist rammed up hard on my mouth. I reached for his neck and pressed my thumbs into his throat. I wanted to choke the motherfucker. Others came onto me from the dark, then like light his fist went into my face again.
Come, all Wines go down to the sea,
In inexhaustible waves!
See the foaming Bitter Beer
Pour from mountain caves!
Knowing pilgrims, seek repose
By the emerald pillars of Absinthe
Leave these landscapes.
Friends, what is drunkenness?
I would as soon lie dumb
To fester in some pond
Beneath the stinking scum
By a drifting log.
Next morning I woke to a pillow encrusted with blood. In the mirror my face was bruised, swollen and bloody, my front teeth loose. I stunk of booze. I remembered so little of what happened. My father asked me and I could not say a word, him sitting there looking at me in disbelief and sad confusion. His St. Augustine still held its green in the late winter yard. I can write that something was breaking in me, but you won't know what that meant to me because I can barely remember that myself. But imagine those moments when what you most love dissolves, and there are no gods in you. More difficult than living in a world of shits is realizing you may be one of them. If Rimbaud chose to be a poet, I had it pushed on me, because poetry was not my business. But it was the only place to turn, the only place where the imagination for me was free.
Yet this is the watch by night.
Let us all accept new strength, and
Real tenderness. And at dawn, armed
With glowing patience, we will enter
The cities of glory.
A black volcanic massif pushes into the blue grey waters of the Gulf of Aden. The ancient port lies on the southwest coast of Arabia by the mouth of the Red Sea, 100 miles east of the straits of Bab al-Mandab. It's located strategically on the trade route between India and Egypt, and a protecting mountain backdrop has provided sheltered anchorage since archaic times. The old city of Aden is situated in the crater of a dead volcano. An elaborate system of rainwater storage tanks, partly cut out of living rock, is the oldest evidence of human activity there.
Aden is believed to have been the main harbor of the pre-Islamic kingdom of Aswan, and after its annexation by the kingdom of Saba'a in the 5th century it continued to play an important role in connecting Africa with the gold and incense road of Arabia. The Aden peninsula is flanked to the east and west by large bays, and Crater, the oldest portion of the city, lies to the east. Off shore Sirah Island juts out of the water, its well-fortified, triangular rock boosting an ancient castle high above the harbor.
The Eastern Bay silted up before the British arrived in 1839, and in 1860 the old harbor was replaced. The Tawahi and Ma'alla city sections, built in European style under British rule, lie on the banks of Western Bay, separated from Crater by the mountain ridge of Shamsan (1,725 feet). Tunnels lead from Ma'alla to Gold Mohur, an area on the south side of the peninsula, now a beach resort for tourists.
Capital of the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) until reunification in 1990, Aden suffered during the civil war of 1994 when a cholera epidemic killed more residents than the fighting. The city was a British colony until 1968 when the Marxist State of South Yemen formed. A brief but bloody civil war in 1986 left thousands dead and caused extensive damage.
I visited Tawahi in December 1992 after a 10-hour cab ride from Sana'a. The group taxi stopped for lunch in a small mountain village where we also bought qat to chew on our journey south. Qat speeds up the circulatory and nervous systems and stimulates conversation. We smoked and drank Pepsi, fellow passengers insisting I see certain portions of their country. Most of them were dropped off at a point in the outer city, while I continued toward the harbor. A veiled woman sat in the front seat of the French wagon between the driver and me. She wet herself somewhere along the way, and the urine soaked into the seat. The driver was infuriated and began to curse her. I told him to cool it. Where else after all was she to go? He gave me a fuck you look and handed the woman her luggage. We both got back in the cab. He lit a cigarette.
When we arrived at the doors of the Hotel Rock he asked for more money than I expected. I lived on a Peace Corps teacher's salary, and wasn't exactly loaded. I noticed in Aden that Yankee dollars were expected from me other places too. We haggled over the price and he complained about the woman pissing his seat and I realized I was the one to pay for that inconvenience. It had been my sympathetic intentions that intervened on his argument with her anyway. The son-of-a-bitch smiled his fuck you smile, language between us like some gummy wall. I put the money in his fist, defeated; he took my pack off his luggage rack.
* * *
Rimbaud lived in Aden from 1881 to 1890, working for a coffee, gum and hide exporter named Pierre Bardey. He received three shillings a day plus room and board in exchange for managing the company's books. "You can't imagine the place," he wrote in a letter dated 28 Sept. 1885. "Not a tree, even a withered one, not a sod of earth! Aden is the crater of an extinct volcano filled up with the sand of the sea. You see nothing but lava and sand everywhere which cannot possibly produce the slightest vegetation. It is surrounded by desert sands. Here the crater of our extinct volcano prevents the air from coming in, and we are roasted as if in a lime-kiln."
Biographer Enid Starkie says that after his first attempt to establish trade in Harar he returned to Aden, "determined to throw up his appointment, and to look for more congenial work." But he continued in the services of Bardey, though at a higher rate.
This is to let you know that I have got rehired in Aden for 6 months, from July 1 to December 31, 1884, on the same terms. Business is going to pick up, and for the moment I am staying at the old address, in Aden (To his family, Aden, 19 June 1884).
"He remained at Aden toying," Starkie writes, "in his unmethodical, eager and childish way, with various plans for improving his prospects. He tried to obtain a contract from the Société de Géographie to write articles dealing with his travels in the province of Harar. He was the first European who had ever resided [there]. He had, however, no influential support, no one to recommend him, and the lofty Société de Géographie was not interested in an obscure employee of a coffee exporter from Aden" (356).
* * *
Clerks at the desk of The Rock demanded American dollars for rent of their moldy rooms. I had with me only a couple of 20s and a wad of Yemeni riyals and dinars. "Look," I said, "I've got money right here," and I pushed a mountain of riyals toward him. He looked upon the pink, green and grey bills with some disgust, then continued processing some non-work he had invented upon my entry. Exhausted from travel, and being a terrible bargainer to boot, I finally broke a twenty and rode the rickety elevator up to my room.
The Rock housed Yemen's only brewery, a reminder of British occupation and colonial acculturation to the inhospitable climate. I ordered one and it was served semi-cold in a pint-sized green bottle. The bar at the top of the hotel overlooked the harbor. Fishing boats and two US battleships anchored there near Sirah Island. Young German backpackers sat by a window, refreshing themselves on the local brew. Rats scurried for crumbs under a table on the mildewed carpet. I drank the beer, happy to have it and thankful it would bring me down from the strung-out, qat-inspired shock of travel.
Later I walked along the boardwalk in damp heat. The sun set with a pink film through grey haze. I ate fava beans in spicy tomato paste, dipping it with a hard French roll, waving off the many flies between bites. Sweat dripped from my waiter's face and made rings under his arms and on his chest. He only shrugged at my feeble Arabic. I was looking for Rimbaud's house I explained, but he didn't seem to know what I was talking about.
In the park children sold halwas and vendors hawked ice cream and french fried potatoes. Black mountains surrounded the city, holding heat in a mountainous oven. In other parts of the country I felt very comfortable, though here I noticed my alien presence, a stranger on the eve of war, the cause of which was none of my business. A month prior riots in most major cities were put down by the military. From my rooftop I watched helicopters circle downtown Hodeidah, black smoke from blazing tires thickening the air. Young men with rocket launchers and AK47s marched through schara Sana'a, posting checkpoints at major intersections and thoroughfares.
* * *
Rimbaud brought with him a woman from Harar, probably a slave, according to Starkie. "He rented a house, although he himself had free lodging provided at Bardey's store, and he lived with her all the time that he remained in Aden" (361).
Over time he slowly saved money, "eating out his heart at Aden with frustration and disappointment." In a letter dated 5 May 1884 he writes: "Excuse me for having given you these details of my worries, but I see that I am about to reach the age of thirty (half my life) and I am very tired of rolling around the world without any tangible result."
Unfortunately, he would only live another seven years.
I quit my job after a violent argument with those worthless skinflints who thought they could grind me down forever. I did a great deal for those people, and they thought I was going to stay there for the rest of my life just to please them. They did everything they could to get me to stay, but I told them to go to hell with their benefits and their business and their stinking company and their dirty town.
Several thousand rifles are on their way here from Europe. I am forming a caravan to take them to Menelik, the King of Shoa (To his family, Aden, 22 Oct. 1885).
* * *
Back at The Rock's lounge for a nightcap, lights in the harbor twinkled. A German schoolteacher sat at the bar beside me. He was on vacation, on his way to Sana'a next morning. The bartender eyed us suspiciously, while below us the city's light made silver ripples in the water. The German told me he thought Rimbaud's house was still standing, but he wasn't sure how to find it.
* * *
After King Menelek "once more got the better of a foreigner," Rimbaud returned to Aden "in a state of fatigue and dejection." His gun-running expedition to Shoa failed, and he was broke. "My hair is quite grey," he wrote in a letter to his mother (23 Aug. 1887) at the age of 33. "It seems to me that my whole life is decaying. You have only got to imagine what one must be like after hardships such as these - crossing the sea in an open rowing boat, travelling for days on horseback without change of clothes, without food, without water. I'm terribly tired! I've no work and I'm terrified of losing the little money that I have."
In Shoa, negotiations over this caravan were carried out under disastrous circumstances: Menelik confiscated all the merchandise and forced me to sell everything to him at reduced prices, forbidding me to sell it at retail and threatening to send it all back to the coast at my expense! (To the French Vice-Consul 30 July 1887).
He looked for work in Aden after this expedition into Abyssinia. He queried the Société de Géographie again, and considered working as a war correspondent for Le Temps, "to report on the Italian war with Abyssinia" (379). But gun-running was the only real source of income for him by this point, and "as a result of the new arms agreement which had been signed by England and France, the price for which rifles could be sold to the Abyssinian kings might be considerably increased" (381). After some difficulties he obtained a license for importing arms into the Kingdom of Shoa. It would prove to be another failed venture.
* * *
I slept that night in a sleeping bag spread over mildewed bedsheets. Next morning light came through thick mildewed curtains and the mildewed carpet on my bare feet was kind of disgusting. I took a French bath with cold water from a slow faucet. During my breakfast of beans and bread I thought of the rats from the previous nights, but the no star fare was fine. Back in my room I sat at the balcony, sipping hot tea. Boys walked the street gathering bottles; trucks buzzed by releasing a thick stream of black smog; people passed, going their way to work or to the open air suqs. Ships in the harbor remained anchored, though rumors of a bombing at a hotel frequented by American sailors was on everyone's lips.
It was calm on the street and I found a park bench shaded by a palm. A young man asked if he could sit next to me. He was a student of English and welcomed an opportunity to speak the language. He took me to Bardey's store, and then we walked through the park toward the water. Crowds of men were out now, and we moved through a small suq: spices, candy, qat, clothing and other merchandise were arranged in neat areas, merchants talking quietly with customers. A cloth was spread and around it several men squatted, picking food from it, a goat bahhing near by.
* * *
The flowery softness of the stars and all the sky
Flows over the side of the slope
Like a basket poured out in our face,
And turns the abyss beneath us a flowering blue.
* * *
Rimbaud's last stay in Aden was in the European hospital there. A British doctor wanted to amputate, but Rimbaud refused, in bed "with his leg bound and hoisted to the ceiling so that he could make no movement," hoping that it would somehow heal. It was removed later at Marseilles. "The heat at Aden was already tropical and he could find no rest or sleep." He settled his affairs in the city and departed for the hospital at France.
I mention these events only to note the fortuitous circumstances that formed the brief geographic intersection of my life with his. An obscure place like Aden though by no means impossible for travelers to visit, remains an unpopular destination. I would have never been there had I not been stationed in that part of the world, hungry to do good and to be of service to others. Such sentiment would have seemed alien to him, and I admire his motives more. He didn't fear his ugliness or his need.
* * *
I've just got your letter and your two stockings; but I got them in rather distressing circumstances.
Seeing that the swelling in my right knee and the pain in the joint kept increasing, without being able to find any remedy or any advice, since Hara is full of niggers and there were no doctors there, I decided to come down to the coast.
Once I got here, I entered the European hospital. The English doctor, as soon as I showed him my knee, said that it was a synovitis tumor that had reached a very dangerous stage, as a result of lack of care and fatigue. At first he talked about cutting the leg off; then he decided to wait a few days to see if the swelling, with medical treatment, would diminish at all. I look like a skeleton; I scare people. My back is raw from the bed, I can't get a minute's sleep. I want to have myself carried to a steamship, and to come and have myself treated in France.
Don't be too upset at all this, however. There are better days ahead.
P.S. As for the stockings, they're of no use. I'll sell them someplace.
TODAY, YOU OR ISABELLE, COME TO MARSEILLES BY EXPRESS TRAIN. LEG TO BE AMPUTATED MONDAY MORNING. DANGER OF DEATH. SERIOUS BUSINESS TO SETTLE.
I AM COMING. WILL ARRIVE TOMORROW EVENING. COURAGE AND PATIENCE.
(Letters and telegrams from Rimbaud to his mother and sister, Aden and Marseilles, 30 April ¬ 22 May 1891).
* * *
Can an easy finale repair ages of misery-
Can a day of success destroy the shame
Of our fatal lack of skill?
* * *
The regular rhythm of the waves on black rock held my attention. Rats walked carefully on the wet basalt, while behind me ice cream vendors sold sweets to families out in the cooler evening air. Lights in the harbor bounced in the rippling wake of motor boats and tugboats moving out toward other piers or places I can't even speculate about. Geographic and imaginal spaces met for me there, Rimbaud and his experience a kind of measure. It's peculiar how we find things.
ARTHUR, WE HARDLY KNEW YE
THE FRENCH POET'S LETTERS RANGE FROM THE PROFANE TO THE MUNDANE
by Matthue Roth
ARTHUR RIMBAUD WAS a capital P Poet. Most of the biographical facts about him you could just assume, and you'd be right: he was French, queer, and tortured. In poetry circles he's huge, one of the all-time heavyweights, but unlike, say, Shakespeare and Percy Shelley, he never had much crossover appeal. Not like A Season in Hell was ever likely to be a movie with Kenneth Branagh or Mel Gibson, but Rimbaud was a poet's poet. He wrote poems about death. He wrote poems about unrequited love. He wrote poems about writing poems.
* * *
By the time Rimbaud turned 19, he'd already finished everything he's famous for: he'd moved to Paris from his dizzy little town in northeastern France, he'd written his trippy drug anthem "The Drunken Boat" and the ethereal meditation/hallucination A Season in Hell, and he'd seduced Paul Verlaine, one of the era's preeminent poets, who at the time was married and straight.
None of this is necessary background for I Promise to Be Good: The Letters of Arthur Rimbaud. In fact, most of the book doesn't deal with Rimbaud's poetry at all. In the brief first section, we find a 15-year-old Rimbaud saying good-bye to his small town. Just before leaving, Rimbaud wrote to his poetry idols (including Verlaine) asking for help with his poetry career. He lied about his age ("I'm seventeen, the time of hope and chimeras!"). He enclosed pages and pages of poems with titles like "Tortured Heart" and "My Little Loves" – titles that make you wince and wonder how Rimbaud ever became, as editor Wyatt Mason asserts, "the most written-about literary figure of the past decade." Lest you worry that in buying a $25 book about a poet, you won't get any actual poetry, rest assured that the beginning of this volume includes more cheesy young-poet-in-the-big-city poems than you'd ever want to read.
Vastly different from A Season in Hell, in which Rimbaud's presence is disembodied and omnipotent, here it's painfully present. It's like reading your old teenage diary; it's that raw and honest. Except, of course, Rimbaud lives in fin de siècle Paris and plays tonsil hockey with celebrity poets.
When they've shot their wads,
How will my stolen heart react?
Bacchic fits and bacchic starts
When they've shot their wads:
I'll retch to see my heart
Trampled by these clods.
There's less dirt than you'd expect in these letters. The flirtation between Rimbaud and Verlaine is minimal, and we only get a few nasty epistles after a major fight. Out of nowhere comes a letter in which Rimbaud writes to Verlaine, "Do you really believe that your life can be better with someone other than me? Think about it. I thought so." During their correspondence, we wonder about Verlaine's responses, which aren't included. Rimbaud is so possessive, whiny, and passive-aggressive that you almost think he lives in San Francisco. One really feels the impulse to slam him with a copy of The Ethical Slut and tell him to shut up.
But as far as poetry goes, Rimbaud doesn't open up. He doesn't discuss his writing career at all. He makes no mention of books published, poems sold, or of his career in general. He's far more eager to talk about the city of Paris, the people he's meeting, his relationship with Verlaine.
Around 1875, their affair exploded, sparkled, and self-destructed. Rimbaud was 21. He'd already finished writing poetry - A Season in Hell was printed in 1873 – and the few poems he wrote afterward he gave to Verlaine during their final meeting, in Germany in 1875. Following that, Rimbaud did what any normal French lad seeking fame and financial stability in the 1870s would do.
He left for Arabia.
If this collection of letters were a story, Paris would be a prologue, and Arabia would be chapter one. Most of I Promise to Be Good focuses on this, the manual-labor part of Rimbaud's life. The letters change tone, tenor, and subject. Rimbaud is darker and more businesslike. He writes almost exclusively to his family. Some letters describe his new surroundings in vivid, precise detail. Entire pages are filled with descriptions of mountains and prairies, down to measurements of land elevation. It's like Rimbaud is writing a travelogue, or a shopping list, as he lists photographic and surveying equipment to be sent by his mother.
Here we are no longer in the terrain of poetry autobiography. The letters are exhaustive. What that actually means is they become exhausting. Rimbaud the businessperson is infinitely more detail-oriented than Rimbaud the poet. He calculates his income constantly. It's not clear whether he thought his family would be interested, or if he was creating a backup copy of his financial records with these letters, or maybe he thought the exchange rate of African rupees to French francs was a fascinating subject.
His personal life becomes a side note. For 20 pages Rimbaud writes his family lists of books, which he expects to be sent dutifully. He never says please, either. He's crisp and businesslike, but then he adds, "I think of you, and I think of little but you." It's an odd, brief sentimentality. Especially beside his weepy, verbose panegyrics to Verlaine, it's so bizarre that his shift to the working life was so sudden and so complete.
Once France dropped out of Rimbaud's life, so did his poetry, his love affairs, and, it seems, suddenly and rapidly, his innocence. It's not that he became lascivious or evil. It's more like he became boring - like that sudden switch after college, when all your friends have day jobs and families and mortgages. Rimbaud writes frequently about how he's only working so he has enough money to return to France and live comfortably there. He wants to get married. He wants, it seems, a normal, anonymous, upper-middle-class life. In fact, over the 150 pages of African and Arabian expeditions, Rimbaud only makes one allusion to any relationship: "I have sent home that woman for good! I would not have been so stupid as to feel responsible for returning her." He makes no further exposition.
The letters themselves are bizarre, twisted, and oddly welcoming. The narrative is a warped retelling of a solitary life on the African trade front, as explained to a family that he was never exceptionally close to. Mason's introduction is invaluable. It grounds the details from Rimbaud's letters in a concrete narrative, filling in gaps without the benefit of other people's return letters, the other half of Rimbaud's conversations. Mason acts as conductor, whispering into our ears through footnotes that treat their subject playfully and respectfully at the same time. Rimbaud is a weird character, at times unlikable and at others downright creepy. But he's also a crazy character, and this volume of letters depicts him at his most bizarre and engaging moments, if not his most dramatic ones.