I wanted the freedom to move between different forms: couplet, sonnet, quatrain, ballad, but my Rimbaud always speaks in verse, no matter how loose
Several years ago I had a residency in France and, in between drinking wine and weekends being a flâneur in Paris, spent my time translating French poets. I worked my way through the nineteenth century, from Gautier, de Nerval and Baudelaire and into the early twentieth, stopping with Apollinaire and the First World War. Over the years, I’d tried my hand at translating the big names, and had done quite a few poems by Baudelaire and Rimbaud, but the poets who particularly interested me that summer were the slightly less well-known ones – Corbière and Laforgue, and women including Marie de Guignes (1862-1907), Anna de Noailles (1876-1933) and Renée Vivien (1877-1909), who were under-represented in the anthologies.
Originally, I had been working on a set of translations from various languages, concentrating on well-known, mainly twentieth-century poets such as Rilke and Pessoa, but also reaching back to one or two classical figures such as Sextus Propertius. My earliest poet was Homer, my most recent Michel Houellebecq, who was better known as a novelist. In between were a scattering of disparate figures including d’Annunzio, Mayakovsky, Vicente Aleixandre and Octavio Paz. The more heavily populated the manuscript became, the less satisfactory it seemed. It needed a much tighter focus. I decided then that it would be essentially an anthology of French poets, starting with Gautier and moving through Mallarmé and the Symbolists to finish with Apollinaire and the First World War. What I’d tentatively titled Cover Versions would now be called French Leave. This, however, created a problem: for the anthology to be properly representative it would have to include some frequently translated pieces by some very well-known names. For variety, I decided to adopt Pessoa’s strategy and invent a couple of poets; I gave these personae, which Pessoa called heteronyms, their own biographies and back stories. To offset the historical gender imbalance, I made several of them women.
This still left a couple of problems: what to do with the big names such as Baudelaire and Rimbaud and their all too often anthologised poems; and whether to accommodate that rather French speciality, the prose poem, something that Rimbaud had explored in Illuminations and his long narrative Une Saison en Enfer. To deal with the issue of over-familiarity, again I took my cue from Pessoa, but instead of inventing new poets, this time I wrote new poems that the original poets might have written, often oblique variations on what they actually had composed. These “versions and perversions” might update the contexts to our technologised contemporary world, or they might go off on a tangent – a sort of jazz improvisation on a line or image.
The issue of prose was more difficult. One of the deciding factors in having the First World War as a terminus was my reluctance to deal with either the prose or the very loose, free-verse Surrealist narratives of twentieth century poets such as Breton, Blaise Cendrars, Soupault, Michaux and Aragon. It was something that didn’t quite seem to work in English, or at least in translation. I also wanted my “versions and perversions” to continue working in verse, if not always in strict forms. I’d had a few attempts at Une Saison en Enfer, which I saw as Rimbaud’s take on Dante’s Inferno. A year or two earlier I’d written a long satire Hole, set in a place which could be either Hull or Hell, in which the poet is guided by a cycle-clipped Philip Larkin just as Dante was guided through his Inferno by Virgil. Hole was, for the most part, constructed in loose terza rima. Something similar seemed a suitable vehicle for my variation on Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell, which at first I saw as a stand-alone pamphlet but which quickly burst those bounds to become a full-length collection as the now rhyme-driven narrative gathered momentum and started to cover Rimbaud’s subsequent adventures after abandoning poetry. My new departure started with a fairly faithful translation of Rimbaud’s prose, but cast in loose terza rima.
...Once, if I remember well, my life was a feast where all the wines flowed free. So, how come I did my time in Hell? ... Well... I sat Beauty on my knee; found her bitter, slapped her fucking face. (Not proud: just saying how I came to be the Laureate of this damned odd place.) I railed about how she’d flirted, lied. – Too late, I get it now, her hidden grace. That silly pretty thing had failed, but tried. Pity... I now know how to greet that girl. You know the one. Beauty. The one who died.
I liked the perversity of turning Rimbaud’s prose account of renouncing poetry into verse. I didn’t continue the terza rima– I wanted the freedom to move between different forms: couplet, sonnet, quatrain, ballad, but my Rimbaud always speaks in verse, no matter how loose (though, ironically, he writes in prose: we get fragments from his business accounts and letters) while the other characters, with the exception of his lover Verlaine, speak in prose. If the sequence’s terza rima opening is a sort of Dantean nod to Rimbaud’s descent into his Season in Hell, it made sense to echo Dante’s larger tripartite structure with my narrative divided into: 1) his time in Paris with Verlaine, followed by his wanderings throughout Europe; 2) his time in Africa as a merchant, gun-runner and explorer; 3) his final months of illness when he returned to France, had a leg amputated, and died in a Marseilles hospital. The sequence ends with Verlaine in Paris musing over Rimbaud’s life and posthumous fame.
Each part has a very different feel, emphasised by different verse forms. The first third, BOHO / HOBO, emphasises Rimbaud as both Voyou and Voyant –– Hooligan and Seer. Here is Rimbaud the bad boy remembering the infamous incident with Verlaine.
In Brussels once, when angry, pissed, he fucking shot me through the wrist, accidentally fired again... He missed. I remember the sling around my arm, (I held his hand once – gently, calm – and jammed a knife right through his palm).
Here is the Seer, the Alchemist of the Word:
A Hermes Trismegistus, unseen, unheard, I conjured the Alchemy of the Word; deciphered fragments of the vowels’ spectrum, my mind a wand, a bow, a plectrum. I struck the rainbow’s neurasthenic strings, plumbed all tenebrous, timbrous things. Then, when sounding out riddles as Gnostic songs, it came to me: I was going wrong. Sortilege and Thaumaturgy, Tantra, Sutra, Old Grimoires, Hermeneutics, Oneiromancy, Transits of Venus, Mercury, Mars, Almanacs, O Dark Abraxas, Cabbalistic Hierophants, Orphic Devotees, Eleusis, Mumbo-Jumbo, Obeah, Cant, Epiphanic Hocus-Pocus, Hoodoo-Voodoo, Occult Muse, Diabolic Psychomancy, Esoteric Marabouts.
In the second section, after various wanderings, including deserting the Dutch Colonial Army in Java, and a spell as a foreman in a quarry which ends with him killing a worker, Rimbaud fetches up in Aden, and then Abyssinia as a merchant’s agent. He explores little-mapped territory before getting involved in a complicated and ill-starred scheme to sell guns to the Emperor Makonnen. As Rimbaud takes his caravan across the inhospitable wastes of the Asal salt lake, the verse moves in and out of ballad-metre.
Out there, you come upon... The remains of corpses, half-devoured by beasts and birds of prey; a strip of bright-striped cloth has flowered to mock sun-blasted day. Jaw-bone, picked ribs, this cracked hip-bowl; what pokes through rags is all bleached white. (And that glinting tooth, I thought I saw... a heat-haze trick of this harsh light? The tribes round here would leave no gold, but wrench your teeth from skull for sure.) Out here, those ledgers and calculations suddenly require your life be balanced by stark negotiations on the blade of a Danakil knife.
The final section is told, at first through Rimbaud’s letters to his mother and sister, from Harar then Aden, as he liquidates his assets, in preparation for the journey back to France, and then from the hospital in Marseilles after the amputation.
The sequence attempts to voice Rimbaud’s (and finally Verlaine’s) thoughts, underpinned by snatches from letters, reports and articles. Both the dramatic episodes and the more reflective moments of the narrative are pieced together from research in a number of contemporary sources. In effect, this had become a verse biography showing Rimbaud not only as oscillating between the poles of Seer and Hooligan, but also his later incarnation in his strange self-imposed exile as hard-headed businessman and tough explorer: the man with one eye on scientific instruments and surveys, the other on the cash-box.
The book ends with Rimbaud’s funeral and a sequence of tombeaux, nodding to the epitaphs and memorials by Mallarmé and others. Here is Rimbaud’s tombeau:
No, not the one in your home town of Charleville-Mezières. Not graveyard, nor the monument, that bust in the park just off the square. Not the museum by the Meuse – the river tourists call “the Muse” – your fan-mail gets delivered where aspirant poets still pay their dues. On others it seems decay has smiled, and when it comes to Death’s des res, Mister Mojo Risin’ and Oscar Wilde are chilling down at Père Lachaise. But, dusted off, you’re everywhere: from page to stage, through screen, on air.