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Visionary Materialism

By Arthur Rimbaud
Translated by John Ashbery
(W.W. Norton, 167 pp., $24.95)


Arthur Rimbaud wrote the texts known as Illuminations between around 1873 and 1875. In those years he lived in London, and in Paris, and at home with his mother and sisters in northern France, and in Stuttgart. In London, George Eliot was writing Daniel Deronda; in Paris, Henry James was writing Roderick Hudson. The majestic Nineteenth Century was everywhere. But Rimbaud, who was only twenty, was holed up in a basement apartment, improvising experiments with paragraphs that mimicked the form of his zigzagging attention:

I rest my elbows on the table, the lamp illuminates these newspapers that I’m a fool for rereading, these books of no interest.
   At a vast distance above my underground salon, houses take root, mists assemble. The mud is red or black. Monstrous city, endless night!
  Further down, the sewers. At their sides, nothing more than the thickness of the globe. Maybe gulfs of azure, wells of fire. Perhaps at those levels moons and comets, seas and fables meet.

If you’re not nervous, said Miles Davis, you’re not paying attention. Rimbaud’s illuminations should make the reader very nervous.

The poems in Illuminations began to be published about ten years later, in 1886, without Rimbaud’s knowledge—when the poet, now thirty-two, was living in Harar as a trader. He had five years to live: he died in 1891, from cancer of the knee, in a Marseilles hospital, trying to arrange for a boat back to Ethiopia. There is something oppressively neat about the manner of this death: his life had always been a series of canceled escapes.

He was born in 1854 in Charleville, in northern France. “In all the world,” wrote Rimbaud, “no more moronic, provincial little town exists than my own.” His father abandoned the family when Rimbaud was six—leaving him to the stern presence of his mother and the careful presence of his sisters. The family became his first experiment in world-description: Mama, “whose slip smelled sharply,/Rumpled and yellowed at its hem like fruit”; Papa, with his “pants/My finger wanted to pry open at the fly”; and a sister with “a mawkish thread of urine” escaping “from her tight pink nether lips.” Sure, this occurs within a poem that is a parody, but it represents a diagram of Rimbaud’s future writing: a family is where you are schooled in desire and the repression of desire—in shame and disgust and boredom, all the varieties of entrapment.

Rimbaud lived—with momentary escapes—in Charleville until 1871. That autumn, the obscure seventeen-year-old prodigy wrote to the poet Paul Verlaine—ten years older and settling into married life—asking for help. Verlaine invited him to Paris, and so began the next episode in Rimbaud’s mythology. Soon he and Verlaine were inseparable. In the autumn of 1872 they moved to London—offering French lessons, drinking, learning English, reading in the British Library, hanging out with the exiles from the Paris Commune, and attending lectures and arguments in Soho pubs: hipsters in the city of Karl Marx.

These hipsters were also a happening. The affair of the Foolish Virgin and the Infernal Bridegroom culminated in July 1873 in Brussels, when Verlaine shot Rimbaud in the wrist. Verlaine was sent to prison, while Rimbaud went back to Paris. In March 1874 he returned to London, accompanied this time by another young poet, Germain Nouveau. Nouveau stayed until June, then went back to Paris himself. Rimbaud remained in Britain until the end of the year, when he went home to Charleville. By February 1875, he was gone again, this time to Stuttgart—where Verlaine, out of prison and now converted to Catholicism, came to see him:

Verlaine arrived here the other day, clutching a rosary. ... Three hours later he had renounced his god and reopened the 98 wounds of Our Savior. He stayed two and a half days, was altogether sensible, and upon my remonstration returned to Paris to go, straightaway, to study over there on the island.

It was the last time they would see each other. But as Verlaine left, Rimbaud handed him a package of manuscripts to be delivered to Nouveau, who was to arrange for their possible publication. This package was the last time Rimbaud saw his Illuminations.

It was also the last time, it seems, that Rimbaud considered himself a writer. He was now twenty-one—and converted to the adult world of business. In August 1880, he arrived in Aden, and began working for Alfred Bardey, a coffee trader. But Rimbaud’s ideas for world-transformation involved more than coffee. By December he had crossed the Gulf of Aden and was in Harar, in Ethiopia. He wrote home asking for treatises on metallurgy, urban and agricultural hydraulics, piloting steamboats, naval architecture, powders and saltpeters, geology, and masonry, as well as a pocket book of carpentry and manuals of glassmaking, brickmaking, earthenware, metal-forging, candle-making, and gun-making. In Harar, Rimbaud enacted his final metamorphosis: the total trader who trafficked in anything—not just coffee, but also currency, and guns, and possibly slaves.

Not that he was happy. As in Paris, and Charleville, and London, Rimbaud’s mode was a reckless sarcasm. In his letters home he excoriated the incompetent machinations of Bardey & Cie. When these letters were published posthumously, his former employer offered the following calm explanation: “He had suffered one disillusionment after another and had been living precariously, probably with people who were not entirely commendable. Since he knew nothing about regular living, he formed some rather grotesque suspicions.” And more: “He was simply acting out of misanthropy and regret (I know this to be true) at having wasted his life. That is why he spent his time bemoaning his fate and finding everything around him ignoble and disgusting.”

Rimbaud would have agreed. In 1888, eight years after his arrival in Harar, when Illuminations was appearing in avant-garde magazines, Rimbaud dismissed them as “rinçures,” or slops. Like most stories about Rimbaud, this story is apocryphal, but it is also convincing. In another hadith from the late 1880s, he is said to have remarked that “the Villon-Baudelaire-Verlaine lineage had quickly run out of steam,” and “all the really important work had been done in the novel, as it developed after Balzac and Flaubert.” The trader now admired only the world of prose. But then: it was perfectly logical for Rimbaud to consider his experiments a failure. His writings were meant to transform the conditions of knowledge—to dissolve the gap between the word and the world, between the real and its meaning. But they didn’t, or they couldn’t: Rimbaud was defeated in his attempt at art’s defeat.


Illuminations was therefore the last blow-up of Rimbaud’s literary experiment—an experiment which has been rendered comprehensively into English in Wyatt Mason's lavishly attentive two-volume edition of the poems and letters for the Modern Library (an edition from which all other quotations from Rimbaud's works in this essay have been taken.) This project had lasted about four years, and was announced in a letter to his friend Paul Demeny, in May 1871, when Rimbaud was sixteen. Its key point was a dismantling of the self: “For I is someone else.” The first task “of any man who would be a poet is to know himself completely; he seeks his soul, inspects it, tests it, learns it. And he must develop it as soon as he’s come to know it; this seems straightforward.” But since the self is multiple, the task involves an intricate complication: “The Poet makes himself into a seer by a long, involved, and logical derangement of all the senses. Every kind of love, of suffering, of madness; he searches himself; he exhausts every possible poison so that only essence remains.”

I suppose that such a project seems visionary. But it is more useful to see this meticulous refusal of the self as a meticulous refusal of style—since style was the literary form of the self’s illusory integrity. The energy of Rimbaud’s writing was provoked by his constant attempts to outwit and dismantle the ordinary ideas of style, the machinery of shame and repression: the rules and the censorship that held the self together. Instead he would force language into a state of wild improvisation.

Rimbaud sent two poems with his letter to Demeny. They are not hallucinations. They are examples, rather, of a base materialism. “My Little Loves” begins with absolute provincial dreariness: “A teary tincture slops/Over cabbage-green skies.” It goes on to describe sex as a bored malaise:

My dry jets of sputum
 Fester between
Your round breasts,
 My ugly, red-headed dear....

My little loves:
 I hate you.
I hope your ugly tits blossom
 With painful sores.

The poem “Squatting” offers a sun like “a scoured pot,” slathering “brioche-yellow patches on the paper window-panes,” and a priest squatting on his chamber pot: “Something like a bird softly stirs in his belly,/Serene as a pile of tripe!” (A description as softly accurate as Saul Bellow’s Augie noting the “heavy drape” of diarrhea in his guts.)

A month later Rimbaud sent three more poems. They were “Poets, Age Seven”—one of the great descriptions of the miasma of childhood, with its kid who sits thinking in latrines, pushing down on his eyes “until they swam with visions”; “The Poor at Church,” a realist notation of “the Happy Poor/Humiliated like beaten dogs” in the stale air of a church; and finally “Stolen Heart”:

My sad heart drools on deck,
A heart splattered with chaw:
A target for bowls of soup,
My sad heart drools on deck:
Soldiers jeer and guffaw.
My sad heart drools on deck,
A heart splattered with chaw!

It is a very pretty poem about male rape.

The trick, when reading Rimbaud, is to understand that the visionary and the scatological are modes of each other. The lyrical and the sarcastic are not contradictions; they overlap. Rimbaud had a savage sense of humor, always experimenting with the limits of real life. His former friend, the poet Charles Cros, once reported the following psychopathic practical joke, which took place in Pigalle:

All three of us were at the Café du Rat Mort—Verlaine, Rimbaud and myself. Rimbaud said, “Spread your hands out on the table. I want to show you an experiment.”
  Thinking it was a joke, we did as he asked. Then he pulled an open penknife from his pocket and cut Verlaine’s wrists quite deeply. I was able to withdraw my hands just in time and was not wounded. Verlaine left the café with his sinister friend and was stabbed twice more in the thigh.

These are the anecdotes that the reader needs to keep in mind when considering Rimbaud’s hysterical attempt at world-formation through words. Rimbaud thought that he could transform the world through words, as if words could enter the medium of reality. He wanted to make art into a mode of alchemy. Literature, therefore—the usual literature—was laughable.

For some time, I’d boasted a mastery of every arena, and had found famous painters and poets ridiculous.
  I preferred bad paintings: hanging above doors, on sets or carnival backdrops, billboards, cheap prints; and unfashionable literature, church Latin, barely literate erotica, novels beloved by grannies, fairy tales, children’s books, old operas, silly songs, simple scansions.

So he wrote in A Season in Hell, in his second text called “Deliria.” Its ironic subtitle was “Alchemy of the Word.” In it, he sketched his former avant-garde program:

I dreamed crusades, unimagined journeys of discovery, invisible republics, failed religious wars, moral revolutions, racial and continental drift: I believed in every enchantment.
   I invented colors for vowels!—Black A, white E, red I, blue O, green U.-I regulated the shape and movement of every consonant, and, based on an inner scansion, flattered myself with the belief I had invented a poetic language that, one day or another, would be understood by everyone, and that I alone would translate.
   It started out as an exercise. I wrote silences; nights; I recorded the unnameable. I found the still point of the turning Earth.

Amid this record of disillusion, Rimbaud was writing Illuminations. They were his last and most high-speed experiment in making writing into a happening. But even Illuminations, in the end, is still literature. The world can always resist any attempt to liquidate it in language.


Illuminations is therefore a foundational text of modernism, but it also anticipates the twenty-first century’s attempt to undo the strictures of modernism. Downtown New York in the 1960s and 1970s, for example: it’s only right that one of Ted Berrigan’s first cut-up sonnets, in 1962, was a collage of Rimbaud’s poem “The Drunken Boat”: “Stronger than alcohol, more great than song,/deep in whose reeds great elephants decay. ” And right, too, that John Ashbery, the original New York avantguardista, has produced his own translation of Rimbaud’s book.

Ashbery offers the reader a suitably global Rimbaud, floating in a hyperspace of Paris and Vienna and New York:

Absolute modernity was for him the acknowledging of the simultaneity of all of life, the condition that nourishes poetry at every second. The self is obsolete: in Rimbaud’s famous formulation, “I is someone else” (“Je est un autre”). In the twentieth century, the coexisting, conflicting views of objects that the Cubist painters cultivated, the equalizing deployment of all notes of the scale in serial music, and the unhierarchical progressions of bodies in motion in the ballets of Merce Cunningham are three examples among many.

But this has its problems. For Ashbery thinks that Rimbaud and Picasso and Schoenberg and Cunningham represent different forms of the same experiment. There is no doubt that Rimbaud, in a career of four years, managed to travel from the semiotic experiments of Paris to the aleatoric experiments of Black Mountain. But he also went even further, into a hyperspace of one. Ashbery possesses a blitheness that Rimbaud never shared.

Rimbaud’s orthodox critics in the 1880s complained that his systematic dislocation of language ended up with nonsense. Rimbaud, in the end, tended to agree. The greatest avant-garde writer also believed that the avant-garde was discredited. In the nineteenth century, Rimbaud was already bored of the twentieth. Compared to Rimbaud’s total irony, Ashbery is innocent. “If we are absolutely modern—and we are—it’s because Rimbaud commanded us to be,” he concludes, from the charmed perspective of New York. But the first part of his sentence is a tautology, and the second part is wrong.

In the final section of A Season in Hell, Rimbaud composed an exhausted victory song: “Yes: the dawn is harsh, to say the least.” Towards the end, he reaches this single-paragraph line: “Il faut être absolument moderne,” “One must be absolutely modern.” The next paragraph begins: “No more hymns: remain on the road you’ve chosen.” The victory song is really a song of defeat. And this irony needs to be related, say, to the irony of “Democracy,” the penultimate text in Illuminations, a battle hymn written between quotation marks:

“On to city centers where we’ll nourish the most cynical prostitution. We’ll massacre logical rebellions.
  On to peppery and waterlogged countries!—at the service of the most monstrous industrial or military exploitation.
  Farewell here, anywhere.”

The modern, for Rimbaud, finally meant gun-running—the pure world of business, the universe of spectacle.

According to Verlaine, Illuminations, Rimbaud’s French title, was meant to be pronounced with a London accent: Illuminécheunes. The title was a cross-channel joke. It could mean what it naturally meant in French-moments of mystical insight; and it could also refer to a more kitsch meaning—the garish colored plates in books or magazines. But it could also refer, for the poet in the pubs of Soho, to something neither bookish nor mystical: to public light displays, an early form of modern spectacle.

Spectacle is Rimbaud’s central subject. The texts in Illuminations represent how happily the modern cities, Paris and London, became phantasmagoric. “Cities (I)” begins with a version of London: “The official acropolis beggars the most colossal conceptions of barbarity. Impossible to express the dull light produced by the perpetually gray sky, the imperial glint of the barrack-like buildings, the eternal snow on the ground.” Then it floats into a shimmering invented urban landscape, a city that is really a theme park: “With a singular taste for enormity, they have reproduced all the classical marvels of architecture.” And it ends in the total artificial: “the suburb loses itself bizarrely in the countryside, the ‘County’ that fills up the eternal west of forests and prodigious plantations where savage gentlefolk hunt down their gossip columns by artificial light.”

Long before Cocteau’s and Satie’s Parade, Rimbaud’s vocabulary is contaminated by the language of bourgeois entertainment—the leisure spectacles: comic opera, theater, sideshows. In Rimbaud’s version of the real, everything can be sold: not just goods, but also experiences. As in the liquidating irony of “Clearance,” which sells off everything—the entire panoply of abstract nouns: “For sale: anarchy for the people; irrepressible satisfaction for select connoisseurs; an atrocious death for the devout and for lovers!” In these Illuminations, Rimbaud’s visionary poet is the bourgeois tourist, the genie of the inauthentic.

For these texts demonstrate what “I is someone else” might mean: it makes the speaking I into a fiction, an artificial pause in the materialist process. In Illuminations, Rimbaud is deliberately and maliciously lavish in his use of the word “I”—a technique that creates the vertigo of his simultaneous irony and sincerity. So ardent in their descriptions of moments when the world is revealed as meaning, his Illuminations are also precise in their descriptions of the moments when this meaning is revealed as nothing. The recurring experience in these texts is the vigil—the mystical illumination of starlight, followed by the sarcastic illumination of daylight:

It’s repose lit up, neither fever nor languor, on the bed or on the meadow.
   It’s the friend who’s neither ardent nor weak. The friend.
   It’s the beloved who’s neither tormenting nor tormented. The beloved.
The air and the world not sought for. Life.
  -Then was it only this?
  -And the dream cools.

The texts in Illuminations, Graham Robb observes in his biography of Rimbaud, are remarkable for the almost total absence of metaphor or comparison. This is true—but they are also remarkable for their domestication of the fantastical. In other words: Rimbaud’s sentences are experiments with the limits of the literal. He had already experimented with this kind of prose, in 1871, in his miniature dream text called Deserts of Love, an experiment in oblivious transitions.

I was abandoned, in this endless country house; I read in the kitchen, drying my muddy clothes in front of my hosts’ parlor conversations: moved to death by morning’s murmuring milk and the late century’s night.
  I was in a very dark room: what was I doing? A servant drew close: I can tell you she was a little dog, however pretty, and, it seemed to me, possessing an inexpressible maternal nobility: pure, familiar, utterly charming! She pinched my arm.
  I don’t even remember her face very well any more: this isn’t so that I might manage to remember her arm, whose skin I rolled between my fingers; nor her mouth, which my own seized upon like a desperate little wave, endlessly digging for something within. I backed her into a basket filled with cushions and boat canvas in a dark corner. All I remember now are her white lace panties.

Illuminations is usually called a sequence of prose poems, but I am not sure that this category is useful when considering Rimbaud’s work. It is possible that, as in Baudelaire, the earliest of these pieces began as prose sketches, to be converted into poems. But this is only a historical curiosity. Rimbaud soon realized what kind of instrument he had invented. His writing belongs as much to the art of the novel as to the art of poetry—and finally to neither. For his prose contains techniques that are still in advance of the present art of the novel.

Illuminations displays a kind of literary entropy, in which the usual figure and ground invented by a text dissolve in the startled movements between the sentences. That is how Rimbaud tries to erase the boundary between art and life, between perception and its representation. The texts in Illuminations—this maze of linguistic shifts and slippages—are attempts to dismantle the human love of transposition, to make words institute a radical explicitness. Symbolization, Freud would soon hazard, occurs because of shame or cowardice, but Rimbaud already knew this: with absolute courage, he examined the shameful origins of nineteenth-century fantasies. He wanted to undo the constant human sublimation, the multiple self’s need to console itself, to unify itself, to cleanse itself, with a single style.

This, after all, was his sad admonition to Paul Demeny, enclosing his early poems: “Look—don’t be mad—at these notions for some funny doodles: an antidote to those perennially sweet sketches of frolicking cupids, where hearts ringed in flames take flight, green flowers, drenched birds, Leucadian promontories, etc.” Etc.! That phrase is the mark of Rimbaud’s derisive intelligence. His writing was meant to represent a cure for the human weakness for stylization. But the inadvertent result was the prose accomplishment of Illuminations—so brilliant at rearranging the conventions of language that it could not help, finally, from becoming a triumphant style in itself. Rimbaud gave up style, and chose noise instead; but the noise became a style.

This is one way in which Rimbaud and Ashbery overlap. In an early essay, in 1957, on Gertrude Stein’s Stanzas in Meditation, Ashbery compared Stein’s work to late Henry James, in particular The Golden Bowl.

If these works are highly complex and, for some, unreadable, it is not only because of the complicatedness of life, the subject, but also because they actually imitate its rhythm, its way of happening, in an attempt to draw our attention to another aspect of its true nature. Just as life seems to alter the whole of what has gone before, so the endless process of elaboration which gives the work of these two writers a texture of bewildering luxuriance—that of a tropical rain-forest of ideas—seems to obey some rhythmic impulse at the heart of all happening.

Like Rimbaud (and Stein and James), Ashbery is a poet of happening. His own poetry, like Rimbaud’s, has tried to be true to the possibilities of both boredom and wonder. In Other Traditions, his Norton Lectures, it is possible to observe the trail of Ashbery’s sly preoccupation: to mime the process of (as he writes of Raymond Roussel) “daily life as it is actually lived: boring and at the same time exciting in its unavoidability.” He praises John Clare for his “distillation of the natural world with all its beauty and pointlessness, its salient and boring features preserved intact.” And in the same lecture on Clare, he says that it was Clare’s prose fragment “House or Window Flies” “which started me examining the possibilities of prosaic poetry.” Now, from the standpoint of Ashbery’s version of Illuminations, we may see how Clare’s splintered attentiveness is then deepened and enlarged by Rimbaud:

These little indoor dwellers, in cottages and halls, were always entertaining to me; after dancing in the window all day from sunrise to sunset they would sip of the tea, drink of the beer, and eat of the sugar, and be welcome all the summer long. They look like things of mind or fairies, and seem pleased or dull as the weather permits.

The dream is of a prose that somehow allows true access to the present moment. And so another model for Ashbery has been John Cage. In his lecture on Roussel, Ashbery quotes Cage’s self-reflexive lines about poetry: “I have nothing to say/and I am saying it/and that is/poetry/as I need it.” He adds: “Like Cage, Roussel is a poet who is about to be a poet: He is always bringing us face to face with the very latest moment in our thinking: the now where anything can and must happen.”

And I love this wish to mimic the process of the experience of whatever is happening—and Illuminations was certainly a version of this process. But where Cage was elegant with abstraction, Rimbaud’s attempt to reproduce the world is far more sticky with particulars. In trying to be true to the multiple forms of his attention, Rimbaud’s prose became an intricate form of assimilation. In his manic effort to make language uncongeal, Rimbaud constantly stole vocabularies that were not his. And so the place where his experiments with the real are carried out is the minute surface of the sentence.

Rimbaud’s texts are lavishly omnistylistic and multilingual. This means that Rimbaud’s translator is faced with the problem of how to reproduce this kind of linguistic becoming. In “Devotion,” there is this secretive line: “Baou—l’herbe d’été bourdonnante et puante.” It is possibly a remnant of Rimbaud’s synesthetic theory of vowels, and so Ashbery correctly leaves baou as a nonsense word: “Baou—the buzzing, stinking weed of summer.” But Rimbaud usually preferred forms of collage that are more complicated for the translator. In “Aube,” he writes: “Je ris au wasserfall blond qui s’échevela à travers les sapins.” Ashbery happily offers a multiple version: “I laughed at the blond wasserfall disheveling itself through the pines.” But when elsewhere Rimbaud writes, “Les lampes et les tapis de la veillée font le bruit des vagues, la nuit, le long de la coque et autour du steerage,” Ashbery’s remake is: “The lamps and carpets of the vigil produce the sound of waves, at night, along the hull and around the steerage.” Which is correct, of course—except that the strangeness of that English word “steerage” in the French has been flattened out.

Yes, English is a problem. For English is often used in Illuminations for the invention of strange effects. English was the hidden language against which these texts were written: English, the world leader in bourgeois expression. It’s as if Rimbaud was dreaming of a bilingual style. The bewildered French reader in the 1880s would have to cope not only with the difficulty of Rimbaud’s sentence movements, but also with the existence of English words such as “steerage” and “spunk.” In “Promontoire” Rimbaud describes “les façades circulaires des ‘Royal’ ou des ‘Grand’ de Scarbro’ ou de Brooklyn,” which is only partly translated by Ashbery: “the circular facades of the ‘Royal’ and the ‘Grand’ in Scarborough or Brooklyn.” That abbreviation, Scarbro’, is an inspired moment of British journalese: it is a mark of Rimbaud’s collage aesthetic, his appropriation of English cliché.

But this is only one aspect of his linguistic difficulty. It gets worse. Some of Rimbaud’s obscurities are puns on English phrases: he submits French to a strange process of anglicization. The reader therefore needs to pause over a text such as “Being Beauteous.” The title, in French, is in English. And so this English title is in a sense untranslatable into English (unless, I suppose, it is rendered into French)—and it conceals, I think, a double electric circuit: it refers to the state of being beauteous—a piece of Victoriana, culled from the newspapers, and it represents a deliberately literal translation into English of a French construction—a Being who is Beauteous, as described in the first line: “Devant une neige un Être de Beauté de haute taille.” The title, then, is a miniature form of Rimbaud’s sidestepping technique.

Rimbaud’s Illuminations is a dense network of pastiche. Its surface is constantly fractured: a linguistic form of chance. But Ashbery’s Illuminations is quieter, more matte. In his version of “Common Nocturne,” he describes how a “gust of wind opens up opera-like breaches in the walls.” In Rimbaud, these breaches are “opéradiques.” But the usual word is “opératique”: “opéradique” was a word recently invented by the Goncourts, writing on Watteau. So I’m not sure that “opera-like” is strange enough. I would prefer something more whimsical: “operatick,” perhaps.

And Rimbaud’s strange movements across sentences are often prompted by intricate aural and international association: the sound leads the sequence of the sentence, not the sense. “Des accords mineurs se croisent, et filent, des cordes montent des berges.” It is a description of a waterway. Ashbery offers: “Minor chords meet and leave each other, ropes climb up from the banks.” It is true that minor accords meet and leave each other—but then they re-emerge, having transmigrated via the English word for accords, chords, as the homophonous French word cordes, or ropes. The strange shift in subject is linked by a joke, and this joke has disappeared—but then what else could he do?—from Ashbery’s sketched English.

Such difficulty! This is the entirety of “Winter Festival,” a miniature description of universal artifice.

The waterfall echoes behind comicopera huts. Trails of skyrockets lengthen, in orchards and garden paths along the Meander,—the greens and reds of the setting sun. Nymphs out of Horace with Directoire coiffures,—Siberian folk dances, Chinese girls painted by Boucher.

It is gorgeous, but Rimbaud’s chiming landscape is more intricate. Even that first line is a maze: “La cascade sonne derrière les huttes d’opéra-comique.” Hutte is indeed a French word for “hut”—but because it is Germanic it is, strangely for French, aspirated. If not, then it would be homophonous to ut, meaning C in a musical scale. And this makes me think that there is another of Rimbaud’s puns here, in the sound of a waterfall sounding in the background of a comic-opera high C. As for “skyrockets”: this is Ashbery’s translation of girandoles. In French, girandole can mean a branched support for candles to be placed on a table, and an earring consisting of a central stone surrounded by smaller ones. It is also used, metaphorically, of some plants whose flowers are arranged like a bouquet, and it is used also in pyrotechnics, to mean the final bouquet of a firework—consisting of an explosion of revolving rockets. In other words, not “skyrockets,” as Ashbery writes, but something more like a Catherine wheel. It might seem unfair to demand that Ashbery find an English word that could be faithful to Rimbaud’s multiple word, but it turns out that in fact there is a perfect English word for girandole, existing since the middle of the seventeenth century: the word for girandole is “girandole.” Girandole in Rimbaud is dense with history, whereas Ashbery’s “trails of skyrockets” are only cute.

Rimbaud’s surface is an intricate infinity. That this network will unravel in English—that touriste and étranger will blur into each other, that tréteaux will be remade, within four pages, as “mountebanks’ stages” and then “trestles—is evidence that Ashbery has always been a wry poet of the random, but it is evidence also of the usual impossibility of translation. Yet there are still moments when Rimbaud’s style reproduces itself in Ashbery’s English. “La musique savante manque à notre désir” becomes the equally blank “Wise music is missing from our desire.” “Un rayon blanc, tombant du haut du ciel, anéantit cette comédie” is gorgeously rewritten as “A white ray, falling from the top of the sky, wipes out this bit of theatricality.” At these moments, Rimbaud and Ashbery are talking brilliantly in a shared improvised esperanto.


Rimbaud wanted to make prose into a happening. As a side effect, he invented a modern prose that is still a model of what such an improvised experiment might be. The modernists, therefore, are still catching up. I think of the moment in 1951, in Black Mountain, when Robert Rauschenberg began his series of Black Paintings, sheets of newspaper obliterated by a gorgeous monotone of black paint. Like Rimbaud’s prose, those paintings were exercises in how far it would be possible to create a sign that was only literal: to finish the game of representation. Instead, of course, they offered new ways of making junk into art. And while it is true that this mechanics of the side effect represents a failure of the dream of pure literalness (I’m reminded of Michel Leiris, complaining in his Journal about the remorseless sublimations of art: “even shit is pretty”), it is also true that both works represent a new value in the history of their arts. Maybe, in the end, the attempt to abandon entirely the forms of an art creates the truest experiments.

Whereas the true literal is something else. Consider the last text that Rimbaud wrote. It was a letter dictated to his sister, the day before he died, and written to the director of the Messageries Maritimes, in Marseilles. A delirious Rimbaud was trying to get a ticket for a boat back to Africa.

One lot 1 single tusk
One lot 2 tusks
One lot 3 tusks
One lot 4 tusks
One lot 2 tusks

Monsieur le directeur,

  I would ask you if I have anything left on your account. I would like to transfer off of this service, the name of which I don’t even know, but in any case will call the Aphinar service. There are all sorts of services here, and I, unhappy and infirm, can’t find a single one, the first dog in the street will tell you as much.
  So send me the price for service from Aphinar to Suez. I am completely paralyzed: so I would like to leave plenty of time to board.
  Tell me what time I should be carried on board.

What is that devastated letter but pure prose, the total literal? Rimbaud wanted a delirium of the word. A century and a half later, it is still an experimental ideal. And here it is. It sounds like this.


Adam Thirlwell is the author, most recently, of The Escape (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). This article originally ran in the June 9, 2011, issue of the magazine.

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