“. . . still unilluminated I . . .”
by David Rivard
from AGNI, Number 67
Does Rimbaud matter anymore? Modernist frontiersman, punkrock avatar, Beat seer, hallucinatory trip master, psychosexual sailor, litterateur as homeless street urchin—after a century or more of reinterpretations and idolizing, Rimbaud's name echoes through literary life like that of a highly diversified brand. The escapades of writers like Hart Crane, Henry Miller, Charles Bukowski, Ginsberg, Kerouac, Mailer, Frank O'Hara, and Jim Carroll (not to mention their more studied descendants) have made the role of the voyant a kind of franchise. In a culture where the machinery of consumption scarfs up and then test-markets nearly every act of revolt and every critique directed at it—in an age when Attitude and Mania are the names of clothing lines sold by Armani—Rimbaud seems pretty harmless really, a costume more than an influence.
With great-grandkids like Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Patti Smith, Lou Reed, and Johnny Rotten safely inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and with his legend having been acted out on the big screen by "Leo" DiCaprio, Rimbaud's existence often resembles that of a bad-boy celebrity genius enjoying an exceptionally long afterlife—a desperado's Einstein or Gandhi. Would it have been at all surprising if the Apple corporation had used one of young Arthur's dreamier photographs as part of their "Think different" campaign?
Little in contemporary American poetry sounds freshly influenced by a reading of Rimbaud's work. The image and life story threaten to obliterate the poetry. The work known but little read. If read, read to absorb a surface of postures, gestures meant to shock but hardly able to compete with the outraged infinity of the Internet. The radical nature of his technique filtering down only at third or fourth hand.
The translations themselves, I think, are a big part of the problem. Even at their best (Louise Varèse and Wyatt Mason), the poetry and prose can feel strangely sluggish for a writer who is ultimately a poet of consciousness. When handled by weaker translators, the poems simply aren't good poetry in English. They often have trouble projecting off the page. The fussiness of French syntax; Rimbaud's sporadic rhetoricity and Latinate abstractions; the translator's clumsy attempts to render a meter and rhyme unique to French into English correlatives—all these can make for an oddly inauthentic voice—sometimes hysterical and brittle, sometimes dandified and done up like a laid-back pimp with a PhD, sometimes as vatically stentorian as only an adolescent can be. At their weakest, the translations inflate Rimbaud's worst tendencies—in particular, what Mason calls "a brand of sentimentality that has made Rimbaud a patron saint of precocity." What one loves in them is more what they promise than what they deliver—they point to new kinds of poetic consciousness, an incitement of thought and feeling.
It's a credit to the originality of Rimbaud's work that this potential survives both the most dutiful and the most inept efforts of his translators. Louise Varèse, in the introduction to her translation of the Illuminations, neatly summarizes both the character of this originality and the problem of rendering it into English—as Varèse suggests, it is Rimbaud's consciousness as process that is at stake when translating him, not mere reproduction of meaning:
By his special use of language Rimbaud's thought becomes condensed into nothing but poetry. And this dense poetic mass is continually moving and changing. One is reminded of a chemical process as words join other words in sentences to form an ever more complex compound. And who can tell, of these kaleidoscopic atoms, which ones are ideas and which ones are objects? To activate English words to perform similar miracles—that is the difficulty.
It is not to excuse any failures on my part that I point out the difficulties, but to warn the English reader that his imagination must be ready to make up for my deficiencies.
But the problems these "difficulties" pose may not be solved by anything that can be found in the content of the original. Nor need it be. The translator's task, wrote Walter Benjamin, should be with "that element in a translation which goes beyond transmittal of subject matter . . . the element that does not lend itself to translation." In Rimbaud, the virtuosity of consciousness is the element that cannot be conveyed, and has to be reinvented in English. "For the sake of pure language," adds Benjamin, the translator "breaks through decayed barriers of his own language," extending its boundaries. Fidelity (or even similarity) to the original is not necessarily the point.
Maybe this explains why Stephen Berg has called his rendering of Rimbaud Versions & Inventions, making the subtitle loom larger than the actual title. The collection of these works, . . . still unilluminated I . . . , published in 2005 by Sheep Meadow Press, is certainly the most radical embodiment of Rimbaud yet seen in English. Its ambition reminds me of Christopher Logue's reimagining of the Iliad in War Music and All Day Permanent Red. Berg isn't trying to modernize Rimbaud so that he can sound more contemporary (there's nothing here on the level of staging Hamlet in a corporate boardroom); like Logue, he wants to present the poetry through modern poetic techniques. He rewrites Rimbaud in the light of the modernism and postmodernism that followed from him and of which he is an essential influence—in particular, Apollinaire and the surrealists, Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Robert Lowell, O'Hara, and Ginsberg.
Berg doesn't seem especially interested in the illusion of speaking as Rimbaud. One striking aspect of these poems is that you sense Berg writing as an American alive at the turn of the millennium, the double with adult knowledge. It's heard largely as an inflection in the tone, an accent driven by a pressurized cadence—the stereophonic sound of a paradox. On the one hand, Berg empathizes deeply with what he refers to (in the book's afterword) as Rimbaud's protest against the "combined assault that makes money, moral-political confusion and existential despair a singular agony." On the other, he has an undeluded sense of the heartbreaking naïveté that lies behind Rimbaud's hope "that the ethic of his esthetic would reform human greed and ignorance."
Berg's honed-down imagery and syntax amplify both Rimbaud's visionary program for redemption and his own skeptical recognition of the illusions it involves—even at its most ecstatic, the tone leaves a wide wake of inevitable grief and vulnerability behind it. This Rimbaud is both an adventuring innocent renegade raver and a terrified soul in exile from life and holiness, a watcher with night-vision goggles helpless in the grip of what he sees. Even in the earliest sonnets, Berg's Rimbaud sounds as if he's being torn and reborn from line to line.
My Bohemian Life
I jammed my fists into my torn pockets and took off,
my coat was beginning to look just right,
a big hole near my ass in my one pair of pants shone like a coin.
Muse, I was your slave, I wore the sky like a crown.
A dazed midget, I slept in the Big Dipper,
blew endless rhymes on the wind as I went.
What amazing torch-like loves scorched my dreams!
My own stars spoke to me like softly clashing reeds—
I listened to them sitting on the grassy
roadside stones those cool September nights
when dew graced my forehead like a strong Burgundy,
I wrote among unreal shadows, an unreal shadow
myself, and plucked the black elastics of my
wounded shoes like a lyre, one foot pulled up against my heart!
In the original French the poem bears the subtitle of "Fantaisie," and has been translated almost always as a mildly nostalgic reverie of youthful wandering. In a world with a fairy-tale cast, the poet is a dreaming "Tom Thumb" whose rhymes are "sowed" as he walks along. As translated by Wallace Fowlie, the speaker looks like a quaint bourgeois kid on a weekend away from his high school academy, a slightly flirtatious wuss on a field trip:
I went off, my fists in my torn pockets;
My coat too was becoming ideal;
I walked under the sky, Muse! and I was your vassal;
Oh! Oh! What brilliant loves I dreamed of!
My only pair of trousers had a big hole.
Tom Thumb in a daze, I sowed rhymes
As I went along. My inn was at the Big Dipper.
—My stars in the sky made a soft rustling sound.
And I listened to them, seated on the side of the road,
In those good September evenings when I felt drops
Of dew on my brow, like a strong wine;
Where, rhyming in the midst of fantastic shadows,
Like lyres I plucked the elastics
Of my wounded shoes, one foot near my heart!
Berg's "dazed midget" sounds like a teen with impulse-control issues—his muscles are popping and there is a sort of hormonal joy that can't be contained by his clothes. If he's a slave, then he's the king of slaves. There's a cartoony freedom in his leaving home, a boundlessness in which everything looks possible; but there's also a kind of vertigo and dismay at the sheer size of space. The universe gives this kid the creeps at times. Where Fowlie makes the night sky speak with a comforting sigh, Berg's stars seem to whisper instructions about fate in a way meant to induce pleasure or fear, probably both—there's delight ahead in those September nights, and loneliness too. The character and the scene work on each other like competing reagents. By the end of the poem, within the span of a day and night, the young speaker has received the education of a lifetime—his song is one part ecstasy, one part heartfelt pain. And Berg's account of it has none of the syntactical awkwardness of the Fowlie version.
What a queer little figure Berg's Rimbaud is at the end of this poem. Clever enough to call music out of the homeliest article of clothing, the part of himself always closest to earth, he made me think at once of some lines from a poem by Derek Walcott: "This banjo world have one string / And all man does dance to that tune. . . ." It's Chaplinesque, a little comic in its swooning, but genuinely self-delighted, undefeated, stirred-up, even a little manic. Except that the image plays off a line that's haunted—"I wrote among unreal shadows, an unreal shadow myself." This in no way resembles any previous rendering, literal or otherwise. The line is an invention, but it makes for a poem that's much more complex in English. And it seems to echo—as do similar phrases in the book—out of Berg's own work, and out of other poets Berg has translated. Rimbaud as cousin to the Zen master Ikkyu Sojun and Miklós Radnóti and Anna Akhmatova and Giacomo Leopardi.
"My Bohemian Life" and the sonnets that begin the book are fairly straightforward pieces, but Berg gets the same vividness and physical energy into the more convoluted and wilder poems, like those from Une saison en enfer and Illuminations. Overwhelmingly, it works. By extricating sections of Une saison and making them poems that stand on their own (and in at least one case, fusing separate sections into a new whole), by stripping out the rhetorical gestures in the work and replacing them with a more cinematic approach, and by using fragments of Rimbaud phrases as the starting point for improvising completely invented new poems, Berg reimmerses Rimbaud in the chemical broth of his own consciousness.
The tonal expressiveness of these versions mixes genuine awe with an ironic, slightly paranoid suspicion that we're all being played by forces beyond our control, forces both worldly and spiritual. Berg's Rimbaud has God hunger all right, but he has a gnostic's sense of God's shadow side, an evil inseparable from God's mystery. He also senses how this hunger for holiness and redemption might lead just as easily to rage as to peace and calm, never mind justice.
The opening of "River Cassis" as translated by Wyatt Mason is a backwater of lyrical equanimity and grace:
Unnoticed, the River Cassis streams
Through strange valleys:
Accompanied by a hundred crows,
Angelic voices good and true:
Pine groves sway
When winds plunge.
Instead of the relatively objective view Mason gives, Berg employs a first-person narration that begins in an oddly clipped way (as if Rimbaud had been taken by surprise). He locates the wonder more explicitly in the man who experiences it. The power of this simple vision isn't exactly comforting, though he'd like it to be. He sounds as if he's trying hard to reassure himself:
Can't believe Blackcurrant River dawdles through unmapped
valleys; hundreds of raucous crows follow it,
theirs is the true merciful voice of angels—acres of fir trees
loom like a tidal wave when the winds cut across.
For Rimbaud, those fir trees rolling "like a tidal wave" flare with the violent beauty of God's power. "Acres" of them, not mere "groves"—an industrial-sized tree farm or a threatened national forest. Those trees make the crows seem a little less straightforwardly innocent than they do in Mason's version. The wind is what drives that crushing wave, and it forces you to hear the conflicted minor note in "theirs is the true merciful voice of angels," the undertone of wishing it were true, and being afraid that it might be. Because what kind of person hears the voices of angels in the cawing of crows anyway? Someone in whom the neurological pathways of delight, fear, and revulsion are thoroughly crisscrossed. Someone sickened as much as amazed by the ruins of worldly power: "Every inch of reality flows with the atrocious mysteries / of primeval landscapes . . . fortresses overrun by tourists . . . the dead passions / of dissolute knights."
Rimbaud's gesture at the end of the poem emerges as an outburst from this mix. It's one part paean to God and nature, one part awe-inspired curse:
Traveler, peer through these clerestories, they'll make you braver
on your sleepless road. Soldiers of branches and leaves sent by God,
adorable joyous crows, assail the cunning peasant, drive him
out of here, this thief who clinks glasses with his old elbow stump.
Almost every translator sets the address here as "dear, delightful crows," which in fact is close to the original ("Les chers corbeaux delicieux"). Mason's version is closer still—"dear delicious crows"—but in English the word "delicious" makes it sound as if Rimbaud would like to dine on the birds, even though he means simply to inflect the voice with a certain archness. By using the more demotic "adorable," Berg gets the archness and a fizzy glee that smells like teen spirit. Just as by adding the word "elbow" to the final image, he gives the passage a physicality and exactness missing from most versions. His peasant appears like some conniving, maimed prole out of Beckett or Brecht. Paul Schmidt's attempt to maintain rhyme and meter gives us a poacher who is part lobster ("the old claw he shows"), while Mason's gloss is stuffy and needlessly abstract, his English clumsy, enervated ("Dear delicious crows. . . drive treacherous peasants from this place / who toast with vestigial arms").
After wooliness such as this, Berg's muscular and delineated image-making is a relief. The writing has a quality of event, whether it's hallucinated or real. Often it's erotically charged, as in this bit from "Lice Killers," where two teenage girls, "thin-fingered silvery nailed," groom their brother's hair:
he hears their nervous breathing
laced with the rose-honey of plants
interrupted off and on
by the hiss of spittle caught on a lip
or the wish for kisses
hears their swarthy eyelashes beating the aromatic silence
fingers electric sweet swimming his indolence
the deaths of the lice—so tiny!—crackle under their queenly nails
then the good red wine of sloth rises through every pore
a sigh like a glass harmonica echoes in his delirium
Whenever the scene threatens to float off into a hothouse steaminess, Berg grounds it in a close-up on "the hiss of spittle caught on a lip" or the "swarthy eyelashes" of the sisters. The narration here feels as if it's happening from within the unscripted consciousness of the moment, rather than from a true third-person distance. The cubist collaging technique makes the poem into a narrative of the mind, a floridly saturated but speedy mind. It has a bumpy immediacy. In other poems, the story unfolds with a smoother, more cinematic feel. Jump cuts give the opening moments of "First Twilight" a sexual charge that's both tender and threatening:
Huge indiscreet cunning trees
clawed the windowpanes,
she wore almost nothing
perched in my fat armchair,
hands folded on her petticoat.
didn't touch the floor,
one wand of waxy light
ecstatic lips, a fly
landed on a rosebud nipple. . . .
In Rimbaud, characters exist subjectively in feeling and thought; as he sketches out a personality, he reacts simultaneously to its presence. As in this passage, from "Memories of a Simple-Minded Old Man":
Oh, and my mother!—
Her nightgown smelled like vinegar,
hem frayed, vibrant as a lemon.
My mother, she'd climb into bed
with a noise like a waterfall,
my mother—her full rich thighs—
whose ripe buttocks pinched the linen sheet between them
and drove me wild—should I be saying this?
When he turns toward social life, the hypocrisies of wealth and the Church are etched by a sarcasm so acidic that the writing pushes out of an intensely naturalistic description into the surreal. Here, from "Musical Scene":
The military band's drums and tinny trumpets
blare from the bandstand over the town dandy,
the notary dangles like a charm from his own watch chain.
Trust funds wearing pince-nez point out all
the wrong notes; bank desks drag their fat wives
in their wake. . . .
. . . a Flemish corporation
smokes his expensive pipe, tobacco shreds
hang from it. . . .
And this, from "The Poor in Church":
these are the lost people shunned yesterday
at crossings, starved epileptics, crippled girls;
pulled by their dogs to courtyards, shops, the blind
lift crumbling Bibles to their faces as if they see.
And each one drooling mindless degraded faith
with pleading, stiffly gesticulating hands
moans endlessly to Jesus, dreaming up there,
yellow in the window's livid stained glass
high above potbellied businessmen, far
from the stench of meat, starvation, moldy cloth,
and as prayer blossoms in more exquisite words
and mysteries are sung in more emphatic tones
rich women smiling trite green silk smiles walk up and down. . . .
The subjectivity can also make for a rhapsodic, radiant tenderness that's almost as shocking as the hatred or despair. In "Last Lines: Memory: God," Berg takes a poem originally written in quatrains that employ envelope rhyme and turns it into a piece of largely unpunctuated prose that sounds like Ginsberg by way of Stevens by way of the dadaists:
Oh surface scattering its lucid bubbles, the water's a frail gilt bottomless coverlet for all the made beds, it's as if wild birds thrash out of little girls' grass-green hazy dresses masquerading as willows, eyelid warm yellow eyelid purer than a gold coin, marsh marigold, faith of the conjugal spouse, exactly at noon, coin that envies the rose-red sacred Sphere fainting with heat
This somewhat dithyrambic style dominates much of the last section of Versions & Inventions—largely reshapings of material from Une saison en enfer. Even when punctuated, the prose inclines toward fragmentation and feverish outburst.
For most readers, these pieces will be the most challenging in the book, both in form and subject matter. They don't allow for easy perusal, and were probably the trickiest for Berg himself to deal with. Much of Une saison can come across as hallucinated ranting, formless but obsessive ramblings that ride a Tourette's-like stream of vision, self-instruction, memory, fantasy, self-loathing, boasting, and politico-religious manifesto. The language veers wildly from hysterical bravado to scatological humor to fearful delirium to enlightened acceptance. My sense is that Berg captures the inner logic of this movement, refining Rimbaud's consciousness without censoring, streamlining without neatening. Berg's versions seem as scary and searching as Rimbaud must have intended. It's hard to think of anything with quite their trueness in recent American poetry.
When I confronted the King of Hell, I said: Fuck martyrdom, fuck the sublime health of art, the seriousness of inventors, the fervor of businessmen and thieves. The East is a dream of never waking up. I wasn't pondering my escape from contemporary anguish. I wasn't exploring the spooky Koran. Ever since Science took over, Man hides from himself. We cultivate fog, eat fever with our watery carrots and broccoli. We get drunk, smoke, sacrifice ourselves. Infinitely distant from the root, we exterminate ourselves with our own poisons. ("The Impossible")
As we live through our own season, somewhere between Green Zone Baghdad and iPod U.S.A., Stephen Berg's Rimbaud provides few consolations. Why should he? "One long evening in front of TV offers a vivid sketch of what is out there now," writes Berg. Berg sends us a Rimbaud rescued from cliché, a Rimbaud who feels completely up to speed. That's more than enough. This exhilarating book restores a voice whose meanings and means are uncompromised. We could use it.
About the Author
David Rivard is the author of four books, including Sugartown and Wise Poison, the winner of the Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets. His poems and essays appear in The American Poetry Review, TriQuarterly, Ploughshares, and other magazines. In 2006 he was awarded the O. B. Hardison, Jr., Poetry Prize from the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC. He teaches at Tufts University.
Editor: Sven Birkerts
Founding Editor: Askold Melnyczuk
Senior Editor: William Pierce