When you’re transported back, in your memories, to gaze, Scrooge-like, through a window at your weekend, and what you see is yourself singing Stick Wit U by The Pussycat Dolls [the game was what’s the worst song you know all the words to?] you know it took a wrong turn somewhere. They say alcohol kills truckloads of braincells, and you have to wonder if it’s worth it. I had intended this review to be my own version of Rimbaud’s Illuminations, a series of short prose-poems about the work and its author. The first one, which was written before any alcohol was imbibed is below:
O sweet poems – all prosed; all read – all sweet unknowing!
Pigeoned in apprehension, he strove with his inexactitude, then was lost amidst the shallow lapping of his years.
I quite like that. It’s not great, but it’s passable. It’s not particularly Rimbaudean [is that right?], because to be strictly Rimbaudean [I’m sure that’s not right] you would have to give up on reviewing the book altogether, his work being wholly personal and esoteric. Anyway, I’ve been unable to bring the thing to completion. My head, my mind, refuses to play ball; whatever ability I might have had to complete [P]’s Illuminations has seemingly died at the bottom of a toilet bowl, was thrown up into that toilet bowl – along with my liver, spleen, kidneys – sometime early this morning.
So, I’m going to have to piece something together off the cuff; apologies if it’s a bit weak. How to start, then? For a long time I was suspicious of Rimbaud; I approached him with some prejudices. The enfant terrible! The precocious teenager! The first modern man-boy! Ah. I must admit that his age was a bit of a problem. Could someone really be that good at 15? I didn’t think so. I was of the opinion that one could show promise but not create something truly worthwhile at an age when most people’s greatest achievement is not being caught jacking off by their parents. And to some extent that opinion is valid, in that my favourites of his works are the final two [including this one, which was the very last thing he published].
My other problem with Rimbaud was, in all honesty, not about the man but a certain kind of person who likes him. I don’t know if these characters exist in other parts of the world, but here in England there is a breed of boy [it’s not exclusively boys, but mostly] who are, well, pretty unclean, and who consider themselves to be libertines and decadents, and so wibble on about French poetry [a volume of which they’ll have with them, because they’re, like, sensitive and interesting] and their own excruciatingly abysmal poetry, and their music [because they’re always in bands too, crap ones that sound like The Brian Jonestown Massacre or The Birthday Party], and they’ll usually also be holding a flower [another symbol of their sensitivity]…well, those boys always fucking love Rimbaud. And, listen, I’m generally pretty tolerant; my attitude is each to their own, as long as you’re not hurting anyone [or trying to get me to read your poetry or watch your band], it’s just that I can’t take these people seriously, and so that sense of ridiculousness left a stain on Rimbaud too.
It wasn’t until a year or so ago that my attitude changed. I had come back to live in the north of England, and there are less of those boys up here, and so the stain started to fade. I was aware, at that point, that a fuss had been made of Ashbury’s translation of Illuminations, and periodically I’d catch a review or a mention of it somewhere. So, eventually, feeling more well-disposed towards Rimbaud and a little excited by the growing hype, I bought a pretty hardback version of the book. Yet, I didn’t immediately love the poems; reading the book cover-to-cover in one sitting my attention started to waver, my concentration flag; the most I could say was that I had enjoyed it, but hadn’t been particularly moved. However, as I returned to the book over the following weeks certain images and lines jumped out at me, demanded my attention; lines like:
A hare paused amid the gorse and trembling bellflowers and said its prayer to the rainbow through the spider’s web
Which is kinda silly, yes, but lovely nevertheless.
The more I got to know the poems, the more I liked them. I think it’s natural to read prose and demand meaning from it, or recognition, and that isn’t something you’ll get consistently from Illuminations. This isn’t Proust; it’s not a simple matter of accustoming yourself to the rhythm of the sentences in order for the meaning to reveal itself. Nor is it Ulysses, which with the required knowledge [although possessing all of that knowledge is unlikely] would open up to you many of the its mysteries. Illuminations isn’t difficult in terms of its language or references, it is merely obtuse; it is the intensely personal vision of one man. To some extent one could criticise the work for that; one could legitimately ask: if something is so personal as to render it almost inaccessible to anyone but that person then what is the point of publishing it? I’m sympathetic to that, which then begs the question: if I don’t buy into the legend of Rimbaud, the poet as man, and if the work doesn’t speak to me personally, doesn’t say anything to me about my life, why do I rate it so highly? Well, what I like about it is the idea that one man can see the world in this way, can turn his senses to the world, a world all of us have access to, and see these often strange and beautiful things in it. Ultimately, its alien and isolating nature is actually a virtue, is what I value about it.
Clues to the meaning of the individual pieces are often to be found in the titles, and through them is revealed a preoccupation with cities. For someone who is often described as the first modern man, it is interesting that he isn’t very complimentary about them; in cities he sees “morality and language reduced to its most basic expression.” In contrast, when he writes about woods or forests he is at his most lyrical [some would say ridiculous]:
I walked, waking living and warm breaths, and jewels looked on, and wings arose noiselessly.
The first undertaking, in the pathway already filled with fresh, pale sparkles, was a flower which told me its name.
In fact, I would point the reader to this quote from another of his works as a way of illuminating [geddit!] this collection and Rimbaud’s preoccupations:
For a long time I … found the celebrities of modern painting and poetry ridiculous. I loved absurd pictures, fanlights, stage scenery, mountebanks’ backcloths, inn-signs, cheap colored prints; unfashionable literature, church Latin, pornographic books badly spelt, grandmothers’ novels, fairy stories, little books for children, old operas, empty refrains, simple rhythms.
It is that interest in marginalia and obscurity, and the referencing of fairy-tales, that best gives one a sense of what is great about Illuminations and the poet’s vision.
A brief note: In terms of Ashbury’s translation, it reads well. I would say, however, that it’s probably further from the original that some other translations. It doesn’t feel authentically French either, there being some glaring Americanisms, such as the title of one poem as Clearance rather than, say, Sale. Ashbury can’t have been unaware of this, and it irks me slightly that he wasn’t respectful of the source material enough to avoid these jarring words and phrases.