The aged and yellowed photograph of the adult Arthur Rimbaud which emerged in the news recently, and which has since been demonstrated to have been a hoax, has reawakened an old obsession. Why did Rimbaud stop writing poetry so abruptly at age 21? Why were his letters home so stark and severe? Why did he travel so far to make money? Why did such a notorious libertine suddenly devote himself so wholeheartedly to work and commerce, extremes of weather and long grueling walks in regions of unsparing desolation? My attempt to resolve these issues by bringing Rimbaud to the American west led to writing my novel Souls Of Wind, and a richly imagined existence in which a rugged Rimbaud encounters Indians and outlaws, Pleistocene fossils and Billy the Kid, learns the fundamentals of becoming a gunfighter and even begins to write prose poetry again. It was all very engrossing, and fun, and helped earn some insights and further speculations, but did not, ultimately, answer the many questions that continue to gnaw and busy my mind.
It is extremely disappointing that this picture of Rimbaud, which two booksellers ostensibly discovered at a flea market “somewhere in France,” lacks authenticity. He looks exactly as I would imagine him at this period of his life: dour, reflective, civil but distant, fraught with inner conflict. Still handsome, but far more manly and Clint Eastwood-like than his more boyish appearance in the Étienne Carjat photograph adorning my New Directions copy of the Illuminations. In Carjat’s photograph he looks like a punk, a highly intelligent, flamboyant and volatile figure, the image of the poet as rebel and intellectual swashbuckler, mischief-maker, provocateur. In the flea market photograph he is far more complex and interesting, the eyes deep-set, the expression disciplined, seasoned, and sad.
Why it should bother me so much that Rimbaud stopped writing poetry is a mystery. It would take a number of sessions with a therapist to get to the bottom. It is not a crippling problem, but neither is it merely a fascinating enigma to ponder and fuss over, a Rubik’s cube of the soul, an unanswerable meaning-of-life question. It is a genuine problem for which I hunger to find a solution. I read my own conflicts over poetry in Rimbaud’s decision to leave it behind as a foolish and distracting enterprise. I imagine the literary milieu of Paris in the 1870s to be every bit as clogged with arrogant jerks, pompous editors, and egotistical clowns as the literary milieu of the United States, in which poetry has, mystifyingly, become an actual career of sorts. “Poets now polish their CVs and grant applications as well as their verse,” writes Jamie James in his essay about Ezra Pound, “In The Gloom Of The Gold,” which appears in the spring, 2010, issue of Lapham’s Quarterly. But then, what profession isn’t full of jerks? Homo sapiens is a doomed species, an evolutionary mistake. We are far too self-aware and overburdened with consciousness not to make a mess of things in our quest for well-being. Our religions bring us war, our conveniences poison the planet, and ultimately ourselves. We are incapable of fulfilling even the simplest of bromides: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Yet, weirdly, this hasn’t stopped me from devoting four solid decades to writing, submitting, and publishing poetry.
I often imagine what my life would have been like had I become, say, a lawyer, or carpenter? What is life like when it is lived normally? What is life like when it is lived without this driving, lunatic urge to create things out of words? When there is no overriding ambition to see those words in print? When one’s passions actually coincide with a way to make a living?
The best advice I could give to a young person passionate about pursuing a life of poetry, is to learn a foreign language, and play a musical instrument, preferably an electric guitar. As Bob Dylan has shown, the electrical guitar is the best delivery mechanism imaginable for poetry. While seduced by the whine and open D tuning of a blues guitar, people might also pick up on one or two words you put together. But poetry by itself, naked, unadorned, with no drums or guitar or harmonica, is a tough pill to swallow. People have to make an effort. They have to pay attention. They have to concentrate. And people in this day and age are utterly incapable of that.
Perhaps, in some way, I envy Rimbaud. He was able to quit writing poetry. Rimbaud, more than any other poet, inspired me to write poetry. So it is all the more ironic that the man who got me involved with this lunatic pursuit, stopped, while I cannot. Poetry has become a compulsion. The more sensible direction for someone with a flair for words is journalism. There is nothing remotely sensible about poetry. It is the least common-sensical thing in the universe. Its frenzied chimeras border on self-destruction. Culminate in magnificent barflies like Charles Bukowski.
But enough about me. And Charles Bukowski. Let’s get back to Rimbaud: why Aden? Why did he travel so far south?
His letters during this time do not reveal much, other than a dire need for money. It begs the question: what was the employment situation like in France at the time?
It wasn’t good. The French economy was heavily burdened by the Franco-German war of 1870/1871. The suppression of the Paris Commune was also highly destructive and costly. Meanwhile, the world economy had entered the second industrial revolution. The growing industries needed raw materials and cheap labor. This led to a very aggressive policy of colonial expansion. Talk of making a lot of wealth in foreign countries, particularly the poorer ones to the south, must have been a strong lure to young Frenchmen, hoping to make it big, then return home to enjoy a life of ease.
1880, the year in which the adult photograph of Rimbaud was assumed to have been taken, was the year Rimbaud left employment in a stone quarry on Cyprus and found a job with Viannay, Bardey et Cie, a French export company dealing mainly in coffee. Rimbaud was hired as a foreman in the coffee sorting warehouse for seven francs a day. This included lodging at the Hotel de l’Univers. Temperature in the warehouse was about 100° Fahrenheit. Rimbaud says “you sweat out liters of water every day.”
Rimbaud’s letters home at this time reveal a few important details. He describes Aden as a “hideous rock, without a blade of grass or a drop of decent water: we drink water distilled from the ocean.” Photographs of Aden will bear this out. It is situated in a caldera, and looks like a furnace. The Periplus of the Erythean Sea (periplus is a Greek word meaning “to sail around a place,” and is an account of a coastal voyage; Erythean Sea means Red Sea), describes Aden, circa the 1st mid-century AD, as a place of “nomads and fish-eaters.” Aden is also where the USS Cole was bombed by a suicide attack on October 12, 2000, while it was harbored and refueling. Some also believe that Cain and Abel are buried somewhere in the city.
Once Rimbaud was situated, he wrote home with a number of very detailed book orders. In the first, which he directs to M. Lacroix, in Roche, a village in the Ardennes where his mother, brother, and sister were then living (hardly a place at all; I had a hard time finding it on a map), he provides a list:
Treatise on Metallurgy
Urban and Agricultural Hydraulics
Powders and Saltpeters
Masonry by Demanet
Pocket Book of Carpentry
And in a second list, containing more details about to whom to make requests, including an M. Arbery, “builder,” he includes a request from a M. Pilter for the Illustrated Catalogue of Agricultural Machines, by FRANCO, the Complete Catalogue of the Bookstore of the École centrale, in Paris, and the address of the Builders of Diving Equipment. Here is the second list:
The Compleat Locksmith, by Berthaut
Operating Mines, by J.F. Blanc
Guide to Gunmaking
Reading these lists, one can only clasp one’s hand to the side of one’s head, and say my God, did he think he was going to learn every single trade in the world? And why? Did he have ambitions of becoming some sort of 19th century Howard Hughes, or Warren Buffet? Did he want to know the import/export trade inside out and backwards in order to shine in a career he had chosen for its adventure and travel? How much of this had to do with commerce, and how much had to do with a sheer taste for this kind of reading? Reading void of literature. Void of poetry. Void of reverie and metaphor and romance and fanciful construction. Simple, direct, fact-based information about the materials and machinery and expertise of the world. Reading in which reverie and fanciful construction are found, and no doubt abound, albeit more by accident and serendipity in the mind of the reader than by the intent of the author, which is utterly down-to-earth, practical and plain as a hammer, or screwdriver. The text within these books is presented in a very different guise than in the annals of literature, where the ambitions of the author are more evident, and the words and phrases have been finessed more for the sake of inner reflection than a mastery of raw materials. These reading lists develop a vivid portrait, perhaps not of a face, but of a soul, a psyche with a raging hunger to know everything there is to know about the world on a level of strict empiricism, the world in its brute form, as a ball of rock and salt and organisms thrashing about for survival. But also a world of complexity and fascination where things can be achieved by trigger and gunpowder, glass and brick and metal and physical forces. Capacitance, crystallinity, magnetism, diffusion, ductility, extrusion, fatigue, reflection, refraction, polarization.
Rimbaud is slippery. Right when you think you’ve got him, developed an image, you discover something else that throws you off course again. Rimbaud also developed an avid interest in photography. There is a photograph of a local Harar artisan sitting at the base of a stone column, wearing a raggedy robe, his head bare and shorn, his expression intent, a blanket spread out before him of his wares, earthen jugs and plates and bowls. The photograph has a soulful presence that is uncanny in its power. Here, one sees Rimbaud through Rimbaud’s very own eyes. A man who has turned his back on the literary milieus of London and Paris, on the golden spines and shadowy convolutions of the French symbolists, on the diaphanous veils of the pre-Raphaelites, and directed his attention to the brutish realities of the world at its starkest, its most unconditional and glaring. The world of money and hunger and weights and measures. Inadequate doctors and medicines. Pearls and ammunition. Ignorance and greed.
Terrible heat. Unutterable cold.
“We have ordered a camera,” he wrote home from Harar on January 15, 1881, “and I will send you images of the country and its people. We have also received equipment used by natural historians, and I will be able to send you birds and animals that no one has yet seen in Europe. I have already collected a few curiosities that I await the opportunity to send you.”
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Rimbaud quotations are from I Promise To Be Good, The Letters Of Arthur Rimbaud, translated, edited, and with an introduction by Wyatt Mason. Modern Library Edition, 2003.