Reflections on Rimbaud’s Illuminations
I just read Rimbaud’s Illuminations for the first time. Found and bought in a Lyme Regis bookshop yesterday afternoon. Moving me to a slower understanding now. Reclaiming the deep love and bewilderment I had when I encountered Dictee for the first, second, fifth times before I got anything like a grasp on it – it already had a grasp on me. I remember reading and re-reading it over and over without a clue – literally – without meaning or purpose or politics or sense. Just the sensation of rhythm and mystery and breath and breathing and slowing down and caught in meditation like a web. Returning and retuning to it over and over again. Through my PhD I taught myself to understand and I valued understanding – the gift of making legible through wisdom and experience. what bullshit. Give me the slow rub of poetry and time to return again.
Written in the late nineteenth century and published in 1886, I am reading Rimbaud’s Illuminations for the first time. This Carcanet copy, dual-language edition, introduced and translated by John Ashbery. Both now dead. Knowing the influence Rimbaud’s poetry has had on other writers and artists I admire and have studied, I’d been both afraid and excited to get into this. Afraid because while I was writing my PhD, I was tormented by the idea of my own inadequacy – shadows of my working-class roots, residual trauma and my own personal mix of behaviours and belief stories. You know it, it’s called “imposter syndrome” and many of us are preconditioned to it in whatever context we are in – or we want to enter – especially if we sense we’re reaching above and stretching to grow beyond our previously acquired and held limitations. It’s the only way to evolve. And yet the discomfort of not belonging will so often sabotage that attempt and mangle that desire until it turns in on itself and eats itself alive. Last night I dreamed I was feeding horses on the torn off strips of dry dog meat I pulled from a blackened carcass. That aside, or maybe that because I’d been reading Rimbaud before I slept…
Three years have passed since I completed and conferred my PhD and I barely touched a book in the interim – they’ve been boxed up in storage for most of that time and although I knew I could not survive for long without them, I also had a strange and strong sense that I could not for the moment find my way back to them at all.
I was afraid to read Rimbaud because while I was writing my PhD I’d developed a belief that I was supposed to understand what I was reading and have a handle on the meaning, the context, the implications and the legacy of everything I read. Despite that my study into Utopian Poetics was demonstrating the opposite. I was in a contradictory nightmare where nothing I could do would have ever been right to me. I was not yet ready to claim myself. Not strong enough to trust myself. Not wise enough to know myself. So I floundered about and was afraid to pick up the books that daunted me most because I might not understand them, or it might take me too long to read them with the degree of research and complexity I demanded of myself – and besides I was overwhelmed with the sheer amount of reading and writing on my desk anyway, and I could not possibly add anything more to it.
This weekend in a small independent second-hand bookshop in Lyme Regis I found Rimbaud, and others, and I felt ready to dive in. Excited. To discover for myself what had made Allen Ginsberg mad for poetry and set him off with Kerouac and Burroughs to tear up the library and scrawl on the walls and get kicked out of Columbia and start writing with the rhythms of new life. I wanted to know what was so radical and restless and disruptive and illegible and irruptive and explosive and chaotic and real about this writing that had hovered over a century and more of the writing I most loved.
When I opened the book to reveal the dual language pages – with the French on the left and the English translation on the right, facing and dancing each other – I saw pages from Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee looking back.
And when I started to read the prose poems contained within this collection, I didn’t understand – and I began to know and recognise myself. The seven or eight years since I started to curate my own pathway through poetry are landing and taking root and embodying in my being – settling/unsettling – and opening me to new visions and possibilities of thought.
I am beginning, in my own way, to create my own context, find my own way through a legacy, without the external and internal pressures I’d held throughout my PhD.
Finding my own way.
Rimbaud’s prose poems in Illuminations are set out as little bits of prose on the page. It’s difficult to discern internal rhythm or structure, visual markers of language as material, or a poetic relationship between word and space as silence – the things that I’ve identified and looked for as Utopian Poetics. These writings seem not to be anchored in everyday experience – they are early influencers of Symbolism and Surrealism – and they read like abstract cosmic fairy tales without much particular narrative drive.
Graceful son of Pan! Around your forehead crowned
with small flowers and berries, your eyes, precious
spheres are moving. Spotted with brownish wine lees,
your cheeks grow hollow. Your fangs gleam. Your chest is
like a lyre, jingling sounds circulate between your blond
arms. Your heart beats in that belly where the double sex
sleeps. Walk at night, gently moving that thigh, that second
thigh and that left leg.Arthur Rimbaud, Illuminations. Tr. John Ashbery.
What are they?
I don’t know. And not knowing is absolutely the right way to respond to these texts for me right now. Rimbaud encouraged through his own writing the absolute derangement of the senses. For me right now, this means letting go of the need to know, the false (patriarchal, colonial) idea that one can know. That reading should be transparent, that meaning should always be legible, that words and language could give an insight into a deeper interiority of writer and reader that would satisfy our curiosity, slake our thirst for knowledge and mastery, give a momentary glimpse into the inner world of another being and make us whole again in so doing. No.
Rimbaud, yes. and it’s illuminations and now i’m seeking a season in hell and the drunken boat and reading and just being present with and not shifting into assimilation but what happens when the writing stays outside of oneself and outself outside of myself and what happens when the writing isn’t assimilated and consumed and it retains its own independence and every time i come back to it i’m delighted with fresh insights or sometimes not and sometimes it simply is what it is with a cold exterior and no invitation inside and yes that’s relationship yes that’s autonomous intersubjectivity where even the writing retains its own autonomy and yet there’s a relationship between us where i am invited in and sometimes given glimpses into a deeper interiority within myself through the invitation of the writing itself which is not a window to look through it is not transparent it is opaque and sometimes oblique and sometimes what’s the absolute opposite of transparency it’s blank and i can’t see through it and i can’t see anything within it at all and yet it continues to exist autonomously on its own terms and there is alswyas the possibility for relationship to a greater and lesser degree and yes this is how we read each other and this is intersubjectivity and this is how we relate autonomously and we are not always transparent and open and available to each other and we are not always open and sometimes we are oblique and opaque and closed exterior there is not always an open invitation into our interiority and this is respectful intersubjectivity and this is what i have learnt from living in community and this is utopian poetics. yes.
I am an ephemeral and not at all dissatisfied citizen of a
metropolis thought to be modern because every known
taste has been avoided in the furnishings and exteriors
of its houses as well as in the plan of the city. Here you
would never point to the traces of any monument to
superstition. Morality and language are reduced to their
most basic expression, indeed! These millions of people
who feel no need to know one another experience such
similar kinds of education, occupation and old age, that
their life-spans must be several times shorter than those
which a mad statistic determines for the peoples of the
continent. Just as, from my window, I see new specters
rolling through the thick and eternal fumes of coal fires,
– our shadow of the woods, our summer’s night! –
modern-day Furies, in front of my cottage which is my
country and all my heart since everything here resembles
this, – Death without tears, our active daughter and
servant, and a despairing Love, and a pretty Crime
whimpering in the mud of the street.Arthur Rimbaud, Illuminations. Tr. John Ashbery.
What I glean / What gleams / from these prose-poems’ surfaces is vocabulary that recalls to me the writings of H.D. (crystals and seascapes and gorses and brambles and pillars and bridges and mud), Sappho (flowers and stars and Greek goddesses and wine and song), and utopias of architecture that ring out in cityscapes with cubist-inspiring reworkings and retellings from fragmented views with new perspectives and opportunities. Every city description, if not every page and every poem, speaks of alternative possibilities for newness and new relationships – in which the old structures of superstition and illusion give way to wiser clarity and deeper joy founded in new sorrows that inform and inflect the lives it is possible to build. To become.
I see these whispers of utopia in the language and vocabulary. I remember that utopia can only be co-created from fragmented desires and never fully held or conceived. I realise that Rimbaud’s visionary utopia requires the undoing of all that I have learned and understood.
And I recognise in the crystalline tumult of Rimbaud’s poetics an invitation into autonomous intersubjectivity: To be individual and collective, the unity in diversity and the diversity in unity. These Age of Aquarius themes that it’s my passion to trace in poetry.
1) The first paragraph is a journal entry, dated Sunday 2 October.
2) Rimbaud, A. (2011). Illuminations tr. John Ashbery. Carcanet Press: Manchester (England).
3) Olivia Laing writes in Funny Weather: Art in An Emergency (2021, Picador: London) with reference to the relentless news cycle since 2015, “It was happening at such a rate that thinking, the act of making sense, felt permanently balked. … There was no possibility of passing through coherent stages of emotion, let alone thinking about responses or alternatives.” (p1).
4) Allen Ginsberg alludes to his experiences in Howl: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/49303/howl
5) Hak Kyung Cha, T. (2001). Dictee. University of California Press: Berkeley. First published by Tanam Press (1982).
6) ANTIQUE (Carcanet, p41). I have kept the line breaks that John Ashbery uses in the Carcanet edition, except where words were split and hyphenated in the original.
7) Rimbaud’s ‘systematized disorganization of the senses’ was also a rallying cry to radical self-enquiry and self-knowledge. “A Poet makes himself a visionary through a long, boundless, and systematized disorganization of all the senses.” See more on Language is a Virus, here: https://www.languageisavirus.com/creative-writing-techniques/rimbauds-systematic-derangement-of-the-senses.php
8) CITY (Carcanet p75). I have kept the line breaks that John Ashbery uses in the Carcanet edition, except where words were split and hyphenated in the original.
9) For a fuller exploration of Rimbaud and his poetry, head over to the Poetry Foundation here:https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/arthur-rimbaud