Illuminations by Arthur Rimbaud (trans. John Ashbery). W.W. Norton. 176 pp., $24.95.
Arthur Rimbaud wrote the poems that were eventually published under the title Illuminations between the ages of seventeen and twenty. John Ashbery, who has just translated the forty-two poems (plus one fragment) traditionally grouped under that title, is eighty-three. Rimbaud, when he wrote the poems, was at a peak of creativity, moving from formal poetic composition to his long prose confession A Season in Hell (1873), and into the form—the prose poem—with which he is most often associated. His continue to be some of the most provocative performances in that genre. Ashbery, who has, of course, published many remarkable prose poems himself, including his landmark book Three Poems (1972), clearly feels it is time, late in his own career, to repay the debt. Rimbaud’s Illuminations has left an indelible mark on literature, and its translation by a poet of Ashbery’s stature should mean that the poems will exert their influence anew on readers of English.
Picking up Ashbery’s Rimbaud, one might easily be swamped by considerations of its purpose. Is the aged Ashbery giving his imprimatur to an early influence? Is it the case of a long-dead Great being updated by an esteemed eminence? Is it the case of Ashbery, a long-established poetic institution, trying to court the thrill of vibrant youth by turning to the youngest of great poets? Must such texts out of time—Rimbaud did not publish the poems himself, did not control the order in which they were arranged, and gave Paul Verlaine the title as a suggestion, though not necessarily one he would have stuck with—be read within some historical narrative, whether of Rimbaud’s publication and translation history, or of Ashbery’s?
In pursuing such topics, one almost inevitably emphasizes one poet or the other: we read these translations because they are Ashbery’s, or we read them because we are familiar with some or all of the many previous attempts to render Rimbaud into English, from the serviceable, fin-de-siècle-sounding version by Wallace Fowlie to Louise Varèse’s long-favored version to the edgy, post-Beat American voice of Paul Schmidt’s version (still my favorite A Season in Hell). We want to see what, if anything, a name poet and a new century brings to the task.
My interest in the book balances, somewhat, both claims. I tend to read each of Ashbery’s books sooner or later (there are still one or two I haven’t gotten to), and Rimbaud, whom I first encountered and became immersed in when I was the age he was when he wrote his best stuff, has remained for me a point of reference, a caution against the many-too-many contemporary poets who feel they have done something remarkable by breaking out of traditional poetic forms or by eliding an obvious autobiographical, narrative, or historical subject matter. Rimbaud did it, and did it with more grace and audacity, than almost anyone you care to name, long before the 19th century was over. He is one of the poets of that century so unique as to be unavoidable—Whitman and Dickinson, in our country, are comparable, each for different reasons. And Ashbery, for my money, is the only living American poet capable of making the claim of having “furthered” Rimbaud. So, for me, the prospect of seeing how Rimbaud sounds as Ashbery, and vice versa, is irresistible.
The overall effect is of a more urbane Rimbaud, a poet whose mature style does not emerge as a rejection of an earlier poetics, but as the brilliant summation of a visionary turn. Reading Illuminations as a stand-alone volume, with no preliminary glances into the poet’s earlier work, one meets a Rimbaud who is pure precursor of our era, not a lonely figure poised on the precipice of his departure from France and the world of letters, flinging a “few miserable pages” into eternity, certain that, no matter what he writes, the world will swallow him up, leaving behind in a sheaf of prose poems a luminous sense of burning possibility in a language unsurpassed for glorious and absolute abstractions, compressing into each poem a mini mythology of his progress. Rather, the Rimbaud relayed by Ashbery arrives at once as a beacon for a world of poetry we have already seen and absorbed, a poetics of phrases, of various and consummate voices, of stances and gestures that combine the oracular and the nostalgic, the disillusioned and the charmed, the precise and the suggestive, the serene and the anxious, and all for the sake of a performative restlessness.
Most of those tones we have come to expect in any volume of Ashbery, but what we miss, as he follows the Frenchman’s lead, is the more colloquial cartoonishness of Ashbery’s diction, that cinematic sleight-of-hand that is one of Ashbery’s standard manners. This volume makes us that cinematic sleight-of-hand that is one of Ashbery’s standard manners and can make us feel we are eavesdropping on an insomniac consciousness buffeted by jumbled broadcasts, stringing barely glimpsed scendes from a hodgepodge of films into lines that pin to the page a wriggling waking dream. Rimbaud, we find, is rarely as loony as Ashbery, and Ashbery must become somewhat staid to maintain a proper mimickry. How strange that the young, bratty, and brazen genius should require a certain fussy decorum of his elderly amanuensis!
Which is not to say that there aren’t many Ashberyesque elements here, most notably in sentences that seem to change their focus while we’re reading them: “This poison will remain in our veins even when, as the trumpets turn back, we’ll be restored to the old dischord” (“Morning of Drunkenness”). “A Prince was annoyed at always being occupied with perfecting vulgar generosities” (“Tale”). “And, for an hour, I came down into the liveliness of a boulevard in Baghdad where gangs were chanting the joy of the new work, under a stiff breeze, moving along unable to avoid the fabulous phantoms of the mountains where we were supposed to meet again” (“Cities (II)”). We might imagine these lines to be from Ashbery poems, but Rimbaud tends to stick to a train of thought more readily than is often apparent in Ashbery. The juxtaposition of idioms in Illuminations is more manageable, and the non sequiturs rarely arrive from a wholly unprecedented quarter. Even fascinating rhetorical questions like “Why would a spectral cellar window turn livid in one corner of the vault?” (“Childhood”) don’t simply rise up as though dictated, as happens so often in Ashbery’s poems, but are more easily read as responses to a theme or as manifestations toward a perceptible goal.
Take, for instance, this characteristically Rimbauldian sentence: “Whistlings of death and circles of muffled music make this adored body rise, swell and tremble like a ghost; scarlet and black wounds open in the magnificent flesh” (“Being Beauteous”). The poem, while not precisely a narrative, does narrate action, but what throws off our sense of getting a story is Rimbaud’s tendency to distribute emphasis evenly between nouns and adjectives, the “what” is never graspable without its “how” or “howso.” This makes for statements that seem ambiguous because the thingness of things is never very concrete—if the body is “adored” and the flesh “magnificent,” can we be certain we can picture it, would know it if we saw it? Can we imagine the aural relation between “whistlings of death” and “muffled music,” and why are the latter in “circles”? In the passage quoted earlier, are the “fabulous phantoms” as real as the “mountains where we were supposed to meet again”—or aren’t both rather unreal, as imaginary as “a boulevard in Baghdad” for one who has never been there, or as unimaginable as “vulgar generosities” made perfect?
This aspect of Rimbaud, which is even more fluid and tonal in the French, seems very suitable to Ashbery, so much so that one might say the latter poet’s characteristic tendency to avoid the specificities of objects takes its cue from Rimbaud but goes further, pushing away tangible subject matter for the sake of trouvailles even more associative. In Illuminations, Rimbaud, rather quaintly we may say, tends to let us relate even his odd outbursts—”the cannon on which I must hurl myself through the mêlée of trees and light air!”—to the ostensible topic (i.e., aspects of the “Beautiful Being”). What Rimbaud seems to insist is that the rhetoric—the imagery, syntactic flourishes, emotive stance—suitable to any topic will be whatever he deems it to be, and that the reader had best experience his choices as evocations of the theme, rather than as descriptions or commentary. The voice of Illuminations is generally hortatory even when it isn’t, seeming to urge upon us a state of mind or heart or soul that we might otherwise live without ever glimpsing or sensing the need of. In that respect, Rimbaud’s poetry is essential because it makes us aware of a kind of poetry we didn’t know to expect and therefore can’t expect to find anywhere else.
In his slight Preface to the volume, Ashbery pays dutiful tribute to Rimbaud as the figure who stated “it is necessary to be absolutely modern” (“Il faut être absolument moderne”), and tries to make of Illuminations an occasion for a more hopeful version of modernity than A Season in Hell might give us grounds for: “an age of sadder but wiser happiness, of a higher awareness than A Season in Hell foresaw, perhaps due precisely to that work’s injunction to be ‘absolutely modern.’” Ashbery sees Illuminations as a vision subsequent to Season, sadder, wiser, higher, but equal to the kind of modernity Season charges us with. Certainly there are grounds for receiving the volume as such, and doing so gives point to Ashbery’s selection of this volume as the work to translate, for it is by no means certain that the stringent sarcasms and hyberbolic rantings of Season would wear so well the Ashbery seal as do Illuminations. The future Rimbaud is looking toward, it seems, is the one in which poetry is comfortably visionary, absolutely modern because thoroughly bourgeois, suffering no pangs of conscience more pointed than a bout of indigestion.
“Lives,” a poem that to a certain extent rehearses some of the same rhetoric as Season but in a more reasonable key, ends, via Ashbery: “My homework has been handed back to me. One mustn’t even think of that now. I’m really beyond the grave, and no more assignments, please.” This is an affable Rimbaud, tinged with the kind of fond regard for the reader that one almost always encounters in Ashbery, much as any virtuoso might simply be grateful not to be alone with his instrument. Rimbaud, in his willful certainty that few, if any, would applaud his “new harmony” tends to bristle at the tastes of his time, emitting fanfares for his fanciful expeditions to some other shore, the ailleurs that Surrealism tried to use his work to locate. Ashbery, though he might once have been taking us “elsewhere,” has for very long indeed occupied the divine sepulchre of his own taste, making it ours as well, and now also Rimbaud’s. The elsewhere is here.
The final poem in the book, “Genie,” Ashbery calls “one of the greatest poems ever written,” and it’s not difficult to see why. The poem celebrates a male poetic principle that seems particularly relevant, muselike even, for a gay poet. Indeed, what makes the poem so provocative is that Rimbaud is able to give us a sense of adoration—our attitude toward a god—that eroticizes our adoration, and its relation to its object, and then, arguably, transcends both adoration and eroticism, and, possibly, the Genie as well, for when we learn to “follow his seeing, his breathing, his body, his day” we may be said to have become him ourselves: “O him and us! pride more benevolent than wasted charities.” It’s easy enough to make Rimbaud our genie and let him sound our attitude toward him, worshipful of his androgyny, his delightful ability to remain forever excluded from the precincts of fully masculine privilege and manhood, ever a gamin, so that “genie” is in some ways simply that quality etherealized, made into a figure of longed for perfection: “He is love, perfect and reinvented measurement, wonderful and unforeseen reason, and eternity.” One has the sense of Rimbaud stringing together some of his favorite words to create in a breath a sense of rapturous identity. How does one become a genie? By making love to one.
It’s not clear if Ashbery is having as much fun as Rimbaud is, for it would seem there’s a struggle to deify the poem going on, but his rendering of “Arrière ces superstitions, ces anciens corps, ces ménages et ces âges. C’est cette époque-ci qui a sombré!” as “Away with those superstitions, those old bodies, those couples and those ages. It’s this age that has sunk!” certainly bespeaks Ashbery’s wit in engaging with the brio of Rimbaud and the latter’s status as a kid in interesting times, ten years younger than Nietzsche, thirteen the year Baudelaire died, seventeen the year of the Paris Commune, ending his career while Proust was a toddler. We might think of an age—an epoque, an era—submerged beneath the second Biblical flood (“After the Flood” is always printed as the first poem of Illuminations), but Ashbery lets us hear an irritated chortle—”we’re sunk!”—in the phrase, indicating a deflationary gesture that lets the air out of all “those superstitions” and sinks anyone trying to build on them.
Ashbery’s sense of verbal decorum in his own poems is matchless, and he’s able to interject apt phrases in Illuminations, giving us “buggered” for “prendre du dos”—which usually meets with something more euphemistic—and, tellingly, “the notion of the Flood regained its composure” for “l’dée du Déluge se fut rassise”—usually rendered as “the idea of the flood had subsided”—a good choice since, finally, it’s Ashbery’s composure in translating Rimbaud that makes the volume so engaging.
The translations are deft and assiduous, and the double vision of seeing and hearing Rimbaud through Ashbery’s eyes and ears is always a pleasure, even as it shows us that the influence, for American readers, may extent the other way—”City,” for instance, is a Rimbaud poem that is easily an Ashbery poem, not simply looking forward to the Ashbery style, but, in essence, finally arriving at Ashbery more than a century and a quarter after it was written. “What kind arms, what fortunate hour will give me back that region from whence issue my sleep and my slightest movements?” Rimbaud asks at the close of “Cities (II).” We might imagine that this kind and fortunate (sadder and wiser) translation returns to the poet and to us “that region” of poetry synonymous with Rimbaud, and with Ashbery’s origins.
Donald Brown reviews poetry, fiction, and theater for The New Haven Review and The New Haven Advocate.
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