A tragic, poetic, adventurous life: Rimbaud

rimbaudRimbaud, by Graham Robb; W.W. Norton & Co., 2000.
The original rebel poet adventurer

 

SAN FRANCISCO, March, 2001:  

 

Many Rimbauds have haunted San Francisco. Once this city was resplendent with Rimbauds reciting fiery, fragmented poems in dingy cafés, drinking and carousing, ingesting all kinds of dope, defecating and puking in alleys on their stumbling way home. The general populace appreciated them for channeling our Bohemian spirit with anarchist fervor and literary zeal. They were our anti-heroes.

Now, in a city that even Beat-era poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti concedes has succumbed to the sludge of corporate monoculture, Rimbauds are scarcely seen or heard outside of the Haight and a few other select neighborhoods that still make room for wretched visionaries and vagabond geniuses. Who here now even knows who the original Rimbaud was?!

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Rimbaud

To loosely paraphrase and embellish upon the latest, most exciting tome in the always churning Rimbaud-studies industry – Graham Robb’s splendid Rimbaud (W. W. Norton & Co., 2000) – he was a teen literary terrorist of late 19th century France who famously sucked up to and came to dominate a married Parisian poet 12 years his senior, Paul Verlaine, who was smitten with the provincial lad’s radical verse, tender body, crude habits, irreverent attitudes, and vast, poetic insights into the nature of humanity, himself, and the written word.

Arthur Rimbaud shredded poor Verlaine emotionally, financially, and poetically (not that Verlaine didn’t try giving as good as he got), turned poetry on its head, gained ill repute as a sodomite, boozer and home destroyer, crossed paths often with the cops, and alienated every other poet and friend. He abruptly said “fuck you” to poetry at age 19 and went slogging around the continent and the East Indies, struggling to find work, constantly destitute, suffering countless indignities and hardships. He eventually made his way to mostly uncharted eastern Africa (Abyssinia/Ethiopia), there to take up trading – of coffee and arms mainly, and possibly of slaves, though Robb takes pains to note that while this latter “commodity” was being heavily traded in the region at the time, and Rimbaud certainly would have had contact with it, no evidence shows Rimbaud’s direct involvement.

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With his radical verse he had tried to be a spiritual seer, but his vision took root too slowly among his poet contemporaries to do him much good; now he would strip away all spirituality, looking reality directly in its hard, cold, unforgiving face. Adventure and cash became his goals.

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In his new career Rimbaud persevered and eventually excelled under the harshest imaginable conditions, becoming one of France’s most infamous explorers and adventurers, a man of extraordinary cunning and ambition, portrayed by Robb as hard-bitten but fair, often reclusive but engaging and even charming in social circumstances, respectful of and perceptive about his African friends, neighbors, clients, rivals and potential enemies, all of whom in turn respected Rimbaud. Though he complained bitterly of his circumstances in plain-prose letters to his mother and sister, he felt at home under African skies, no matter that his hair had grayed and his skin turned leathery. He emerged a master of the incredibly brutal trading game, constructed of the same outlaw mold (judging from Robb’s description) as contemporary American commodities trader Marc Rich, he of the infamous pardon.

Rimbaud, too, was on the lamb – from his pederastic past, from scandal, from anything even resembling poetry, from the draft board he kept eluding, from the clammy climate back home, from his implacable mother, from the sheer miserableness of his life. He had been a superior perceiver; alas, others (save Verlaine) did not share his perceptions, nor even understand them. With his radical verse he had tried to be a spiritual seer, but his vision took root too slowly among his poet contemporaries to do him much good; now he would strip away all spirituality, looking reality directly in its hard, cold, unforgiving face. Adventure and cash became his goals.

It’s a seamless life Robb vividly portrays, an enormous accomplishment. The great challenge for biographers has been to make sense of Rimbaud despite the distressingly slim documentation of his adult years and the marked difference in personas manifested by Rimbaud in his teens versus his 20s and 30s (he died agonizingly of a cancerous leg at age 37).

Invariably, every biographer comes to the question: Why did Rimbaud give up on poetry? And the answer to that question must serve as the transition from one Rimbaud life to another. Robb’s reply (in part): “Rimbaud’s interest in his own work . . . did not survive the failure of all his adult relationships . . . . Without a constant companion, he was writing in a void. . . . He might have felt in any case that his poetry had crossed the limits of communicability and turned into a simple waste of energy.”

Robb’s intimacy with Rimbaud’s poetry and the field of poetics shines in this work, and those who most savor textual analysis will feel amply rewarded by the book. But Robb’s skills transcend literary interpretation, gripping readers with his delight at historical sleuthing, eagerly filling in gaps with new information and insights and telling us where other biographers have gone astray (he’s particularly harsh on Enid Starkie, one of the first and most famous of Rimbaud’s biographers, who cleaned up Rimbaud’s image to suit Victorian tastes). Robb is both a master researcher and storyteller, having honed his skills on previous, highly acclaimed biographies of Victor Hugo and Balzac. He displays a poetic sensitivity not only to the vulnerable teen versifier but to the rugged adventurer, telling a well-documented tale sure to hold armchair adventurers in thrall with details of camel caravans, Koranic debates, bloody wars, secretive deals, intolerable climates, international intrigue, and daring escapades.

A sense of sheer delight at the subject matter pervades Robb’s Rimbaud. You sense his enthusiasm, and share it. He strips away veils of myth about Rimbaud, who since his death in 1891 has been romanticized to death. Careful not to take too much poetic license (unlike Jeremy Reed’s fabulously impressionistic Delirium, which goes overboard for a wonderful romp), Robb nonetheless breathes life into Rimbaud and all the remarkable characters in his Dickensian life.

From a queer perspective, one shortcoming of this work, as of all speculations on Rimbaud’s life in Africa, is it’s inability to track Rimbaud’s sexuality as a post-poet adventurer. Robb speculates a bit on the relationship of Rimbaud to an Abyssinian woman, Miriam, with whom the trader apparently had a liaison from 1884-86. But any hints of lingering homosexuality on Rimbaud’s part – apart from slim evidence of something between him and his long-time servant, Djami – have vanished. Says Robb: “In fact, there is no sign that Rimbaud had any lasting emotional attachment at all after 1886.”

While that may be true, the conclusion is unsatisfying. It is difficult to accept that the man who as a teenager flaunted his buggery and wrote paeans to the anus now had ceased to be sexual, or at least to take sensual delight in the Abyssinian and Muslim men who constantly surrounded him. Yet Robb, being a responsible scholar, dares not take readers into the realm of speculation, and we must be content for now, until some invaluable, long-lost correspondence turns up to help further demystify Rimbaud, to let Rimbaud remain sexless.

This review originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter, March 15, 2001