Shadow stands up #8

Those famous, or notorious, ‘seer’ letters that Rimbaud, aged seventeen, wrote in 1871, first to his earliest mentor Georges Izambard and a couple of days later to the young poet Paul Demeny, in which he rehearsed the phrase he had clearly impressed himself with, ‘I is somebody else’ – ‘Je est un autre,’ (to Izambard on May 13, Demeny on May 15) – have become the exhausted levers of critics and theorists wanting to open up the gap between the selves who write (the subjective ‘voice’) and the language that writing employs, that employs writers. Rimbaud himself, in the hyperbolic manifesto tone of the Izambard letter, pronounced that ‘subjective poetry’ would always be ‘horribly dull’. The dérangement or disordering of all the senses that Rimbaud advocated did involve intoxications, but more importantly the ‘reasoned’ (as he described it) abjection of the self. He wanted to observe himself experiencing and perceiving, to be used by language that had the classical precision of Racine – as he wrote to Izambard, ‘It’s false to say: I think; one ought to say: I am thought (on me pense).’ His great metaphor for this is the ‘drunken boat’ of the poem also written in 1871 which, having drifted rudderless out to sea after its crew was killed by ‘yelping redskins’, asks:

Do I long for European waters? Only a sullen pond
Where a small, demoralised boy, crouching
In the musk of a provincial evening
Launches his unsteady boat: a butterfly in May.

I come back to this poem over and over, to the weird sense it gives now of Rimbaud uttered in the language of the doomed boat (itself speaking in the sensational language of the popular fiction the ‘seven-year-old poet’ had earlier immersed himself in), seeming to experience something that hadn’t happened yet (his adult longing – or not – from Ethiopia for ‘European waters’) – what kind of ‘memory’ is that; is it possible to remember the future? – and remembering a child, a ‘seven-year-old poet’ perhaps, launching the toy that would one day become the language-vessel of the seventeen year-old poet’s consciousness anticipating his own exile from ‘home’ twenty years later – what kind of memory is that?

I was half way down the alleyway between the post-office and Paper Plus, having put the book back in my bag and hopped off the green Link bus at Three Lamps with Rimbaud’s drunken boat and his last letter thinking me, when I ‘came to my senses’, as we say. And there was ‘Khartoum Auto’, on a backstreet in Ponsonby, in 2011. Ghosts, shadows, standing up all around it. What kind of memory was that?


Going in search of lost time
I discover a river
that resembles the White Nile
because it flows as much past
Gordon in Khartoum, the mad
Mahdi, the painted Nuba,
Michel Leiris and Leni
Riefenstahl, leggy models
streaked with spit-moistened ochre –
flows as much past these fragments
of memories I don’t have
as it does past the stains of
vomit and bluish wine, fish
traps in the rushes where en-
tire Levianthans fester.
These are not my memories
but I have them, what Rimbaud
wrote, filigrees and fragments,
Mémoire, his shadow standing
LOT: TWO TUSKS. ‘I am helpless
and unhappy, I can find
nothing, the first dog in the
street will tell you that. Send me
therefore the prices of the
services from Aphinar
to Suez ... Tell me what time
I need to be carried on
board.’ Rimbaud’s final letter
composed in delirium
dictated to his sister
Isabelle, 9 November
1891, he died
the following day, and I
read his premonition on
my way down inscrutable
Rivers ... slow deliriums
... archipelagos of stars!

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