Issue 7: Adam Piette, Review of Ashbery's Rimbaud

Review: Arthur Rimbaud, Illuminations, translated by John Ashbery (Manchester: Carcanet, 2011)

Rimbaud, ‘gifted’, as Edgell Rickword remarked, ‘as no other poet has ever been’1 at the age of nine, wrote his earliest essay at school inveighing against having to learn Latin. Even if it leads to degrees and good jobs, he doesn’t want either. ‘As for Greek, the vile language is not spoken by anyone, anyone in the world. Ah saperlipote de saperlipopette! Sapristi! I will be a capitalist. To become a shoeblack one must pass an examination. The positions they give you if you pass are either those of a shoeblack or a pig driver, or a herdsman’. ‘It must have been a formidable child,’ Rickword writes, ‘who, at the age of nine, could write such a vigourous and witty condemnation of a classical education and the system of competitive examination’.2 That formidable child did in the end drop all culture for the joys of capitalism, out of a spirit of Luciferic independence. To be free of the ghost of his father, of his mother, of heavy-duty Catholicism, of the technical and spiritual surveillance otherwise known as the home of the haute bourgeoisie! Rimbaud found solace in lonely tramps across the Charleville countryside, anything to escape his mother’s rooms, but also to feed the hunger for experience, assuage the riot of word-making in the head, feel the liberating energies released when the unconscious plays upon the impressions of the day. The imaginative reenergized data from those tramps then fed into the poems and prose poems he wrote in the five intense years of his writing life, between fifteen and twenty, during which he practically destroyed one of the best poets of his time, Verlaine, through seduction, through forced migratory tramping tours, through the madness of his creative will and wanderlust.

            Illuminations are forty-odd short prose poems, each of a startling originality, each with its own modus operandi. They were written variously over the five year period and there is a move towards complexity of verbal surface, even towards a courted incoherence of means. But all the poems are hallucinatory exercises in deconstruction of the French bourgeois world. ‘Enfance’ tracks his own boy self as he wandered the roads, peering at women and girls, staring at the abandoned château, the empty inn along the highway, charting odd and random sequences of experience lit up by uncanny light, inventing selves and routines, imagining himself and the whole world dead. ‘Parade’ conjures up a tyro bully identity fit to destroy the law-abiding environment, whilst ‘Antique’ gives shape to the libertine killer within called ‘Pan’. ‘Vies’ is a mock-autobiography of secret desiring, again with a routine of different pseudo-selves: the dreamer of exotic escape staging masterpieces in his head; the inventor and musician of language, waiting to become ‘un très méchant fou’; a schoolboy who has lived a hundred sexual and artistic lives in his attic room. All this boiling energy is then aimed, like a flame thrower, at the establishments of moral France. A Dionysiac spirit is summoned from the anarchist left field to scorn ‘les honnêtetés tyranniques’: poet as assassin, Don Juan, drifter. And the main targets of the super-satirical clairvoyance of Rimbaud’s imagination are the city of the bourgeoisie, the domestic space of the bourgeois home. The flâneur poems (the ‘Ville’ and ‘Villes’ texts) dissect the hideous taste of the city-dwellers, the imagination reduced to ghost shapes in coal-smog, the bankrupt bizarrerie of the great Exhibitions, the tawdry art, the imperial fantasies, the gigantism of 19th century architecture, its classical/Gothic/retro-fakery, the creepy unreality of the new business districts. Against the bourgeois city Rimbaud ranges his scorn and sarcasm, but also invents Surrealist extravagance as counterblast, as deliberate act of excessive sexual energy field, and as compositional technique. Force the words to couple, drag the dictionary to the edge of reason, force-feed the angst and desire and dreamwork with verbal attitude, deploy the intensities inherited from Flaubert, Baudelaire, Laclos, Sade, roar out the revolutionary words! But all with a fine cool restraint and complexity of syntax and thought that defies onlookers and readers – this is conceit beyond a Rochester, Marlowe or Baudelairean dandy, beyond the ordinary limits of young imagination with its temptations, zeal, puerile pride, ‘the collapse and the fright’ of adolescent desire, to quote from Ashbery’s translation of ‘Jeunesse’. The control and knowingness are frightening, dangerous, even deranged – and have a hold on you too. The prose poems adopt the rhythms of little diary entries scrawled by the bourgeoisie in secret, catching them in the act of shameful interiorities: Hortense whose solitude is ‘la mécanique érotique’ (how chilling is that?); the merchants of commercial France who think of themselves as the world’s conquerors in imperial mode, but are actually seeking ‘la fortune chimique personnelle’ (their own personal chemical fortune!) They are just organic machines, ‘monstrous, endlessly enlightened’, to quote Ashbery’s version again. These are extraordinary documents of a vital intelligence lighting a match to the fuse of the bomb beneath the parliament of fools, the poet who knows it all already, who has read all hearts, and is impatient to be gone.

            The surrealist method invented by Rimbaud for Illuminations left shock waves in the language that went beyond France. Through the communist and anarchist Surrealist movements of the post-First World War years in France, it exploded across the Atlantic and Channel in forms charged by Sade, Nietzsche, Marx and Freud. That method involved something quite unprecedented, which Rimbaud defines as ‘absolute modernity’. Modernity, Ashbery writes in his preface, ‘was for [Rimbaud] the acknowledging of the simultaneity of all of life, the condition that nourishes poetry at every second’. That simultaneity meant the ‘self is obsolete’, writes Ashbery, quoting the famous phrase from the letters, ‘Je est un autre’. I is an other because the intense experiencing Rimbaud knew on the road and in his weird attic dreaming involved the fabrication of routines to outwit Burroughs, and the capture and transformation of images as raw language events beyond good and evil. Those images stack up as simultaneous to the time of the artwork, for Ashbery, partly because they are so vividly conceived that their memory survives along the paragraph, partly because they are so separate from each other in their queer alienation (Rimbaud having dispensed with bourgeois reason or cute narrative), and partly because they fuse together nevertheless as though tempted into unspeakable relations by some alien intelligence on the fly.

            The simultaneity as experiential and compositional method relies on a Mallarméan throw of the dice, a willingness to record what is sensed and imagined ‘at every second’, like this haunting list from the third section of ‘Enfance’:

            Au bois il y a un oiseau, son chant vous arrête et vous fait rougir.

       Il y a une horloge qui ne sonne pas.

       Il y a une fondrière avec un nid de bêtes blanches.

       Il y a une cathédrale qui descend et un lac qui monte.

       Il y a une petite voiture abandonnée dans le taillis, ou qui descend le sentier en

            courant, enrubannée.

       Il y a une troupe de petits comédiens en costumes, aperçus sur la route à

            travers la lisière du bois.

       Il y a enfin, quand l’on a faim et soif, quelqu’un qui vous chasse.

This reads like an inventory of encounters during a long ramble through woods and along lanes. It includes the edgy perspective of someone on the move, as the cathedral sinks out of sight and the lake comes closer. The present tense (‘Il y a’), the childish repetitions, the lack of complex subordination of the separate experiences, turns the list into a weird twisted form of child’s primer, as though torn out of an exercise book. But the child’s eye view and its textual equivalent is haunted by surreal elements: the ‘voiture’ left to rot, yet weirdly animate at the same time; the troupe of child actors; the nightmare pit of white things; the time stopped and shame-making bird. What has been seen and noted is a dreambook sequence too, inviting analysis (before Freud but anticipating him), and the sequence seems to invite readers to dream their own way along Rimbaud’s same journey – our unconscious is activated by the strange display of uncanny simultaneous experiences. They happen in language, in French, and are aimed at the French: Rimbaud has the language of childhood in his sights, and is using his transgressive desires to create menace and dark fairytale out of the everyday, happening at every second. The simplest of openings, the existential deictic demonstrative ‘il y a’, becomes hazy and polyvalent as the dream repeats it: allowing ‘il’ to escape and mean ‘he’; ‘y’ to point to place as dreamworld not deictic fact; ‘a’ as strange possession as well as statement of existence. ‘He here has’ as well as ‘there is’, and what he has is a magic lantern’s show of horrors to spook you. ‘Il y a’ echoes strangely in the last item: ‘Il y a enfin, quand l’on a faim et soif, quelqu’un qui vous chasse.’ What there is is what the imagination has, and what it has are many selves (those strange little actors), and memories twisted into dream and nightmare events, creating an inner world of menace where you are shooed away as an annoying child, but also hunted down as prey to the monster Death.

            Ashbery’s version has the appropriate psychoanalytical Turn of the Screw-ishness:

            In the wood there is a bird, his song stops you and makes you blush.

       There is a clock that doesn’t strike.

       There is a pit with a nest of white creatures.

       There is a cathedral that sinks and a lake that rises.

       There is a little carriage abandoned in the thicket, or that hurtles down the

            path, trimmed with ribbons.

       There is a troop of child actors in costume, seen on the highway through the

            edge of the forest.

       Finally, when you are hungry or thirsty, there is someone who chases you


The English has the same quality of nursery language gone wrong. The careful choice of diction hits some good American notes, with ‘highway’ and ‘pit’ adding Hitchcock/Poe accents, whilst  ‘hurtles down’ raises the ghost of Eisenstein’s Potemkin, making a subtle montage point that works with Ashbery’s understanding of Rimbaud’s simultaneity-technique. ‘There is’ wanders off course too, meaning both ‘Over there, look!, is a …’, and simple listing of items. The translation only needs to be simple and direct to do the Freudian work, ‘white creatures’ in particular pointing to Wolf Man. The only flaw is in the last item: it should open with ‘there is’ again; and ‘quelqu’un qui vous chasse’ may mean someone chasing you away – and this must have happened often when Rimbaud went scrumping on his rambles – but it also means someone who hunts you down. ‘Chase’ derives from ‘chasse’ but it has lost the menace, and we have only a lame Mr McGregor. Here if anywhere Ashbery could have bent the rules somewhat, dared to modify, as in ‘a thing strikes at you with a rake’, perhaps (to quote Webster); or ‘there is someone who comes after you, shouting’.

            And here is what slightly palls in Ashbery’s chosen method of translation – he has spoken of his choices with this volume in terms of a deliberate tactic to go for cognates: ‘I myself try to be very literal, and I frequently use cognates even when they might sound a little strange in English, just to stay as close as possible to the original’.4 This means that he will, generally speaking, opt for the English  equivalent to the French word unless there are serious ‘faux ami’ reasons to avoid it. This is not so much a problem with ‘Enfance’ as Rimbaud’s French is kept at its simplest for the most part – except when he chooses to translate ‘des bêtes d’une élégance fabuleuse circulaient’ as ‘beasts of a fabulous elegance were circulating’. Going for the cognate here strikes me as wrong-headed: ‘circuler’ is a common verb in French – the policemen will tell you to move on with ‘circulez!’ Its most obvious meaning is simply to move around, not to circulate as in moving stiffly round a cocktail party. This cognate stiffness happens rather too often. ‘Fanfare atroce’ becomes ‘Atrocious fanfare’ (again ‘atroce’ is slang in French); from ‘Guerre’, he renders ‘l’inflexion éternelle des moments’ as ‘the eternal inflection of moments’ (where ‘inflexion’ really means changing direction), and ‘je subis tous les succès civils, respecté de l’enfance étrange et des affections énormes’ becomes ‘I undergo every civil success, respected by strange childhood and abnormally large affections’ (where the French has a lighter weight, meaning something like ‘I have to put up with all these civil honours showered on my head, revered by strange children and with extravagant shows of feeling’). The net effect is to give a stuffy elaborateness to the voice which is, yes, ‘a little strange’, like Auden giving Caliban the voice of Henry James.

            The reasons for so doing may have nothing to do with ordinary flawed translation as one is accustomed to understand it. It may have more to do with Ashbery’s sense of the current uses of surrealism and the surrealist method of composition. To translate Rimbaud rather stiffly might be to signal that the language of a revolutionary dreamwork must acknowledge itself as what Ashbery’s left brain described, in Litany, as ‘mummified writing / As the dusting of new light / In the hollow collar of a hill / That never completes its curve / Or the thought of what / It was going to say’.5 The estranging cognates resemble Ashbery’s own Hudson house in New York which has gone on display in Rain Taxi’s Created Spaces issue. Rosanne Wasserman’s essay and Ahndraya Parlato’s photographs show how Ashbery revamped the 1894 Classical revival house partly as  ‘a re-creation of his grandparents’ home in Rochester, New York, where he spent much of his childhood; and in part an idea of what might exist in each room, in some dreamed-up family, as if he were designing a stage set, a giant dollhouse, or a gargantuan Cornell box’.6 The house is so fastidiously recreated, it looks stage-set brand-new, as though a Pottery Barn catalogue has been shipped onto an Americana/Victoriana sound stage. It may very well be a recreation of his grandparents’ house, and that is odd enough as it is – the Oedipal desire to inhabit and possess the rooms of one’s parents is historicized, mummified, made retro-historical. The Hudson house is also, if you look at the photographs, very French. The look and feel is partly what one might expect a rich French burgher to buy for his house in the 1890s if he were ever so slightly Bonapartist-reactionary. It looks like the kind of house that Rimbaud dreamed of escaping. To render Rimbaud ever so slightly fustian, so minutely dusty and Jamesian-convenable, is to enhouse the wanderer again, to retrofit the language of adolescence. The mummified writing embalms the surrealist project as retro-aesthetic, as a dead language game, dusting Rimbaud’s ‘new light’ as a compulsive Pottery Barn ‘Return of all that’s new’.7 The translation project, therefore, at once signals the importance of Surrealism to Ashbery’s project, at the same time as distancing it: ‘ I do not think of myself as a surrealist, but I feel akin to it’.8 It renders the situations and spaces of the prose poems into something close to the still life kitsch Ashbery and the Surrealists admired in the Fantômas books: ‘The prose, the plots, the personages of what has come to be known as the geste de Fantômas were constructed of the requisite industrial-strength fustian'.9 With this geste, the human figure is mingled with ‘printed words and mundane objects’ as in Cubist paintings,10 dreamlike particulars are set against asphyxiatingly conventional façades, but both are locked within savage quotation marks as within a postmodern museum: Rimbaud’s images mummified and glimpsed through a Duchamps keyhole.

            This is not, of course, all that is to be said about the translations; it only concerns the unsettling cognate effect. Ashbery allows himself to translate with greater freedom and verve when really inspired: this is the case with the tremendous versions of ‘Enfance’, ‘Vies’ and ‘Génie’ (‘one of the greatest poems ever written’ according to Ashbery – and source, beyond and behind Auden, of Ashbery’s creepy first person plural). There are flaws in the renderings – for instance, ‘Génie’ is translated as ‘genie’ not ‘genius’ (making the ambiguous Christ-figure / Nietzschean ‘génie du mal’ into a genie in a bottle); and from the same poem, the genius is ‘le délice surhumain des stations’, according to Rimbaud, which means something like ‘the superhuman delight of the pleasure resorts’; Ashbery takes ‘stations’ to mean ‘staying still’, which is simply bizarre. In both errors, though, there is a telling bottling and stilling of the original which is a Hudson effect. Nevertheless, Rimbaud’s Luciferic energies break through and Ashbery allows them to, and once again new light is cast free of dust and fustian: ‘His body! The dreamed-of release, the shattering of grace crossed with new violence! / The sight, the sight of him!’ At moments such as these, surrealism’s evil genius speaks to us across time and language with a powerful geste de Rimbaud which is still there, charmingly, in Ashbery’s repertoire, like a beautiful body hidden away in his strange house.


1 ‘The Riddle of Rimbaud’, Essays and Opinions, 1921-31, edited by Alan Young(Manchester: Carcanet, 1974), 111-4 (p. 112).2  Both excerpts from Rickword’s Rimbaud: the Boy and the Poet, in Essays and Opinions, p. 119.3  p. 27. Edgell Rickword translated this section into straight prose in  his biography: ‘A bird’s song stops you and makes you flush. There is a bog with a nest of white beasts, a little carriage abandoned in the coppice, or which runs down the path, enribboned. On the road, through the edge of the wood, one can see a troupe of little players in their costumes … In the end, when one is hungry and thirsty, he says, there is someone who drives you away’ (Essays and Opinions, p. 120). Cleverly, Rickword edits out the clock and cathedral as being unlikely to have been encountered on the ‘real’ walk. His version is less nightmarish, more accurate with ‘coppice’ and ‘bog’, and more charming with ‘little players’; but then he is less interested in Freudianizing these experiences, more in setting them up as real bids for freedom: ‘A country walk meant, originally, a temporary freedom from his mother and all that she implied’ (120).4 Interview with Claude Peck for Rain Taxi (Spring 2011) - From Litany, Collected Poems, 1956-1987, edited by Mark Ford (Manchester: Carcanet, 2010), p. 562.6 Rosanne Wasserman, ‘Hudson 1993: A Tour of John Ashbery’s Home’, Rain Taxi (Summer 2008) - Litany, p. 563.8 ‘The New York School of Poets’, Selected Prose, edited Eugene Richie (Manchetser: Carcanet, 2004) 113-6 (pp. 113-4)9 ‘No doubt the earliest readers of Fantômas shuddered delightedly at the thought that dire acts were being committed in the next street or one they walked along to work every day,its sober façades a seeming denial of fantastic goings-on behind them’. Introduction to Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre’s Fantômas, in Selected Prose, 183-90 (p. 189).10 p. 190.

<author text>