Wednesday Feb 08

Rimbaud Rimbaud the Son
by Pierre Michon
translated by Jody Gladding and Elizabeth Deshays
Reviewed by Julia Bouwsma
96 pages—Yale University Press, 2013
   ISBN-13: 978-0300172652

Pierre Michon’s Rimbaud the Son, the 1991 novella Rimbaud le fils—most recently translated from the French by Jody Gladding and Elizabeth Deshays and published by Yale University Press—is less biography than it is a relentless delving into the “bottomless well” of language, history, and poetic tradition in search of the elusive l’enfant terrible, Arthur Rimbaud, “whose notable actions were only beautiful verses.” This is a book of journey, a quest that begins with the ruins of origin—with all that Rimbaud was not, with everyone he left behind—and moves from the outside in, perpetually seeking heart center, which is not just the man himself but the answers he presumably holds to the eternal questions: “What endlessly relaunches literature? What makes men write? Other men, their mothers, the stars, or the old enormous things, God, language?”

And so Michon begins his pursuit with Rimbaud’s physical point of origin, Charleville, where he was born under the curse of an absent infantry captain father, “a phantom in the purgatory of distant garrisons where he was only a name” and an overbearing and deeply religious mother, “Vitalie Rimbaud, née Cuif, country girl and bad-natured woman, suffering and bad-natured.” Here Michon, speculating and reconstructing through photographs and other archival evidence, creates a portrait of Rimbaud as the “gifted, provincial child whose anger had not yet found its own consubstantial rhythm.” We witness the unavoidable birth of poetry inside this boy as fueled by his earliest conflicts: rage at his parents, the desire to earn affection from a mother who could not provide it, the simultaneously restricting and alluring formalities of the church and his schooling, which provoked him ever onward even as he bridled beneath them. We follow him as he navigates the lineage of the great writers who came before—Virgil, Racine, Hugo, Baudelaire—both worshipping and resenting the canon—“the rod,” as Michon describes it—which in the end he broke by surpassing his masters “and on it broke himself.” For Michon’s Rimbaud is, perhaps more than anything else, a devourer, a swallower. An insatiable, temperamental child who absorbs everything he can from his ancestors (familial and literary alike) and then, having fully digested them, moves on to find the next. This trend is represented, in delightfully dramatic detail, by the son swallowing the parents, acting out a psychological reversal of the story of Cronus:

        …the mother, dismissed from the affections of the son, repudiated, mocked, excluded from the world and disavowed, the mother disappeared from among the visible creatures and took refuge completely within the son, gathered her old skirts in both hands and leapt wholly into the son, into that dark, never-opened inner closet where, we are told, we are unconscious of our actions and we act; there she rejoined the Captain, who had been there for some time with his sword and his shako; but she made more noise than the Captain.

And thus the cursed, cast-off mother, “the old queen,” inevitably gives way to Rimbaud’s next influence: the poet and schoolteacher Izambard.

The unfortunate, “muse duped” Izambard appears to us as a caricature of myopic literary devotion, “his long life a dead letter.” Both his lack of enduring talent and his essential belief “that it was good, poetry; that is was entirely on the side of good, the Republic and Awards Day” make him an easy target for Michon’s subtle yet persistent mocking. But for all his simplicity, Izambard was passionately devoted to his pupil and even Michon cannot argue that under his tutelage, Rimbaud’s “practice scales became a work of art.” And yet, while Rimbaud loved his early teacher, we see again the insatiability of his hunger, the rift in him between and person, as “the work, the art, made use of Izmabard and did not love him.” And so, it is not long before Rimbaud, Michon, and the reader—all rolled together into an ambiguous you—must abandon Izambard and move on: “You did not turn around; what you are seeking is not within Izambard’s domain.”

But neither is it in the domain of Izambard’s successor: the poet Théodore de Banville, to whom the adolescent Rimbaud sent poems via his publisher Lemerre. With regard to Banville (who in the end, like Izambard, “pissed into the wind”), Michon seems perhaps most impressed by his having “stolen the fat Marie Daubrun” from Baudelaire. He writes that Banville “was not a gifted poet—at least he no longer seems so to us—and yet in his lifetime he seemed so.” But despite Banville’s ultimate obscurity, he had what the young Rimbaud needed in order to join ranks and continue on as a poet. For it is he who provides “the little cutting, the one that is transmitted from the oldest to the youngest, the little cutting of genius, that is to say, permission to eat at the poetic trough or to spit in it.” Inevitably, having achieved this permission, Rimbaud moves on again, with Michon and the reader together in hot pursuit.

And so—after brief detours through the war-torn countryside of the Ardennes and Belgium—we at last arrive in Paris to confront Verlaine. Here in Verlaine, with his derby hat and his fondness for absinthe, Rimbaud seems to have met his poetic match “for they were tricksters; they pressed down hard upon the E string of poetic destiny…” Thus we follow the two accomplices, lovers, as they exasperate Verlaine’s young, pregnant wife and eventually flee to London where we see them working together at a single desk then stumbling, slurred, out of a pub at four in the morning on their way to the station to return to Europe after a fight over herrings. We see them “consumed by the derangement of all the senses,” a derangement that culminates in Brussels with a six-shooter in Verlaine’s hand and a bullet in Rimbaud’s—their separation as dramatic and inevitable as their union for, as Michon explains, “it is not possible for both to be verse in person at the same time. That cannot be shared between living beings, one of the two E strings must break. And Rimbaud pressed harder.”

More than anything, Michon’s Rimbaud is a figure of resistance. His rebellions—against his mother, against the church, his poetic forbearers, Izambard, Verlaine—are the “refusal of a visible master.” He dodges everyone alike even himself, causing Michon to conjecture that “perhaps he stopped writing because he could not become the son of his works, that is to say, he could not accept their paternity.” And so he remains elusive to Michon as well, refusing to be interrogated. He plays, flirts with capture, but, always, he escapes in the nick of time:

He lifts his eyes to ours; and we remain there face to face, unmoving, dumbstruck, old-fashioned, the Italian pines behind us suspended in a breath of air, he is about to speak, we are about to speak, we are going to pose our questions, we are going to reply, we are there—the pines rustle in a sudden wind. Rimbaud once again has leapt into his dance, there we are all alone, pen in hand.

“Alas,” complains Michon, “Rimbaud has a talent for throwing flour in the eyes of those who approach him: and as I say this, my arms hanging, I begin to cough; if I beat my breeches, flour comes off.” And yet it is not really a complaint. Rimbaud’s elusiveness is inseparable from his appeal. For every escape, ever slight of hand, brings the poet, Michon, his readers, ever closer to seeing themselves.

Beyond Michon’s vivid, endlessly circling prose, the great joy that lies in reading Rimbaud the Son (I have to say I found myself reading it in a public park with a ridiculous grin on my face) has less to do with the ultimate goal of pursuing the unattainable Rimbaud than it does with being included in the hunt. The joy of this book—peppered as it is with Michon’s ambiguous, evolving you—is the joy of process, and even more than that, the joy of being included in that process, of being approached as a poet, of being embraced into a world of masters while simultaneously being forced to relive the part of oneself that is forever the child-poet. Again and again we see the unfinished pupil frustrated by “the evidence of poetic inanity,” scowling over his desk with a small fist cramped around a chewed up pencil and a searing need to connect with greatness (to become greatness) that is as alluring, as unruly, as dangerous as an open flame:

…you must passionately embrace a single mania, an art as it is called, but only one, keep at it, fiercely shut yourself away with it, as though in a sack into the bottom of which you have thrown the mother you have, the children you will not have, all mankind, and on that great trampling you must embroider the fine work that will change you into the son everlasting.

We see this image again and again: the poet alone working alone, abandoning everyone who came before or who might come. But this aloneness also becomes a burning source of connectivity; every reader becomes a “son,” utterly alone and yet utterly beholden to one’s masters. And so, as I read Rimbaud the Son, I felt both wholly exposed and wholly justified—as if Michon had spotted me in a crowd, found the mark on me that identified me as a poet, and called me to participate in something both singular and much larger than myself.


JuliaBouwsma2 Julia Bouwsma’s poems and reviews have appeared (or are forthcoming) in journals such as Cimarron Review, Colorado Review, Cutthroat, Natural Bridge, The Progressive, Puerto del Sol, RHINO, Sugar House Review, and Wisconsin Review. Bouwsma is Book Review Editor for Connotation Press: An Online Artifact, Coeditor of Shape&Nature Press, and Poetry Editor for New Plains Press. She lives in the mountains of western Maine.