If there is a single reason why I’m living in Greece today, it may be because, about 120 years ago, next to a river in Ethiopia, a shutter opened in a camera for a fraction of a second and allowed the light to reach some film.
I don’t remember how I discovered Arthur Rimbaud. I do remember that I bought the New Directions Season in Hell and later gave it to a friend before I could read it. I ended up buying another one, the well-thumbed copy I still have. That was about twenty years ago, when I was sixteen.
As an adolescent I was ripe for Rimbaud, except that I didn’t take drugs. I agreed with the principle of the derangement of the senses, or at least supported a metaphorical derangement of the imagination. Rimbaud himself renounced it in A Season in Hell, so I saw no reason to experiment with drugs just because he had (seemingly) advocated it.
Of course, when you’re sixteen, it’s hard not to become captivated by someone who had supposedly changed the face of literature at your age. I pored over A Season in Hell and Illuminations and Henry Miller’s Time of the Assassins (the worst example of self-aggrandisement ever published, but I liked it anyway). I wanted Enid Starkie’s biography of Rimbaud, but for copyright reasons the book wasn’t available in Canada. A neighbour of ours had a sister in Ohio, and I sent her the money to order it and mail it to me. I read it so much that the glued binding cracked and entire sections of the book came loose.
Before I got the biography, though, I had one of the strangest experiences in my life, the only one I could really call mystical, although there was nothing religious or spiritual about it.
One of the things I found fascinating about Rimbaud was how, at the age of nineteen, or more likely twenty-one, he turned his back on literature forever and went to Africa to strike it rich. There were letters home to his mother and sister, but no one else in France ever saw him again. He disappeared. He walked into the heart of darkness and didn’t emerge till it had eaten him up inside. I was fascinated by the idea of an unrecorded, unwitnessed life (in this case the nearly unrecorded life, since there were the letters, and the accounts of those who knew him and worked with him in Africa), a life in which one did not care if any evidence of one’s existence was left behind or not. I imagined the lives of people like Verlaine, through whose lives Rimbaud had passed so tumultuously, how he had left such a mark on them before he vanished and became an unreal memory and two collections of poetry.
One day I was in Letters, the bookshop owned and operated by Nicky Drumbolis, and I bought the edition of Rimbaud’s complete works translated by Wallace Fowlie. When he saw that I was interested in Rimbaud, Nicky showed me some small French editions he had found in some bargain bins at a book fair. One of them was a biography, and was full of photographs and facsimiles of manuscript pages and drawings Rimbaud had made, and which others had made of him. I was spellbound by the wealth of material. And then, I turned a page and saw that there were two photographs of Rimbaud in his thirties in Africa. Before this, I had only seen pictures of the adolescent.
In one he was standing by a railing, possibly on a balcony, and in the other he was next to a river, his foot upon a rock and his hand resting on his knee. (I have searched online for the latter, but can’t find it. There is, however, another photograph that seems to be from the same time.) In the first photograph there were blotches on it, which I imagined to be spatterings of mud. In the second photograph his facial features were barely visible, but his skin looked as dark as tough leather.
I can barely describe what happened to me as I stood in the bookshop looking at those two photographs, which, by some miracle, had found their way out of Africa so that I, a century later, could see them. The fact that these had been taken at all was miraculous enough, but this was too much.
When I left the shop I walked along Queen Street, and everywhere I looked I saw traces of the nineteenth century: crumbling bricks on a wall by an empty lot; a faded, peeling sign over an abandoned storefront; upstairs, a dingy shade pulled down behind a grimy window. All around me was the romantic squalor of the big city. I felt as if I could walk into one of those rooms somewhere and find, as if hiding all these years, some Rimbaud or Verlaine, dressed in rags and shuffling yellowed papers with poems written in blue-black ink, poems that would be consigned forever to oblivion. It was like seeing ghosts everywhere. I felt partly in the twentieth century and partly in the nineteenth. All around the city, rooms held secret, unwitnessed lives, eternal and timeless. (I remember a line from a poem I had written around that time: “miraculous Mozarts anonymous among us”.)
After all these years, it is difficult for me to recapture and convey what I felt then and what private and personal atmosphere I carried around with me. I had become unstuck from my time, and I experienced a riot of the imagination. It was also a very isolating experience: no one else was privy to it. And it lasted for years.
I became very interested in old photographs, and especially the clothes people wore in them. For some reason, I often found myself focussing on the lapels in them. I started wearing tweed jackets and old overcoats I had bought in the vintage clothing shops in Kensington Market. Old barbershops and the smell of talcum powder, for some reason, were also particularly evocative for me.
Looking back on that time, I realise that those were the years when my iron was the hottest, when I had the greatest potential for becoming. I romanticised hardship, and I believe still that I could have endured a great deal of it. I sometimes think I could have done anything — written an epic, joined the Foreign Legion, got a tattoo.
Then, in the summer of 1987, while I was still deep in this sense of timelessness, I came to Greece for the summer by myself. I had been looking forward to it for months before, and felt I was visiting another time, and not just another place. I had been looking forward to the heat, too, which had figured so much in Rimbaud’s poetry and letters (“Women nurse those fierce invalids, home from hot countries.”).
That summer I came across the Greek version of the Georges Moustaki song “Le Meteque”, and I was convinced that it had been written about Rimbaud.
Σαν σύννεφο απ’ τον καιρό, μονάχο μεσ’ τον ουρανό
πήρα παιδί τους δρόμους.
Περπάτησα όλη τη γη μ’ ένα τραγούδι στην καρδιά
και τη βροχή στους ώμους.
Μ’ αυτά τα χέρια σαν φτερά που δεν εγνώρισαν χαρά
πάλεψα με το κύμα
κι είχα βαθιά μου μια πληγή, αγάπη που δε βρήκε γη,
χαμένη μεσ’ το κρίμα.
Με πρόσωπο τόσο πικρό, από τον ήλιο τον σκληρό,
χάθηκα μεσ’ τη νύχτα,
κι ο έρωτας με πήγε εκεί πού ‘χα στα χείλη το φιλί
μα συντροφιά δεν είχα.
Με την καρδιά μου μια πληγή, περπάτησα σ’ αυτή τη γη
που είχα να τη ζήσω,
μα μου τα πήρανε μαζί, τ’ όνειρο και την αυγή
και φεύγω πριν αρχίσω.
Σαν σύννεφο απ’ τον καιρό, μονάχο μεσ’ τον ουρανό,
θά ‘ρθω ξανά κοντά σου,
μέσα σε κείνη τη βροχή που σ’ άφησα κάποιο πρωί
κι έχασα τη ζωή μου.
Θά ‘ρθω ξανά απ’ τα παλιά, σαν το πουλί απ’ το νοτιά
την πόρτα να χτυπήσω.
Θά ‘ναι μια άνοιξη πικρή, όλα θ’ ανοίγουνε στη γη
κι απ’ την αρχή θ’ αρχίσω.
This is a loose translation, which does not pretend to be poetic:
Like a cloud alone in the sky, as a child I took to the roads. I walked the whole earth with a song in my heart and the rain on my shoulders. With these hands like wings that never felt joy I fought against the waves, and deep inside me was a wound, a love which never took root, lost in shame.
With a face made harsh by the fierce sun, I vanished into the night, and love took me to where I had a kiss ready on my lips, but I was all alone. With my heart a wound, I walked that piece of earth that it was my fate to walk, but they took away both my dream and the dawn, and I left again before I could begin.
Like a cloud alone in the sky, I will come to you again, in that same rain where I left you one morning, and my life was over. I will return from the past like a bird from the south to knock on your door. It will be a bitter spring, everything will be opening up on the earth, and from the beginning I will begin again.
The song captured all the melancholy (although perhaps melancholy is not a strong enough word) of Rimbaud’s story. It captured all the disillusionment, the sense of having lost everything that you held dear. Of course, it was the story any emigrant who was living in disappointment and was planning to return, but to me, back then, it was only Rimbaud. He never really returned, of course, but there’s nothing in the song that says the speaker will never return either.
(It is perhaps obvious to point out that in performance art, and in shorter literary works that can be read over again — I’m thinking about declarative lyric poetry — that future tenses repeatedly remain future tenses, but it needs to be pointed out because some writers can take advantage of the fact that if you return to the work twenty years later, the speaker will still be telling you about what he’s going to do any day now.)
This gave the song the same timeless, old-fashioned quality, the timelessness that had coloured everything around me after I saw the photographs in Letters.
When I came to Greece in 1987, it was only a few months after I saw the photographs, and when I arrived, I heard the song. The song was about a return that never occurs, about the unfulfilled desire to return, and I felt as if I was returning to a place where I’d never been before, as I have tried to describe before. Greece has changed a lot since then, so that it no longer resembles the Greece of my febrile imagination of that time, but by the time I moved here in 1997, I had already invested so much of myself into this place that its changes made no difference. A major part of my sense of identity had become inextricably linked with leaving one place and never arriving in another.
PS While searching for photographs to include in this post, I came across one that was recently discovered by Claude Jeancolas. Rimbaud must be the one standing on the far left. It was taken in 1882 at Sheikh-Uthman, near Aden.
PPS Frankie the C. noted in the comments that a copy of A Season in Hell, signed by Rimbaud, was sold for over $600,000. He has sent me the picture of the cover. Strangely, Rimbaud’s name seems to have been scratched out. It must have been Verlaine’s jealous wife.