Shots in the Dark

By Patty Smith
from Details, November 1992

 

Self-Portrait, Robert Mapplethorpe, 1985

 

“When Robert and I were young, scarcely twenty, we’d sometimes go to Coney Island, have a Nathan’s hot dog, sit on the long pier, and dream about the future. Robert wanted to be a rich and famous artist. (He did it.) I wanted to do something great. (I’m still working on it.) We’d cast our wishes like the shoeless kids and old men who cast out their fishing lines. We’d sit there until dawn, then head back into Brooklyn. We were never afraid. New York was tough but kind. We were always all right. Maybe just a little hungry.

It was the summer of 1967. I had left the security of family, cornfields, and billowing New Jersey skies to seek my fortune in New York. I met Robert, a smiling, barefoot kid as misfit as myself. That fall, we got a place on Hall Street in Brooklyn, across from Pratt Institute, where he was a student. The streets were run by painters and poets. Everybody had a vision. Everybody was broke. Nobody had a TV.

Ours was a bleak little apartment that he brightened with Indian cloths, religious objects, and his own work. I tacked pictures of Rimbaud over my writing desk, played my Juliet Gréco records, and read Illuminations. Robert had a Timothy Leary book–one of the few books he actually read. (He often fell asleep in foreign movies. It was the subtitles, he said.) He was always working on a drawing, an installation, or a new piece of sculpture. He’d work twelve hours straight, listening to the same Vanilla Fudge album over and over. His work was asymmetric, psychedelic, and he was always scavenging for materials. I had to hide my best stuff, for many a wolf skin, brocade, or crucifix was sacrificed on the altar of art.

At twenty, we were still learning about ourselves, trying to make sense of what was going down. Assassinations, Vietnam, universal love, where our next meal was coming from. New York was going though its own changes–the Beat residue of the early ’60s was giving way to the divine disorder of 1968. All this was new to me–beaded curtains and LSD were not big sellers in South Jersey.

Robert and I rarely fought. We did bicker, though, like siblings, over everything. Trivial things. Who would do the laundry. Who would get the last sheet of drawing paper. Who was the better dancer. (He refused to acknowledge the superiority of my South Jersey over his own Long Island style.) What to eat. All he ever wanted was spaghetti and chocolate egg creams.

Our main preoccupations were art and magic. Magic was an intuitive thing you either had or you didn’t, and Robert was sure he had it. It was a gift from God, and he pinned his faith upon it. I always admired his confidence. It wasn’t arrogance, it was just there, unshakable. And he was generous with it–if he believed in what you were doing, he somehow infected you with it. His major source of anxiety was money, because executing his ideas required it and he loathed employment.

We were not the hippest people. That was not the thing. The thing was to develop a vision that would be worthy of remembrance, or even a bit of glory.

Sometimes we’d pass the night by sitting on the floor, looking at books. Some my mother gave me: The Fabulous Life of Diego Rivera, Brancusi, The Sacred Art of Tibet. And his own big coffee-table books on erotic art, Tantric art, and Surrealism. I’d plait my hair like Frida Kahlo, he’d stretch out in an old black turtleneck and dungarees, and we’d find refuge in the pages and emerge inspired, full of resolve.

Robert loved the large-format book. He wasn’t much of a reader, but he’d study the plates–the work of Michelangelo, Blake, Duchamp–and extend what he saw in works of his own. He dreamed of having such a book someday, devoted to his own particular vision that was, in the late ’60s, still forming.

This was on my mind recently when I opened the package containing the unbound sheets of his forthcoming book, Mapplethorpe. A large, exquisite book, admittedly not for every coffee table, but coffee-table size, just as he wanted. It forms a visual diary of his life, opening not with his name, nor a text, but with an image of a proud, frayed American flag. The stars block, and are therefore illuminated by, the sun. Toward the end of the book is one of his last self-portraits, in which he is aged considerably from physical suffering, stubborn, stoic, and a bit frayed, like the proud and weathered flag.

Robert took his first pictures in 1970. We had parted as a couple, but we stayed together as friends. We tackled Manhattan: The Chelsea Hotel. Max’s Kansas City. The Factory. The ’70s. Robert loved Manhattan, its perpetual twilight. He felt alive there, free. He loved socializing-even though he was shy–and he loved Andy Warhol, who was also shy and loved to socialize.

Like many exploring their sexual identity at that time, he cased the emerging frontier. Christopher Street. Forty-second Street. The leather, bars. The baths. He shifted identities, not out of crisis, but out of delight. One month, the sailor; the next, the hustler. “How do you like this new image!” he’d ask, pleased with himself in a black net T-shirt, tight pants, and a piece of red silk tied around his throat. In that same black net tee he hung out on Fifty- third Street, where he observed the hustlers, photographed the hustlers, and perhaps hustled himself. He wore the T-shirt executing art. And when he finally took it off, he stretched and mounted it on a frame and exposed it as art itself.

He was using at this time an old Polaroid. A pack of film was costly and might take the place of a meal, so each shot was important. Robert never took snapshots. He always knew beforehand the image he was after. He followed me around with that Polaroid constantly, issuing simple commands. “Can you stand in that shaft of light?” “Slowly face the wall.” Each shot taken with a studied economy, an economy he employed throughout his working life. Even later, as his work developed, he never used a motor drive, never shot roll after roll. His process was not a passionate one. His work was the result of a contemplative, deliberate act. He never drew lines; he crossed them, without apology, to create something present, new. A contact sheet would reveal just twelve images. They were all alike, except for the one he had marked, the perfect one. “The one with the magic,” he’d say.

I admit I hoped his photography was a passing phase. Somehow, being shot with a cheap Polaroid didn’t correspond to my notion of the role of the French artist’s model. But he took it seriously. He liked the speed, the immediacy. He was convinced that the common Polaroid print, in his hands, was a viable work of art.

He drew his subjects from life’s walk, and his work reflected change–both personal and social. Many of his models were biker boys, call boys, men of the street. His form was classic, stylized–“I’m not after beauty,” he would say, “I’m after perfection, and they’re not always the same.”

In the early ’70s he began to use the large-format camera, and he committed himself to photography, championing its elevation and exploration. Portraits, still lifes, early flowers, the S&M suite. At first I found the S&M photographs, which were difficult by most standards, frightening. I once asked him what it was like being there, observing, immortalizing the private rituals of these people. He said it was “somewhat scary. But they know what they’re doing. And so do I. It’s all about trust.” He used these photographs, which caused such a stir years later, to tease me relentlessly. He knew I was squeamish about them, and he’d slip prints into my books. So on a rainy Sunday, I’d open a beautiful copy of Peter Pan or Arabia Deserta and be assaulted by an image of a bloodied member in a vice grip. “Robert!” I’d yell. And I could hear him, through the wall that separated our studios, giggling.

I think the furor his work caused after his death would have amused him. But the attention paid to just the sexual aspect would have surely dismayed him. He was not intentionally political. He was not an activist. He shot what he saw–just as Genet wrote what he experienced–with grace. All his work–from the translucent skin of a lily to the arched torso of a black male–represented him, his vision of the world. Just as Pollock hated being called an Abstract Expressionist and Manet deplored the title Impressionist, Robert never wanted to be pegged. Not even as a photographer. The true artist desires, and deserves, to be remembered only as an Artist.

Shortly before he died, I sat with Robert in his studio. He still worked, despite terrible bouts of coughing, vomiting, and excruciating pain. With the aid of his youngest brother, the photographer Edward Maxey, he was able to produce some final, perfect images. We sat amongst large, exquisite prints. A cluster of deeply ripe grapes. A single rose. And a marble portrait of Hermes. The skin of the white statue burned and seemed to emit its own light against a field of black. It was as if, through Robert’s eye, it had glimpsed life.

“I think I’ve done everything I can with the photograph,” he said. “I think I’ll go back to sculpture.”

He had on that day the anxious, fervent gaze he often wore when he worked. I remember that same look as he photographed me in Burbank, California, in full sun before a drying palm. It was 1987, I was six months pregnant and feeling the strain. Robert was not well. His hand trembled and, as he worked, he dropped and broke his light meter. But we took the picture anyway, barely saying a word. He checked the image and drew the camera closer. “Can you raise your head just a little!” It was much like the first pictures. High concentration. Simple and direct. Within that modest photograph is all our experience, compassion,, and even a mutual sense of irony. He was carrying death. I was carrying life. My hair is braided and the sun is in my eyes. And so is an image of Robert, alive.”

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The Sleeper in the Valley

L’Homme Blessé, (The Wounded Man), a self-portrait by Gustave Courbet, 1844-1854

 

LE DORMEUR DU VAL

C’est un trou de verdure, où chante une rivière
Accrochant follement aux herbes des haillons
D’argent; où le soleil, de la montagne fière,
Luit: c’est un petit val qui mousse de rayons.

Un soldat jeune, bouche ouverte, tête nue,
Et la nuque baignant dans le frais cresson bleu,
Dort; il est étendu dans l’herbe, sous la nue,
Pâle dans son lit vert où la lumière pleut.

Les pieds dans les glaïeuls, il dort. Souriant comme
Sourirait un enfant malade, il fait un somme:
Nature, berce-le chaudement: il a froid.

Les parfums ne font pas frissonner sa narine;
Il dort dans le soleil, la main sur sa poitrine,
Tranquille. Il a deux trous rouges au côté droit.

Arthur Rimbaud

 

______________________________________________

 

“It is a green hollow where a stream gurgles,
Crazily catching silver rags of itself on the grasses;
Where the sun shines from the proud mountain:
It is a little valley bubbling over with light.

A young soldier, open-mouthed, bare-headed,
With the nape of his neck bathed in cool blue cresses,
Sleeps; he is stretched out on the grass, under the sky,
Pale on his green bed where the light falls like rain.

His feet in the yellow flags, he lies sleeping. Smiling as
A sick child might smile, he is having a nap:
Cradle him warmly, Nature: it is cold.

No odour makes his nostrils quiver;
He sleeps in the sun, his hand on his breast
At peace. There are two red holes in his right side.”

 

This poem, written in 1870 by the 16-year old Rimbaud, is partially in the classic form but already announces his future avant-garde poems. When he wrote this piece, France was at war with Prussia, and Rimbaud was frequently running away from home and traveling by foot.

A Season in Hell

A Season in Hell by Arthur Rimbaud, translation and introduction by Paul Schmidt, with photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe

Text in French and English

Published by Little, Brown and Company in 1986

 

Une Saison en Enfer (A Season in Hell) is an extended poem in prose written and published in 1873 by French writer Arthur Rimbaud (1854–1891). It is the only work that was published by Rimbaud himself. The book had a considerable influence on later artists and poets, including the Surrealists.

Rimbaud began writing the poem in April 1873 during a visit to his family’s farm in Roche, near Charleville on the French-Belgian border. According to Bertrand Mathieu, Rimbaud wrote the work in a dilapidated barn. In the following weeks, Rimbaud travelled with poet Paul Verlaine through Belgium and to London again. They had begun a complicated homosexual relationship in spring 1872, and they quarreled frequently. Verlaine had bouts of suicidial behavior and drunkenness. When Rimbaud announced he planned to leave while they stayed in Brussels in July 1873, Verlaine fired three shots from his revolver, wounding Rimbaud once, and after subsequent threats of violence Verlaine was arrested and incarcerated to two years hard labour. After their parting, he returned home to complete the work and published A Season in Hell. However, when his reputation was marred because of his actions with Verlaine, he received negative reviews and was snubbed by Parisian art and literary circles. In anger, Rimbaud burned his manuscripts and likely never wrote poetry again.

According to some sources, Rimbaud’s first stay in London in September 1872 converted him from an imbiber of absinthe to a smoker of opium, and drinker of gin and beer. According to biographer, Graham Robb, this began “as an attempt to explain why some of his [Rimbaud’s] poems are so hard to understand, especially when sober”.

 

Portfolio for A Season in Hell, Robert Mapplethorpe, 1986

The Drunken Boat

Patti Smith (Boat to Fire Island), Robert Mapplethorpe, circa 1971-74

 

LE BATEAU IVRE

Comme je descendais des Fleuves impassibles,
Je ne me sentis plus guidé par les haleurs :
Des Peaux-Rouges criards les avaient pris pour cibles,
Les ayant cloués nus aux poteaux de couleurs.

J’étais insoucieux de tous les équipages,
Porteur de blés flamands ou de cotons anglais.
Quand avec mes haleurs ont fini ces tapages,
Les Fleuves m’ont laissé descendre où je voulais.

Dans les clapotements furieux des marées,
Moi, l’autre hiver, plus sourd que les cerveaux d’enfants,
Je courus ! Et les Péninsules démarrées
N’ont pas subi tohu-bohus plus triomphants.

La tempête a béni mes éveils maritimes.
Plus léger qu’un bouchon j’ai dansé sur les flots
Qu’on appelle rouleurs éternels de victimes,
Dix nuits, sans regretter l’oeil niais des falots!

Plus douce qu’aux enfants la chair des pommes sûres,
L’eau verte pénétra ma coque de sapin
Et des taches de vins bleus et des vomissures
Me lava, dispersant gouvernail et grappin.

Et dès lors, je me suis baigné dans le Poème
De la Mer, infusé d’astres, et lactescent,
Dévorant les azurs verts ; où, flottaison blême
Et ravie, un noyé pensif parfois descend;

Où, teignant tout à coup les bleuités, délires
Et rhythmes lents sous les rutilements du jour,
Plus fortes que l’alcool, plus vastes que nos lyres,
Fermentent les rousseurs amères de l’amour!

Je sais les cieux crevant en éclairs, et les trombes
Et les ressacs et les courants : je sais le soir,
L’Aube exaltée ainsi qu’un peuple de colombes,
Et j’ai vu quelquefois ce que l’homme a cru voir!

J’ai vu le soleil bas, taché d’horreurs mystiques,
Illuminant de longs figements violets,
Pareils à des acteurs de drames très antiques
Les flots roulant au loin leurs frissons de volets!

J’ai rêvé la nuit verte aux neiges éblouies,
Baiser montant aux yeux des mers avec lenteurs,
La circulation des sèves inouïes,
Et l’éveil jaune et bleu des phosphores chanteurs!

J’ai suivi, des mois pleins, pareille aux vacheries
Hystériques, la houle à l’assaut des récifs,
Sans songer que les pieds lumineux des Maries
Pussent forcer le mufle aux Océans poussifs!

J’ai heurté, savez-vous, d’incroyables Florides
Mêlant aux fleurs des yeux de panthères à peaux
D’hommes ! Des arcs-en-ciel tendus comme des brides
Sous l’horizon des mers, à de glauques troupeaux!

J’ai vu fermenter les marais énormes, nasses
Où pourrit dans les joncs tout un Léviathan!
Des écroulements d’eaux au milieu des bonaces,
Et les lointains vers les gouffres cataractant!

Glaciers, soleils d’argent, flots nacreux, cieux de braises!
Échouages hideux au fond des golfes bruns
Où les serpents géants dévorés des punaises
Choient, des arbres tordus, avec de noirs parfums!

J’aurais voulu montrer aux enfants ces dorades
Du flot bleu, ces poissons d’or, ces poissons chantants.
– Des écumes de fleurs ont bercé mes dérades
Et d’ineffables vents m’ont ailé par instants.

Parfois, martyr lassé des pôles et des zones,
La mer dont le sanglot faisait mon roulis doux
Montait vers moi ses fleurs d’ombre aux ventouses jaunes
Et je restais, ainsi qu’une femme à genoux…

Presque île, ballottant sur mes bords les querelles
Et les fientes d’oiseaux clabaudeurs aux yeux blonds.
Et je voguais, lorsqu’à travers mes liens frêles
Des noyés descendaient dormir, à reculons!

Or moi, bateau perdu sous les cheveux des anses,
Jeté par l’ouragan dans l’éther sans oiseau,
Moi dont les Monitors et les voiliers des Hanses
N’auraient pas repêché la carcasse ivre d’eau;

Libre, fumant, monté de brumes violettes,
Moi qui trouais le ciel rougeoyant comme un mur
Qui porte, confiture exquise aux bons poètes,
Des lichens de soleil et des morves d’azur;

Qui courais, taché de lunules électriques,
Planche folle, escorté des hippocampes noirs,
Quand les juillets faisaient crouler à coups de triques
Les cieux ultramarins aux ardents entonnoirs;

Moi qui tremblais, sentant geindre à cinquante lieues
Le rut des Béhémots et les Maelstroms épais,
Fileur éternel des immobilités bleues,
Je regrette l’Europe aux anciens parapets!

J’ai vu des archipels sidéraux ! et des îles
Dont les cieux délirants sont ouverts au vogueur :
– Est-ce en ces nuits sans fonds que tu dors et t’exiles,
Million d’oiseaux d’or, ô future Vigueur?

Mais, vrai, j’ai trop pleuré ! Les Aubes sont navrantes.
Toute lune est atroce et tout soleil amer :
L’âcre amour m’a gonflé de torpeurs enivrantes.
Ô que ma quille éclate ! Ô que j’aille à la mer!

Si je désire une eau d’Europe, c’est la flache
Noire et froide où vers le crépuscule embaumé
Un enfant accroupi plein de tristesse, lâche
Un bateau frêle comme un papillon de mai.

Je ne puis plus, baigné de vos langueurs, ô lames,
Enlever leur sillage aux porteurs de cotons,
Ni traverser l’orgueil des drapeaux et des flammes,
Ni nager sous les yeux horribles des pontons.

Arthur Rimbaud

1871

 

__________________________________

 

“As I was going down impassive Rivers,
I no longer felt myself guided by haulers:
Yelping redskins had taken them as targets
And had nailed them naked to colored stakes.

I was indifferent to all crews,
The bearer of Flemish wheat or English cottons
When with my haulers this uproar stopped
The Rivers let me go where I wanted.

Into the furious lashing of the tides
More heedless than children’s brains the other winter
I ran! And loosened Peninsulas
Have not undergone a more triumphant hubbub

The storm blessed my sea vigils
Lighter than a cork I danced on the waves
That are called eternal rollers of victims,
Ten nights, without missing the stupid eye of the lighthouses!

Sweeter than the flesh of hard apples is to children
The green water penetrated my hull of fir
And washed me of spots of blue wine
And vomit, scattering rudder and grappling-hook

And from then on I bathed in the Poem
Of the Sea, infused with stars and lactescent,
Devouring the azure verses; where, like a pale elated
Piece of flotsam, a pensive drowned figure sometimes sinks;

Where, suddenly dyeing the blueness, delirium
And slow rhythms under the streaking of daylight,
Stronger than alcohol, vaster than our lyres,
The bitter redness of love ferments!

I know the skies bursting with lightning, and the waterspouts
And the surf and the currents; I know the evening,
And dawn as exalted as a flock of doves
And at times I have seen what man thought he saw!

I have seen the low sun spotted with mystic horrors,
Lighting up, with long violet clots,
Resembling actors of very ancient dramas,
The waves rolling far off their quivering of shutters!

I have dreamed of the green night with dazzled snows
A kiss slowly rising to the eyes of the sea,
The circulation of unknown saps,
And the yellow and blue awakening of singing phosphorous!

I followed during pregnant months the swell,
Like hysterical cows, in its assault on the reefs,
Without dreaming that the luminous feet of the Marys
Could constrain the snout of the wheezing Oceans!

I struck against, you know, unbelievable Floridas
Mingling with flowers panthers’ eyes and human
Skin! Rainbows stretched like bridal reins
Under the horizon of the seas to greenish herds!

I have seen enormous swamps ferment, fish-traps
Where a whole Leviathan rots in the rushes!
Avalanches of water in the midst of a calm,
And the distances cataracting toward the abyss!

Glaciers, suns of silver, nacreous waves, skies of embers!
Hideous strands at the end of brown gulfs
Where giant serpents devoured by bedbugs
Fall down from gnarled trees with black scent!

I should have liked to show children those sunfish
Of the blue wave, the fish of gold, the singing fish.
—Foam of flowers rocked my drifting
And ineffable winds winged me at times.

At times a martyr weary of poles and zones,
The sea, whose sob created my gentle roll,
Brought up to me her dark flowers with yellow suckers
And I remained, like a woman on her knees…

Resembling an island tossing on my sides the quarrels
And droppings of noisy birds with yellow eyes
And I sailed on, when through my fragile ropes
Drowned men sank backward to sleep!

Now I, a boat lost in the foliage of caves,
Thrown by the storm into the birdless air
I whose water-drunk carcass would not have been rescued
By the Monitors and the Hanseatic sailboats;

Free, smoking, topped with violet fog,
I who pierced the reddening sky like a wall,
Bearing, delicious jam for good poets
Lichens of sunlight and mucus of azure,

Who ran, spotted with small electric moons,
A wild plank, escorted by black seahorses,
When Julys beat down with blows of cudgels
The ultramarine skies with burning funnels;

I, who trembled, hearing at fifty leagues off
The moaning of the Behemoths in heat and the thick Maelstroms,
Eternal spinner of the blue immobility
I miss Europe with its ancient parapets!

I have seen sidereal archipelagos! and islands
Whose delirious skies are open to the sea-wanderer:
—Is it in these bottomless nights that you sleep and exile yourself,
Million golden birds, o future Vigor? –

But, in truth, I have wept too much! Dawns are heartbreaking.
Every moon is atrocious and every sun bitter.
Acrid love has swollen me with intoxicating torpor
O let my keel burst! O let me go into the sea!

If I want a water of Europe, it is the black
Cold puddle where in the sweet-smelling twilight
A squatting child full of sadness releases
A boat as fragile as a May butterfly.

No longer can I, bathed in your languor, o waves,
Follow in the wake of the cotton boats,
Nor cross through the pride of flags and flames,
Nor swim under the terrible eyes of prison ships.”

 

A reissue of Rimbaud’s highly influential work, with a new preface by Patti Smith and the original 1945 New Directions cover design by Alvin Lustig

 

In 2011 New Directions relaunched  the long-celebrated bi-lingual edition of Rimbaud’s A Season In Hell and The Drunken Boat — a personal poem of damnation as well as a plea to be released from “the examination of his own depths.”

Rimbaud originally distributed A Season In Hell to friends as a self-published booklet, and soon afterward, at the age of nineteen, quit poetry altogether. New Directions’s edition was among the first to be published in the U.S., and it quickly became a classic. Rimbaud’s famous poem The Drunken Boat was subsequently added to the first paperbook printing. Allen Ginsberg proclaimed Arthur Rimbaud as “the first punk” — a visionary mentor to the Beats for both his recklessness and his fiery poetry.

Total Eclipse

Total Eclipse is an intelligent look at the relationship between Rimbaud and Verlaine and shows considerable insight into the bourgeois and artistic societies of the period as well as a moving understanding of homosexuality.

Christopher Hampton was only 22 when he wrote this play. He studied Rimbaud’s work at Oxford. Hampton became involved in the theatre while at that University where OUDS performed his play When Did You Last See My Mother?, about adolescent homosexuality, reflecting his own experiences at Lancing College. He is best known for his play based on the novel Les Liaisons dangereuses and the awarded film version Dangerous Liaisons (1988) and also more recently for writing the nominated screenplay for the film adaptation of Ian McEwan‘s Atonement.

 

 

Long before there were rock stars, there was rock star attitude, as displayed with spectacular insolence by the teen-age French poet Arthur Rimbaud. Rimbaud’s long shadow reaches not only into academe, where the writing he did before abandoning poetry at 20 is still much admired, but also into popular culture, where Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison or Patti Smith would not have been possible without him.

Total Eclipse is a 1995 film directed by Agnieszka Holland, based on a 1967 play by Christopher Hampton, who also wrote the screenplay. Based on letters and poems, it presents a historically accurate account of the passionate and violent relationship between the two 19th century French poets Paul Verlaine (David Thewlis) and Arthur Rimbaud (Leonardo DiCaprio), at a time of soaring creativity for both of them.

River Phoenix was originally attached to the project, but the part of Rimbaud went to Leonardo DiCaprio after Phoenix’s death. And John Malkovich was initially attached to play Verlaine, but pulled out. This movie has Leonardo Dicaprio’s first onscreen kiss (with costar David Thewlis).

Over the Short Grass

SENSATION

“Par les soirs bleus d’été, j’irai dans les sentiers,
Picoté par les blés, fouler l’herbe menue :
Rêveur, j’en sentirai la fraîcheur à mes pieds.
Je laisserai le vent baigner ma tête nue.

Je ne parlerai pas, je ne penserai rien :
Mais l’amour infini me montera dans l’âme,
Et j’irai loin, bien loin, comme un bohémien,
Par la nature, heureux comme avec une femme.”

Arthur Rimbaud

Mars 1870

 

_______________________

 

“On the blue summer evenings, I will go along the paths,
And walk over the short grass, as I am pricked by the wheat:
Daydreaming I will feel the coolness on my feet.
I will let the wind bathe my bare head. I will not speak,
I will have no thoughts: But infinite love will mount in my soul;
And I will go far, far off, like a gypsy,
through the countryside – as happy as if I were a woman.”

 

Holland, David Thewlis and Leonardo DiCaprio on the set of Total Eclipse (Agnieszka Holland, 1995)

The Arthur Rimbaud of Our Time

“I can’t think of anybody like her. She is a national treasure, an icon, most people who see the film (Dream of Life) are like, ‘I thought she was just a rock singer’. They don’t realize that she’s the Arthur Rimbaud of our time. She’s a true artist. I wanted people to be inspired by her”

Steven Sebring

 

Still from Dream of Life (Steven Sebring, 2008)

The Large Glass

 

The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (La mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même), most often called The Large Glass (Le Grand Verre), is an artwork by Marcel Duchamp over nine feet (2.75 metres) tall, and freestanding. Duchamp worked on the piece from 1915 to 1923, creating two panes of glass with materials such as lead foil, fuse wire, and dust. It combines chance procedures, plotted perspective studies, and laborious craftsmanship. Duchamp’s ideas for the Glass began in 1913, and he made numerous notes and studies, as well as preliminary works for the piece. The notes reflect the creation of unique rules of physics, and myth which describes the work.

It is at first sight baffling in iconograhy and unclassifiable style. Yet this glass construction is not a discrete whole. The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even is also the title given to The Green Box notes (1934) as Duchamp intended the Large Glass to be accompanied by a book, in order to prevent purely visual responses to it. The notes describe that his “hilarious picture” is intended to depict the erotic encounter between the “Bride,” in the upper panel, and her nine “Bachelors” gathered timidly below in an abundance of mysterious mechanical apparatus in the lower panel. The Large Glass was exhibited in 1926 at the Brooklyn Museum before it was broken during transport and carefully repaired by Duchamp. It is now part of the permanent collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Duchamp sanctioned replicas of The Large Glass, the first in 1961 for an exhibition at Moderna Museet in Stockholm and another in 1966 for the Tate Gallery in London. The third replica is in Komaba Museum, University of Tokyo.

Duchamp’s art does not lend itself to simple interpretations, and The Large Glass is no exception. Most critics, however, read the piece as an exploration of male and female desire as they complicate each other. One critic, for example, describes the basic layout as follows: “The Large Glass has been called a love machine, but it is actually a machine of suffering. Its upper and lower realms are separated from each other forever by a horizon designated as the ‘bride’s clothes.’ The bride is hanging, perhaps from a rope, in an isolated cage, or crucified. The bachelors remain below, left only with the possibility of churning, agonized masturbation.”

However, modern critics see the painting as an expression of the artist to ridicule criticism. Marjorie Perloff interprets the painting as “enigmatic” in her book The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage (Princeton UP: 1999). She concludes that Duchamp’s “Large Glass is also a critique of the very criticism it inspires, mocking the solemnity of the explicator who is determined to find the key”. Hence, she follows the school of deconstruction established by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida and helps to break down the hegemony of interpretation held by the Enlightenment bourgeoisie. To quote the artist: “I believe that the artist doesn’t know what he does. I attach even more importance to the spectator than to the artist.”

 

Photo-printing from R.E.M.’s New Adventures in Hi-Fi (1996) CD booklet, taken by Ian McFarlane.

To Reach the Unknown

“I’m now making myself as scummy as I can. Why? I want to be a poet, and I’m working at turning myself into a seer. You won’t understand any of this, and I’m almost incapable of explaining it to you. The idea is to reach the unknown by the derangement of all the senses. It involves enormous suffering, but one must be strong and be a born poet…”

Arthur Rimbaud

 

Front cover for Patti Smith’s Peace and Noise. Photo by Oliver Ray, 1997

At the Age of Seventeen

Portrait of Arthur Rimbaud at the age of seventeen, taken by Étienne Carjat, c. 1872.

 

“When I was seventeen, I fell in love with a sodomite.
His eyes were a dazzling blue, and he had the face of an angel. His hands were large and awkward, with dirty nails: a peasant’s hands. He was a poet, and I thought – and I still think, in my middle age – that he was one of the most brilliant poets the human race has ever seen. He belongs in the company of Callimachus, and Sappho, and Horace.

No, not Horace, who was shrewd and successful, at ease with his rich and powerful friends, the Seamus Heaney of his age – no; he was more like Catullus, the spoilt kid from the north whose frank and erotic poems scandalised Rome: odi et amo, Catullus had written. I hate you, and I love you. That says it all.

I fell in love with a ghost, an illusion, one I’ve been trying to shake off ever since. By the time I came under the spell of his beautiful lies, his body – minus the amputated right leg – had been rotting in a lead-lined coffin in the damp earth of northern France for seventy years. World War One had rolled over him, with its terrible thunder, and then World War Two. He’s been dead, now, for over a century.”

Charles Nicholl

Arthur Rimbaud in Africa

Ethiopia Saluting the Colors

“…Me master years a hundred since from my parents sunder’d,
A little child, they caught me as the savage beast is caught,
Then hither me across the sea the cruel slaver brought…”

Walt Whitman
817. Ethiopia Saluting the Colors
(Excerpt)

 
 

Arthur Rimbaud in Abyssinia (as Ethiopia was known then), 1883

Radio Ethiopia

Arthur Rimbaud in Harar, c. 1883

 

“Oh I’ll send you a telegram

Oh I have some information for you

Oh I’ll send you a telegram

Send it deep in the heart of you

Deep in the heart of your brain is a lever

Oh deep in the heart of your brain is a switch

Oh deep in the heart of your flesh you are clever

Oh honey you met your match in a bitch

Deep in the heart of

Deep in the heart of

[ ]

There will be no famine in my existence

I merge with the people of the hills

Oh people of Ethiopia

Your opiate is the air that you breathe

All those mint bushes around you

Are the perfect thing for your system

Aww clean clean it out

You must rid yourself from these, these animal fixations

You must release yourself

From the thickening blackmail of elephantiasis

You must divide the wheat from the rats

You must turn around [and look oh God]

When I see Brancusi

His eyes searching out the infinite abstract spaces

In the [radio] rude hands of sculptor

Now gripped around the neck of a [duosonic]

[ ]

[I swear on your eyes no pretty words will sway me]

[ ]

Oh look at me aah

[ ] cannot move ahh so much aahh everything I am

[ ] possible

Aah [ ]

Feel so fucked up

[ ]

much too

I know I know [ ]

[ ]

[ ]

[ ]

 

Constantin Brancusi’s Grave. Photo by Patti Smith, circa 2007

 

tell him to get out of here

go down to the sea

[ ] if he would just tell me

he appreciates Brancusi’s [ ] space

the sculptor’s mallet has been taken in place

[ ]

every time I see [ ]”

Patti Smith

 

The album’s cover photograph is by Judy Linn, the back of the album features a photo by Lynn Goldsmith. The album was dedicated to Arthur Rimbaud and Constantin Brâncuși.

 

Radio Ethiopia was the follow-up record to Patti Smith‘s widely acclaimed debut Horses. In interviews surrounding the album’s release, Smith explained that she chose producer Jack Douglas in hopes of making the album a commercial success. The album was negatively received when it was released and Smith was attacked by critics for what they perceived to be laziness, self-indulgence and selling out.

The title track of the album is one of Smith’s most notorious songs, almost legendary for appearing to be “10 minutes of noise”. Critics often described live renditions of the song as negative moments of Smith’s concerts. Patti herself spoke highly of the track and of how the lyrics refer to Arthur Rimbaud‘s dying wishes. Arguments both for and against the song have been advanced by critics, fans and music listeners over whether the song truly is an example of the Patti Smith Group’s boundary-pushing or merely self-indulgence. Critics in negative reviews cited that Douglas’ production placed more emphasis on creating a heavy sound through numerous guitar parts which smothered Smith’s vocals and, at times, lamented that all of the album’s songs were originals of the group (Smith co-wrote much of the album with bassist Ivan Kral, the band member keenest for commercial success ). Ain’t It Strange and Distant Fingers, the latter co-written with Smith’s long-time boyfriend Allen Lanier, had both been staples of the Group’s concerts long before the recording of Horses.

A Horse Takes Off

Self-portrait of Robert Mapplethorpe in front of his cover for Patti Smith’s Horses, c. 1975

 

I

DIMANCHE

Les calculs de côté, l’inévitable descente du ciel, et la visite des souvenirs et la séance des rythmes occupent la demeure, la tête et le monde de l’esprit.

– Un cheval détale sur le turf suburbain, et le long des cultures et des boisements, percé par la peste carbonique. Une misérable femme de drame, quelque part dans le monde, soupire après des abandons improbables. Les desperadoes languissent après l’orage, l’ivresse et les blessures. De petits enfants étouffent des malédictions le long des rivières. –

Reprenons l’étude au bruit de l’oeuvre dévorante qui se rassemble et remonte dans les masses.

Arthur Rimbaud

Illuminations XLI: Jeunesse

 

_____________________________________________

 

I

SUNDAY

Problems aside, the inevitable descent from the sky and the visit of memories and the gathering of rhythms occupy the dwelling, the head and the world of the mind.

– A horse takes off on the suburban turf past the fields and woodlands, riddled with carbonic plague. A wretched woman in some drama, somewhere in the world, sighs for improbable abandonment. Desperadoes long for storms, drunkenness and wounds. Little children stifle curses beside the rivers.

Let us resume our studies to the sound of the all-consuming work that gathers and rises among the masses.

Twenty Years

AD04886

From the series Rimbaud in New York, David Wojnarowicz, 1978-79

 

III

Les voix instructives exilées… L’ingénuité physique amèrement rassise… – Adagio – Ah ! l’égoïsme infini de l’adolescence, l’optimisme studieux : que le monde était plein de fleurs cet été ! Les airs et les formes mourant… – Un choeur, pour calmer l’impuissance et l’absence ! Un choeur de verres de mélodies nocturnes… En effet les nerfs vont vite chasser.

IV

Tu en es encore à la tentation d’Antoine. L’ébat du zèle écourté, les tics d’orgueil puéril, l’affaissement et l’effroi.
Mais tu te mettras au travail : toutes les possibilités harmoniques et architecturales s’émouvront autour de ton siège. Des êtres parfaits, imprévus, s’offriront à tes expériences. Dans tes environs affluera rêveusement la curiosité d’anciennes foules et de luxes oisifs. Ta mémoire et tes sens ne seront que la nourriture de ton impulsion créatrice. Quant au monde, quand tu sortiras, que sera-t-il devenu ? En tout cas, rien des apparences actuelles.

Arthur Rimbaud

Illuminations XLI: Jeunesse (Excerpt)

 

_____________________________________

 

III

 The instructive voices exiled…physical ingenuousness bitterly stale…Adagio. Ah, the infinite egoism of adolescence, the studious optimism: how full the world was of flowers, that summer! The airs and the forms dying…A choir, to calm impotence and absence! A choir of glass with nocturnal melodies…Indeed the nerves will soon be on the hunt.

IV

You are still at the temptation of Anthony. The antics of curtailed zeal, the tics of puerile pride, weakening, and terror.
But you will set yourself to this work: all the harmonic and architectural possibilities will stir round your perch. Perfect unforeseen beings will offer themselves to your experiments. Around you will gather dreamily the curiosity of ancient multitudes and idle wealth. Your memory and your senses will be simply the fodder for your creative impulse. As for the world, when you emerge, what will have become of it? Nothing, in any case, of its present seeming.

The Stolen Heart

From the series Arthur Rimbaud in New York, David Wojnarowicz, 1978-79

 

LE CŒR VOLÉ

Mon triste cœur bave à la poupe,
Mon cœur couvert de caporal :
Ils y lancent des jets de soupe
Mon triste coeur bave à la poupe :
Sous les quolibets de la troupe
Qui pousse un rire général,
Mon triste coeur bave à la poupe,
Mon coeur couvert de caporal.

Ithyphalliques et pioupiesques
Leurs quolibets l’ont dépravé.
Au gouvernail, on voit des fresques
Ithyphalliques et pioupiesques.
O flots abracadabrantesques
Prenez mon cœur, qu’il soit lavé.
Ithyphalliques et pioupiesques
Leurs quolibets l’ont dépravé !

Quand ils auront tari leurs chiques
Comment agir, ô cœur volé ?
Ce seront des hoquets bachiques
Quand ils auront tari leurs chiques
J’aurai des sursauts stomachiques
Moi, si mon coeur est ravalé:
Quand ils auront tari leurs chiques,
Comment agir, ô cœur volé ?

Arthur Rimbaud

Mai 1871.

 

_____________________________________

 

My sad heart leaks at the poop,

My heart covered in filthy shag:

They squirt it with jets of soup,

My sad heart leaks at the poop:

Under the jibes of that rough troop

Drowned in laughter, see them rag,

My sad heart leaks at the poop,

My heart covered in filthy shag!

Ithyphallic and coarse, their jests

They’ve corrupted it every way!

On the wheelhouse their grotesques,

Ithyphallic and coarse their jests.

O waves, abracadabrantesque,

Take my heart, wash all away!

Ithyphallic and coarse their jests,

They’ve corrupted it every way!

When they’ve finished chewing their plugs,

What shall we do O stolen heart?

Then Bacchic hiccups from ugly mugs:

When they’ve finished chewing their plugs:

My guts will heave, the filthy lugs,

If it’s swallowed outright, my heart:

When they’ve finished chewing their plugs

What shall we do O stolen heart?

English translation by A. S. Kline

 

In Roberto Bolaño‘s The Savage Detectives the character Ulises Lima claims that this Rimbaud poem is about how Rimbaud was raped.