Reading ‘Illuminations’ | Matthew Clegg

IlluminationsDerek Mahon and Sean O’Brien have already given us rewarding ‘versions’ of Rimbaud’s ‘The Drunken Boat’. Perhaps this poem captures Rimbaud at his most accomplished – according to more traditional approaches to form. It seems fitting, then, that a writer like John Ashbery should give us a ‘version’ of Rimbaud’s (second?) volume of prose poems. This form is a departure from what we normally expect from poetry, and it seems fitting that a writer as slippery as Ashbery should be the man to transfer something of its spirit from French to English. Both Rimbaud and Ashbery seem to have achieved both canonical and iconoclastic status, and perhaps Illuminations is a canonical iconoclastic poem. Please excuse the glaring contradiction, but everything about this book seems to lead to a glaring contradiction. This can be irritating, exasperating and often, well, illuminating. I can quite honestly say that on different occasions the same prose poem can come across as all three.

Ashbery’s introduction is short, but it does open doors into this difficult volume. He talks about modern works that act as a ‘fertile destabilization’. “Somewhere at the root of this, the crystalline jumble of Rimbaud’s Illuminations, like a disordered collection of magic lantern slides, each an ‘intense and rapid dream’, is still emitting pulses.” That phrase ‘crystalline jumble’ carries the same level of complexity you find in Rimbaud’s own interpretation of his creative practice – his ‘rational disordering of the senses’. ‘Rational disordering’ seems like another contradiction to me, but it is suited to the particular task this poet set himself. Reason and disorder were both, perhaps, equally threatening to stifling bourgeois values and traditional religion. The first couple of times I read through this volume I felt confused – and then (with the aid of a half bottle of wine) I started to feel its narcotic effect – something like a heightening of the senses and a loosening of associations in the mind.

When we discussed this volume at a Sheffield reading group, it was suggested that the ‘poems’ left little impression behind after reading. Perhaps this is a fair point in terms of whole pieces. But lines, images and fragments from the volume have lodged shards and splinters in my memory. From ‘After the Flood’ alone I find myself pondering and pondering the hare that ‘paused amid the gorse and trembling bellflowers and said its prayer to the rainbow through the spider’s web.’ How much of what is contradictory and complex about this world is compressed into that line? We have the delicate bellflowers and the virulent gorse, the hare of wonder and the spider’s web of Darwinism. Similarly, I can’t shake ‘the Moon has heard jackals cheeping in thyme deserts’, or the child who ‘waved his arms, understood by vanes and weathercocks everywhere, in the dazzling shower.’ Mother might well shout him inside out of that rain, but he’s become a weathercock in his own right, free and immersed in the dazzle. Is Rimbaud figuring himself here, or a version of his own project? I want to think so.

I walk away from reading this volume with a sense of the young Rimbaud travelling from place to place – London, Paris, rural France – writing down dreams, musings and impressions at great pace and with great emotional intensity. A reader looking to find conservative values bedded down in accomplished, polished writing will certainly be disappointed. What, you might ask, does this piece have to offer us today? Well, I’ve read a lot of poetry over the last 15 or so years and this book has offered me a reading experience quite unlike any other. As someone who once suffered from regular bouts of panic attack syndrome, I’ve often attempted to write down the extraordinary heightening of the senses that occurs during ‘fight or flight’. Aside from this being utterly traumatic, this heightening bordered on the visionary. It had a power to disturb me into raw and fresh impressions. Once I saw a spider’s web lit up in sunlight from at least 30 metres. It seemed to bungee in the wind. Of course, this was a result of too much adrenalin in the blood. Illuminations can offer something of the same effect but with considerably less trauma.

Matthew Clegg

John Ashbery’s translation of Rimbaud’s Illuminations is published by Carcanet.


3 Comments on “Reading ‘Illuminations’ | Matthew Clegg”

  1. peter boughton says:

    great review – i’m always struck by Rimbaud’s youthful arrogance – at one point he says, ‘i alone know the plan to this savage sideshow’. This has all the smugness of the poker player that holds all the cards, but will never show his hand. I guess he had every right to be arrogant. How old was he? 17? This was thirty years before Eliot and Joyce! I must be getting old, because my favourite illumination is perhaps the most conventional, ‘seascape’ makes me think of Walcott – it has the same wave rhythm as his ‘sea shanteyl – only Walcott wouldn’t make the daring hallucinatory link between timbers, forests, and light. Graham Robb’s critical biography is a good read by the way…

    • Matt says:

      I’ll check ‘Seascapes’ out again, Peter.

      Yes, I guess Walcott often found himself more torn between the line ‘as clear as island water’ and the big leaps of association that he is capable of.

      I’m thinking of the way he associates peas, islands and stars towards the end of ‘The Schooner Flight’.


      • peter says:

        I was thinking about your comment about the ephemeral impressions left by the poems. In Ashbery’s translation, there’s an odd sort of cancelling-out in some of the imagery – ‘Towards the pillars of the forest / Towards the timbers of the pier’ – ‘pier’ refers etymologically back to ‘stone’ and echoes the ‘pillars’ of the preceding line – a metaphorical palindrome? This in turn develops from the tidal swing of ‘SILVER and copper chariots – / Steel and SILVER ship’s bows’. It makes me think of someone scribbling impossibly marvellous patterns in the sand, the sea washing them away each time.

        Walcott’s ‘Sea-Shantey’ swirls the surf’s seamorse and weds it culturally to landscape and language – Rimbaud, well, there is mimesis in the rhythm, but is this in any sense a real sea? There’s a heath in the middle, that flows with ‘currents’. The ships heave up ‘brambles’.

        Elsewhere in the Illuminations he says:’Arriving from always, you’ll go away everywhere’ – and this is exactly what so many of the poems do – they’re exhilirating and terrifying at the same-time.

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