On Sandpaper: Rereading Illuminations
It’s just past noon, I’m still in bed, I’m feeling so run down. I have that kind of shooting-pain fever where even the softest sheets hurt my skin. In my dreams I’m with the man I love most, travelling somewhere, hiking through grass, but my sore skin is interfering. Fed Ex comes -- and I’m scrambling around to put on some clothes, a wife-beater, a silk bathrobe that seems too small -- and the package is Life on Sandpaper, a book about living in the Village, circa 1950-something, by an Israeli painter-novelist-journalist, and even though I’ve never read this book, and never read anything by this author, it’s clear that the book has influenced everything I’ve ever written, and that the protagonist’s lifestyle has influenced my chaotic New York lifestyle, and I find a kind of dizziness, a kind of horror in that. It makes me bristle and tremble a little, makes me stand on end. There are all these women in the book, and I’m worried that some of them are me, like I’m swimming around in my own prehistory. The women are so lonely, some of them. One of them might be good-looking and might not be, the protagonist can’t remember, she has a messy apartment near Fifth Avenue. She sleeps like a soldier, she has a look of anguish on her face. Later the protagonist makes out with Billie Holiday, who’s had better kissers. I’m tired. I wonder if I’m the most tired person in New York City today. Probably not, probably not at all, I didn’t even drink last night, I’m not even seriously ill, I’m not even old or dying. I start to imagine, what if a writer could see, experience, feel, at the moment of writing, the lives of every single person he would ever influence with his work? What if she could know the twisted path the work would take? It’s the afterlife that makes work dangerous, like a golem or a poltergeist, like the creatures a nymph turns into after she can’t be a nymph anymore.
Stuttgart, 1857. Arthur Rimbaud, aged twenty, delivers a wad of untitled manuscript pages to Paul Verlaine, the former lover who shot him with a pistol in a drunken rage two years before. He wants Paul to give the pages to a mutual friend, so they’ll be published. The two lovers never see each other again. Rimbaud stops writing poetry, goes to Africa and the Middle East, imports, exports, has terrible fevers, makes it to age thirty-seven, gets cancer, dies. The manuscript is Illuminations. It’s hard to be certain which of the stories of its writing and publication are apocryphal. Right before my fever got bad, I went to the Jefferson Market library to get a Rimbaud biography so I could sort it all out, but it wasn’t there, and I ended up with a thick book about Rasputin instead, with the lingering fantasy that Rimbaud wrote a couple of other books in his twenties and thirties, stuffing the pages into the wall-cracks of some sprawling mansion near Harrar.
New York, 2011. A new edition of Illuminations comes out, with Rochester-born poet John Ashbery’s translations alongside Rimbaud’s incredible French. I can read the French, a little, because of my fever. Or maybe the French is, alarmingly, reading me? I have the eerie, thrilling sense that I am reading a manuscript that was fated to be lost or uncreated, like Walter Benjamin’s never-written book about hashish. Like the final volume of Marx’s Capital. Like most books by geniuses who are not male or not of the dominant class or race, poems or works of science or history by girls, or by slaves. Like all of the manuscripts that have been burned, accidentally or on purpose, by people who hated them or loved them. I am reading Rimbaud’s clump of papers more than 100 years after he died, but, as John Ashbery writes in his introduction, for Rimbaud “absolute modernity was… the acknowledging of the simultaneity of all life, the condition that nourishes poetry at every second.”
I keep thinking of some lines in Umberto Eco’s new book of essays, Confessions of a Young Novelist, with a footnote on Rimbaud: “I do not remember whether it was the need for poetry that caused the flowering of my first (platonic and unconfessed) love, or vice-versa. The mixture was a disaster. But as I once wrote -- though in the form of a paradox uttered by one of my fictional characters -- there are two kinds of poets: good ones, who burn their poems at the age of eighteen, and bad ones, who keep writing poetry for as long as they live.” I have the worry -- the feverish worry, the healthy worry? -- that I am becoming, in that sense, a very good poet. Or maybe a paradox uttered by a fictional character, or a fictional character uttering a paradox. The tousle-haired woman in the kimono on the seventeenth floor in Life on Sandpaper, “barefoot and arrogant… stunned by some ancient emotion,” trying to hide her tears when the protagonist brings her a painting. She doesn’t make any paintings herself. I like the idea that instead of growing up or disappearing, instead of just trading in coffee or firearms or skin, Rimbaud was writing poems in his head or on destroyed papers. He couldn’t stop. In Illuminations, he explains very clearly that he is dead, and that he wants me to leave him alone. But I don’t believe him.
From “Lives (Vies)”: “I am an inventor altogether more deserving than all those who have preceded me; a musician, in fact, who has discovered something like the key of love… In an attic where I was shut up at the age of twelve I got to know the world, I illustrated the human comedy. In a cellar I learned history. At some nighttime carnival in a Northern city, I met all the wives of the master painters. In an old arcade in Paris I was taught the classic sciences. In a magnificent abode surrounded by the entire Orient I accomplished my immense opus and spent my illustrious retirement. I churned my blood. My homework has been handed back to me. One mustn’t even think of that now. I’m really beyond the grave, and no more assignments, please.”
There’s no “please” in the other translations I’ve read, no homework. (“My duty has been remitted. I must not even think of that anymore. I am really from beyond the tomb, and no commissions.”) But the key of love is usually the same. If you discovered something like the key of love, you’d play it over and over, wouldn’t you?
From “Phrases”: “Once the world has been reduced to a single dark wood for our four astonished eyes, -- and to a beach for two loyal children, -- and to a musical house for our clear sympathy, -- I’ll find you.”
But what if the world has stopped astonishing me? In my pile of books with the Rasputin biography, I have a guide to ashtanga yoga that explains how I should meditate on the tiniest atom, and how I should meditate to encompass the entire universe. I have Rachel Polonsky’s Molotov’s Magic Lantern, where the bits about her own life and about Walter Benjamin are at least as good as all the parts about the Russians. I’m reading it in between nausea and sleep. She quotes Benjamin: “Books are the scene, the stage, of their own fate.” She writes about a scene on a street corner: “I remember too a moment of bleak conflict with the man who is now my husband… It was cold, everyone was hungry… I love the surprise that the future was holding secret: the home, with children in it, that we would share just a few hundred yards from our destitution on that windy corner.” She quotes a letter written by the gifted scientist Nikolai Vavilov at age 33, when he was thinking of Dante: “Now I have got to get out of that forest… It is a difficult forest, but is there any forest which does not have a way out?” She describes how, before he starved to death in prison in his fifties, he gave his cellmates a series of marvelous lectures. That difficult forest makes me think about Rimbaud’s single dark wood. I might be getting good at visualizing an atom, but the universe escapes me. I’m not sure whether every difficult forest has an exit. What if the future is not holding any secret surprises for me, any warm places filled with happiness and love just around the corner? A xylophone with one tile, banging out the key of unrequited, starts to sound like hammering, not music, after a while. But maybe a difficult, dark forest is as fascinating, and as illuminating, as its exit.
I walk out to get ibuprophen, into the feverish night, into the neighborhood and world of Life on Sandpaper, only fifty years later. Nothing has changed, except, back then I didn’t exist. And back then the book didn’t exist. Back then the people I love most, now, weren’t even cells yet. They were barely dust from stars. Except for some of the ones who are already older, and those were dimpled babies then, or teens writing poems. There was an Elizabeth Bachner who lived in the neighborhood in the 1960s, in small apartments -- on Houston Street near a paella place, somewhere on Bank Street. She had long red hair the way I have long blond hair. She was my father’s sister. My mother adored her. She died very young. I was named after her, but I didn’t get here in time to meet her. Anything I write, she’ll never read.
The second half of Clarice Lispector’s book of stories and chronicles, The Foreign Legion, is called “The Bottom Drawer,” because it’s a collection of her pieces that she thought didn’t go anywhere. “Why publish what is worthless?” She asks. “Perhaps because the worthy is also worthless. Besides, what is obviously worthless has always fascinated me. I have a real affection for things which are incomplete or badly finished, for things which awkwardly try to take flight only to fall clumsily to the ground.” And then in typical Clarice Lispector fashion, there are fragments afterwards of alarming brilliance.
From “Paul Klee”: “Were I to spend too much time looking at Landscape with Yellow Birds, I should never be able to turn back. Courage and cowardice are in constant play. I am terrified by this vision which could be irremediable and perhaps even a vision of freedom. The habit of looking through prison bars, the comfort of holding on to the bars with both hands, while looking.”
From “One Step Higher”: “Until today, I did not realize that you can live without writing. Little by little, the thought dawned upon me: Who knows? Perhaps I, too, might be able to live without writing. How infinitely more ambitious that is. And almost unattainable.”
From “An Ugly Duckling”: “When in flight, its awkward arm became apparent: it was a wing.”
From “Remembering”: “To write often means remembering what has never existed.”
From “An Angel’s Disquiet”: “Upon leaving the building, I was taken by surprise. What had been simply rain on the window-panes… was tempest and darkness outside on the street… Worst of all was that age-long fear engraved on the flesh: I am without shelter and the world has banished me to my own world. I, who can only be accommodated in a house, will never again possess a house. I am these soaking clothes. My drenched hair will never dry again, and I know that I shall not be among those destined to enter the Ark, for the best couple of my species has already been chosen.”
When Arthur Rimbaud was a few months older than I am, he came back to France on a boat. He wanted to get to Africa again even though he was sick, but he died in Marseilles. (From “Childhood”: “Finally, when you are hungry or thirsty, there is someone who chases you away… It can only be the end of the world, as you move forward.”) If he wrote secret poems when he was thirty-six, what were they like? Like a prison or a prison-break, like soaking-wet clothes, like awkward arms?
Spinning in and out of fever dreams, I glimpse some secret past or future -- hiking through a parasite-filled jungle with the man I love most. Thousands of books I have never read, because they do not exist yet. Manuscripts I haven’t written, that might never exist, or that might exist because I write them. Piles of pages, like Rimbaud’s Illuminations, untitled, unpaginated, jammed into bottom drawers by barefoot women in apartments. It’s dizzying, enough to make me bristle and tremble a little. I don’t know whether thinking about the “simultaneity of all life” makes the universe expand or contract. I guess it isn’t really the universe or a single atom, it’s still just me, just my sore body, just my never-defenestrated love and my courage and my cowardice. Ashbery quotes Rimbaud’s “famous formulation,” Je est un autre. And then there’s Clarice Lispector’s discarded, but self-rescued, fragment, “The Greatest Experience”: “I should first have liked to be other people in order to know what I was not. Then I understood that I had already been the others and this was easy. My greatest experience would be to be the other of the others: and the other of the others was I.” And then there’s T.S. Eliot, “One thinks of all the hands. That are raising dingy shades. In a thousand furnished rooms.”
You have to wonder whether you’ve already been the others. If not, maybe there’s a surprise nearby, something like a new key to be discovered just a few hundred yards from your destitution on a windy corner. Just past the edge of the difficult forest. Once the world has been reduced, once you move forward.
Once the world has been reduced to a single dark wood
for our four astonished eyes,--and to a beach for two
loyal children,--and to a musical house for our clear
sympathy,--I’ll find you.
When there’s nothing on earth but a single old man,
calm and handsome, surrounded by ‘unheard-of lux-
ury’—I’ll kneel down and worship you.
When I’ve realized all your memories,--when I am
she who knows how to garrotte you,--I’ll smother you.
When we’re very strong,--who’s backing down? very
merry, who collapses in ridicule? When we’re very nasty,
what would they do with us.
Adorn yourselves, dance, laugh,--I’ll never be able to
throw Love out the window.
--My friend, beggar girl, monstrous child! how little it
all matters to you, these unhappy women and these
machinations, and my embarrassment. Fasten yourself
to us with your impossible voice, your voice! sole flatterer
of this vile despair.
-Arthur Rimbaud (trans. John Ashbery)