28 November 2008 | Vol. 8, No. 3
Paul Verlaine gave a hoarse grunt as he woke, rose wearily from his bed, and fell into the Thames. I was walking to my flat, having just returned to London on the early train from Oxford after delivering a lecture entitled "Tropological Monism and the Crumpet," and the sight of this venerated leader of the symbolist movement plunging in to our fine river filled me with dread. Luckily, I remained calm and flung my attaché case into the river, urging Verlaine to "Grab on, old boy!"
Well, you can imagine my chagrin when the case sank like a stone, leaving Verlaine still flapping about like a loon and my research papers forever besoggy at the bottom of the Thames. I gave chase along the bank, offering words of encouragement to the stricken poet, ("Try and swim, good man!") occasionally throwing him one of my shoes and eventually my overcoat and trousers as potential life rafts. I had exhausted all my sartorial resources and began to think I ought to jump in the river to save this man—a man whose reputation spanned as mightily as the river which now engulfed him. Yes, I thought, I will have to dive in. Also, in this state of utter dishabille, I could think of no better place to conceal my nudity then in the murky depths. But just as I prepared my leap into England's grandest artery, a street urchin ran up beside me, nearly knocking me over. As I righted myself, I saw the boy, his ducts spilling over, screaming at Verlaine in some unintelligible French argot. I watched in awe as the boy then dove into the Thames. Unfortunately, the boy also sank like a stone. I dove in right away to appeal these men to shore before any more transplanted Frenchmen saw fit to plunge into our river.
After a few futile attempts to pull these flailing men to safety, I finally negotiated them to a dock on the riverbank. The young boy, gasping for air, still managed to jump atop Verlaine and deliver him a square punch to the nose. He squealed, in an ominous and scratchy French, "I thought I had lost you, love! I thought I had killed you." Verlaine's eyes welled with tears and his mouth filled up with blood and though choking managed to bubble out, "I love you, Rimbaud." What in the smash was all this about, I wondered. Could these men actually know each other? I waited for their violent embrace to come to a close and introduced myself to Verlaine.
"Paul Verlaine, I am Noel Bolton, professor of Literature at the Academy. I am a great admirer of you and very honored to have made your acquaintance, albeit rather awkwardly."
"Yes," Verlaine answered in an English tongue the queen would be proud of, "you are quite nude." He thanked me for rescuing him and his fellow and offered me his coat. I noticed he didn't have a coat, having been asleep in bed only moments ago, but I thanked him prodigiously anyway and he seemed pleased to have helped. I took Verlaine's hand and hoisted him to his feet, noticing all the while this Rimbaud character pawing at a passing carp caught in a current.
"Rimbaud!" Verlaine called. "Come over here and present yourself." The youngster, reluctantly withouting his little paw from the Thames, came over to where we stood and said, "I am Arthur Rimbaud, and you are a fart of a thing," then spit in my face. And this is how I first came to know the most notorious of literary batteries.
This was May, 1873. Verlaine had left his wife and settled with the young tyrant at 8 Great College Street. As we walked up the road together, Verlaine insisted that I come to their "home" and get into some clothes, while Rimbaud grumbled incessantly something or another about "carving my throat." I agreed, delighted at the prospect of getting into some proper clothes and perhaps discussing a bit of shop with the revered Verlaine. (At this point, I was unfamiliar with Mr. Rimbaud's oeuvre.) I inquired as to how Verlaine had managed to find himself asleep in bed by the banks of the Thames and he explained, nonchalantly, that, "You see, that I sleep with my head facing magnetic north so as the opposing poles don't torment my circulatory system, is of great distaste to Arthur. I learned it from Hugo, but Arthur finds it a silly, fruitless and not-too-quaint conceit—and when he finds me this way, I often find myself deposited out on the street or occasionally in a garbage heap upon waking. Ah, youth!" he went on, "they are so… principled!" and gave a giddy laugh, winking at Rimbaud. At this, Rimbaud, who had at some point apparently caught the carp, charged up from behind Verlaine and gave him a throttle about the head and shoulders with the fish, then ran ahead of us, all the while exposing his dorsal region, most ostentatiously. Yet I scoff at this! It was I who was completely in the nude. Never question genius, I always say.
When Verlaine and I arrived at the duo's lodging, Rimbaud had apparently been hiding behind the front door and leapt out to greet us by pouring a chamber pot filled with urine at our feet. He scurried away, mumbling something in his Ardenneise patois and Verlaine gave a sigh, to say "That's my Arthur." I must admit, I was a bit nonplused at this Rimbaud and his erratic behavior at the outset. I was ushered into a small bathroom where I was given a change of clothes and a small, dirty towel with which to put myself in order. The questions I had for Verlaine! Where to start? His anti-romanticism… the whole Parnassian movement away from feeling. Was it truly technique which mattered? An essence of geometry in the syntactic unit and the lines, the stanzas of verse? Where is the heart? Ah, but it is always there lurking, constantly breaking and scarring over. Is it in the form that we derive the feeling?! I must probe these questions, I thought. And as I thought this I heard a crescendo from the adjoining room. "Pamplemouuuuuussssseeee," and splat. Rimbaud had lobbed a rotten grapefruit which struck me in the back and sent me reeling against the wall, then on to the cold floor. He stood over me as I writhed and hissed, "How is that for completely modern, you English pussy," and skipped away, humming what sounded like a Chopin scherzo. I must make this Rimbaud trust me, I thought. And who the hell is he? I cleaned myself off and, warily, crept into the kitchen where Verlaine was sitting, cutting up some Gruyere and pouring absinthe.
"I am back in sorts!" I cried. My entrance apparently gave Verlaine quite a start, as he tumbled over in his chair and flung the Gruyere out a small window. I rushed to help him up, which he let me do, and apologized for startling him.
"It's nothing, nothing," he said. "I am just a little on edge today." He offered me a chair at the modest table in the center of the kitchen and I accepted. He passed me a small glass of absinthe, which, to this point I had yet to try, and motioned for me to drink. I gave a brief pause, wondering if the rumors I had heard about this sinister drink were true.
"Will this turn me in to some kind of nutter?" I asked.
"Most certainly," and he drank his glass and again motioned that I drink mine.
"I'm not too sure of this," I said.
"Taste your glory, mysterious professor; an humble ephemeral absinthe drunk on the sly—that is my glory. Shit, I should write that down," he said. I was moved by the promise of glory and sank my absinthe in a swallow. This has put me in the realm of art, I thought. Baudelaire, Degas, Lautrec, our own Oscar Wilde—all quaffers of the green fairy. Am I knocking on the door? Is the portal now open? I waited.
"You should fear the young Rimbaud," Verlaine offered.
"I do. He hit me in the back with a grapefruit a few moments ago. I believe the report of that fruity petard woke the neighborhood—and may have caused permanent damage to my spine."
"No, his words. You should fear what it is his words will do. They will sear and howl and turn your institutions on their backsides. He is the true poet here. The seer."
"Hmm," I managed. "He seems a jot… immature."
"Immature as a true poet must be. The true poet must see the world as the infant. Astonished by it all."
"I am astonished he isn't locked up," I said. "Look," I continued, "I've been wondering about the acoustical merits of your movement, to say, the elliptical nature of your lyricism and, well, at least according to some of my colleagues, how that might compromise the integrity of the overall piece, err, to some." Verlaine had soon disengaged from our discussion, I noticed, as he had somehow succeeded in stapling his eyelids to the kitchen table.
"It is the only way Arthur will come to me," he explained. "So," he went on, "would you care to join us for dinner? Mallarmé will join us. And Dowson. You will enjoy meeting them." I moved to assist Verlaine in removing his eyelids from the table, then held back.
"I would love to join you!" What luck! I thought. My colleagues at the Academy will be indeed awestruck Mallarmé! Dowson! Verlaine! And this little savant of a child, Rimbaud. Yet of Rimbaud I was still unconvinced. Ahhh, to err… destroy a world? Mine or his?
The absinthe seemed to be taking a bit of effect, as the next thing I knew I found myself seated next to Karl Marx and Anatole France, who had allegedly broken my jaw and then shaved my head at some point during the interim. We had all translated ourselves, at some point, down to the Hibernia tavern in Old Compton Street, Soho for a quantity of bangers and gruel. There we were all of us, Marx and France a surprise addition—just arrived from a surfing jaunt in Playa del Carmen. The exchanges were electrifying. Marx expounded on the merits of Claude Debussy, the symbolist composer, noticing, "You know, he would probably get more tail if he'd just remove those dreadful glasses. He looks like a lizard—yes, a lizard. And no, this whole doggerel going around about subjectivism and micro-sociological possibilities just gives me gas. Pass the absinthe, Arthur." Rimbaud, seated across form me, had corralled the three bottles of absinthe at the table and was systematically pouring a glass for himself, drinking it, then pouring a glass for an imaginary guest called Hubert, and drinking it.
"Get fucked, you German. I hope you catch the pox," said Rimbaud. This touched off a brief altercation between Marx and Rimbaud in which Marx, sensitive of last year's epic smallpox epidemic, warned that Rimbaud should try and be more sensitive to the situation. Rimbaud, incensed, lobbed a banger with a knife through it at Marx—the airborne wiener then lodged in Marx's forehead, abbreviating his dinner and requiring a calculus of stitches. The dinner went on with heated debate, erudite companionship on all sides (aside from Rimbaud, who took to crawling under the table and occasionally gnawing on my ankles) and a general ease I attribute to everybody surreptitiously leaving the restaurant as I went to use the toilet. Perhaps my piercing commentary on the geisteswissenschaften and its compatibility with this new symbolism put these thinkers on the defensive. Yes, run to your Gilead. Perhaps there you will find your balm, cowards! And they left me with the check.
I was forced to explain to the proprietor that I had been submerged in the Thames earlier that very morning and therefore, having no billfold, would have to pay him at another time. I agreed to leave Verlaine's clothes as collateral and left the tavern with only Herr Marx's leftover pork chop tied around my waist to conceal my junction. It seemed I was back where I started on this wild, beautiful day. As I exited the Hibernia, I saw Rimbaud—his eyes wild with abandon—flinging manure at a knot of touring Scandinavians. With trepidation, I approached the boy.
"You know something," I said, keeping a fair distance, "this is no way to behave, Arthur Rimbaud." He spun around to regard me, made a rhino charge at my person and after knocking me to the cobble, dragged me by my ears along the street. He began, almost gently, "Do you know why you are such a buffoon?"
"No," I answered, adjusting the pork chop as I bumped across the road.
"You've been hornswoggled by all this academic garbage. Your provincial mind is zipped up so tightly and guarded by the ivy of university, you can't even appreciate the extremes of human functioning. I need a pernod." Rimbaud dragged me to a small tavern and ordered us four pernods and a whore. He went on to drink all four of the drinks and I thought about what he said to me as he was yanking me along the street. Perhaps there was some truth in all his choler. Rimbaud explained to me his notion that the senses must be disorganized, along with all one's existence. He called this theory, "getting really freaked out" and explained how this involved "yelling a lot and breaking things."
"You aren't getting this, are you," he said, eating a stack of Verlaine's poems he found "dumb."
"I am to unlearn my existence?" I ventured.
"That's sort of it," he said with a mouthful of poetry. "Look, you take the saliva I launched in your face today. That's life. I gave you some of my life. I could have used that to break down food, but I gave it to you. And the piss? I just felt like doing that. And you don't even recognize the warm cunt of the grapefruit I offered you—you fell to the floor like a eunuch. What an anesthetized, academic ogre you are! Tonight you will go home and diddle yourself and then manufacture some inane treatise on a fiddle-fucked notion like Russian formalism and its mode." Rimbaud had hit on something. I must re-order my existence. Death to the Academy! I begged him to go on, to unzip my mind and let her contents spill out over the street. I flung my pork chop at a haberdashery and it stuck. We continued on from tavern to tavern, ingesting absinthe and speaking of truth's truth—and how that was mostly bollocks, too. I could feel my mind absorbing the world as it ought to be, then as it was. A truly odious and wonderful thing. I want to roll naked through Trafalgar Square with a holy retinue of greased-up maenads! I want to devour the chicken and the egg! I want to release the contents of my stomach off the campanile on the defeated co-eds, already climbed the 13 steps. I shall hurl the Iron Crown of Lombardy off of St. Peter's and smear every empire with my own blood!
"Shut up," said Rimbaud, his voice cracking. "You're acting like an ass." He led me from the tavern and offered me more clothes. "The sight of you naked for any longer is going to make me wretch," he said.
"I ought to go home now," I said.
"Horse-shit. You will stay with me and Verlaine until morning. There are still things you need to learn." I agreed, as I had forgotten where I lived and for the most part, who I was. I remember seeing Verlaine and a bitter looking, stitched-up Marx playing a game of whist in the parlour as we entered. Verlaine had made a daring meld play with three jokers and Marx, it seemed, had begun to cry.
Toward morning, I think, we all sat in the kitchen speaking of valuable things, while Rimbaud smashed a saucer set over the head of Mallarmé. I can't remember what time I dozed off, but I woke to a moist, midday London air, stretched my arms, upped from bed, and fell into the Thames.
As I drifted, weary and foggy-eyed down that glorious river, I thought of those great men and how they taught me to devour life. How for one moment, I stepped through the portal and into that outré hyperreality of the artist. And how I wished my papers weren't at the bottom of this damned river, as I had a lecture to give on Russian formalism and its mode.
About the author:
Described as an "up-and-coming humorist" by Esquire, Tyler Stoddard Smith's works have been featured in The McSweeney's Joke Book of Book Jokes, The Best American Fantasy, Esquire, Meridian, Pindeldyboz, the Big Jewel, Yankee Pot Roast, Word Riot, Barrelhouse, Monkeybicycle, and McSweeney's, among others. Feel free to contact him at stoddard (dot) smith (at) gmail (dot) com.