Finding Rimbaud

by Dale Smith

Right now, I'm depraving myself as much as I can. Why? I want to be a poet, and I am working at making myself a visionary: you won't understand at all, and I'm not even sure I can explain it to you. The problem is to attain the unknown by disorganizing all the senses. The suffering is immense, but you have to be strong, and to have been born a poet. And I have realized that I am a poet. It's not my doing at all.
(Arthur Rimbaud to Georges Izambard, May 13, 1871)

I was just another suburban fuck-up, sans genius, mired in self-delusion. Unlike Arthur Rimbaud, my ruling daemon lacked focus and brilliance. I knew nothing about the young French poet who wanted "to attain the unknown by disorganizing all the senses." It tested my youth instead. I drank myself into the dark unknown each weekend, blackened my teeth in fights and pushed fate behind the wheel of a car. Maybe it's a typical suburban childhood by now, I don't know. No experience of my life has been more violent. What I remember was an immense confusion that only shifted when my senses were lit. I wanted to be drunk or high. I could think of no better way to live in my American loneliness.

It's odd to think of that loneliness now, how far in myself I was centered in it, or that it was really a loneliness of the imagination. Only I didn't understand it as center or imagination. Moody, arrogant and reclusive I played an electric guitar, prayed to the gods of Rock-n-Roll to deliver me from the tedious death cult of the American middle class. So when I was 16 I turned to Rimbaud first for comfort, and then validation.

In him I found a comrade. Maybe I read his name in the pages of Rolling Stone, or perhaps his image in a mist of images struck my wandering and hungry eyes. I know only that his words carried the seeds of my first awakening. They strengthened my heart and embodied my chaotic emotions. By his first poem, a translation of Horace, I, who could translate nothing, crowned myself by authority of his genius and inspiration, poet.

As a boy, once, beside the Vultur
In Apulia, not far from my house,
Tired of games and of sleep,
Wonderful doves covered me
With new leaves.
I was crowned with sacred laurel
And with myrtle, not without
Divine intent.

On weekends around this time I'd come home late with bottles of Chablis. Then I'd play music and write the struggling details of my own seasons. I filled the lined pages, becoming drunk as evening passed. First blue patches of dawn broke through branches at my window, my family sleeping, me drunk and alone lost in a kind of glowing stupor. Pages blurred, stained with wine and ink. A white light lit my head and I'd follow it into the bulb at my desk, and try to catch the meaning.

While the red-stained mouths of machine guns ring
Across the infinite expanse of day.

My imagination trapped me in myself. I didn't see it for the terrifying thing it really was, a power so magnificent it would take years to learn how to live in it without falling. In those days it forced on me a self-induced alienation. I sipped Chablis as my parents slept. I opened a window and gagged on cigarettes. But words came to me. They entered my pen at least, if not exactly my head. Pages filled with my scrawl. Versions and visions of my seasons, mostly in hell, training myself to acquire an evil so natural to the kid behind the fine English of Schmidt's translation. But I was good by nature and upbringing, bourgeoisie good. There were manners I observed and affectations I learned. But in my mind I practiced evil and romance. "Black A, white E, Red I," he wrote in "Vowels," "green U, blue O-vowels, / Some day I will open your silent pregnancies: / A, black belt, hairy with bursting flies, / Bumbling and buzzing over stinking cruelties." He was far away, a voice from what seemed a truer place and time.






Eros guided my wandering attention, but nothing lasted. I wanted love, or thought I wanted it. Being in love and being drunk were enough for me. There's nothing like feeling alive in a dead place, the sensation of life a fine substitute for it.

A young woman drew my attention. She moved in tight jeans partially hidden by a formless red smock that tied behind her waist. She sprayed perfume from tester bottles on the counter, mixing scents of sweet and spice depending on the mood of the evening. Silver shrimp-loop earrings attached with clinical care to her lobes. We worked nights together. After one Friday shift, as I put away the mop and dumped the grey contents of its bucket, she asked if I wanted a drink. She was a college freshman and I was still in high school. She had vodka and cranberry juice in her car. We drank it, went back to my house and fucked on the floor in my room in the dark. I played music so my folks wouldn't hear. It was dark and I wanted to see. I turned on the light. Drunken laughter and whispers accompanied our movements and autumn wind howled.

                                                   But in the morning-a battlesome morning in June-
                                                   I ran like an Ass,
                                                   Braying about the wood, brandishing my grievance,
                                                   Until the Sabines of the suburbs came,
                                                   Came leaping at my breast.

My father woke us. Embarrassed silence in the house. Stains on my clothes, cranberry red in the corners of our mouths. The rest of the day is a fog now. I kept to my room. Nothing about it was said again. I was embarrassed and my mother cried.

Jennifer, an angster my age also worked with me. She disapproved of Dawn and would taunt me for "doing that preppy bitch." I was nervous around her. A long bleached strand of hair reached her chin. She stood out tall and skinny, dressed in thrift-store finds. What attracted me too were her records--exotic collections of Sun Ra, The Wailers, Steve Reich and Violent Femmes. We listened to Sibelius on a mattress in her room, tense with confused desire.

I remember once in a cliché of summer moonlight how we managed to lie close in damp grass, her baggy shorts an open gate. Cold beer, an urban skyline, moon and stars above moved with a regular rhythm, moonlight on white limestone and the wet smell of grass under our knees. I offered no response to her taunts. I was silent, discussion an awkward discomfort. Why submit to that? I didn't not like her. But I was piecing it together as I went along, a slow, inarticulate doofus.

One night in late winter we gathered for cold beer under a black sky. Someone brought vodka, whisky, marijuana, speed. There were Jocks, Ropers, Druggies and Preps. My friends were nobodies, like me, but we moved between groups with relative ease. Music lifted thin sounds through fat car speakers into dumb night air. If it had been summer there would be boats, that sort of thing. But in winter we huddled with our clans, talking about the girls we wanted to fuck. I noticed Jennifer alone with someone, but her eyes kept catching mine. A fire burned on shore near the water. Boys and girls stood by, shotgunning Buds while others slipped off to piss or grope in the dark. We excused ourselves, and I slowly moved with Jennifer into the dark too. I'd left my clan behind to warm by the fire. She tugged my coat sleeve. "Come here," she whispered, vodka on her breath. Her shirt was slightly open and her eyes shined drunk.

And then, when I have swallowed down my Dreams
In thirty, forty mugs of beer, I turn
To satisfy a need I can't ignore,

And like the Lord of Hyssop and of Myrrh
I piss into the skies, a soaring stream
That consecrates a patch of flowering fern.

She slurred her words, and I kissed her. My friends chuckled as I moved further away with her. She staggered, leaning on me for support. In the grass I kissed her again, then went through her shirt for her breasts. "You really look good with her," she said. "You're so cool." I ignored her words, opening her bra instead. She pulled away suddenly, the breath visible between us. She didn't say anything and walked a few feet from me, unbuttoned her jeans, squatted and pissed into the weeds. Then she laughed a little and pulled herself up on me. "I wanna stand," she said, and we stood. She put her mouth on mine. I felt her ass but she stepped back, laughing. "Can't do that here," she teased, and walked away toward the firelight and the tinny laughter of nameless others.

My friends were drinking gin, and they gave me some. The fire warmed us, and my face glowed in its heat. Later I looked for her again, going group to group. Thick-necked jocks stared me down, cool motherfuckers.

I remember as the gin burned up to my skull the drunken desire to find her again. Flames lifted out from orange coals against the vast black liquid calm of the lake. By the time I found her words slurred through me, my vision a blur. Someone was with her, their faces vague outlines in the laughter and voices falling behind vision's wavering field. She staggered away from me, the many voices trailing off behind us as I followed her to a car. She crawled in, locked the door, leaning her face against its cold window. I shouted to her through the glass but she slumped into sleep as a group came up behind me.

"Who the fuck are you, her boyfriend?" someone asked, in my face, threatening to download the privilege of his muscle onto my thin body. As I answered with a cool, clean Fuck You his fist rammed up hard on my mouth. I reached for his neck and pressed my thumbs into his throat. I wanted to choke the motherfucker. Others came onto me from the dark, then like light his fist went into my face again.

Come, all Wines go down to the sea,
In inexhaustible waves!
See the foaming Bitter Beer
Pour from mountain caves!

Knowing pilgrims, seek repose
By the emerald pillars of Absinthe
Leave these landscapes.
Friends, what is drunkenness?

I would as soon lie dumb
To fester in some pond
Beneath the stinking scum
By a drifting log.

Next morning I woke to a pillow encrusted with blood. In the mirror my face was bruised, swollen and bloody, my front teeth loose. I stunk of booze. I remembered so little of what happened. My father asked me and I could not say a word, him sitting there looking at me in disbelief and sad confusion. His St. Augustine still held its green in the late winter yard. I can write that something was breaking in me, but you won't know what that meant to me because I can barely remember that myself. But imagine those moments when what you most love dissolves, and there are no gods in you. More difficult than living in a world of shits is realizing you may be one of them. If Rimbaud chose to be a poet, I had it pushed on me, because poetry was not my business. But it was the only place to turn, the only place where the imagination for me was free.

Yet this is the watch by night.
Let us all accept new strength, and
Real tenderness. And at dawn, armed
With glowing patience, we will enter
The cities of glory.



A black volcanic massif pushes into the blue grey waters of the Gulf of Aden. The ancient port lies on the southwest coast of Arabia by the mouth of the Red Sea, 100 miles east of the straits of Bab al-Mandab. It's located strategically on the trade route between India and Egypt, and a protecting mountain backdrop has provided sheltered anchorage since archaic times. The old city of Aden is situated in the crater of a dead volcano. An elaborate system of rainwater storage tanks, partly cut out of living rock, is the oldest evidence of human activity there.

Aden is believed to have been the main harbor of the pre-Islamic kingdom of Aswan, and after its annexation by the kingdom of Saba'a in the 5th century it continued to play an important role in connecting Africa with the gold and incense road of Arabia. The Aden peninsula is flanked to the east and west by large bays, and Crater, the oldest portion of the city, lies to the east. Off shore Sirah Island juts out of the water, its well-fortified, triangular rock boosting an ancient castle high above the harbor.

The Eastern Bay silted up before the British arrived in 1839, and in 1860 the old harbor was replaced. The Tawahi and Ma'alla city sections, built in European style under British rule, lie on the banks of Western Bay, separated from Crater by the mountain ridge of Shamsan (1,725 feet). Tunnels lead from Ma'alla to Gold Mohur, an area on the south side of the peninsula, now a beach resort for tourists.

Capital of the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) until reunification in 1990, Aden suffered during the civil war of 1994 when a cholera epidemic killed more residents than the fighting. The city was a British colony until 1968 when the Marxist State of South Yemen formed. A brief but bloody civil war in 1986 left thousands dead and caused extensive damage.

I visited Tawahi in December 1992 after a 10-hour cab ride from Sana'a. The group taxi stopped for lunch in a small mountain village where we also bought qat to chew on our journey south. Qat speeds up the circulatory and nervous systems and stimulates conversation. We smoked and drank Pepsi, fellow passengers insisting I see certain portions of their country. Most of them were dropped off at a point in the outer city, while I continued toward the harbor. A veiled woman sat in the front seat of the French wagon between the driver and me. She wet herself somewhere along the way, and the urine soaked into the seat. The driver was infuriated and began to curse her. I told him to cool it. Where else after all was she to go? He gave me a fuck you look and handed the woman her luggage. We both got back in the cab. He lit a cigarette.

When we arrived at the doors of the Hotel Rock he asked for more money than I expected. I lived on a Peace Corps teacher's salary, and wasn't exactly loaded. I noticed in Aden that Yankee dollars were expected from me other places too. We haggled over the price and he complained about the woman pissing his seat and I realized I was the one to pay for that inconvenience. It had been my sympathetic intentions that intervened on his argument with her anyway. The son-of-a-bitch smiled his fuck you smile, language between us like some gummy wall. I put the money in his fist, defeated; he took my pack off his luggage rack.


Rimbaud lived in Aden from 1881 to 1890, working for a coffee, gum and hide exporter named Pierre Bardey. He received three shillings a day plus room and board in exchange for managing the company's books. "You can't imagine the place," he wrote in a letter dated 28 Sept. 1885. "Not a tree, even a withered one, not a sod of earth! Aden is the crater of an extinct volcano filled up with the sand of the sea. You see nothing but lava and sand everywhere which cannot possibly produce the slightest vegetation. It is surrounded by desert sands. Here the crater of our extinct volcano prevents the air from coming in, and we are roasted as if in a lime-kiln."

Biographer Enid Starkie says that after his first attempt to establish trade in Harar he returned to Aden, "determined to throw up his appointment, and to look for more congenial work." But he continued in the services of Bardey, though at a higher rate.

This is to let you know that I have got rehired in Aden for 6 months, from July 1 to December 31, 1884, on the same terms. Business is going to pick up, and for the moment I am staying at the old address, in Aden (To his family, Aden, 19 June 1884).

"He remained at Aden toying," Starkie writes, "in his unmethodical, eager and childish way, with various plans for improving his prospects. He tried to obtain a contract from the Société de Géographie to write articles dealing with his travels in the province of Harar. He was the first European who had ever resided [there]. He had, however, no influential support, no one to recommend him, and the lofty Société de Géographie was not interested in an obscure employee of a coffee exporter from Aden" (356).


Clerks at the desk of The Rock demanded American dollars for rent of their moldy rooms. I had with me only a couple of 20s and a wad of Yemeni riyals and dinars. "Look," I said, "I've got money right here," and I pushed a mountain of riyals toward him. He looked upon the pink, green and grey bills with some disgust, then continued processing some non-work he had invented upon my entry. Exhausted from travel, and being a terrible bargainer to boot, I finally broke a twenty and rode the rickety elevator up to my room.

The Rock housed Yemen's only brewery, a reminder of British occupation and colonial acculturation to the inhospitable climate. I ordered one and it was served semi-cold in a pint-sized green bottle. The bar at the top of the hotel overlooked the harbor. Fishing boats and two US battleships anchored there near Sirah Island. Young German backpackers sat by a window, refreshing themselves on the local brew. Rats scurried for crumbs under a table on the mildewed carpet. I drank the beer, happy to have it and thankful it would bring me down from the strung-out, qat-inspired shock of travel.

Later I walked along the boardwalk in damp heat. The sun set with a pink film through grey haze. I ate fava beans in spicy tomato paste, dipping it with a hard French roll, waving off the many flies between bites. Sweat dripped from my waiter's face and made rings under his arms and on his chest. He only shrugged at my feeble Arabic. I was looking for Rimbaud's house I explained, but he didn't seem to know what I was talking about.

In the park children sold halwas and vendors hawked ice cream and french fried potatoes. Black mountains surrounded the city, holding heat in a mountainous oven. In other parts of the country I felt very comfortable, though here I noticed my alien presence, a stranger on the eve of war, the cause of which was none of my business. A month prior riots in most major cities were put down by the military. From my rooftop I watched helicopters circle downtown Hodeidah, black smoke from blazing tires thickening the air. Young men with rocket launchers and AK47s marched through schara Sana'a, posting checkpoints at major intersections and thoroughfares.


Rimbaud brought with him a woman from Harar, probably a slave, according to Starkie. "He rented a house, although he himself had free lodging provided at Bardey's store, and he lived with her all the time that he remained in Aden" (361).

Over time he slowly saved money, "eating out his heart at Aden with frustration and disappointment." In a letter dated 5 May 1884 he writes: "Excuse me for having given you these details of my worries, but I see that I am about to reach the age of thirty (half my life) and I am very tired of rolling around the world without any tangible result."

Unfortunately, he would only live another seven years.

I quit my job after a violent argument with those worthless skinflints who thought they could grind me down forever. I did a great deal for those people, and they thought I was going to stay there for the rest of my life just to please them. They did everything they could to get me to stay, but I told them to go to hell with their benefits and their business and their stinking company and their dirty town.

Several thousand rifles are on their way here from Europe. I am forming a caravan to take them to Menelik, the King of Shoa (To his family, Aden, 22 Oct. 1885).


Back at The Rock's lounge for a nightcap, lights in the harbor twinkled. A German schoolteacher sat at the bar beside me. He was on vacation, on his way to Sana'a next morning. The bartender eyed us suspiciously, while below us the city's light made silver ripples in the water. The German told me he thought Rimbaud's house was still standing, but he wasn't sure how to find it.


After King Menelek "once more got the better of a foreigner," Rimbaud returned to Aden "in a state of fatigue and dejection." His gun-running expedition to Shoa failed, and he was broke. "My hair is quite grey," he wrote in a letter to his mother (23 Aug. 1887) at the age of 33. "It seems to me that my whole life is decaying. You have only got to imagine what one must be like after hardships such as these - crossing the sea in an open rowing boat, travelling for days on horseback without change of clothes, without food, without water. I'm terribly tired! I've no work and I'm terrified of losing the little money that I have."

In Shoa, negotiations over this caravan were carried out under disastrous circumstances: Menelik confiscated all the merchandise and forced me to sell everything to him at reduced prices, forbidding me to sell it at retail and threatening to send it all back to the coast at my expense! (To the French Vice-Consul 30 July 1887).

He looked for work in Aden after this expedition into Abyssinia. He queried the Société de Géographie again, and considered working as a war correspondent for Le Temps, "to report on the Italian war with Abyssinia" (379). But gun-running was the only real source of income for him by this point, and "as a result of the new arms agreement which had been signed by England and France, the price for which rifles could be sold to the Abyssinian kings might be considerably increased" (381). After some difficulties he obtained a license for importing arms into the Kingdom of Shoa. It would prove to be another failed venture.


I slept that night in a sleeping bag spread over mildewed bedsheets. Next morning light came through thick mildewed curtains and the mildewed carpet on my bare feet was kind of disgusting. I took a French bath with cold water from a slow faucet. During my breakfast of beans and bread I thought of the rats from the previous nights, but the no star fare was fine. Back in my room I sat at the balcony, sipping hot tea. Boys walked the street gathering bottles; trucks buzzed by releasing a thick stream of black smog; people passed, going their way to work or to the open air suqs. Ships in the harbor remained anchored, though rumors of a bombing at a hotel frequented by American sailors was on everyone's lips.

It was calm on the street and I found a park bench shaded by a palm. A young man asked if he could sit next to me. He was a student of English and welcomed an opportunity to speak the language. He took me to Bardey's store, and then we walked through the park toward the water. Crowds of men were out now, and we moved through a small suq: spices, candy, qat, clothing and other merchandise were arranged in neat areas, merchants talking quietly with customers. A cloth was spread and around it several men squatted, picking food from it, a goat bahhing near by.


The flowery softness of the stars and all the sky
Flows over the side of the slope
Like a basket poured out in our face,
And turns the abyss beneath us a flowering blue.


Rimbaud's last stay in Aden was in the European hospital there. A British doctor wanted to amputate, but Rimbaud refused, in bed "with his leg bound and hoisted to the ceiling so that he could make no movement," hoping that it would somehow heal. It was removed later at Marseilles. "The heat at Aden was already tropical and he could find no rest or sleep." He settled his affairs in the city and departed for the hospital at France.

I mention these events only to note the fortuitous circumstances that formed the brief geographic intersection of my life with his. An obscure place like Aden though by no means impossible for travelers to visit, remains an unpopular destination. I would have never been there had I not been stationed in that part of the world, hungry to do good and to be of service to others. Such sentiment would have seemed alien to him, and I admire his motives more. He didn't fear his ugliness or his need.


I've just got your letter and your two stockings; but I got them in rather distressing circumstances.

Seeing that the swelling in my right knee and the pain in the joint kept increasing, without being able to find any remedy or any advice, since Hara is full of niggers and there were no doctors there, I decided to come down to the coast.

Once I got here, I entered the European hospital. The English doctor, as soon as I showed him my knee, said that it was a synovitis tumor that had reached a very dangerous stage, as a result of lack of care and fatigue. At first he talked about cutting the leg off; then he decided to wait a few days to see if the swelling, with medical treatment, would diminish at all. I look like a skeleton; I scare people. My back is raw from the bed, I can't get a minute's sleep. I want to have myself carried to a steamship, and to come and have myself treated in France.

Don't be too upset at all this, however. There are better days ahead.

P.S. As for the stockings, they're of no use. I'll sell them someplace.



(Letters and telegrams from Rimbaud to his mother and sister, Aden and Marseilles, 30 April ­ 22 May 1891).


                                                     Can an easy finale repair ages of misery-
                                                     Can a day of success destroy the shame
                                                     Of our fatal lack of skill?

The regular rhythm of the waves on black rock held my attention. Rats walked carefully on the wet basalt, while behind me ice cream vendors sold sweets to families out in the cooler evening air. Lights in the harbor bounced in the rippling wake of motor boats and tugboats moving out toward other piers or places I can't even speculate about. Geographic and imaginal spaces met for me there, Rimbaud and his experience a kind of measure. It's peculiar how we find things.


Dale Smith lives in Austin, Texas, with his wife, the poet Hoa Nguyen. Together they edit Skanky Possum. His work also appears in Mungo vs. Ranger, First Intensity and Jacket. A long poem, "Coo Coo Fourth July," will be published as a Backwood Broadside later this year.