Online Edition: Summer 2003

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From Absinthe to Abyssinia

Selected Miscellaneous, Obscure and Previously Untranslated Works of Jean-Nicolas-Arthur Rimbaud

Translated by Mark Spitzer

Creative Arts Book Company ($14.95)

by Karl Krause

Mark Spitzer's From Absinthe to Abyssinia, a collection of obscure and never before translated works by one of France's most intoxicating poets, sheds a harsh light on a much-admired heroic figure. Along with some essential fragments and poems of Rimbaud's finest period comes a stiff helping of bawdy parodies and letters of the poet's post-literary years. Uncompromisingly comprehensive, this collection offers a few sips of nectar and an adequate sample of the morning-after.

One of the highlights of the book is Spitzer's translation of the startlingly inventive "Drunken Boat." Previously translated by the likes of Ted Berrigan, this poem wields the impact of enormous influence, implausibly written around 1875: "I've slammed myself / into Floridas incredible / mixing petals / with panther / eyes and human skin / while under oceanic skies / rainbows reined / the sea-green herds." Rimbaud's arrival at these poetics, in light of his contemporaries, is phenomenal.

Unraveling this mystery, Spitzer presents a number of selected parodies. As his letters have long suggested, Rimbaud inspired his poetic development with a mix of alcohol and rebellion; these poems clearly indicate that he did not simply arrive as a genius poet, but instead developed both confidence and subject from dissatisfaction and ambition. Though enlightening historical documents, however, these works will have limited appeal for sober humors. "He takes a poop then disappears / but beneath the holy / empty moon / his damned poop appears / in a little cesspool / filthy with blood!" The collection concludes with a thorough sample of Rimbaud's letters as an African explorer and slave trader, a body of work largely unknown to the poet's Anglophone audience.

While the original French drafts of these writings are not provided in this volume, Spitzer--who has also translated works by Celine and Georges Bataille, among others--makes his intentions clear from his introduction. Citing comical examples, he intends to set right the errors of previous translations, abandoning rhyme to compensate for the complexity of meaning in Rimbaud. The technique works well for Rimbaud's more telling works, although some of the most illuminating poems in this collection come from Rimbaud's early, melodic, formal studies. Spitzer's tendency to make up for the inadequacies of other translations leads him to some bold presentations, as he opts for the blatant side of double-entendres--for example, he transforms "siege" (which has a number of meanings, commonly "seat") to "potty."

From Absinthe to Abyssinia is unlikely to inspire a new generation of Rimbaud enthusiasts, but it will at least set the record straight. And perhaps there is something inspiring here: the knowledge that even boy-genius Rimbaud wrote a few stinkers.

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Summer 2003 Table of Contents