As every schoolboy knows, Arthur Rimbaud had reinvented poetry by the time he was twenty, at which point he gave it up. Rimbaud disorders sense into something utterly uncommon, but he does not actually violate it (as, say, some of the Surrealists who followed him do). He wrote “Le Bateau ivre” when he was seventeen, and had never seen the sea.
As I nosed down the placid river I could feel
The towropes slacken – screaming redskins had made off
With the boatmen and nailed them naked, hand and heel,
To painted stakes for target practice. The trade-off
Was, I no longer gave a toss for them, the gang
Who´d loaded me with Flemish wheat or English twill.
When they were done with, like the song the redskins sang.
The river let me shake my own way down, at will.
All winter, I was as deaf to reason as a child –
The anchor, helm and log had gone overboard.
Lording it over choppy waters, going wild,
I ran with them!- surges, peninsulas unmoored;
Bobbed like a cork on waves that engulfed a tanker –
The hurricanes that blessed my awakenings at sea! –
And, as I danced on those rolling billows, sank her;
Not once did I long for harbour-lights to welcome me.
The greenish water slopping through my hull´s soft pine,
More sweet than windfalls are to kids, sluiced all the blood
I´d puked up off my planking, and the dirt-cheap wine;
Left me as rudderless as driftwood on the flood.
Since then, I have soaked in the poem of the sea,
A milky way infused with stars, and the blue-green deeps
Through which a drowned man sometimes drifts down, dreamily.
Deathly-pale, wide-eyed; where, in the blue mulatto sleeps.
The slumped or fevered sleeps, the bright slow burn of day,
headier than absinthe, more measureless than our verse,
A sudden stain on all that brilliant blue-grey,
The rust-blood-reds of love ferment their bitter curse.
∇ ©Alan JENKINS, Drunken Boats. The Cahiers Series. Center for writers & translators. SYLPH EDITIONS.