Toward the end of Elizabeth Hand’s book Radiant Days, there is a scene in which a young painter named Merle mourns the passing of a short-lived friend. “… there is something far sadder than never meeting someone you’ve only glimpsed from far away,” she narrates. “And that is to meet someone just once, and not know until afterward that it was the most important night of your entire life, and that it will never happen, again.” (p 189)
This brief, ecstatic joy, followed by pangs of loss, is at the heart of Radiant Days, a slim novel about the meeting of two artists: Merle, a painter from rural Virginia, living in the city for the first time, and the poet Jean Nicolas Arthur Rimbaud, who has become unstuck in time to go from the French countryside of 1870 to 1970s Washington, D.C. The book bounces between the individual experiences of these artists --- Merle’s introduction to the art world through a beautiful but married teacher, Rimbaud’s boredom with provincial life and repeated attempts to run away from home to strike out on his own --- before bringing them together for one, radiant day. In the process, it touches on what it means to be an artist or a poet, and the different ways these disciplines inspire each other to see the world.
There is nothing about Rimbaud’s origins that would lead one to believe that he would become one of the poetic prodigies of late-19th century France, or that his work would go on to inspire so much contemporary literature, art, and music. His father, a career soldier, abandoned the family to be raised by their strict Catholic mother. Rimbaud’s mother was notoriously pushy and took primary responsibility for the education of her children, later engaging a series of tutors to develop their talents. Rimbaud showed early gifts for literature, but it wasn’t long before his genius turned to full-out rebellion. In 1870, with school closed and tutors dismissed due to the Franco-Prussian war, the 15-year-old Rimbaud ran away from home for the first time. Arrested in Paris when he did not have the money to pay for his train ticket, he landed in Mazas prison and had to be bailed out by friend and mentor Georges Izambard, who would not only champion Rimbaud’s work, but also introduce him to other poets, forever altering the course of his life.
Radiant Days covers primarily these early days of Rimbaud’s genius as he strives to define and realize his ideas about poetry and life. Hand includes portions of his famous “Letter of the Seer” from this period, which states:
The Poet becomes a visionary through a long, immense and deliberate derangement of all the senses. All forms of love, of suffering, of madnesss, he seeks these out, he exhausts himself with every poison, he sucks their essences. Unspeakable torture that demands all his faith and superhuman strength, where he becomes the sickest of all men, the greatest criminal, the most damned --- and the supreme Knower --- because he arrives at the unknown! Since, more than anyone, he has already cultivated his already rich soul! He arrives at the Unknown; and when, maddened, he loses the meaning of his visions, he has still seen them! So what if he destroys himself in this leap into the unheard of, the unnameable --- other dreadful workers will come, they will start from the horizon where the other has collapsed… The poet is really the thief of fire. (p 185)
Rimbaud took these ideas seriously, and nowhere is it clearer than his poetry where he put it into practice. He would later become known as a primary player in the Symbolist movement, which built poetic images and structures on intuitive associations. The “symbols” from which they take their name were often stand-ins for the real world, against which heightened states of emotion could be bounced. Without a clear narrative or context, these symbols take on charged meaning and significance. Rimbaud’s “The Drunken Boat” --- a 100-line poem about a boat that breaks free from its human handlers --- can certainly be read from this standpoint.
Rimbaud was also notorious for saying, in the same letter that is excerpted above, that “‘I’ is somebody else,” recognizing a shift in the subject of poetry. He believed not only the possibility of observing one’s own thought, but that poetry didn’t have to be written from one’s individual viewpoint. A powerful analytical tool for beginners just starting to read poetry is to ask the question “Who is the speaker in this poem? What attitudes and assumptions do they hold?” To assume that the poem is always written in the voice of the poet is to miss an entire world of significance and possibility as many poets write in more voices and with more subtlety than the mere expression of individual feelings or the exclusivity of their personal interior worlds.
Of course, Rimbaud was also part of the Decadent movement, which --- in typical teenage style --- flouted the conventions of society in a “deliberate derangement of all the senses.” This involved substance abuse --- absinthe and opiates were the choice drugs of the day --- sexual experimentation and intentional disregard of social convention. It was the sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll of the 1870s. This is why it is no surprise that Rimbaud still holds a fascination for contemporary teenagers, or that he has inspired so many of our contemporary decadent artists, writers, and musicians --- among them, Patti Smith, Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsberg, and Jim Morrison.
One of the brilliant coups of Radiant Days is Elizabeth Hand’s intentional juxtaposition of Rimbaud with the punk rock scene of 1970s Washington, D.C. And she has a very good point here. In terms of flouting social convention and the rampant artistic and social experimentation, punk rock is a very good fit for the revolutionary decadents. With statements like “People want poetry to be a nursemaid, I want to be a murderer and a thief. Art should be… ugly, and hurt so you can feel it. That's what makes it powerful” (p 105), Rimbaud is right at home with the punk scene. Even Merle, struggling to find a place for herself in a world where she feels she does not fit, is able to see the beauty in what most would view as ugly: "I begin to see how surreal a stoplight was,” she narrates, “strobing from amber to red to green. Plastic bottles, the acid-green wrapper from a bag of potato chips, a broken syringe --- all those things are strange and even beautiful, if you look at them long enough." (p 93) By juxtaposing Rimbaud’s vision of the aurora borealis with street lights and syringes, Hand is able to communicate not just the significance of Rimbaud’s poetry in our world, but also the ways in which this decadent vision can transmute ordinary objects into the sublime: a beauty and interconnectedness beyond the detached and framed landscapes with which we are often asked to view the “natural” world.
I’m not a big fan of time-travel novels, so I picked up Radiant Days with some reservations. But what I enjoyed about the conceit is the sense that literature allows us to travel through time. Voices long dead live again when we read them. Merle has no idea that this strange young man is the legendary Rimbaud, as she’s never heard of him. In the same way, we as readers --- especially young ones --- often encounter the works of the past as something entirely fresh and present, as though they have literally stepped out of their world into our own. Without context or the baggage of history, these works are made new again as though we have just met a new friend whose worldview reflects our own. This is a powerful experience, and one that has always made literature so compelling for me. It connects not just a fictional painter with a long-dead poet, but the readers who are turning the pages of the book.
Elizabeth Hand has a gift for portraying the passion and immediacy of the adolescent experience. Her previous book, Illyria, is about two cousins in a theatrical family who are desperately in love. It explores not only forbidden love, but captures a sense of adolescent yearning, rivalry, and competition within families, and the way art can be called upon to transform the unspeakable. Whether it’s to give shape and form to the ineffable, or a space to explore those feelings or visions not acceptable in everyday life, Illyria is one of those books that deftly captures both the adolescent experience and what it feels like to grow beyond it.
Radiant Days has a similar luminosity. Focusing on Rimbaud’s early days, it doesn’t get into his notorious and tumultuous relationship with Paul Verlaine, or the fact that his poetic output was limited to just five years. At the age of 20, Rimbaud stopped writing poetry entirely, and after extensive travels came to settle as a trader in colonial Africa. When asked about his poetry in later years, he refused to discuss it, referring to it as “absurd, ridiculous, disgusting.” (No doubt, there are readers of his work who would agree!) This has long been discussed in terms of a great literary mystery, and yet the possibility exists that despite the precocity of his work (which in French has complex rhyme, meter, and word play, often impossible to translate) Rimbaud simply grew up. It’s difficult to sustain a decadent, punk rock attitude across a lifetime, and those who try often meet bad ends. There is a difference between a young person experimenting and an older one whose behaviors have become an indicator of bad habits or bad character, or simply, a refusal to change.
Hand acknowledges this, too. At the end of the book, Merle --- now an established artist --- narrates, “That's one of the things you never read about in books --- what happens after the magic ends, and life goes back to normal?" (p 192) We are given a glimpse of Merle telling people gathered at the gallery about the poet who inspired her work, Rimbaud. "’It's not just that I love his work... He changed my life when I was young and didn't think I would ever become a real artist. His poetry saved me. He saved me. I painted these to honor him,’" she says. (p 204)
For me, this is the most powerful part of the book, the acknowledgement that there is something beyond the radiant days --- and decadent experiences --- of youth, that the possibility exists in all of us to take those visions and experiences to become mature people. Even Rimbaud speaks of the return towards the end of his most notorious work, Seasons in Hell. “I who called myself angel or seer, exempt from all morality, I am returned to the soil with a duty to seek and rough reality to embrace!” Earlier in the book, Merle comes in contact with a brilliant musician, now broken and living on the streets. She tells him that she has lost everything: she’s been expelled from college, evicted from her lodgings, dumped by her girlfriend, and even had her art supplies stolen. He refuses to pity her, saying, ""Screw that, Little Fly. You lost everything? Big f*cking deal. Boo hoo. You said you were an artist, right? Well, this is where things start to get interesting.” (p 133)
For readers interested in reading Rimbaud or learning more about is life and work there are many translations, but one of the few that attempts to translate some of the rhymes into English is Norman Cameron's 1942 translation of A Season in Hell & Other Poems. The internet has many resources about Rimbaud including a number of fan-based sites, inspired by his life and work. His work is not an easy fit into the classroom as Rimbaud's life, as well as the images and themes of his verse, remain as vibrant, decadent, and offensive as they were when they were first written. But his legacy, especially in terms of contemporary art, remains undisputed. As a thief of fire, Rimbaud continues to illuminate and inspire to this very day.
What were your favorite artists, muscians, and poets as a young person? Have your feelings about them changed over time? What poets would you recommend for youth readers discovering poetry for the first time?
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