June 3, 2013

The Ethereal Gets a Haircut

Evening Prayer
by Arthur Rimbaud

I spend my life sitting - like an angel
in the hands of a barber - a deeply fluted beer mug
in my fist, belly and neck curved,
a Gambier pipe in my teeth, under the air
swelling with impalpable veils of smoke.

Like the warm excrements in an old dovecote,
a thousand dreams burn softly inside me,
and at times my sad heart is like sap-wood bled
on by the dark yellow gold of its sweats.

Then, when I have carefully swallowed my dreams,
I turn, having drunk thirty or forty tankards,
and gather myself together to relieve bitter need:
As sweetly as the Saviour of Hyssops
and of Cedar I piss towards dark skies,
very high and very far;
and receive the approval of the great heliotropes.

An evening prayer? Maybe our illusions are a form of prayers. The juxtaposition of drinking beer and pissing next to the title of Evening Prayer startles the reader, and breaks the illusion of prayer.

The narrator of Rimbaud's poem, which might be Rimbaud himself, seems boyishly adolescent. There's an edge here that I contemplate.  He's subversive.  Is he simply earthy or rude? I like the line: "an angel/ in the hands of a barber".  There is a sinuous form in all the image: the deeply fluted beer mug, the curved neck, the Gambier pipe (a clay pipe that has a figure for a bowl), the curlicues of smoke.  In this first line, the poet takes us from the abstract into the concrete. The ethereal gets a haircut.

I like this prayer because he makes us wake up. It's a prayer as reality check.  The pipe is an interesting object; imagine drawing on a stem with a clay head, and in the place where the brains would be, fire and smoke.

We're always intoxicating ourselves with something:  beer, tobacco, dreams. The dream of life is Rimbaud's topic. In the poem, “a thousand Dreams within me softly burn” like the odor of excrement in a dovecote.  Another poet might wax romantic or turn sentimental with a dovecote, but Rimbaud keeps it real, and grounded in the physical body.  It is an exact detail, real.   Notice that the droppings are steaming or smoking, and he writes that dreams are burning.  The same image occurs in the last stanza with urine.  Rimbaud creates a stink after stink.

The narrator of the poem drinks from his dreams,"thirty or forty tankards," and must relieve himself and "receive the approval of the great heliotropes."  Rimbaud's metaphor reveals much complexity or even resistances that the narrator has, that we have, in relationship to others and to ideas. In the poem, he presents the "natural relationship" between thriving plants and excrement, compost, fertilizer.  Dead and disgusting things feed life.  The great heliotropes conclude the poem; these are fragrant.

For me, the poem balances tendencies toward illusions. We all have dreams, and sometimes we confuse the dreams for reality. When I was young, in my first marriage, I had too many illusions. I ignored too much that was bad. Luckily, my illusions broke before I was seriously injured. I think if we idealize relationships too much, we err.

Rimbaud is visceral, not pretty, in his images.  The sap of the tree will drip and ooze at a crack, fissure, or scrape in the bark.  I find the next image beautiful in its portrayal of interior and exterior.  Sap denotes the essential circulation of life within the tree.  "My sad heart is like sap-wood bled/ on by the dark yellow gold of its sweats."   We bleed, weep, drip.  

Over and over, Rimbaud takes a dream and breaks it. Boorishness? Hard reality? Well, the poem is firmly embedded in natural cycles. Rimbaud's disappointments are corrections, reality checks. Expectations play a big role in relationships and in life. We expect that our lovers or parents or siblings will be nurturing in all ways; these illusions are our own creation.  When these people aren't or can't meet those expectations, we may feel crushed.  On the other hand, there are so many times when the expectations we have create problems. When I worked in human services, we talked about the fact that childhood victims of abuse seemed to have large "targets" for abuse. Expectation can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. It seemed they, as adults, fell into relationships that perpetuated the same dynamic. These patterns are difficult to break but not impossible, often the result of trial and error.

This process of fictionalizing and then experiencing painful facts is useful. We are dislodged by our egotism.  We are not the center of the world; we should not think that our needs or expectations are primary. We learn not to demand that expectations are met (if we are wise), or we learn to coordinate expectations within the relationship, or we practice not having expectations at all.  As a result, we begin to understand more about others and ourselves. Maybe we should see this process of breaking illusions as ongoing.

"Evening Prayer" certainly alludes to religion or God, and it alludes to ideas of piety, beauty, and other  abstractions.  The poem gives us a radical acceptance of things both ugly and visceral as well as an acceptance of illusions.  Perhaps we create illusions or fictions in order to make a pattern or to make sense of what would otherwise be too confusing. Fictionalizing allows us to create a good story, and we need a good story. Nowadays, certain leaders promote "creative visualization."  It enables us to bring ourselves closer to what we want.  Although Rimbaud creates an exquisite ugliness, he also seems to critique himself.  "I spend my life sitting..." he begins, as to say he has been too passive, too self involved.  "When I have carefully swallowed my dreams..."  and "...gather myself together to relieve bitter need."  There is a consequence for all this excess, and that is the need to eliminate.

The poem underlines an exchange of a deeper sort, a cycle, a giving and taking.  The exchange involves resources: emotional, physical, intellectual, spiritual.  Some resources are consumed and some are generated. It's an interesting balance--an ecosystem--and like an ecosystem may be of long or short duration. This poem and most of Rimbaud's work has endured so long because I think it offers us this interesting exchange.  We need ideas, but we need to break their hold on us.  We need sentiment, but we don't want it to blind us.

For some background about Rimbaud, see this New Yorker article:
For more poems by Rimbaud, see this website:
The translation that I've used:
I'm not sure who did this translation. It is not credited. For this reason, I dislike using poemhunter.com.  There are many other translations, but I like this version.

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