“Coming on the scene, he thought what a mercy shipwrecks were, how clean, their horrors swallowed by the sea. Not so here.”
The above is from the book I just finished, Bruce Duffy’s Disaster was my God: a novel about the outlaw life of Arthur Rimbaud. The book covers in a meandering manner the life and death of a poet who, after five years of brilliant writing that changed the course of poetry for years to come, swears off writing and runs off to be a sort of mercenary merchant in Africa.
Having a poet as the hero of your novel is always a gamble. Will they be believable? Duffy’s Rimbaud, I’m happy to say, is pretty convincing.
Not only is Duffy able to pull off lines like the ones above, that present an idea, a parallel verging on metaphor, and follow through, but there are several moments where you feel like he is trying to sneak in pieces of poems into his narrative. Here is a snapshot of the poet Paul Verlaine:
“…squinty eyes. The beard is thin and leonine, the forehead a looming moon, the mouth a single crooked horizontal line as might have been drawn by a somber child on a rainy day.”
Phrasing such as this means even more when you find it in a novel about the poet who brought the prose poem into use. The focused wording, the leaps of logic – Duffy spins his story well-versed in the, ahem, verse of his subject. Here is a snapshot of the young Rimbaud before he ran away for good:
“Perfect eyes. Perfect hearing. Perfect skin. Hair still cut, nails clean: studious, well dressed, polite. Perhaps most amazing under the circumstances is that fact that behind those angelic blue eyes burns a soul remarkably intact, million-leaved like a great oak lifting its branches, aroused, in the evening wind.”
The punctuation here is fascinating. The initial clipped sentences, then the mix of details paced with commas and a colon. Then that expansive description of the soul. Read closely this excerpt has the effect of watching a card dealer change speeds while dealing out cards then stopping to look you in the eye.
The other gamble of writing a poet in your novel is attaining a sense of truth in your description of this specific writing process. For me, Duffy gets it right, as in this interaction between an elder poet and the young Rimbaud:
“…but, Monsieur Rimbaud, surely as poets, it is our job to explain, to be clear.”
“No,” said the boy testily, “but you see, when I read your writings – many of you – you labor to explain. To merely be clear, as if a poem were, what, a newspaper? Read once, then used to wipe your — “
Rather than an argument between two people, this could easily be the transcript of an argument in a single poet’s head.
As for the countdown, I plan on going tonight to another East of Edith open mic. I am going to be reading from my forthcoming chapbook, The Wall. I haven’t read these in public yet, so, wish me luck.
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