“I dreamed of Crusades, voyages of discovery that nobody had heard of, republics without histories, religious wars stamped out, revolutions in morals, movements of races and continents: I used to believe in every kind of magic.“
-A Rimbaud, Alchemy of the Word
When I was a little kid, I used to sit under a tree in our backyard and daydream aimlessly. Nothing needed to make sense. It just needed to be. The clouds above me were fluffed cotton or a fine bowl of mashed potatoes. The leafs before me were soldiers and captives. The ants that sparsely crawled over my mickey socks were citizens of a great city laying just behind me, in the billowing folds of our oak tree. Growing up was hard. Not because I wanted or lacked for anything, but because I was always somewhere else. Other, more beautiful worlds constantly goaded me just beyond my grasp, and, for one reason or another, I constantly fell just short of their embrace- like the lame boy barred entrance from the child’s kingdom in The Pied Piper of Hamlin. So my world became internal. I read whatever I could find, savoring words like chocolate, wanting for more. At family gatherings, I sequestered myself where the books were kept, and seldom rose except for when it was time to leave. Words. Even from a youthful age, I knew well their potency. I knew that they could change the color of the sky, the cerebral skin of a moment,a singular vibration and ifso- alter time and space. The lineage. The thread of inspiration that informs one soul to another.
This was one of the many reasons I awake this morning, here in Charlevelle- seeking a poet long dead. Or was he? Death, by definition, means end of existence- but in Charleville, that seems far from the case. For even by night as I took to the streets of the town, I could see vignettes of Rimbaud wherever I went. He was my guiding had. reaching through the pages of time, haphazardly seeing another straggling soul through this labyrinth he once dwelled in, so as to find something I’d yet to know. The chaotic crux of this whole journey.
I lay in bed for some time, attempting to reign in the mania of the past few days. I’d been moving like a frantic hummingbird, spinning in meaningful, though concentric circles. My boots where looking a bit worn, in need of a good spit shine. My bag once pristinly packed, was in complete disarray, and a ruptured container of instant cafe au liat powder filled my few shirts with their sweet smell. I look at the news. The manifest is getting worse. I sink comfortably into bed, happy to know I’m far from the bedlam.
Downstairs breakfast is being served. Cheese, ham, croissants, brioche, hard boiled eggs, nutella and jam. Simple fare for traveling folks. There’s a young man who appears to work for the hotel and looks like a French version of Emile Hirsch clearing plates. Up front, there’s a new attendant. A woman in a green cotton sweater who I assume is the manager. Almost nobody speaks English, and I with my horrendous French am also having a failure to communicate. No matter though, for in Charleville, all roads lead to Rimbaud. So I hit the town square, where the morning fog shrouds the old streets. Nobody is about. Only myself. I walk past the statue from last night and to what appears to be the center of the action. A large, immobile medieval Wyvern looks back at me. A Noel dragon? There’s a Christmas village set up, with all sorts of charming shoppes and storefronts- an old world holiday. Countless wreaths and holly lay on the streets, bound for festivities to come. Near the entrance to the marionette makers shop, the church bell tolls. In this moment, I am happy beyond measure.
Well, I figured there’s was no better way to begin my day then facing the poet himself. Something easily accomplished by a trek to the town cemetery. I walk along the town boulevard, past the old schoolhouses converted into tourist hotels, souvenir shops selling postcards, crude multicolored busts of young Arthur, magnets and hats. The is a romance to an early morning in Charleville, The old women in tartan wool walking along with grandchildren, nuns going to and from the seminary to the first mass, robust countrymen walking to the train station, youngsters going to and from school and a steady stream of tourists milling about aimlessly. I continually wonder how Arthur could feel disdain for such beauty. Yet, I as a visitor, see only through the rose colored glasses of new experience. My vision is slanted. Perhaps every agile youth, every toll of a bell, every laugh of a child was yet another remembrance of his confinement. St Remi, the 12th century cathedral in the city square, was where he took his first blessing, and thus was welcomed into the fold of the Christ child. His mother, whom he referred to as the “Mouth of darkness” was a cold and firm woman who scorned frivolity and adored the church. Perhaps this was were Arthur felt his first inklings of rebellion-the involuntary confinement of religious shackles. In life Rimbaud often spoke of his reverence for God, but disdain for the religions of man. A good boy at heart, who sought to be bad.
I walk onward, past more cafes. More charming bookstores, more garlands of Christmas holly sprawled out on the pavement for one reason or another. I ask where I may find the cemetary, and my French is so bad that I take to making the prayer guesture, which most of the citizens pick up on, and guide me onward. Finally, past a small cafe where a cutout of a chef stands, I see a crucifix. The cemetary entrance! I bring no map, nor guide of any kind. I sought out Arthur and had faith he would guide me to him. The morning is chilled and brisk. I can see my breath like smoke from a gallious. Then, as if it lay in wait, is a singular white spire, along with its twin. The graves of Arthur and his sister Isabella. Its a surreal moment. I had played it out in my mind hundreds of times. Yet I wasnt ready for the emotion. I walk slowly to the headstone.
‘J Arthur Rimbaud
“Priez Pour Lui”
A latin inscription read, “pray for him”.
37-damn. Only 2 years older than I. So much living in that double digit. Tramping the countryside of France. Gun running in Ethiopia. Mad dances in the streets of London with the debauched poet Verlaine. Every conceivable sort of intoxication. Every fathomable blasphemy. The profane and the sacred. A lost leg. Carried on a litter back home to Roche-a mutilated prodigal to a place of return. His mothers screams and condemnations never far from his ears.
I sit on a bench nearbye and as the wind whips my ears. Its cold but I dont care. I’m alone. I dont care. I’m serene in this moment. Mutual communine with the gone husk of poetries greatest libertine.
Pray for him.
I walk the cemetery. My boots sink in to the mud from the previous nights rainfall. So many lives. So many stories. I feel no sorrow. Rather, I feel an unprecedented calm, melding with an incredible gratitude for simply being alive and experiencing the moment at hand. As I walk along, I find myself singing ” wishing you were somehow here again” from Phantom of the Opera and bluster in embarrassment. All about me are Romanesque and Gothic edifices and crypts, cherubs and seraphic imagery from a bygone era. The fog is ascending and the day begins to break. Light comes to the cemetery- and the dreamscape and a thousand dancing spirits rise again.
Theres a quaint cafe steps from the cemetery entrance. I’m always down for an espresso. I slip in and have a coffee under an impressive advert for a French beer brand who’s mascot is – well- you guessed it. I rustle a newspaper. I’ve had almost two weeks of no news about our currant fool in chief. I see one image of him and decide that’s all I need. I spill a little coffee and sip up whats left. Its not even 8 am. Charleville is slowly, sleepily waking. I’ve got a whole day ahead. The cemetery, as well as the internal fog has lifted and the day is mine. I walk several blocks, down an ally and to the riverbed where a large stone building awaits me. The Musee de Rimbaud. Here, artifacts of the poets life are stored and kept with love by the dedicated, though not exactly multilingual staff. After a several minutes trying to articulate the layout of the museum, I hit a language barrier wall and decide to be my own guide. Up the stairs of the old building I go onward. One floor containing the boots of the poet. Another containing the very image of his christening portrait, bathed in blood red light. While observing a few engravings of Madame Rimbaud, a very excitable man walks to me, who fortunately speaks fluent English. He is a Swed.
A scholar visiting from Stockholm, he gives me more information on the poet then the whole of the museum. His name is Phillip. His passion is infectious. We walk the museum and then decide to switch gears. ” Have you been to the Maison Rimbaud?”, he asks. “No” I say. ” “Oh its even better than this. Its the place Rimbaud lived for a time when he was here and wrote some of his finest poetry. Its nearby. I’m headed there after this”. I ask if I can come along and Phillip is glad for my company. He’s pleasant looking, tall man with a mischievous smile, and language brimming with curiosity- as common with the Swedish.
The Maison Rimbaud is just across the street. I find the atmosphere more engrossing, as it lacks the sterile processed vibe of a museum. Its an organic place to loose one’s self in, with doors opening to rooms and a long winding staircase that whirls up into the inaccessible attic, barred by rope. There’s art on the walls, though it dosent command ones attentions. The vine entwined windows, the creak of the weathered floorboards and the damask roses and faded gilding with yawning unused hearths and chipped plaster flourishes adorning the ceiling create a realm I can wander into, stopping by a windowsill to think, just as Arthur had done so many times before. Perhaps his only moments of respite and contemplation in a life fraught with disorder and mayhem where here. In a space I now occupy. A thought that both silences and dazzles me.
Phillip is a good travel companion. A good talker who knows how to gauge ones attentions, cause some reflection and reign them back in with still pique their curiosity. His mind is always ticking, filled with ideas. A reverence for the old but a student of the new. We walk along the city square and decide to break for a meal at the former Rimbaud Bar. The place is filled with burly men and bemused tourists. It takes a while to even get the waitresses attentions, but those minutes are filled with beers and lots of worldly conversation. Phillip’s children and wife are back in Graz. The train leaves every hour. I think about taking a day trip to Austria, aware of the irony I’m 4 days late for the Perchtenlauf festival, where youths dance in devil masks and brandish switches, but I’d would be wonderful to be in a city filled with a history of music. However, the strike has waylaid trains in and out and Phillip has already made arrangements, so there will be no trip to Graz this time. Instead, I find consultation in another beer and a continued conversation with a new friend in the Rimbaud Bar.
After lunch, I walk with Phillip to the train station, and we pass through the park which happens to be outside my hotel, containing the bust of Arthur. There’s a fanciful gazebo out front. ” you know Rimbaud wrote a poem about that gazebo, right?” Phillip inquired. ” Oh yes, La Musique?” A piece where young Arthur observed this corner of his existence every Sunday, when the musicians would gather and play there, lovers would kiss, children would make merry, grandparents would watch and the poet, observed like a deranged outsider, is filled with desire- and longed to escape. I bid Phillip farewell on his trip to Graz. I’d only known him a few hours and I already missed his reassuring zeal and infectious energy. The Sweds have the most beautiful way of seeing life.
The rest of the day I spend drinking red wine in my hotel room and watching ” Total Eclipse” with Leonardo De Caprio portraying Arthur. I’m not ready to give him up quite yet. I could go back into the city, perhaps pay an evening visit to his grave,but at this time, I feel I’ve done what I need. My mission fulfilled.
Icicles greet me from my window the next morning. Phillip is long gone, probably warm in his bed in Graz. I start to feel an inexplicably melancholy. I usually feel this when I’m drawing close to the end of a journey. I love my home, but I loathe going back. Its as though the rug is fulled from my feet and I’m upended back into the monotony of bills, groceries, and bus passes. I’m not yet ready, but its not a choice. As I dress and descend the stairs, I have no real desire for anything this day. Perhaps its because I plateaued my second day and say all there was to see, from the cemetery to human connections. As I spread currant jelly on a croissant, watching the news, though absorbing nothing, I feel a lingering sense of unease. I can’t place it , nor make heads nor tails of it. Maybe its the malaise seeping over from Paris. Maybe its the Winter dreariness, that feel of being alone.
Spending the day with Phillip, a man alive with passion and curiosity, made me realize perhaps I wanted for more than my own solitary experience in this journey. It was a feeling that bordered on despair. Wanting, need and isolation in one heady cocktail. This is sadly something that happens at the tail end of many of my trips. On my first trip abroad to London in 2007, the day before I left, out of nowhere, I ran into the bathroom and locked the door, burying my head in my hands, struck from head to foot with inexpressible anxiety and malaise that rendered me almost paralyzed. This is something I continue to work through sadly, and, as this last trip has taught me, lost little potency over time.
I go to the train station and secure a ticket for tomorrow morning. Nobody understands me, and I think I should really make an effort to learn French to save myself future embarrassment abroad. I go back to the hotel and feel inexplicably tired. After locking down a flight back home, I begin to drift off. The chill of the day and the slow pace of Charleville make it so. I wake up a few hours later and the day is at its peak. Realizing I’ve been antisocial enough, I slip on my hoodie and go to the downstairs bar to see if anythings doing. The front desk lady, the boy who looks like Emile Hirsch, a rugged young bartender and an older and rather saucy woman who dosent speak a lick of English are all there. The boy is about 20 and says his name is Shony. He fumbles through a conversation with me with as much English as he can. In a way I feel so indolent. I could have picked up a new language all these years. It’s as though I’ve been plunged into a scene from Amalie. Everyone here is like a character in a short story or an off Broadway play, each alive with his or her own spinning narrative an rapid fire dialogue my travel weary body is quite ready for. The older woman, upon hearing my adoration for Rimbaud, seems provoked. Shony is then, somewhat reluctantly, thrust into the role of my interpreter.
” She says he wasn’t that great a poet and he was someone we learn of in school” . I bark back ” Oh, No! He was a brilliant poet. The finest expressionst. His words illustrated the struggle of poverty, youth, desire, excess-everything!’ The woman kept prodding, and I kept coming back. For better or worse, I’ve never been the backdown type. She was older, perhaps late sixties with a large wool scarf twice the size of her head. A no nonsense country matron with little tolerance for some overly romantic tourist telling her about her countries poet. In that moment, I realized, in spite of the rampant imagery, Charleville’s backhanded contempt for Arthur continued. To me, he was a dark angle of worlds and words. To them- a foul mouthed freak who made them a mint and sold coffee mugs.
Poor Shony had no idea what he was in for and we went back and forth. I realized what was going on. “Am I really debating an elderly woman I can’t even understand about a French poet right now?” It was a surreal feeling, and the bartender and the front desk lady seemed quite amused by our antics. In the end, the lady swigged a beer, said something to me in French and sauntered out quite stylishly- her white heels clacking along. Such a thing could only happen over poetry!
I spend my last evening in Charleville wandering about. Its a weekend, and the city square is filled with tourists dressed in all manner of yuletide finery. Young choir boys are jostled to and from church, families cavort, and the mystical Christmas Wyvern is now illuminated. I know where I want to be. I make another stop at the Maison Rimbaud. I assume it may be closed, and perhaps I can linger around the nearby river, but it’s open another hour. I wander where I have wandered the day before, retracing steps I’ve traced already. At night, the place has a unique glow, a tinge of lavender that traces the plaster walls and defunct fireplaces like the hand of a ghost. Unfortunately, this time I cannot find my way outside to the garden, and without Phillip’s exuberant presence, the place seems a bit more lonesome. Though I know I still have Arthur. That’s for certain.
I bid farewell to the Maison Rimbaud and wander the town. As the first night, the dim lights illuminate the vast cobblestone roads and alleys. Walking to the Cathedral Saint Remi, I see the boys from before, practicing the great French Christmas Carols as the holy saints look on. The flames of candles dance off the gilded archways and distilled stained glass imagery of the 14th century edifice. How many took their first plunge into the baptismal font here, I wonder? Centuries worth. As the night wanes on I notice that there’s some sort of a festival taking place. Teenagers dressed as elves are dancing in the own square next to the Christmas Wyvern and it seems to be some sort of saga. Something about the magic elves who must like the Christmas tree. Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty waltz plays. Curious choice to be sure, but it conjures all things mystic, so I’m pleased. There’s children with coco, smiling and pointing couples and parents. An old world holiday.
That night in bed, I can barely sleep. Where did all the days go? It was only 8 days and I felt as though I had lived a thousand lives. Walking with the protesters in Paris, wine with a new friend in Montmarte, the kindly smile of the girl at the Alane, the baguettes and eggs at the Cafe Richard, standing at the gate of the patrician realm of President Macron, the rich color tapestries of Lautrec, thinking inexplicably about my family as I wandered the left bank, the bust of a poet illuminated by a single streetlight. A symbol of something alien and wondrous within us all.
I would get home. Though it was manic, and not without some chaos, new friends would be made, new memories kept. I have all my nick nacks. Hallmarks of a personal atlas obscura -ever advancing. My protest flyer I found on the street in Paris, Diane Pernets business card, endless photographs, a napkin from Cafe de Flore , a leather satchel, and most importantly of all- my last entry in France, which seems to encapsulate all.
” Walked past bust of Rimbaud before the sun rose. Poetry creates bonds. Bonds create magic. Ive done what I came to do. Looking forward to next time I stand by his side. I am happy. Au revior!”
-Chris Cipollini Dec, 2019