Duffy tells his story like a mosaic, letting the life build up in fragments, yet always returning to the last few months of Rimbaud's life, when he was sick, seldom lucid, and spending a good deal of the fortune he'd acquired in Africa having himself carried out to the coast and then shipped back to France, where his leg was amputated, and where he ended up under the care of his harshly conservative mother, the person he'd spent much of his life trying to escape. Duffy uses flashbacks to reconstruct the young life of the adolescent rebel who kept running away from home and walking through northern France writing poems. Duffy's particularly good on that tempestuous period when Rimbaud first arrived in Paris, sixteen years old and assaulting all conventions. The older poet Paul Verlaine fell deeply in love with the brilliant boy, abandoning his wife and child to take off with Rimbaud and go through a series of cities and adventures until finally, taunted by his young lover beyond anything he could bear, Verlaine shot Rimbaud in the arm. (Jailed, Verlaine then wrote the best poetry of his life.) Rimbaud, meanwhile, "was increasingly horrified," in Duffy's words, "by the cynicism, the selfishness, and the rampant irresponsibility of writing, of creating these vain word creatures, these scoops of Adam dust given demonic breath--to do what? To what end? Why, when the world was no better and never would be?" Duffy doesn't presume to answer Rimbaud's question, but he makes it live more vividly than any biography ever could.
Bruce Duffy reads from Disaster Was My God at UMMA's Stern Auditorium on Thursday, March 22.
[Originally published in March, 2012.]