This piece is about 10 printed pages long.
It is copyright © Jennifer Moxley, Tasliman magazine and Jacket magazine 2007.
A version of this essay first appeared in Talisman: A Journal of Contemporary Poetry and Poetics. No. 34, Winter/Spring 2007.
John Wieners’s life of sexual and narcotic excess has sometimes been read as a tragic enactment of Arthur Rimbaud’s directives to the poet as laid out in the lettres du voyant. As Pamela Petro, in “The Hipster of Joy Street” (Jacket 21) writes: “[Rimbaud’s] search for love and the pursuit of suffering, of ‘poisons,’ even madness — might well describe the young John Wieners.” Wieners himself encourages this connection in his “Address of the Watchman to the Night,” written in 1963 for the Poetics of the New American Poetry. Here, in what could almost be called a paraphrase of Rimbaud, Wieners writes of his young desire, “[t]o explore those dark eternals of the nightworld: the prostitute, the dope addict, thief and pervert. These were the imagined heroes of my world: and the orders of my life. What they stood for, how they lived, what they did in the daytime were the fancies of my imagination. And I had to become every one of them until I knew” (351). Compare this quest with Rimbaud’s famous dictum: “The poet makes himself a seer by a long, gigantic and rational derangement of all the senses. All forms of love, suffering, and madness. He searches himself. He exhausts all poisons in himself and keeps only their quintessences. . . . he becomes . . . the great patient, the great criminal, the one accursed” (377).
Striking though the parallels between these two poets’ self-exploratory poetic projects are however, Wieners’s masochistic, if experimental, dive into the “nightworld” of his own urban hells, followed by his Catholic drama of regret and redemption, actually has less in common with the bravado and social defiance of the enfant terrible than it does with Rimbaud’s slavish and abused lover, Paul Verlaine. The resemblance between Verlaine and Wieners is striking: both were troubled yet devoted Catholics, both were exquisite lyric poets who kept company with innovators, both loved men — often disastrously — and finally, both lived out their later years in relative poverty and abjection, and yet never gave up writing. In addition, there is a curiously inverted yet powerful device of subjectivity these two writers share: the creation of selfhood through deprivation. In the case of Verlaine, I’ll come at the problem askew: through Rimbaud’s formulation of him as the self-loathing “foolish virgin” in the Delirium I section of a Season in Hell. Rimbaud’s foolish virgin is a wretched subject, terrified of the beloved’s inaccessibility and threat of potential withdrawal, and yet her entire complex subjectivity — her lyric voice — is built from these negative conditions. Abused, repeatedly rejected, and at the mercy of her beloved, the virgin’s position is echoed some hundred years later by the narrator of Wieners’s poem “Feminine Soliloquy” (159). Deprived and hollowed-out by their lovers, both “female” voices fill that void with a rich account of selfhood articulated through the lyric poem.
My casting of the poet Paul Verlaine as Rimbaud’s “foolish virgin” no doubt requires a note of explanation. Given what is known about the real-life relationship between Rimbaud and Verlaine, Delirium I can read like straightforward biography. But to what end? And do we necessarily need a biographical analog? It may be more fruitful to think of the foolish virgin as an analog for Verlaine the poet, rather than Verlaine the man. While Verlaine was exquisitely refining the boundaries of the lyric, Rimbaud was trying to explode them. In this formulation, the “virgin” becomes the lyric poem itself, an abject subject in the face of its emerging modernist lover.
Another source of Rimbaud’s virgin links back to Verlaine the poet as well. In the parable of the five “foolish virgins” (Matt. 25: 1-13), the virgins are “foolish” because they are unprepared. They have no oil to light their lamps when the bridegroom appears, and thus are shut out of the “marriage banquet” (the kingdom of heaven). The quality of being “unprepared” beautifully describes the virgin’s delirium when in the company of her bridegroom, as well as Verlaine’s experience — both personally and poetically — when Rimbaud comes crashing into his life. I should note that some critics, attempting to explain the two voices of Delirium I, reject the dominant view that Verlaine is the model for the virgin, and instead argue for a different, and yet still biographical reading: the virgin, in this view, is the young provincial Rimbaud, the bridegroom the jaded urban poet arguing with his past (see Ruff 171-176). In this reading the drama becomes one of interiority at odds with itself. What this interpretation fails to explain, however, is why Rimbaud — who never has any problem inhabiting other historical and social subject positions — would suddenly split into a neat psychological dichotomy. Not to mention that lines such as “How many night hours have I stayed awake beside his dear sleeping body” (281) become ridiculous if we accept this “two-Rimbaud” theory of Delirium I. It makes more sense that the chameleon would be recording the effects of his behavior on the stability of the other. Verlaine, as both Rimbaud’s lover and as the old-fashioned lyric poet, is dragged along behind his “bridegroom” both literally and poetically. The virgin, like the narrator in Wieners’s “Feminine Soliloquy,” is subjectively in drag: a male writer dressed in a woman’s voice and subjectivity.
The Rimbaldian self as outlined in the lettre du voyant — opportunistically seeking derangement of the senses while tearing down tradition — is in stark contrast to the abject and dependent self of his foolish virgin. But what of their bodies? Using the categories articulated in Marcel Henaff’s fascinating study of Sade, they could be seen to correspond, respectively, to the “libertine body” and the “lyric body.” “Saturation is to the libertine body what depth is to the lyric body,” Henaff writes, meaning that, for the libertine body, the number of orifices to penetrate is what counts, while for the lyric body (always the victim in Sade), it is depth and mystery that counts (37). The libertine body “dispenses with the whole system of hermeneutical narrative” with which the lyric body writes its interiority (45). The libertine body, while able to penetrate others for pleasure, is itself a flat surface of disingenuous signs that repels the penetrating desire of the lyric body. Its only desire is that the lyric body stand mute, reduced to mere orifice, a machine for pleasure without depth. Rimbaud’s explicitly articulated desire to penetrate and become multiple selves can, on the one hand, be equated with a liberationist political project (here I’m thinking of lines like “to each being it seemed to me that several other lives were due” ) while on the other hand, it is analogous to the libertine’s desire, arguably colonialist, to penetrate multiple bodies, using the other merely as a means to fulfill his experiment of self.
The lyric body, by contrast, finds its “multiplicity” not in the multiplication of sexual encounters, but in the intense penetration of the complex interior of a single subject. The lyric body is a body whose outward signs are evidence of inward life: it is a body with a soul, a body whose “quivering lip” is not a social ruse, but a genuine sign of interior feeling. In the lyric body the mental and the physical are intimately connected, making penetration — of both mind and body — profoundly meaningful. The lyric body longs for what I would call “inter-penetration,” believing as it does that selfhood lies beneath the surface and depends in no small measure on the other’s recognition of it to exist.
In Delirium I, the Verlainean foolish virgin mistakes her infernal bridegroom’s libertine body for a lyric body, and as such trusts it and longs to penetrate its depths — a longing the fulfillment of which he categorically denies her: “Twenty times he gave me that lover’s promise. It was as pointless as when I said to him: ‘I understand you” (283). Here the bridegroom’s numerically saturating, and therefore libertine gesture of “twenty times,” all “pointless,” deny the virgin’s desire for depth, articulated in the failed project of “understanding.” The virgin’s desire to interpret her bridegroom’s strange behavior is a lyric desire that turns her into his victim. As Henaff explains: “To interpret . . . is already to be a victim. Not only does it mean proving that one does not know and is out of the game, it also necessarily means misreading the signs, misperceiving their function as decoys, being unaware that they are, theoretically, conventional and hypocritical. They exist only to be ignored; they are empty” (46). In other words, the libertine body understands the empty and random nature of signs, while the lyric body still clings to an almost mystical belief in their power to lead to a deeper knowledge. In this division we might well see the fissure between the dying Romantic gambit and the emerging modernist paradigm. It would also explain why Wieners, writing lyric poems in the post-modern era, is received as a throwback, and primarily understood through rubrics of social and mental ill health.
In a Season in Hell, Delirium I follows three other sections: the prologue, Bad Blood, and Night in Hell. These are solely concerned with the narrator’s story. The prologue sets the poem’s events in the past and provides a catalyst for the narrator’s quest: “One evening I pulled Beauty down on my knees. — I found her embittered and I cursed her” (265). This initial, and indeed, initiating, rejection causes the narrator to “expel from my mind all human hope”(265); in other words, to give up depth in favor of breadth, to turn from a lyric body to a libertine body. The denial of tenderness sets in motion a Cain-like story of being cursed, complete with a litany of barbaric ancestors. Throughout “Bad Blood” and “Night in Hell,” the narrator’s body seems to move back in time and across continents, his fluid self shuffling through a sequence of subjectivities — some of which have moments of self-regarding melodrama, “I am an outcast. I loathe my country” (269), yet never cohere into the maudlin tone Rimbaud ascribes to the foolish virgin. Near the finish of Night in Hell, the narrator announces, “I possess every talent! — There is no one here and there is someone,” (277) setting up the dilemma that the virgin will face: her bridegroom’s mercurial appearance, which promises great depth and yet will not yield to “understanding.”
The foolish virgin takes up the entirety of Delirium I, before the poem returns to its default narrator in Delirium II. Though the virgin is making a “confession” ostensibly addressed to God (the “heavenly bridegroom”), the fact that both the heavenly and infernal bridegrooms are silent interlocutors turns her pleas into a soliloquy. After begging to be heard, the virgin describes herself variously as “the saddest of your servant girls,” a “slave,” “at the bottom of the world,” and a girl “burdened with the scorn of the most contemptible hearts” (279). She goes on to describe being seduced by the bridegroom’s “mysteriously delicate feelings” (281) betraying her belief in his body’s depth. Her Catholicism and her faith in the soul make her incapable of recognizing that the “delicate feelings” of the bridegroom are “mysterious” not because they shroud hidden depths, but rather because they are operating with a logic totally foreign to the virgin: the logic of the libertine — whose concealments (mysteries) are not evidence of depth, but rather a ruse to lure the other into surrendering his or her body. Looked at as a relationship between Romanticism and modernism, these libertine mysteries become empty signs whose surface tells the whole story, a ruse to expose papery artifice pretending poetic depth. The reader, like the virgin, falls for the poem’s obscurity, only to be repelled by its stubborn unwillingness to yield any comforting meaning. In the case of the virgin, her misreading of her lover leads her to forsake her values: “I forgot all my human duty to follow him.” She convinces herself that she alone has the key to her bridegroom’s mysteries, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding: “Sometimes when I was sad and angry, I said to him: ‘I understand you.’ He would shrug his shoulders” (283). Notice that it is the virgin’s anger and sadness, not the bridegroom’s, which lead her toward “understanding.” Longing for inter-penetration with the other, she mistakes her own depths, hollow and hungry, for comprehension of her lover.
Earlier in her soliloquy the virgin, equilibrium destroyed by desire, cries out: “What a life! Real life is absent. We are not in the world. I go where he goes. I have to. And often he flies into a rage at me, poor me” (281). Her bridegroom’s denial of her slavish devotion fills her with self-pity and leads her to doubt his humanity: “The Demon! He is a demon, you know. He is not a man” (281). By calling the infernal bridegroom’s unresponsiveness to her passion demonic, the virgin betrays her continuing belief in his depths, for a demon, unlike a libertine, belongs to a lyric economy of the body as a repository of the soul. The bridegroom responds to the virgin’s distress with scorn and rejection: “I do not like women: Love needs to be reinvented” (281). These famous words, often read as a celebration of male homosexual love, are directed to the virgin. Whatever her biographical connection to Verlaine the man, the virgin is a woman in Delirium I. The bridegroom’s statement “I do not like women” is, therefore, not a generic proclamation but a personal insult. While the pronouns and gender of the language attest to the virgin’s sex as female, in the Rimbaldian universe of the poem it is above all her position in relational to the bridegroom that genders her. Rimbaud’s abhorrence of, and sporadic sympathy for, the compromised position of women in society is well known. “When the endless servitude of woman is broken, when she lives for and by herself, man — heretofore abominable — having given her release, she too will be a poet!” (379). In this passage from the lettre du voyant, Rimbaud makes a no doubt unintentional equation between being “abominable” and being “free,” as if one person’s freedom always necessitates another’s servitude. Women will become poets when they are able to live “for and by” themselves like men — an abominable position. Something similar is echoed in Delirium I. He writes: “All [women] can want now is a secure position. When security is reached, their hearts and their beauty are set aside. Only cold scorn is left, the food of marriage today, Or I see women, with signs of happiness, whom I could have made close comrades, devoured first by brutes as sensitive as a log of wood . . . !” (281). Echoes of beauty’s bitterness in the opening scene of the poem are evident. But a contradiction remains: when women become secure, as men already are, they turn cold, they become abominable. The bridegroom’s litany of social wrongs in this context, however, are a means of rejecting the virgin’s pleas for reciprocal desire. The bridegroom feels both disgust and sympathy for the position of women. His ambivalence turns him into the “brute” who is as “sensitive as a log of wood.” Meanwhile the virgin’s misery and continued faith that her lover is possessed of a lyric body build both her complex selfhood and the poem.
A few paragraphs down she asks: “Does he have perhaps secrets for changing life? (281). The question, while underlining the bridegroom’s casual commitment to any one version of selfhood, is immediately followed by the virgin’s assertion of her own unique interiority: “No other soul would have enough strength — strength of despair — to endure it, to be protected and loved by him. Besides, I could not imagine him with another soul” (281-83). The more enigmatic and abusive the bridegroom’s behavior becomes, and the more he deprives the virgin, the stronger her interiority grows. The bridegroom, by distancing himself from her disgustingly compromised position, not only denies the existence of the lyric body, but plants the seed for his (the narrator’s and Rimbaud’s) necessary abandonment of poetry. He is but an empty vehicle: “I was in his soul as in a palace that had been emptied. . . .” (283). At this juncture the virgin, overconfident perhaps, makes her untenable claim: “I understand you” (283). The bridegroom responds with a shrug of the shoulders, as if to say, in our contemporary idiom, “whatever.”
The two are acting out incompatible dramas, and their love, such as it is, is doomed. The virgin continues her confession. She wallows in self-pity and rehearses her original hopes for their love: “I saw us as two good children free to walk about in the Paradise of sorrow” (283). The bridegroom caresses her and then promises he will one day leave, a future the virgin cannot fathom: “Immediately with him gone, I saw myself overcome with dizziness and hurled down into the most horrible darkness of death. I made him promise that he would not abandon me. Twenty times he gave me that lover’s promise. It was as pointless as when I said to him: ‘I understand you’” (283). Paradoxically, in her dystopic vision of abandonment the virgin attains the depths her relationship with the bridegroom has denied her. She is “hurled down” into a precipice, drowning in hell fires the warmth of which might well be a welcome embrace following the “shrugged shoulders” of her cold lover. And, for all of his impenetrability, she yet has managed by the end of her soliloquy to compellingly describe both his behavior and the complexities of her own interiority. Near the end of the Delirium I the full extent of his sadism, and the incompatibility of the lyric and libertine body, emerges: “He attacks me and spends hours making me feel shame for everything that ever touched me, and he is shocked if I cry” (285). The “shock” (s’indigne) here speaks to the libertine’s refusal to accept the terms of the lyric body — depth, the soul, feelings. Under these conditions, crying becomes bathetic and absurd, a vestige of an emotion based in an ideology of the body that is no longer politically viable in a world of empty, meaningless signs and multiplex selves that are ripe for exploitation in the name of “art” and “exploration.” Verlaine’s own “Falling tears” can be heard beneath the virgin’s frustration: “By far the worst pain / Is not to understand / Why without love or hate / My heart’s full of pain” (71). The lack of “love or hate,” typically thought to refer to the poet’s heart, is a perfect description of the cold response of the libertine body to that heart, which, baffled in the face of an emotionless world, has nothing to do but recoil in pain.
Out of the other’s silence the lyric utterance develops, writing a complex interiority back into its abject author. The narrator of Wieners’s “Feminine Soliloquy” finds herself in a similar position. Like the foolish virgin, she is a singular lyric body adrift amongst libertines, a lyric body which, seeking depth in the other and finding only abuse, finally ends by using deprivation to create its own depth. Also like the foolish virgin, the narrator of “Feminine Soliloquy” is subjectively in drag: a male writer dressed in a woman’s voice. The poem begins by drawing a connection between dreams and sanity: “If my dreams were lost in time / as books and clothes, / my mind also went down the line / and infused with other longing // of a desperate sort, a sexual kind / of nightmare developed . . .” (159). In this retrospectively told tale, the loss of dreams/mind sends the narrator looking for her identity in desire for the other: “Who did not know / it, until I informed him by letter // And said nothing.” Unlike Delirium I, this poem is a true soliloquy, one shut off from even a faint echo of the other’s response. The narrator claims that her letter “said nothing,” yet the syntax here is ambiguous, and the “nothing” could as well refer to the lover’s silence in response to the letter, a silence in which the narrator begins to peel away her illusions and form her lyric self. She continues, “As delusions lift off / I see I paid an ultimate price / and left in loneliness, nervous shaking / wracks day and night with residue” (159). Again, dreams lost, mind lost, and now “delusions lift off.” There is no way to tell if this is a narrative of losing one’s self or of finding it, insofar as coming out of delusion and into reality is often the way narratives of self-discovery are framed. At this point in the poem the narrator moves from the melodramatic outline of the love affair to a controlled and sober reiteration of its failure: “It’s impossible to make clear. / I wanted something, someone / I could not have, until I began / to sound like him, imitate him // as his shy insistence from a distance” (159). As with the foolish virgin, rejection here works to strengthen desire, especially the desire to unlock the riddle of the lover by delving into a deeper attempt at “understanding” him, here through imitation. The next line, however, shows this ostensibly self-effacing desire to be deeply rooted in narcissism: “A Venice where floods of onanism took hold. / This self-indulgence has not left me. / Normal relations seem mild” (159). The mind-boggling excess brought forth by the image of canals of semen, a city’s worth, as well as the nod to Death in Venice — a classic of unrequited, foolish love — beautifully carries the reader into the narrator’s crucial turn away from the libertine body’s rejection and into the complexities of the her own lyric body. This latter, now wholly turned inward in a soporific attempt to regain the lost dreams from the first stanza, acknowledges its own dependence on deprivation: “I am drowsy and half-awake to the world . . . I see it as growing old / if only the price paid were not so great, // And what I wanted wanted me. / But it cannot be. / I wished these things since I was twelve / and the more impossible, or resistant // to the need, the deeper hold they had on me” (159). By placing the origin of this pattern of desiring what is “resistant” and “impossible” at age twelve — typically the year when girls start menstruating — the narrator strengthens the connection between love and loss, and colors it as particular to female experience. In fact, the concept of loss is key to the female body’s wholeness: the loss of blood and the loss of virginity are initiating rites that aid in the formation of the adult female self.
By the end of “Feminine Soliloquy” the poem itself has become the other, fulfilling, through its dramatic narcissism, the narrator’s desire for co-penetration denied to her by her lover. There is no claim of being freed from desire, however. “The deeper hold they had on me” is similar to the virgin’s near final words, “I am a slave to him. — Oh! I am mad!” (285). Both female voices acknowledge their continuing dependence on the other, as well as the seemingly pathological effects of it. Their psychological insights into their own patterns of desire challenge the notion that these “lyric positions” are ignorant of the artifice of signification. Their almost nostalgic reenactment of these failed love affairs attests not only to their continued faith in the possibility of both the lyric body and the lyric itself, but also to an insight into the power of the socially-negated self to live in the space of the poem. This insight is decidedly un-Sadean. In his narratives the dream of the other as lyric body, articulated over and over again by the victims (for example, through Justine’s ever renewed ability to trust every person she meets with the story of her woes, only to be subsequently denied her depth and turned into an orifice, a machine for pleasure) never results in the creation of a lyrically complex self: rather, this dream is the deceptive ideology that allows others to turn you into a thing. Henaff articulates it thus: “we recognize the victim first of all as one who takes the decoy of social conventions for the language of truth, playing at hermeneutics and reading into bodies the signs of the soul and its values, whereas in fact there are only concealments of the body and its logic” (46). By using their lovers’ refusals to be “understood” as a means of rebuilding their own selfhood, both the Verlainean virgin and Wieners’s narrator cause the lyric body to resignify as a space of resistance to the libertine’s cold numerical logic. The virgin’s ever renewed yet scorned tears and the Venice of semen produced by Wieners’s narrator are outward signs of the lyric body’s depth. The “onanism” these fluids attest to — arguably both physical and emotional — is the remainder produced by the libertine body’s rejection of inter-penetration, a remainder that works as a form of metaphorical resistance to the libertine’s desire to silence the lyric body and turn it into a thing. The “selfhood” in these works, while perhaps not enviable or socially recognized, does attest to a truly radical form of independence: a “for and by oneself” — to use Rimbaud’s phrasing — that is not defined in either economic or political terms, and thus is neither transient nor toxic to others.
Allen, Donald, and Warren Tallman. The Poetics of the New American Poetry. New York: Grove Press, Inc. 1973
Henaff, Marcel. Sade. Trans. Xavier Callahan. U of Minnesota P. 1999.
Petro, Pamela. “The Hipster of Joy Street.” Jacket 21.
Rimbaud, Arthur. Complete Works. Trans. Wallace Fowlie. Rev. Seth Whidden. U of Chicago P. 2005.
Rimbaud, Arthur. Collected Poems. Introduced and Edited by Oliver Bernard. London: Penguin Books, 1962, 1997 (revised edition).
Ruff, Marcel A. Connaissaince des lettres. Paris: Hatier 1968.
Verlaine, Paul. Selected Poems. Trans. Martin Sorrell. Oxford UP. 1999.
Wieners, John. Selected Poems. Ed. Raymond Foye. Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press 1986.
 Rimbaud wrote two similar letters in May 1871, one on 13 May to Georges Izambard, and a much longer letter two days later to Paul Demeny. In each letter he sets out his theory of the poet as a man transformed into a visionary seer, embodied in the phrases ‘I is another [JE est un autre]’, ‘So much the worse for the wood if it find itself a violin...’, ‘...I have discovered I am a poet. It is not my fault at all,’ and ‘If brass wakes up a trumpet, it is not its own fault.’
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