Shipwrecks in Modern European Painting and Poetry: Radical Mobilisation of the Motif as Political Protest

By | 16 August 2019

Rimbaud’s Drunken Boat

With wild exuberance in his 1971 ‘Le bâteau ivre’/ ‘Drunken Boat’ and well before becoming a cynical trader himself (Starkie 1973; Duffy), the seventeen year-old Rimbaud, whom, with a knowing pun on sidereal, Mallarmé was to call ‘un passant considérable’ / ‘a considerable passer-by’ (Mallarmé 1897 b), mocks the cargo and dispenses with the crew to confer testimony upon his skipperless ship, whose porous skin is the incarnation of I [as] another – an exquisite sentient surface to receive the exhilarating messages of world:

I was indifferent to all crews,
The bearer of Flemish wheat or English cottons
When with my haulers this uproar stopped
The Rivers let me go where I wanted.
Into the furious lashing of the tides
More heedless than children's brains the other winter
I ran! And loosened Peninsulas
Have not undergone a more triumphant hubbub
The storm blessed my sea vigils
Lighter than a cork I danced on the waves
That are called eternal rollers of victims,
Ten nights, without missing the stupid eye of the lighthouses!
Sweeter than the flesh of hard apples is to children
The green water penetrated my hull of fir
And washed me of spots of blue wine
And vomit, scattering rudder and grappling-hook
And from then on I bathed in the Poem
Of the Sea, infused with stars and lactescent,
Devouring the azure verses; where, like a pale elated
Piece of flotsam, a pensive drowned figure sometimes sinks
Rimbaud 1871, trans. Wallace Fowlie

Without human control the boat is untethered visionary propensity, attained through the willed derangement of all the senses, exalted in the so-called Lettre du voyant to Rimbaud’s former teacher Izambard, promiscuously taking in the ‘blue wine’ along with the ‘vomit’. I is another: to become a visionary one must abdicate the position of the subject, that ‘pale elated / [p]iece of flotsam’.

Rich: Diving into the wreck

The boat unskippered and the naufrage of the self so celebrated by male poets, from Romanticism to Symbolism and the early intimations of Surrealism, is a luxury unafforded by those subaltern subjects who’ve been gagged and denied subjecthood for millennia and whose names have rarely appeared on any passenger list, nor in any book of myths. A century after Rimbaud’s ‘Drunken Boat’, Adrienne Rich’s Diving into the wreck takes the submerged wreck as emblematic of a whole disastrous culture, but something we must dive down into, to inspect with cool objectivity. The diver – she, he, they – beyond the violent binary pitting ‘him’ against ‘her’, come/s carrying ‘a knife /and camera /and book of myths’ to begin a long re-vision. The submerged loot, the ‘fouled compass’, the ‘water-eaten log’, the ‘open eyes’ of the corpses – the diver must revisit, recover, not as stories, but as they are, and take back on board, as it were, all of it, and imagine it differently back into being. For ‘we are the half-destroyed instruments’. Wide-eyed, aware of all the devastation of mythic treatments of the past, of all whose ‘names do not appear’, the diving into the wreck might perhaps teach us to re-vision (Rich 1995 [1972]) writing as a way of being with the world and to avert its total destruction.

This is the place.

And I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair

streams black, the merman in his armored body.

The strange doubling of ‘dark hair/streams black’ cannot be taken for redundancy with such a careful, musical poet: it’s an intensification, further magnified by the mimetic effect of retro-vision through the enjambment and the emphatic stress falling on ‘black’ before the caesura – it streams black backwards as it were – almost a riposte to the mermaid fantasised as the blonde effect of foam by Mallarmé. ‘This is the place’ where something indeed ‘has taken place’, an egregious crime on a massive scale. While Mallarmé’s Un coup de dés directs us finally to some ‘superior elevation’, the cool cosmic removal of high art, Rich equips us with the flippers and masks to inspect forensically the submarine site – as crime site. And I have to admit that in this imaginary, in the book of myth I carry with me, that I’m still caught up with the armored merman, whose right to such martial exoskeleton I’ve internalised – to my perdition.

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