The writer not writing is a wholly guilty party, like someone who through anger or terrible neglect has killed off his own life's mate, counterpart, reason to live. Or the writer not writing is completely disengaged, a ghostly anarchist traversing Rimbaud's desert mountains and plateaus, a purveyor of mule team commerce seldom in reach of a human voice and never the accents of home, a gun-running, slave-trading mentor to wild boys, for the fire that consumes itself leaves more than ashes. A mesmerizing remnant haunts the barren sand and stone streets of Abyssinian Harar, an unrelenting centrifugal force that pulls into itself those drawn to conflagration, to total surrender, as though we might know—in an instant of silence—all Rimbaud made himself forget, all he denied when he turned his back on writing and lived beyond it, in exile. (“The Widow Speaks”)
I invented the color of the vowels!—A black, E white, I red, O blue, U green.—I regulated the form and the movement of every consonant, and with instinctive rhythms I prided myself on inventing a poetic language accessible some day to all the senses. I reserved all rights of translation. [...] I wrote silences, I wrote the night. I recorded the inexpressible. I fixed frenzies in their flight. (Rimbaud, 1961,51)
- 3 Except when specified otherwise, all translations of Rimbaud’s works into English are borrowed fro (...)
6“Fixing frenzies”3 is also what Phillips set out to do right from the beginning of her career, as she was still seeking out new narrative and poetic forms before she could originate a suitable style and voice. The inherent tension between motion and stasis to be found in this expression is one that runs through all of her work: how can the poet “fix” on paper something that is by essence uncontrollable and unstable? How can he / she bring time to a stop—if only momentarily so as to give shape and direction to poignant feelings of loss and suffering? Like Rimbaud’s, Phillips’s fictional world is one of perpetually shifting forms, a world that takes shape in the very process of breaking apart.
- 4 For instances of spirals, see 204, 256, 267 and 276. For variations on the chiasmus, see 235 and 2 (...)
7This dazzling, shimmering mindscape is presented by both writers by means of identical images, that is variations on circular, often concentric patterns. In Rimbaud’s “Mystic,” “angels whirl their woollen robes in pastures of emerald and steel” while “the band above the picture is composed of the revolving and rushing hum of seashells and of human nights” (Rimbaud, 1957, 79). Likewise, in Shelter, “sounds seemed to fall straight down [...]. There were screams. [...] But the refracted sounds seemed to circle, approach from all angles” (225). The whole novel is characterized by the recurrence of such imagery: people “spinning through space” (33), thoughts that “seem to roil and turn like black scarves in the black around her” (281), ears that are “delicately whorled as a shell [and] became a receptacle for secrets” (72), “letters with all their black jumping shapes [that] turned around this way and that” (83), “black spots that revolved like dividing cells” (94) and all manner of spirals and chiasmus4 that stylistically seek to reflect the eddying, whirling motion of such vertigoes. Such examples suggest that language in all its forms (be they as primitive as a scream, inchoate as thoughts or formal as written words) most often lies at the heart of such a process. It clearly becomes a prey to fragmentation in a world of chaos and turbulence that leaves individuals at a loss. The whole world itself becomes a shell whose long-held secrets fail to come out into the open—a shell threatening to implode under the pressure of words loaded with guilt and sinful thoughts, as will be shown in our analysis of Shelter. It also gives the reader a sense of the war’s ongoing implications—be it the Second World War which inspires Lenny’s father with a number of stories, the Korean War that wrecked Carmody’s mental sanity, the Cold War that serves as a backdrop for the novel, or the impending Vietnam War in which Buddy will probably fight, despite his mother’s determination not to make a soldier of him. Rimbaud’s fascination with vocalic sounds (free of the pressure of consonants that will inevitably lead to word formation and thus fixity of meaning) can be put down to a desire to go back to the earliest origins of language, when the authority of the Logos had not yet left its stamp on it.
- 5 “After the Deluge” opens with this disturbing image: “[a]ussitôt que l’idée du Déluge se fût rassi (...)
- 6 See Phillips’s essay “Outlaw Heart.”
- 7 See Durrans’s article on “Fast Lanes” in which this aspect is developed using French critic George (...)
8What is at stake for both writers is the vital need to devise a new poetic language in which the concrete and the abstract both come into play as interchangeable facets of one single reality. In the same way as Rimbaud envisages a world in which an idea can actually sit down,5 Phillips sees “the truth [stretching] round [Buddy] vast and circular as a dead world” (236) and the “darkness in the shack [swelling] a little around Preacher’s words, [rippling], [shivering] like the skin of a horse” (14). She would probably concur with the French poet that “one must, I say, be a visionary, make oneself a visionary. The poet makes himself a visionary through a long, a prodigious and rational disorderingof all the senses. Every form of love, of suffering, of madness; he searches himself. He consumes all the poisons in him, keeping only their quintessences” (Rimbaud, 1957, 377). This is another of the contradictions with which Rimbaud had to grapple in his search for a new language. To the arduous task of “fixing frenzies” is added the wish to deregulate his private world of sensations through a self-conscious, self-imposed training that might involve the use of drugs or hallucinogens. The aim is to reach another level of perception and discover new ways of apprehending the world that challenge traditional logic. Normative language thus gives way to a new form of expression that hinges on the poet’s transgression of the most elemental linguistic codes. The poet consequently becomes, as Rimbaud puts it, “the great criminal, the great sickman, the accursed” (Rimbaud, 1957,377)—something which Phillips elaborates upon when she develops her vision of the writer as the member of a guild of outcasts and as an outlaw by nature.6 The visionary faculties that are called for by Rimbaud also lie at the heart of Phillips’s poetics as she repeatedly leads her characters to dismiss traditional modes of vision in order to perceive what lies beyond the visible, in a world of fluctuating shapes that holds the key to the characters’ deepest memories.7 This led both Rimbaud and Phillips to devise a representational order that appeals to all senses, regardless of any external logics—hence the importance of dreams, snatches or remnants of which occasionally return to the surface of diurnal consciousness.
9The experiments in genre which Phillips conducts within the formal framework of her first collection of stories corroborate such patterns of influence. Sweethearts is actually more like a collection of vignettes or prose poems than a collection of stories strictly speaking. This poetic dimension is further emphasized by the absence of page numbers in the original Truck Press edition, which makes it look like a long prose poem. French criticism often credits Rimbaud with bringing prose poetry to a state of near perfection—although the genre itself was made popular by Baudelaire’s Little Poems in Prose (1869). The state of continuing tension and adjustment between poetry and prose narrative that one finds in Sweethearts is one that is characteristic of Rimbaud’s poems, some of which have even been seen as embryos of novels (Sacchi, 2002, 164). In any case, this early text contains many specific elements which prefigure the tone and texture of later works such as Shelter. One finds in the title itself a possible allusion to Rimbaud’s “Mes petites amoureuses,” translated into English by Louise Varèse as “My Little Sweethearts.” Phillips’s predilection for one-word titles without an article (16 out of 25 in this collection) also recalls Rimbaud’s compact, unmediated titles in Illuminations. These vignettes offer revealing glimpses of her nascent artistic personality and some of them were later reprinted in Black Tickets, her first collection of stories in a commercial press. Together with her second novel, Shelter (1994), these two collections contain some of the texts in which Rimbaud’s influence can be most forcefully felt.
10Phillips’s early stylistic experimentations culminate indeed in the achievement of Shelter—her most Southern novel, resonating with echoes of Flannery O’Connor and Faulkner. While focusing on ten days spent in a summer camp in the Appalachian mountains by four young girls, the story of Shelter moves back and forth between the past and the present in order to bring back to the surface of the text their deepest fears, traumas and childhood dreams. It also charts their first direct confrontation with evil in the form of an ex-convict on parole called Carmody who is himself without knowing it under the constant surveillance of Parson, his old cellmate now bent on protecting the children from Carmody’s evil designs. Like A Season in Hell, Shelter can be read as a treatise upon the fall of man combined with desperate attempts to retrieve the lost Golden Age of innocence,8 even as the story climaxes with the murder of Carmody at the hands of the children.
11While Phillips takes up the image of the wandering convict which arouses Rimbaud’s fascination in “Bad Blood” she actually endows Buddy (a little boy who becomes easy prey for Carmody) with some of the characteristics attributed to Rimbaud’s tormented speaker, starting from a troubled relationship with God and religion. The last chapter of the novel, entitled “Buddy Carmody: His Kingdom,” resonates with echoes from “Bad Blood” (fifth section) when Buddy tries to cover the entrance of the cave where the children have buried Carmody’s body and suddenly “stands up and begins to dance, slower at first and then faster, jumping like a banshee, turning and whirling, yelling out loud” (298). Torn between the awareness of his doom and hopes of redemption, Rimbaud’s speaker similarly declares: “I enter the true kingdom of the children of Ham. / Do I know nature yet? Do I know myself?—No more words. I bury the dead in my belly. Shouts, drums, dance, dance, dance, dance! [...] Hunger, thirst, shouts, dance, dance, dance, dance!” (Rimbaud, 1961, 19). That the little boy carries the germs of damnation in himself is also suggested by the systematic association of his name with Carmody’s (in whose name one also finds an echo of the “accursed,” from the French word maudit) in the chapter titles whereas the other children used as focalizers only have first names. Although the subject of Shelter would more likely suggest affinities with Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell, it actually follows more closely the pattern of Illuminations, if only by virtue of the 43 pieces that compose it (one epilogue and 42 chapters).
12Rimbaud’s Illuminations opens with the poem “After the Deluge” in which can be found a number of images that will be further developed by Phillips. The deluge itself is used by Phillips as an ominous sign in the opening pages when she compares the camps to “the dwellings of nomads in flight from floods” (6). Buddy’s reference to “[n]ext spring [when] the river would be thunder and kill their voices and suck the heavy pipes into itself” (108) echoes Rimbaud’s invocation to the waters of the pond to “rise and launch the Floods again” in the penultimate stanza. Like the poem, the novel unfolds between these two framing images of recent or impending disasters while “children in mourning” stand out as a pivotal image in both texts (“She saw that there was no world but this world now, full blown and dense with shifting air; they were born into it, mourning,” 260). Other points of convergence include recurrent motifs like hares or rabbits, beavers, pelting rain, bridges, the conjunction of blood and milk, and the description of a watchful, observing nature. As in the poem, the children in Shelter are constantly associated with pictures (115, 137, 156, 182, etc.). At one point Lenny even remembers the “color plate of an angel holding a rod that became a flowering branch” (214-215)—a significant detail insofar as “colored plates” is assumed to be the second title given by Rimbaud to his Illuminations. Above all, the cryptic reference to gemstone imagery which frames the poem finds its way into Shelter where it is refracted in a myriad of images (mainly diamonds, pearls, topaz or unspecified references to jewels). Carmody, once saved, “becomes [...] a treasure loved above all” (209)—a treasure that is “hiding” at the beginning and “buried” at the end, just like the “precious stones” in Rimbaud’s “After the Deluge.” This unexpected association suggests the transmutation that is at stake throughout the novel and that Parson seeks to bring to its completion (how to change evil into good, suffering into hope, or how to transform base metals into the gold of redemption).
- 9 See Sacchi, 62. The critic underlines how Rimbaud’s striking use of definite articles leads us to (...)
13Like “After the Deluge,” Shelter presents itself as a mosaic of variegated scenes that the reader has to put together again from one chapter to the next as he is given access to the perception of yet one more character. Phillips’s formal aesthetics is thus very similar to Rimbaud’s. The ghostly universe in which the characters are plunged is typical of the imaginary world of childhood in that it is both familiar and unknown—a sensation that is best conjured up by Rimbaud’s fragmentary visions of an overdetermined world in “After the Deluge.”9
14In the next poem (“Childhood”) Rimbaud once more evokes the woods as the heart of mystery and poetic ecstasy (Davies, 1975, 29) while inserting reminiscences of another, possibly happier world from the bygone days of childhood. This poem marks the demise of childhood in contemplating the advent of “the end of the world ahead” and of a “night without end” (Rimbaud, 1957,313, 315). “I am master of silence,” eventually claims the disenchanted speaker as bitterness, absurdity and depression get the better of him. As underlined by Paule Lapeyre, Rimbaud’s poetic quest results in a highly paradoxical situation with, on the one hand, the wish to discover the absolute language that could express what cannot be expressed, and on the other hand, some sort of nostalgic longing for a state anterior to words and language that is the state of infans (i.e., etymologically, the child who cannot speak yet) (Lapeyre, 1981, 337). Faced with this paradox, language takes up a form of expression situated halfway between articulated language and bodily expression verging on frenzy—shouting (Lapeyre, 1981, 338-339). Phillips’s search for an absolute language in Shelter follows a similar progression as she also emphasizes the impotence of words in a world where the children and their parents can only resort to shouts: “Alma, curved into cool, hard rock, could still hear the sounds Audrey had made, a kind of yelling, Oh, Ohhh, Oh, circular and endless” (188); Buddy’s ritualistic dancing and yelling mark the completion of his project in the last chapter (298), and on the last night at the camp it is significant that the girls organize a wild feast in which “words soon [give] way to high-pitched melodic howls. [...] Anyone who wasn’t doing a specific sound in time simply yelled or screamed, and Lenny stood on top of a table to conduct the various parts” (218-19). The liberating potential of such limited forms of expression is suggested when one reads that “Alma wanted to feel the anger rain down on her, wanted a series of screams that opened out until the earth shook, howls that would shatter glass and stone, cries that were empty like the wind is empty, a voiceless keening that would let Alma go, let her betray her mother” (129-30). Like Rimbaud’s persona in “Childhood,” the children eventually become “masters of silence” as they all pledge never to tell anyone about what happened deep in the dark woods when they faced evil and death. Paradoxically enough, though, this intense awareness of silence as the ultimate “shelter” goes hand in hand with the writer’s attempt to recover a form of language likely to express the sum of all sensations, experiences and feelings.
15Faced with the failure of normative, institutionalized language to convey the depth of a traumatic experience, the children have no choice but to take refuge in a world of silence that seals their ideal of brotherhood but provides no adequate outlet for much-needed expression. This is what leads Buddy to “fall into the white space between the letters” on the card Lenny sends him from her new home (295). The verb “fall,” however, sounds an ominous note while acquiring more Biblical connotations in such a postlapsarian universe. The world of silence in which the children are all trapped at the end does not seem to provide any hopeful resolution beyond cementing a spirit of community that transcends time and space, especially since the novel closes on the eve of Kennedy’s assassination and clearly foreshadows another era of violence and suffering for all.
16Silence is obviously not an option for the language-oriented writer seeking to destabilize the foundations of normative discourse. Like Rimbaud, Phillips had no choice but to “write silences, to write the night” and thus find a way to put down on paper the sum of all the traumas experienced by this generation of Americans. To do so, she needed to adopt an altogether different mode of expression likely to convey the depth of meaning contained in the “white space” of writing itself. Her debt to Rimbaud consequently finds expression in a particular set of representational strategies based on some of the poet’s most distinctive stylistic hallmarks and aimed at making the reader see things afresh through the defamiliarization of language.
17Synaesthesia (i.e. the simultaneous perception of altogether different sensory impressions) is probably Rimbaud’s most famous technique for attempting to recreate and “fix” images of vertigo. This technique is appropriated by Phillips with striking effects of confusion that further contribute to the “disordering of all the senses” that Rimbaud strove to achieve. Visual impressions, taste, smell, hearing and touch are blended in strange associations, as when Buddy “could feel the shapes of their calls and screams expanding in curves and bells all through the dark” (234). Elsewhere, “[he] could see the air whisper through the leaves, track its movement, like some form made of air was in the trees” (63). Smells are given colors (“a dark smell,” 89) or associated with incongruous elements (Alma’s “dream smelled of water,” 145). Lenny’s “listening with her skin” (37) perfectly encapsulates the need to do away with traditional modes of perception to apprehend the unknown world they are faced with.
18Oxymoron (or the incongruous association of two elements that are usually incompatible) allows both writers to take this process of deregulation one step further by neglecting the very principle of identity. Rimbaud’s fascination with fire and water (especially ice) finds its way into Shelter, a novel suffused with the scorching heat of summer but in which Phillips also frequently uses images of snow and ice: “the lake would have a silence around it that was clear, like ice, the air so cold it burned, no one could taste it” (92). Other examples include a “smoky vapour” (53), “wet smoke” (11) and “some frozen, smoking cube” (159). Light and dark also fuse together at times, as when the girl in Parson’s dreams “was only light, dark neon turning like an eel” (my emphasis, 152) or when Parson is a prey to “[o]nslaughts of light and dark, rising and falling through a rush of days and nights” (209). These two worlds eventually clash with the adjective “sun-dark” (137, 160), which powerfully synthesizes the inherent contradictions of such bewildering experiences and inevitably recalls the black sun (or sol niger) which, in the alchemical process, symbolizes the death and putrefaction of the metal prior to its resurrection in a new form (Abraham, 1998, 186). Once more, regeneration appears as the ultimate aim of linguistic deconstruction.
19One variation on the use of oxymoron can be found in the two writers’ tendency to join the earth and the sky in strikingly incongruous images. Phillips imagines “the whole sky sobbing potato juice” (Phillips, 1979, 29-30) while Rimbaud sees “A lacrymal tincture [that] washes / the cabbage-green skies” (Rimbaud, 2005,77). Beneath the slightly irreverent, comical references to potatoes or cabbages, there surfaces the same pivotal image of tears being shed. The use of nature to express hidden pain or suffering is also a recurrent feature of Shelter: “the night [is] bruised with moonlight” (54); “the stream [...] bled its sound” (87); the flowers on the water are “deep red, like wounds in the cold water” (94). The inadequacies of language to articulate trauma and help the children negotiate their way into a new world are thus laid bare. While the children eventually become aware of the failure of language to “translate” (278) their emotional wounds, the natural world appears to take over by gradually substituting human language with its own communication patterns: fish jump “like a comma” (241), Lenny listens to the sound of the leaves “as if there were words in their lissome rattle” (260), the call of the owl across the water is like “a question and exclamation” (263) and the logs Buddy uses to cover the entrance of the cave are inscribed with “a near language of little forms, circles, maps, and pictograms” (293).
- 10 These examples are borrowed from Paule Lapeyre (386) who provides one of the best discussions to d (...)
- 11 The indefinite article was not kept by either Fowlie or Varèse in their respective translations, h (...)
20Rimbaud’s idiosyncratic use of the article has also been much-discussed in academic circles. Most remarkable is his use of the indefinite article to determine such notions as the sky, the sea, the snow, the moon or the sun:10 “devant une neige” / “before a snow” (“Being Beauteous”); “comme un sable” / “like a sand” (“Sun and Flesh”).11 This stylistic feature finds a number of parallels in Shelter: “a water” (10), “a smoke” (230), “a black” (233), “a dark so soft” (233), “he erupts in fire like a hunger” (237), “a silence” (258). In the face of some overwhelming force threatening to engulf humanity (be it water, smoke, darkness, hunger or silence), conceptual frameworks become individualized and Phillips explores the possibility of unity within chaos by assigning singular identities to such potential enemies. Inversely, she also often does away with the definite article at the beginning of sentences in order to unsettle our frames of reference and plunge the reader straight into a world of confusion: “[a]ir smells of pine […] Old weight of the snake in his arms” (153). One also notes in the second half of this fragment her striking use of nominal sentences which also abound in Rimbaud’s poetry (Lapeyre, 1981, 396-397) and contribute to the creation of a world in which all action is suspended to the benefit of powerful visual impressions.
- 12 This cryptic dimension has been well documented and analyzed by Sarah Robertson (though from anoth (...)
21Both Rimbaud and Phillips favour equivocation, as shown by their common use of personal and possessive pronouns that do not refer to any clearly-identified object, and to a large extent this accounts for the enigmatic nature of Rimbaud’s Illuminations. Such ambiguities can be found in the prologue of Shelter where the pronoun “they” that seems to refer to the “bodies” lying in the tents suddenly gives way to “[a]nd they are scattered along Mud River walk [...] their occasional cries no louder than the sounds of the invisible birds” (3). Like Rimbaud, Phillips often closes a chapter on an elliptic reference, as in the end of “Buddy Carmody: Dark Parable”: “parting the white sheets” (277)—without any further explanation as to what those white sheets could be. There ensues a suspension of meaning that creates a halo of mystery and contributes to the deliberately cryptic dimension of her writing.12
- 13 See 393-395 in Lapeyre.
22Rimbaud is also well-known for his tendency to use certain intransitive verbs in a transitive construction,13 especially the verb “to dream” with the consequent effect of endowing the dreaming process with the power to act upon and instantly create its own object. Phillips uses the same technique with such significant verbs as “to swim” and “to float,” that is verbs that pertain to the imagery of water. This suggests a direct access to the world of water, as well as the ubiquitous presence of an element that forms part and parcel of the surrounding world, that is not a mere medium or interface but something integral to their identity: “[the girl was] swimming the darkened main corridor of the cell block” (152); “he saw [...] a gold dust swim the air” (230); “They […] floated the news through town” (280); the river is “floated with leaves that rush away” (291).
- 14 See for instance 8 (“At night the shack was darker even than the night beyond it [...]. He seemed (...)
23Even if such points of convergence cannot always be proven to result from direct patterns of influence, there is no doubt that words are used by both writers as part of some incantatory magic that is meant to liberate the dream potential they have inside them. This is best achieved in Phillips’s prose through the use of polyptoton.14 Transmuting the blackness of these words into the gold or silver of pure language is what both writers are trying to achieve: “the words are a dark crusted black that cracks. Black as wine or water” (Phillips, 1979, 250). In alchemical terms, the dissolution of matter is a necessary stage before the eventual regeneration and unification of body and spirit, or words and their soul. The gemstone imagery that a similar interest in alchemy led both Rimbaud and Phillips to explore inspires them with neologisms as a first step towards the dissolution of traditional forms: Rimbaud’s “amygdales gemmeuses” (“gem-like tonsils,” Rimbaud, 2005,117) are thus echoed by Phillips’s vision of a criminal “gem-stepping down the alley” (Phillips, 1979,253). The same impulse is definitely at work beneath the shimmering surface of their texts as their writing taps into the primal roots of dream, loss and desire to unravel the psychic traumas of a whole generation. In Shelter, Phillips invests the themes and images she borrows with even greater poetic intensity than in her early texts. She achieves a striking fusion of intellectual and sensual experience, demonstrating a sure command of her material through a number of images that press upon our consciousness with the same haunting power as Rimbaud’s poetry. There is no doubt Rimbaud would have seen in her one of those “horrible workers” who would take up the torch after his death:
[The poet] arrives at the unknown: and even if, half crazed, in the end, he loses the understanding of his visions, he has seen them! Let him be destroyed in his leap by those unnameable, unutterable and innumerable things: there will come other horrible workers; they will begin at the horizons where he has succumbed. (Rimbaud, 1957, 377)