Rimbaud’s Last Stand

One shipment: a single tusk
One shipment: two tusks
One shipment: three tusks
One shipment: four tusks
One shipment: two tusks
– Rimbaud’s last poem, as dictated to his sister

I. In Marseilles
Harar was hell, my last season
Before packing off for Marseilles
And the dark shadow of Mama,
Never to see the Ivory Coast . . .
Which was my dream, my poetics,
My languishing and (Eh!) my paradise.

II. In Ethiopia
And if I’d never resorted
To carving my bowl from wood?
And if I never came here, never
Returned to hovel-living,
To black, primitive souls, trading
My garret-fevers for jungle-rot?

Dining my soul on pineapple,
I’d hobble down to the seashore,
Seeing why it takes the poets
To name a place: My Cote d’Ivoire,
Bone-white strips of blinding-hot sand,
My universe might have coalesced to coral.

Instead, I overfeed my body
On dry cakes and putrid water.
I crisscross the Red Sea, Harar
To Aden and back, hectic for
One more deal, something to show besides
A bullet-wound’s rose bloom and dirty poems.

The jungle’s eyes narrow; its edge
Touches my hut. It knows regret
Is useless. But how do I keep
The powder dry? Why ask anything?
The jungle dims its eyes, hard-edged
In day’s wilting heat; it asks no questions.

When the monsoons return, someone
Will come to replace me, someone
Else will come to sell these guns, lock,
Stock and barrel, to King Menelik
And his indiscriminate wars
Waged for a bunch of rotten bananas.

Caveat mercator is the key:
Otherwise, Menelik et al
Calmly amputate body from
Soul; then, carry out the head in
Its own wooden bowl. Then, maybe,
Report the agent’s death in cloying words.

Crates of tusk and hairy leather
Wait for cheap caravans to gore
Me of francs. “When you do business,”
I wrote mama, “in these hellish
Places, you never get out. . . in fact,
You go deeper – ever think of selling slaves?”

I myself have sent several letters
To my managers. Not a word
In reply. But I will continue
To send mail, artless vitriol
That it is, to keep my wits sharp
And ward off attacks of memory.

Yes, my customers grow tired, bored.
My ledger bleeds unpaid debts.
I lost my last shipment, thirty
Crates of carbines, in a typhoon.
But between tempers and tempests,
I must believe replacements coming.

III. In Aden
The Red Sea’s a clean line of horizon;
No ship’s smokestacks to smudge the strict
Emptiness. In palm shade, I make
My stand, reclined as a naked girl
Spoons meat from imported coconut,
Scraped clean down to the same emptiness.

IV. Back in Ethiopia
I, the first, am also the last.
Poor Verlaine, more child than I, gone
From myself – poor shot that he was.
– But a better fate than oblivion
In a pile of unopened mail
– Damn the Home Office for making me wait!

I imagine already I am
Become a mere fiction, full of ink,
A terrible infant who did not
Fulfill his promises, one by one
Disappointing investors and
Giving my critics due satisfaction.

A terrible amusement for
The Republic, I was the savoir fare
France was looking for. These Goddamned
Heathen, though, love a good story
To tell. No doubt, like all critics,
They will resort me with my own words.

V. Back in Marseilles
I have run guns through Africa,
But no more. I have attempted
Trade in ivory, gold, but no more.
Instead, I will just sit here, stumped
From the groin, smoking my pipe,
Loitering, still jealous of the stars in heaven.
– 2002


  1. Matthew Lickona says

    This is my cup of tea. Love the last poem.

  2. It sounds like a pastiche, if that’s the right word.

    • Sort of. I gleaned from his last letters to his mother; and so I try to communicate a slightly different tone in each locale.

      Whether it succeeds or not is another question.

      But, hey, at least it got Lickona’s attention.


  3. Jonathan Potter says

    Good good shit. Thanks JOB.

  4. From you, makes good best.

    Thanks, dude.


  5. Nice. That would be the mother with the rigid Catholicism.

    I especially like:
    In palm shade, I make
    My stand, reclined as a naked girl
    Spoons meat from imported coconut,
    Scraped clean down to the same emptiness

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