For his fourth book, Nick Hayes has combined the poetic leanings of his debut – The Rime of the Modern Mariner, which sought to update Coleridge’s original work – with the biographical structure of his second book, Woody Guthrie and the Dust Bowl Ballads, to fashion a tale that is at once phantasmagorical and bewitching. The Drunken Sailor is subtitled, ‘The Life of the Poet Arthur Rimbaud in his own words’ – and what Hayes has sought to do is tell the story of Rimbaud’s short life using the words of Le Bateau Ivre, which Rimbaud wrote in 1871, when he was 17 or so.
It helps to know something of Rimbaud (arguably, you’ll get more from The Drunken Sailor, that way). We’d recommend reading the poetry if you haven’t – Illuminations, A Season in Hell and The (aforementioned) Drunken Boat. When you’ve got that under your belt, Graham Robb’s definitive Rimbaud is worth a read. At that point, you can consider yourself fully equipped. We’ll tell you why we think there’s value in this. If you were to just read the book, you’d get the sense of a precocious youth with a flame of hair who seems to excel in his studies who is then propelled (“the river let me go where I pleased”) towards the city from a rural existence, where (“Wilder than a child”), he takes up with an older man (“headlong into the raging lash of Winter’s tide”) and has a tumultuous affair. If you know un petit peu biographical detail, you’ll know that Rimbaud wrote to many poets as a younger man, but only one – Paul Verlaine – replied. With a one way train ticket to Paris. I mean, whooooo boy. That’s a detail, right?
You won’t get that from Hayes’ book – which isn’t intended as a criticism. The Drunken Sailor is an Impressionist hymn to Rimbaud. But Hayes’ song is greatly embellished with knowledge. It helps you see what he is doing. It helps you interrogate, take issue, nod, smile, laugh, shout, rage, disagree. You run the gamut when you read this book. So, for example, much of the affair between Rimbaud and Verlaine “swagger(s) with hullaballoo”, awash with “staining lewdness, deliriums and pacing rhythms”. “I know the night and dawn soaring… like a flock of doves,” he tells us – and we believe him. And yet, the climax of that affair (Verlaine famously shot Rimbaud – watch Agnieszka Holland’s 1995 film, Total Eclipse starring David Thewlis as Verlaine and Leonardo Di Caprio as Rimbaud if you want to catch up on the story fast) is dashed by. A couple of pages. Blink and you’ll miss it. Arguably it’s a big deal, but you wouldn’t altogether know if from Hayes’ book.
If you read The Drunken Sailor in this way, though, you potentially do it a grave disservice. Yes, there are facts – Rimbaud stopped writing at the age of 21, Rimbaud became a gun runner, Rimbaud died at the age of 37 from cancer – facts that are not stated explicitly in the book. It’s not a problem. In a sense, you know what you need to know. You can see he continues to pine after Verlaine. You can see he travels (“Glaciers, silver suns, pearlescent waves, and cindering skies”). There are fights, storms, shipwrecks, life in a desert. We see his trouble with his knee (he was misdiagnosed, lost a leg below the knee, cancer wasn’t caught in time). We even glimpse his thwarted attempt to return to Africa (“I have seen archipelagos of stars and islands whose delicious skies beckon the seadog”). But all of these facts go down on bended knee before the art, which is beautiful, evocative, the best of his career so far.
Any Cop?: If you’re a fan of Hayes you’ll want to make a beeline for this, as you will if you have an interest in Rimbaud. For the rest of you, the more you know about Hayes and the more you know about Rimbaud, the more you’ll get from The Drunken Sailor.