Arthur Rimbaud: Poetry in a Time of Dislocation

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Arthur Rimbaud: Poetry in a Time of Dislocation

Editor’s note: This is the latest installment in the series “Poetry in a Time of Dislocation.” Fine art photographer Fern Nesson asserts that the place for art is critical during this time of pandemic, and she has immersed herself in the French poets, translating important works and sharing them as photo essays. This week, Fern features the famous poet Arthur Rimbaud, whose remarkable literary oeuvre was written before the age of 20.

(Check out previous installments here: 
Charles Baudelaire,
Guillaume Apollinaire, 

Paul Valéry
Christine de Pizan
Paul Verlaine, 
Alphonse de Lamartine
Anna de Noailles
Paul Éluard
Marceline Desbordes-Valmore
Stéphane Mallarmé
Louisa Seifert)

I have trouble with Arthur Rimbaud. A fabulous, over-the-top surrealist poet, he delighted in mixing images. In almost every poem, a beautiful image is joined with a revolting one. Just to read “Le Bateau Ivre”, his most famous poem, is to encounter deep blue oceans streaked with blood red, rainbows pointing to rotten carcasses of whales, silver stars illumining giant snakes eaten by vermin. You get the idea.

And then there’s Rimbaud’s vocabulary and syntax. Nothing is easy for the translator. There are enigmas everywhere and stumbles are inevitable.

Photo credit: Fern Nesson

But Rimbaud cannot be ignored. Some say he is France’s greatest poet. (John Ashberry, for example.) Some say his work is ” wildly overrated, flashy but not deep.” (Rob Woodard.) Flashy is apt, but overrated? No. Rimbaud was (and is) a force to reckoned with.

Despite the obstacles, I found a section from Rimbaud’s long prose poem “Illuminations,” that begged for notice and translation. I love it and I hope you do too!

Photo credit: Fern Nesson

“Phrases ” (1874)

Quand le monde sera réduit en un seul bois noir pour nos quatre yeux étonnés, – en une plage pour deux enfants fidèles, – en une maison musicale pour notre claire sympathie, – je vous trouverai.

Qu’il n’y ait ici-bas qu’un vieillard seul, calme et beau, entouré d’un “luxe inoui”, – et je suis à vos genoux.

Que j’aie réalisé tous vos souvenirs, – que je sois celle qui sait vous garrotter, – je vous étoufferai.

Quand nous sommes très forts, – qui recule ? très gais, qui tombe de ridicule ? Quand nous sommes très méchants, que ferait-on de nous.Parez-vous, dansez, riez,

– Je ne pourrai jamais envoyer l’Amour par la fenêtre.

Photo credit: Fern Nesson

Phrases (My Translation)

When the world is reduced to a single charred branch before our astonished eyes— to a beach for two young friends—to a music hall purely for our pleasure — then I shall find you.

When there is no one left except a single old man, serene and handsome, living amid unimaginable luxury, I will kneel before you

I will fulfill all of your fantasies — I will bind your hands— I will strangle you.

When we are very strong who can resist us? very gay, who can scorn us? When we are naughty, who harm us?

Dress up! Dance! Laugh! I will never toss love out the window.

Photo credit: Fern Nesson

Photo credit: Fern Nesson

Lead photo credit : Photo credit: Fern Nesson

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Based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Fern Nesson is a fine art photographer with an MFA in photography. She visits Paris regularly where she captures interior scenes. Her work is abstract, and brings fresh perspective to lovers of Paris, while also illuminating interesting museum exhibitions and cultural events taking place in the City of Light. She recently published a book compilation of the popular Bonjour Paris series "50 Things I Miss About Paris." Purchase this beautiful, photography-filled book on Amazon or contact Fern directly by email: fernlnesson [at] She's offering a special deal for Bonjour Paris readers: purchase the book at cost, a $25 discount.


  • Fern L. Nesson
    2020-09-13 09:08:45
    Fern L. Nesson
    You are most welcome, Beth! I have loved writing the series. F.