When Rimbaud was a little boy, he used to sit at the kitchen table at home in Charleville. He would sit on his chair without moving, his elbows on the table, his chin in his hands, his eyes blank, and stare out of the window. His feet dangling. When he got older, he wrote some of the most disputed poems in world literature, was the lover of someone called Verlaine, was shot in the foot by Verlaine (who was also a poet and used his time in prison after the shooting incident to write some of his finest poems), and traveled to Africa, where he worked as a merchant and an arms dealer for several years. Some say that he worked as a ring master in a Stockholm circus. (Others say that he only sold tickets.) Some think he was a slave trader, but I don’t believe so. No evidence has been found. He also lived with an Abyssinian woman, but had no children. Nor did he write. He stopped doing that in 1873, after he had written one of the most disputed poems in world literature. He was only nineteen at the time. When anyone in Africa asked him about his writing, he replied disinterestedly: Oh, that. Then said nothing more.
• • •
After many years in Africa, where he traveled a lot, his body was so worn-out that he fell ill; one of his knees swelled up and was sore. There has been much speculation about what kind of pain it was, and what caused it; some people think it was caused by syphilis, others believe he fell off a horse while hunting with the Righas brothers. It has also been said that after he felt that first intense pain in his knee, he rode off furiously on horseback to distance himself from it, but the horse bolted and threw him off in such a way that he hit his sore knee on a tree.
• • •
Whatever the case, he wrote home to his mother and asked her to send him a long, warm sock that would reach over the knee. The long, warm sock arrived, but didn’t help. He had to go back to France. Twelve men carried him out of Africa and onto a ship.
• • •
The doctor in Marseille could do nothing but amputate. Rimbaud was given a pair of crutches and hoped to return to Africa. But first he wanted to get married. He wanted to marry a fine French girl from a good family; he simply did not understand that he himself, a broken and fevered amputee with very little money, would perhaps not be the first choice for a fine girl from a good family. She might want other things first.
• • •
Another dream that Rimbaud had before he died soon afterward, as a result of an infection in his amputated leg, or fever, or cancer, was that, once he was married, he would have a child, a son, who would become a renowned engineer, a rich man, who would work in the field of science, a man afraid of nothing, and who would get on in the world and do well in life.
Gunnhild Øyehaug is an award-winning Norwegian poet, essayist, and fiction writer. Her novel Wait, Blink was made into the acclaimed film Women in Oversized Men’s Shirts. She has also worked as a coeditor of the literary journal Vagant and Kraftsentrum. Øyehaug lives in Bergen, where she teaches creative writing.