I hadn't read it in many years. Last night I pulled it off the shelf and started flipping through, reading other scattered poems. Once I made it in a few pages, I couldn't stop. "Once, if my memory serves me well..." Phrases came back to me, passages arrived at mind in advance of the page. I marvel at such a thing. How could an 18 year old boy write such a work of genius. I could barely read it at that age. After 19, he never wrote another poem. The self-published book stayed unknown in a cellar for 28 years, during his years in Africa, and then his return to France, the mistaken amputation of a leg, and then death at 37.
"Pray for him" reads his grave.
I recognized a few new thieves roaming the pages last night. Patti Smith. Some of the more clumsy burglars have been easy to spot there for years: Jim Morrison. It's mildly troubling, now. To have such a great book of poetry remind me of the mediocre music that brought me to it, rather than the other way; the lies I would later tell.
Rock poets. I used to believe in such phrases, am sometimes ashamed that part of me still does.
The book surprised me last night. I thought that I might have outgrown it, or something even worse. But how does one outgrow a confessor's manual. It's all that I now do. You can leave the years of mystical visions but rarely do you escape the memory of having had them. It is not just the posture of revolt, nor the pretense of the "rebel," but the transformation of stated uncertainty into total uncertainty, an embracing of the complete unknown, while somehow also accomplishing its exact opposite. He allowed prose to speak as only poetry had before.
The work invites many readings, mine barely qualifies. I am painfully reminded of what a thief I have also always been. What I saw in it as a young man is no longer there for me, but my many imitations are sorely recalled. It's not that I can now see where and how I misunderstood the book. It is that the old understanding is barely visible to me; a ghost reciting a forgotten prayer, like the faint memory of a youthful religious conversion. Almost all that I can perceive are the parts that I vainly tried to steal - they jump out at me - leaving many of the best passages behind, hoping perhaps that no one would notice. It's as if I was flipping through old yellowed pages, found in an attic box, transcribed poorly by the dumbest of angels, the scribbled words of my childhood prayers, lifted.