One of my most satisfying interludes with poetry involved “wrapping” an entire 65,000-square-foot building in a poem by Arthur Rimbaud. It was a collaborative project aimed at architecturally elevating the visibility of a nondescript urban campus building. That was the simple part of the design brief; the more challenging criteria were that the solution could not involve physical material amendments to the building, anything that would read as a pictorial mural, or exceed a modest budget of about $25,000. The reason for the first two restrictions had to do with the lengthy and nettlesome process of design review required by the City of Portland. The money thing was just, well, a real money thing.
The warehouse building was the main campus center for Pacific Northwest College of Art. It was very early in my time there as president. The College didn’t own the facility or any others and suffered from low profile even in its own neighborhood. How to make the invisible suddenly very visible? How to help passers-by—including potential students—experience the power of creativity and visual art? Our first step was to work with our communications person (Becca Biggs), enlist the service of an innovative architect and communication designer (Randy Higgins, then from The Felt Hat) and trust in the creative, iterative process the team proposed.
The last step was maybe most difficult for me as I was itching initially for quick and obvious solutions. Randy, on the other hand, took a playful and deeply liberal arts approach that had irresistible pull. Before long, he had us thinking in terms of cypher systems and paint schemes that would escape design review entanglement, engage the eye in all seasons and times of day, and intrigue the mind by allowing us to tell a story about telling our story. Randy’s solution was brilliant: a geometric-color system of encoding words that would start at the main entrance of the building and wrap around the four sides. Blocks of gray and more sparing touches of chartreuse would be laid over a base of tinted ivory (the existing color of the building was white, so this would save money on paint).
Finally, the big question was what did we want to say? As a word guy, this was a pretty exciting phase for me, especially when the team turned to me and said, “We think you should decide.” And so I did. I decided on a short poem by the 19th Century revolutionary rule-breaking French writer Arthur Rimbaud. “Departures” from Rimbaud’s collection, Illuminations, with its multi-sensory allusions and surging energy was a perfect fit, literally, in four brief stanzas.
Seen enough. The vision encountered itself in every air.
Had enough. Sounds of the cities in evening; in sunlight and always.
Known enough. The pauses of life. – O! Sounds and Visions.
Departure into new affection and noise.
The idea of wrapping a building in a coded paint job poem was a big hit. A paint company liked it enough to donate the paint. The painters thought it so cool that they significantly discounted their bid for the work. Art and architecture writers wrote reviews. Metropolis, a national design magazine, did a write up, and the building (and school) was featured in publications in Japan, Europe and in a book about Portland architecture. Visitors would come and ask to be shown the poem. We had copies of it available at the front desk and a decoding guide to reading the cypher.
Alas, the building was eventually sold, razed and reimagined as an attractive mixed-use retail-residential property. I would visit it from time to time during demolition, and one of my colleagues, Mary Pries, an art historian, took a selfie recording a taste memory of the poetized exterior. She had that printed on a plate, which she gave me as a going away present. It (the plate) lives for now in my Antioch office. I’m sure you can find lots of photographs on the internet.
Of course, with greater consequence Rimbaud lives on through his transformational poetry and bodacious creativity. “The Drunken Boat” is a frequently anthologized and longer example of his work, here translated by Rebecca Seiferle.
The Drunken Boat
As I drifted on a river I could not control,
No longer guided by the bargemen’s ropes.
They were captured by howling Indians
Who nailed them naked to coloured posts.
I cared no more for other boats or cargoes:
Flemish wheat or English cottons, all were gone
When my bargemen could no longer haul me
I forgot about everything and drifted on.
Amid the fury of the loudly chopping tides
Last winter, deaf as a child’s dark night,
Ah, how I raced! And the drifting Peninsulas
Have never known such conquering delight.
Lighter than cork, I revolved upon waves
That roll the dead forever in the deep,
Ten days, beyond the blinking eyes of land!
Lulled by storms, I drifted seaward from sleep.
Sweeter than apples to a child its pungent edge;
The wash of green water on my shell of pine.
Anchor and rudder went drifting away,
Washed in vomit and stained with blue wine.
Now I drift through the poem of the sea;
This gruel of stars mirrors the milky sky,
Devours green azures; ecstatic flotsam,
Drowned men, pale and thoughtful, sometimes drift by.
Staining the sudden blueness, the slow sounds,
Deliriums that streak the glowing sky,
Stronger than drink and the songs we sing,
It is boiling, bitter, red; it is love!
I know how lightening split the sky apart,
I know the surf and waterspouts and evening’s fall,
I’ve seen the dawn arisen like a flock of doves;
I’ve seen what men have only dreamed they saw!
I saw the sun with mystic horrors darken
And shimmer through a violet haze;
With a shiver of shutters the waves fell
Like actors in ancient, forgotten plays!
I dreamed of green nights and glittering snow,
Slow kisses rising in the eyes of the sea,
Unknown liquids flowing, the blue and yellow
Stirring of phosphorescent melody!
For months I watched the surge of the sea,
Hysterical herds attacking the reefs;
I never thought the bright feet of Mary
Could muzzle up the heavy-breathing waves!
I have jostled – you know? – unbelievable Floridas
And seen among the flowers the wild eyes
Of panthers in the skins of men! Rainbows
Birdling blind flocks beneath the horizons!
In stinking swamps I have seen great hulks:
A Leviathan that rotted in the reeds!
Water crumbling in the midst of calm
And distances that shatter into foam.
Glaciers, silver suns, waves of pearl, fiery skies,
Giant serpents stranded where lice consume
Them, falling in the depths of dark gulfs
From contorted trees, bathed in black perfume!
I wanted to show children these fishes shining
In the blue wave, the golden fish that sing –
A froth of flowers cradled my wandering
And delicate winds tossed me on their wings.
Sometimes, a martyr of poles and latitudes,
The sea rocked me softly in sighing air,
And brought me dark blooms with yellow stems –
I remained there like a woman on her knees.
Almost an island, I balanced on my boat’s sides
Rapacious blond-eyed birds, their dung, their screams.
I drifted on through fragile tangled lines
Drowned men, still staring up, sank down to sleep.
Now I, a little lost boat, in swirling debris,
Tossed by the storm into the birdless upper air
– All the Hansa Merchants and Monitors
Could not fish up my body drunk with the sea;
Free, smoking, touched the violet haze above,
I, who the lurid heavens breached like some rare wall
Which boasts – confection that the poets love –
Lichens of sunlight, and snots of bright blue sky;
Lost branch spinning in a herd of hippocamps,
Covered over with electric animals,
An everlasting July battering
The glittering sky and its fiery funnels;
Shaking at the sound of monsters roaring,
Rutting Behemoths in thick whirlpools,
Eternal weaver of unmoving blues,
I thought of Europe and its ancient walls!
I have seen archipelagos in the stars,
Feverish skies where I was free to roam!
Are these bottomless nights your exiled nests,
Swarm of golden birds, O Strength to come?
True, I’ve cried too much; I am heartsick at dawn.
The moon is bitter and the sun is sour…
Love burns me; I am swollen and slow.
Let my keel break! Oh, let me sink in the sea!
If I long for a shore in Europe,
It’s a small pond, dark, cold, remote,
The odour of evening, and a child full of sorrow
Who stoops to launch a crumpled paper boat.
Washed in your languor’s sea, I cannot trace
The wake of tankers foaming through the cold,
Nor assault the pride of pennants and flags,
Nor endure the slave ship’s stinking hold.
Charles Wright expresses the debt of contemporary poetry to Arthur Rimbaud movingly in an homage written during a visit to the family home of the French poet. Someday, if I have a city of buildings to wrap in poetry written to honor artists, I would choose this one for Rimbaud perhaps.
Homage to Arthur Rimbaud
Laying our eggs like moths In the cold cracks of your eyes, Brushing your hands with our dark wings –Desperate to attempt An entrance, to touch that light Which buoys you like a flame, That it may warm our own lives—, We cluster about your death As though it was reachable. For almost a hundred years We’ve gathered outside your legend (and been afraid Of what such brilliance affords; And knew the while you were risen, your flight Pneumatic and pure, invisible as a fever; And knew the flight was forever, Leaving us what we deserve: Syllables, flowers, black ice; The exit, the split cocoon . . .
About Lines of Thinking
Lines of Thinking is a monthly feature from College President Emeritus Tom Manley. Each installment features a poem selected for its powers to transport us to some higher, lower or common ground, and, possibly in the process, provide fresh perspective and insight on the ground we occupy daily.