Sunday, March 05, 2006



Godlike by Richard Hell
(Akashic Books, 2005)

“In the future,” one reads early on in Godlike, “all poetry will be translation”—a line that, itself, sounds suspiciously like a translation or at least a quotation of or allusion to a text that already exists somewhere (though perhaps not in the work of Mallarmé, whom Hell’s narrator has just been discussing). Even this fact of having a narrator—something that in most writers’ hands is just a blandly self-evident fact of conventional technique—turns out to be something like a fact of translation: Narrator and author paraphrase or reinterpret each other between the lines. This “novel”—Richard Hell’s second, following Go Now, 1996, and the 2001 collection of prose pieces and poetry, Hot and Cold—is hardly written the way a novelist would write it. It is altogether a poet’s work.

What a poet’s novel needn’t be, thankfully, is “well-written.” Nothing here of that neurotic polishing of sentences into bland smoothness that characterizes most of what the publishing industry calls “literary fiction.” This prose, like poetry, moves at the speed of thought and just as awkwardly. Its jangly, nervous, unpredictable music, slipping abruptly between the first person of memoir and a storyteller’s more distanced third person, is thrillingly thin-skinned. Anyone who ever doubted that Hell could achieve with words along something as compelling as what he’s done with words and music together (Blank Generation, 1977; Destiny Street, 1982; Dim Stars, 1992; Time, 2002; Spurts, 2005) will have to think again.

To put it bluntly, Hell has translated the story—maybe it would be better to say, the legend—of Paul Verlaine’s affair with Arthur Rimbaud starting in 1871 into the idiom of scuzzy Manhattan in 1971. The 16-year-old provincial hothead—here called Randall Terence Wode, familiarly “T.”—who arrives in the big city knowing that “to give offense was his mission, his meaning” inevitably recalls the Richard Meyers, as he still called himself then, who turned up in New York at about the same age a few years earlier. But as much as the author of Godlike might have been tempted to see his younger self in the teenaged poet invading the metropolis, he gives the story’s telling (and the reader’s empathy) over to the older married poet, Paul Vaughan, the perplexed witness of this manipulative and unkempt meteor.

“I may be in the loony bin but I am not an unreliable narrator,” Paul insists. His seemingly self-contradictory statement is worth taking seriously. For one thing, the book doesn’t have enough plot to make any tricky narrative devices necessary. The book is compulsively readable but what moves it forward is the urgency of rumination on a series of encounters, most notably of course the fateful one between T. and Paul but not only that one: Figures emerge out of the background and then disappear, their advent being without particular narrative consequence yet of enigmatic spiritual significance. In fact, the question of whether a life-transforming encounter really has any upshot is one that lurks behind the entire book. That eventually T. will have to get bored with Paul, and Paul will shoot his young lover, is a result, not so much of Hell’s formal decision to echo the Rimbaud/Verlaine story, as of internal necessity the lovers have to short-circuit a self-contained dyad that can only keep leaking away emotion as it feeds only on itself. Boredom, in so many words, though articulated with such insistence as to feel deeply sexy.

Yet always there is the possibility that this monotony will flare up with some illumination. “Most of the time we are only a little alive, like a book in an obscure language,” T. tells Paul.” To love someone is to translate them and thereby kindle their life again for a while. Which must be why, as Paul declares, no longer couching his recognition as a prediction for the future but as a present fact, “All poetry is translation!” And Hell has practiced what Paul preaches. When T. tells his anomic friend Catherine that she looks like she’s been out in the sun, “you could almost be someone else, the way your face is like switched on so the…freckles are highlighted,” and she responds, “I am someone else,” the reader must know that Rimbaud’s famous words are being filtered through hers, and hers through his. Likewise, when Paul’s buddy Ted shows him a new poem he’s written, one instantly recognizes it as a transposition of Frank O’Hara’s “To the Harbormaster,” as if the fictional poet were unknowingly translating an American poem into another American poem. The whole novel is a tissue of citations, renderings, transpositions, versions. Every life is woven from bits of lives that were lived before. Does this make them less real, or does their reality consist just in this?


Barry Schwabsky is an American poet and art critic living in London. His most recent publication is the chapbook Tephra, from Black Square Editions.


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