Answering Back

Arthur Rimbaud
Answering Back

“For this anthology, Answering Back, I invited the best of our contemporary poets to select a poem, or poem in translation, from a poet from the past which they would like to answer in some way.”—Carol Ann Duffy, editor, Answering Back: Living poets reply to the poetry of the past (2007)

After reading this Carol Ann Duffy’s anthology, I picked a poem by Gregory Woods entitled “Rimbaud in Harar” from his book May I Say Nothing (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1998). And then I did the “Answering Back” exercise and came up with my poem entitled “Verlaine in Prison.” I looked at young Rimbaud from the point of view of Paul Verlaine—and how their relationship ended in violence. Below is Gregory Woods’ poem—and how I answered back. Not only to him—but to Rimbaud and Verlaine as well.

Rimbaud in Harar
—by Gregory Woods

I used to have the kind of body men
Would sell their souls for, and was heartened when

One did. A bourgeois poet gave me dosh
For licking me (I never used to wash)

And for the things I wrote. To tell the truth
I merely simulated the uncouth

But he was mesmerized. He loved my verse
My arse, my filthy turn of phrase and, worse

My bullet wound. Well now I’m out of harm’s
Way, writing nothing, sizzled, selling arms

Verlaine in Prison

I aimed the gun—at his groin
If I couldn’t have it—nobody would

Rimbaud saw it coming—protecting
Himself down there—with his hand

I was desperate—he was leaving me
My wife and mother—on the train

I closed my eyes—pulled the trigger
The bullet hit Arthur’s—pale palm

It missed his manhood—so young
And so virile—once all mine

They called the cops—I was jailed
I ended up in prison—he escaped

For years I sulked—on the Left Bank
Absinthe & whores—my only friends

Still thinking every day—about him
My haughty teen voyant—in Harar

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