The following is a draft excerpt from my novel in progress, Housebreaking the Muse. The novel is haunted by the character of Jacques Rigaut, the French dadaist, gigolo, drug addict, dandy, and suicide. In this fragment, Maxime Fraçois-Poncet begins to say his piece. Poncet was a boyhood friend of Rigaut, who believed he shared a complex bond with fellow poet Max. On learning of the death of his friend at the front near Boudry, Rigaut wrote the following in a letter to his brother Pierre:
“…I learned the day before yesterday of the death of Poncet. Killed on June 4. I have collapsed; bad enough this monstrous departure of such a potential before it had the time to flower, he meant more to me for what we were going to do together, our future parallel existences, that we were denied closeness these past two years [during which they were serving in WWI]. I don’t know which way to turn.”
The case can be made that the loss of Poncet set Rigaut on a course that led to his failed suicide after demobilization in 1919, and his ultimately successful attempt, ten years later, after having cultivated his “vocation” of suicide. Here, however, a spectral Poncet begins to set the record straight.
Blown to smithereens outside that dreadful nothing of a town, that is to say Boudry, I suppose you could say I haunted poor Rigaut the rest of his days, ghosted him into oblivion. You could say that, but of course Jacques played the largest part in his own demise and, sad to say, I’m afraid his dream of who I was lost pace with who I’d become and would naturally have grown even farther removed from that which I am today. He just couldn’t help himself and, of course, I didn’t make matters any better by haunting him, however amiably and however, for that matter, feebly. I tried my damnedest to place a phantom arm of reassurance around his chippy shoulder. I tried to broadcast a message that would slice direct through the static, one that would offer his mind a bit of peace. Nothing I tried had any affect. If anything, my shady proctoring–only vaguely perceived by my tightly wound old chum–had the unhappy effect of further disturbing him. A failed shade, I was there–and not there–to no avail. I was there when he was tearing up his manuscripts and burning them in the fireplace. Sometimes, feeling mordantly playful, he folded individual pages into crisp gliders that he piloted into the fire from across the room. Once, living it up in the Pennsylvania Hotel shortly after his arrival in New York, he folded a kind of poem he’d dashed on hotel stationery into a sleek, triangular model and set it alight with a match drawn from a souvenir box printed with the image of Josephine Baker. Out the window he tossed the plane–deaf to my spectral tut-tutting–crying “Fly far away from this baneful miasma! And drink the ethereal fire of my immolated brain.” The creased projectile of flaming surrealism drifted down toward 7th Avenue along which strode one hundred distracted pedestrians as incapable of comprehending his froggy English as correcting his vandalized Buadelaire. I was there when he injected himself with narcotics or drowned himself in booze. I was there when he revived himself for more booze and narcotics with powdered cocaine sniffed quickly off the back of his gloved hand, as he did so many times in the men’s room at Boeuf sur le Toit. I was there when he mourned our friendship, cursed mediocrity, indulged Tzara and Breton, bought tuxedos at Au Bon Marché on his father’s credit, sampled monocles, cried on Man Ray’s shoulder, took money from bored wives for giving them a roll in the hay, caressed favored books of matches, contemplated mirrors, kicked his heroin habit. At first I took a bit of credit for that last item–thought maybe I was finally getting through–only to later realize with disappointment that his recovery had been nothing more than one of his final jokes: he freed himself of drugs only to leave behind a purified corpse. And, yes, I was there when he shot himself in the heart, having laid himself out on his carefully prepared bed at Vallée aux Loups. No matter where I haunted him, my every attempt at intercession came up short. If you could say I succeeded at anything, I succeeded only in amplifying Jacques’ nagging lack, his chronic fear that a vital component of his universe was missing, his grievance with a world he believed exalted the mediocre and butchered the stellar. I’m not sure what would have been worse for him: ending his own life, as he did, under gross misapprehension, or watching a survivor Maxime descend into the very sort of bourgeois mediocrity he decried. Tatters of remorse stir my conscience like moldering curtains in a broken tenement window, the impossible wound I’ve suffered for having failed to ease Jacques’ mind and encourage his gaze to a clearing, a refreshing vista. So in the end, you might say Jacques has haunted me. So impotent were my efforts, I’ve come to believe one’s power at this stage of the game must be directly related to the state of one’s corpse at the moment of death. In my case, a good deal of me went direct to vapor, the rest into bits barely distinguishable from the soil over which the NYD fought. Consequently, my ectoplasm, if you could call it that, is but the vaguest wisp of nothing–cigarette smoke lost in a breathy sigh of resignation. Not much otherworldly energy in a thing like that. Good luck fetching me to your seance party. I doubt you’d see me if I showed. Certainly, Jacques didn’t. Perhaps my Rigaut project, I came to call it “positive haunting,” is prohibited by some wig-and-gown legislature of spiritual law. Perhaps it has to do with the physics of this particular universe in which I find myself, a universe that appears to intersect with the one I once knew, though always at a filmy remove only just out of reach. Who knows? All alone, on the outside as I am, I’m still figuring it out as I go along, encountering none of my kind and so bereft of a mentor of the spirit world. This I do know: When a poet, so called, is atomized by the explosion of a large artillery shell, that shell writes his last line of verse. But truth be told, all the artillery shells that miss, the ones that merely shower you with dirt and pebbles and greasy bits that had once been someone with whom you’d shared a tin of sardines the day before, all of them, gradually, over time, one after the other, still the pen, if not the mind that controls it. Just ask Apollinaire! I didn’t even want to write letters, though I tried to stay in contact with Jacques in spite of a military postal system hard at work on making our bond something at best tenuous. Frustrating. Our wartime correspondence seemed ever doomed. I would receive desperate, bitter notes from him: “Did you receive my last letter? It’s not right treat your old friend this way. At least write me a line to let me know you’re still NYD.” Of course, though these pithy cris de coeur tracked me like hunters’ hounds while the letter in question languished who knew where. The letters that did arrive suggested he had received few of mine–my questions were unanswered, my assertions unchallenged, my loving insults unmatched. I felt foolish writing notes that said, “I didn’t get your letter; did you get mine?” So, I stopped replying altogether. I merely hoped one of his letters would make it to me and we’d restore some sort of reasonable epistolary rhythm. It’s the way of war–letters chase you around from post to post, rarely catching up until everyone is killed, wounded, or demobilized. Had he received my letters, he would have known I doubted my chances of finding the life we’d stashed away in our closets before making off for the war. Had I defied the odds and survived, I could never have picked back up at Louis le Grand, even if given free reign to pick and choose only those courses–and professors–of interest to me. And I certainly had no desire for writing poetry. Those days were done. They all belonged to another life. I have to say, the effect of spending one’s every waking moment resigned to death yet desperately clinging to life is deleterious to the imagination. Mine, anyway. There were entire days in which my brain could only form one thought, if you could call it that. A kind of stuck-needle mantra like “Go go go go go go go…” or “I quit I quit I quit I quit I quit…” or “tum dee dum dee dum dee dum dee dum….” That usually happened when the Germans decided it was a good time to shell us. All day long. Other days, when a cease fire brought a bit of quiet, I allowed myself to wallow in dreams of a life as a bank clerk, or manager of a sporting goods outfitter, hopping the trolley home to Colette and a raft of kiddies after a day making small talk with politely demanding customers. Not exactly the exalted realm of poets, I admit. And I admit it without shame. Jacques’ problem was that he could surrender neither to a euphoric mental paralysis nor to the merely happy mediocrity of the bourgeois work-a-day daydream. His mind sweated in fever unbroken, whether fed with drugs or not. I, on the other hand, had quickly been bombed into submission. The giving up was surprisingly easy and came with side benefits: Should you realize the jig was up, at least your last moments wouldn’t be soured by regret. On the other hand, should you survive, having already surrendered within yourself, you simply leave the switch off and adapt, reconciling to the very forces that killed your ability to dream big dreams. Up go your slippered feet on the faux Louis Quatorze chaise-lounge, there to shine the velvet upholstery year after year while you scan the inventions of headline writers in Le Figaro and sip a colheita whose intricacies elude you. Yes, there is nothing like the excruciating vista of fields dyed red with slaughter, a lot of it your very own doing, to chasten a would-be bohemian into a ditherer nursing blanched dreams of a timid, middling life marked by savings account balances and beef on Sunday. At least that’s how the war left its mark on me, almost from my very first day at the front. I can see how others–Jacques–might have had a different experience. Yet, in spite of myself, I couldn’t help but gorge my eyes when working with field glasses to find the proper range for our reliable old Soizante-Quinze. Through the glasses I could watch the the Hun, up close, advancing at a crouch, their eyes scanning the way ahead with stupefied urgency as our shells exploded behind them. “Overshot. Fifty meters.” The field glasses brought the enemy close enough to read the insignia on their uniforms, to see the dirt caked beneath ragged fingernails, to notice the scar on a cheek where the beard no longer grew. Then, an eruption. Men ripped as if from the inside out, every part of them blasted instantly into the silent kingdom of the missing and presumed dead. Sometimes I was spooked by the after-image of a German face, the mind behind it still unbothered by the shell’s warning siren. Funny what remains when the smoke clears, besides the ugly, scorched hole: two boots more or less indicating last steps; a ripped helmet, its owner’s head still optimistically attached by chin strap; a splayed torso, recognizable by the oversized comb of ribs, a corpse already half decomposed, buried in an earlier barrage before unearthed by this new one. Terrible designs of limbs, clothing, organs, equipment. I eventually trained myself to close my eyes at the moment of explosion, if only out of respect for the doomed. But what was done was done–you can’t un-see what you’ve seen. I imagine someone could make poetry of that, but not Maxime François-Ponçet. Certainly, the war needn’t have been a topic for my poems, but it would always be there. The war would color, shape, and undermine every word. I tried to write about it, to own it, there at the front. But my pencil stub hovered frozen over a scrap of paper, my mind not so much empty as zestfully incapable of forcing thought through the blunt filament. I soon realized my impotence. I gave up, sat in the Boudry dirt, and waited for orders to unleash the next barrage. After all, I was an artilleryman and I had my sorry job to do. Truth be told, I managed a few nugatory discharges, abandoned lines I vetoed with an ambivalent, wavy scribble and lines in which, unable to find the right word, I left blank spaces that lay among my dotty verse like waiting, empty graves. Useless. Here’s an old trick when you’re caught in a pinch: fold a crisp sheet of paper over on itself as many times as possible, then unfold it and crumple it up into a tight ball. Roll the ball around between your palms, then unravel it. Fold the paper in half, then roll it between the palms of your hands. Work the paper until it softens and the broken fibers raise a soft fur. You now have something fit for use. That’s the trick I worked on the sheet to which I’d condemned my final stab as a poet. You see, one of the perks I enjoyed in the artillery corps was a blessed exemption from the trench latrine, that abominable stew-hole of quick lime, liquified rations, and the vomit, inevitable companion to the rest, tickled up by the palpable latrine fug: even a seasoned poilu can only stand so much. We in the artillery had the luxury of ducking back behind our gun emplacements with an entrenching tool, digging a dignified little hole that smelled of nothing but the sweet earth of mother France, dropping our trousers, and presenting our offerings more or less at leisure. So much the better to have at hand soft paper for a good hygienic wipe–the best I could have hoped for my Boudry Matinée. So used, I dropped that stained abortion into the hole and, having buttoned myself back up, covered it all with the loosened soil. Now that’s what I wanted to tell Jacques. I wanted to describe my improvised ritual, which he might have considered a worthier effort than the poem itself….