You may recall my 1st April post about the obscure French Symbolist poet, Telfour Tremble, in which I recounted my meeting with his grandson, Théodore Marie Tremble. Théodore had revealed to me his grandfather's penchant for cross-dressing — a propensity more common amongst the English than the French at the time — and his single-handed invention of 'concrete poetry' a full sixty years before the genre was generally assumed to have appeared. I thought this was the end of the affair, the rather unsatisfactory and unconsummated end to the literary, slightly obsessive, necessarily platonic love affair I'd been having for several months with this secretive and endlessly fascinating dead French poet.
However, there is a postscript. My attempts to track down a copy of his rare, final work, Une Saison en Purgatoire, had proved exhausting — and fruitless. A few days ago I was ready to call closure on the whole business, as it was taking up far too much of my spare time. Each night I'd been retiring to bed in a state of nervous debilitation, only to rise again early the next morning and begin the vain search anew. Then, just yesterday, a package arrived by courier, which I duly signed for and opened.
My heart skipped a beat when I realised that it contained a letter from Tremble's grandson, Théodore, together with a sheaf of ragged and yellowing manuscripts, diary extracts, jottings and other documents, all written in the spidery handwriting of the great poet himself. I spent the whole day reading through these precious papers — which was no easy task, since much of the script was barely decipherable. In the end, however, I managed to piece together the gist of the contents, which I'll briefly summarise as follows. (I owe this much to you, my dear and faithful readers, as I know so many of you have followed me with such patience thus far, and are awaiting with bated breath some kind of proper conclusion to this preposterous tale.)
|The Cutty Sark|
It seems that Tremble had eventually tired of London. His devoted mother and sister had gone back to France, and at first he missed them terribly. In an attempt to escape his loneliness, he resumed an even more dissolute lifestyle of drinking and drug taking, lurching from bar to brothel to basement den of ill repute. After being involved in a drunken brawl one evening — in which he lost several teeth, the lobe of one ear, a petticoat and a corset — he packed his meagre possessions and joined the crew of the The Cutty Sark, a famous Merchant Navy ship which was due to leave St. Katharine's Dock the very next day. He was soon installed on board as chief cook and bottle washer.
The surviving fragments of his diaries show that he spent at least a year, possibly longer, on this vessel, which plied the trade routes between Britain and the Far East. The Suez Canal had opened in 1869, so merchant ships could now reach the Indian Ocean and the all-important Strait of Malacca (the sea gateway to China and Australia) without having to sail down the entire west coast of Africa. The Cutty Sark, one of the last British tea clippers, would have carried wine, spirits and beer to China, and returned home with wool from Australia and tea from India.
|The Sultan's Palace, Zanzibar|
There's evidence of several love affairs while Tremble was on the high seas. One in particular stands out: a romantic and passionate liaison with an English sailor who went by the name of Jack 'Pretty Boy' Wiggins. There is, unfortunately, no direct poetic evidence of their affair, but three verses of a poem written by Tremble do exist from the period, which I've translated and reproduced below:
Let go the silver saucer of the moon.
Let go the vast indifference of stars.
If you don't let go now, you will do soon.
Let go the mountain's icy flutes and spires.
Let go the valley's quiet, gentle charms:
Its village hall, its church, its country inn —
They never welcomed you with open arms.
Let go the sailors and their salty ways,
Warm nights under the stars and tropic days.
Sailing to Goa, Java, Zanzibar,
Exotic climes became my Shangri-La.
I interpret this as meaning that Tremble had achieved some sort of peace at last; the mood of melancholy resignation is very marked. You feel that if he had died there on that clipper — somewhere between Suez and the Maluku Islands — he would have died happy. And die there he very probably did. For there is no real proof that he lies in an unmarked grave in a Parisian suburban cemetery — as has always been hitherto thought. The likelihood is that he succumbed to scurvy or dysentery while on board ship and was given a sea burial. Or perhaps his skeleton lies, untroubled and content, on some Australian headland or on one of the Indonesian Spice Islands. Who knows?
Finally, I came across further examples of Tremble's revolutionary 'concrete poetry' within my unexpected haul of his lost papers and documents, and hope to write more on this soon...