Someone sat down on the bench next to me and I whirled, thinking it was Artaud, who I feared and hoped had it in for me after all my spying. However, it was only that young friend of his, Jacques Prével, the impoverished poet with the bony, useless mistress and the new baby by his wife, and who wrote poems about how he could not write poems. Startled to see him up close, I turned away from his earnest gaze. He did remind me of the young Artaud a little with his straight brows and deep eyes, but he had a very different face. His cheekbones reminded me a bit of René Crevel. He was more conventionally handsome, earthy, sexual, hungry.
“Who didn’t you take care of?” he asked, and his voice held so much compassion. I rubbed my dirt-dry eyes. “I’ve seen you around,” he continued. “Other people have, too. No one knows who you are—except Marthe, and Anie, and Antonin Artaud. He doesn’t say anything about you, and he tells the girls not to say anything, but he knows you—I can tell. What’s your relationship to him?” His voice took on a hard edge, jealous. Prével waited, but I refused to look at him.
“Maybe you could help me?” he asked then. When I turned to give him an uncomprehending stare, he stammered, “The two of you have some sort of secret language—”
“There’s no such thing,” I grumbled. “Language is inadequate and there are no short-cuts to communication. If you hang around Artaud long enough you’ll learn that, or you should.”
“That’s not true. He is more and more silent and it is a form of speaking with him, and some people understand this but I cannot.” He sighed. “You understand it!” I had to admit the truth of this; Artaud’s performance at the Vieux-Colombier had been shot through with his dense, loud silences. His life had given both his words and nonwords layers of meanings and he knew what he was doing. He spoke in layers of language and layers of silence, in rings of being and nothingness, like life itself.
“I can’t reach him…” The young man clenched his hands together in front of him, leaning is elbows on his knees and bowing his head.
“He reaches for you!” I said. “I think he loves you. You’re the one blocking him out. You talk too much, you think too much. You would reduce him to words gone before: poète maudit, visionary, madman—even poet. These are caricatures. He knows you admire him but then you blab at him, talk glibly about pain, and he tunes you out.” I tried to make my words gentler. “All you do is talk, talk, talk, Prével. All you do is—”
“How do you know my name?” he demanded.
“—Ask, ask, ask. Quit asking. Learn to listen. Learn to listen to yourself,” I said, and then I had the oddest sense that Prével was me, that he was my reflection in a mirror or he was a silent and sinister pursuer who stood outside the glass of the Dôme café. “Don’t ask him to explain himself. Quit constructing theories about him. Quit constructing theories about everything. Theories should come only after life erupts within you. Theories organize, but they do not substitute.”
He stared at me.
“Love him,” I said, “or hate him, but don’t expect him to make sense to you if he doesn’t by now. It isn’t so important, that anyone make sense; the more you try to figure people out the more incomprehensible they become. How we treat each other in the face of it, that’s the real question. Your journal—I know a woman who wrote in a diary every day since she learned to write and she’s hungry for fame too, but yours is more valuable than hers. Keep on.”
I could tell that my words affected him. “Who are you?” he pleaded then, his eyes wide. “You scare me! You’re young, younger than me, but you talk like an old man, and you hover about Artaud like some ghost—” I shook my head and smiled a little, to reassure him. “I’ve been having the strangest thoughts about who you might be,” he said then. “Artaud was young once—he was an actor. I’m sure that he was handsome. You don’t really look like him, but…”
I asked, “You think I’m a relative of his?”
He looked sheepish. “I wondered if you weren’t him. Young Artaud. Somehow.” And he shrugged as I began to laugh, then laughed himself.
“Now, that,” I remarked, reaching into my breast pocket, “would make a great poem. If you write it and then erase half the words. Don’t analyze it to hell!” Prével blinked at the old photograph of Artaud and Paulhan that I held up for him to see. I nudged him and he took it, drawing in his breath and examining the young, tense face there in awe. “Oh, yes,” he whispered, “he has changed a lot, but I can see this youth in him, even now. Those eyes, they are the same!” Then the young man’s expression hardened again, into a mask of suspicion that struck me as an imitation—a pose. He was trying to imitate Artaud, his god, and it was so pathetic and touching. He didn’t see that Artaud both proposed and destroyed the myth of the mad poet. Prével had a derivative mind; perhaps he was not destined for greatness, but he was destined for discovery. No wonder Artaud lectured him, would not give up on him, and perhaps the kid could be great after all. “He gave this to you? He gives me nothing. And I crawl around on my knees before every doctor in Paris for him! Why this to you?”
“What the hell do you want him to do, baptize your poetry?” I snapped. “Artaud won’t play John the Baptist to anyone but himself. Why are you a poet, Prével—because you want to be a poet? Good luck. You can’t ‘want’ to be a poet the way that you can want to be a doctor or a lawyer. If you truly understand Artaud, poetry is not a profession.”
“What do you know—”
“So you prostrated yourself before some publisher and he patted your head. ‘You have a certain anger, my boy, but I’m afraid your work is just not there yet.’ Where yet? Artaud heard that, too. A great poet cannot be a hangers-on, not even of other poets. Do you want to get into the history books, Prével? That’s a Roulette game, nothing more. Don’t waste your life chasing that dream. Too many make that mistake.”
He glared at me, but it was not hatred now. I tapped the photograph that he held in his hand. “A creature that wants to seize its consciousness,” I said gently, “is a poet. It can have something to do with writing poems, but it doesn’t have to. Cocteau calls his films poems. The poets I know burned their poems, buried them, or let them fall from their lips unwritten. I knew a poet who never called himself a poet, who built a house out of paper and burned it down because a friend died. Being a poet doesn’t have anything to do with being an artist, or being educated, or being a human being or an animal in the forest or a fish in water or a goddamned rock. It’s life. How can anyone know who the poets are? How can they go down in history? Christ, Prével—your life belongs to you. But only your life, and only to you.
“So what is your life to become? Writing poems, and taking them to some publisher so that he can decide if you will increase his circulation? If you enjoy that, fine. There’s nothing wrong with fun or making a living. There’s nothing wrong with trying to speak to people and to reach them through poetry. But if you’re going to set yourself up as some great literary figure, you had better not ask Antonin Artaud for help. That’s like stowing away on the Titanic for a ride across the ocean.” I smiled to myself.
Prével coughed then, and I turned to him in alarm. He was having small tubercular hemorrhages and was under a doctor’s care. “He said he’d help me get published—if I brought him drugs, he’d get me into the journals, he promised me!” Prével flared, his face red. And I burst out laughing, which didn’t help things.
“That pirate,” I said affectionately to the young man. “Of course he did. But I know—” Quickly I laid a soothing hand on Prével’s arm before he could get up to leave. “I know he really does like you, too. You’re his hope.” The young writer sat sulking while I fished in my pocket again. When I handed him the small package, our eyes met. “Here. It’s heroin. It took me some effort to get this and it’s not much. Tell him that it’s from you. He’s in physical agony, Prével; he’s not just jerking you around. He would not ask for drugs if he didn’t need them. He’s tried to quit them all his life. No man tried harder to be clean.” Prével gazed at the package, then slipped it into his breast pocket. “Tell him that you stole this!” I suggested. “He’ll admire you then.”
“But he is using me,” the young man complained.
I raised my eyes to the sky, dropping my arms in irritation while he ground his heels into the earth. “Anyone alive is a user. We are all parasites. He would teach the world this. Why does that insult you? Aren’t you using him as well?”
Prével lowered his head, nodded, and then shook his head. “Yes…but no. You see, I really don’t want to live without him.”
We were silent for a moment, during which he stared helplessly at me, waiting for an answer that I could not give him. I merely sighed, and nodded. I wondered if the lump I swallowed were my tears that no longer came. “Neither do I. Neither do I, kiddo. But you had better prepare yourself.” The words crumbled like dust in my mouth. “As I have.”
“Who are you?” he demanded again. I did not answer. We simply sat and looked at each other. After another silence, now at a loss, he indicated the photograph. “May I keep this, too?” His voice was contrite.
I stretched out my hand. “That I want back. For now.” Reluctantly he surrendered it to me. “Maybe later I’ll let you have it for keeps, and maybe not.” I shoved the photo into my pocket and stood. “Don’t tell Artaud where you got the drugs, or that you’ve spoken to me. He has been so cheerful… I would not cause him distress.”
Prével stood up also as I walked away. “No, come with me—come with!” he called after me. “Come to the pavilion!” I ignored him and quickened my pace. He called to me again, but I did not look back.