Dustin Pearson is the author of A Season in Hell with Rimbaud, which was published by BOA Editions on May 10, 2022. In A Season in Hell with Rimbaud, a man traverses the fantastical and grotesque landscape of Hell in pursuit of his brother, pondering their now fractured relationship. Learn more about Dustin and his work through this exclusive self-interview!
At the beginning of A Season in Hell with Rimbaud, readers learn that the speaker’s Hell is a state of mind first entered into while tossing a balloon to his older brother. Not long after that, readers learn just how otherwise charged that memory is, but perhaps just as compelling is how the lost details of that memory are described as decay and then imagined as conditions on a hostile planet. Can you talk about how you see the balloon working? It is a symbol?
I do think the balloon is a symbol. The balloon represents the world between the two brothers, their relationship. Both brothers are responsible for it, and even in that memory when their relationship is freshly fraught, both of them continue to engage if only through tossing the balloon to each other. The interaction the poem and memory describe betrays a soulful difference between the two brothers and how they communicate. That tossing of the balloon is insufficient for the speaker but not for his older brother, and when the speaker offers a verbal emotional appeal, the older brother rejects it, which perpetuates the speaker’s dilemma. The speaker’s anxiety about staying in the headspace of that memory complicates his navigation of a corporeal Hell, even if only as a vivid and inescapable dream. In one way, the metaphor or symbolic nature of the balloon is useful to the speaker as well. Even though he’s still working through language and emotion in his navigation of Hell, he does so as a means of symbolically tossing the balloon back to his brother even as he continues to doubt whether or not he can follow through to any productive effects. Language and emotion become physical and horrifying environments that live and shapeshift and smell, which is how the speaker perceives his brother to communicate with him and perhaps best understand.
Your book seems to consciously complicate the notion that actions speak louder than words. Can you talk about that?
In one way, it seems silly to even need to meditate on that notion. Speaking words is an action, and history continues to show us the power that action has. There’s such a fluid relationship between words and actions. The Bible powerfully conveys such a thing as well. I think anyone who is even somewhat familiar with the Bible will recognize the concept of the power of life and death lying within the tongue, of the magical and mythical power of words and speaking words. The poems in A Season in Hell with Rimbaud curate an intimate and lyrical conversation with that aspect of the Bible and countless other literary works. The speaker has put faith in words to the point of being traumatized by his brother’s, or lack thereof, and to the point of having little confidence ascertaining the meaning or intention behind his caring actions. The speaker seems to need both words and action to convey the same intention. Many of the poems over the course of the book attempt to riddle how the speaker developed that need.
As a follow up to that, your book has such a meticulous fascination with mouths. The mouth is responsible for many of Hell’s conditions. It also seems to consistently be at least one step ahead of the speaker. Is that something you’ve noticed?
I think I’ll always be haunted by it. The human mouth has so many practical functions in addition to how it has been mythologized and the magical attributes and various powers it has been assigned. I’ve talked about the Bible already, but there are so many other instances from my upbringing that I recall people telling me my mouth was going to get me into trouble, that I should be quiet, that I should speak up, that I should open my mouth, ask for what I want, be more assertive, etc. Ever since I started writing poetry and poetry has become more and more central in and to my life, I’ve thought about how words and language, the metaphorical and literal mouth becomes a refuge and a dangerous instrument. It’s capable of incredible destruction and grace. I continue to think about whose words are comforting and alarming and disarming, whose actual speaking and singing voices are those things, and how voices modulate and can be manipulated. In A Season in Hell with Rimbaud, readers will find a similar vortex of confusion and violence as the speaker makes his way through Hell and is transformed by it. The mouth is a terrifying entity if only because of how ambiguous it is and how suddenly that ambiguity can be replaced depending on whose mouth or which and what it conceals and how when what’s concealed reveals itself and how much at any point. We have suggestive phrases such as bare your teeth, hold your tongue, raise your voice, and others. Imagine having that much anxiety about the human mouth and its abilities at the heart of a soulful schism between you and what is often thought of as a close loved one, then imagine that loved one forfeiting that part of themselves and you’ll have assembled an important part of the speaker’s considerations influencing his actions throughout the book.