The Enigma of Return

Counter-response by Brent Hayes Edwards

[Prompt: Present-day poetic imagination]


Césaire and “the contemporary poetic imagination”: my first impulse was to chart a genealogy. If Césaire himself once commented that the Harlem Renaissance poets (Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Countee Cullen) he was reading when he came to Paris in the early 1930s were “part of our personal baggage” (“Ils faisaient partie, si je puis dire, de nos bagages personnels”), then one could likewise note the extent of Césaire’s impact on Anglophone African diasporic poetry from the mid-twentieth century to the present. Césaire, one could argue, has been as much a touchstone as Hughes or Brooks, the obligatory disaster kit, the favored hip flask, for an entire tradition: Bob Kaufman, Stephen Jonas, Amiri Baraka, Ted Joans, Kamau Brathwaite, Clarence Major, K. Curtis Lyle, Lorenzo Thomas, Jayne Cortez, Will Alexander, Mike Ladd…

I had also thought of tracing Césaire’s influence among contemporary Caribbean poets: say, Christian Campbell — “& because we suck the neon marrow of the streets / & because we tote a solar plexus of islands (for true)” — or Anthony Joseph, above all his 2006 The African Origins of UFOs, with its “secret underlungs” and niggerfish, its hummingbirds and “hummin’ bones” (“a blues protracted”), its “cartographs of skin,” its insistence that essence “cannot be brought back from a dream.” One of the braids in the weave of Joseph’s genre-straddling speculation is a “Journal of a Return to a Floating Island.”

But I’m writing this without my library. Only with the requisite carry-on — I just taught the Cahier last week in the seminar on “le Paris noir” I’m teaching this semester in the Columbia study-abroad program in France — and the bare essentials of my syllabus. Somehow it seems appropriate, though, to try to write about Césaire in his wake, even at so great a distance, when the last eddies are hardly visible on the surface, and the only trace of the vanished behemoth lingers in an interlacing of submarine currents. To start with nothing, or an almost-nothing that is not nothing. In what is after all his metropole, gray and frigid. 

voici l’homme par terre
et son âme est comme nue
et le destin triomphe qui contemple se muer
en l’ancestral bourbier cette âme qui le défiait.
Je dis que cela est bien ainsi.

It’s true, too, that I have written elsewhere, about my suspicion of the half-baked notion of poetic “influence.” What does it even mean to track the reverberations of Césaire’s poetry in the work of others? In July 1941, in his brief introduction to the translations of poems by James Weldon Johnson, Jean Toomer, and Claude McKay in the second issue of Tropiques, Césaire rather dismissively describes Harlem Renaissance poetry as “humbly, meagerly lyrical” (“petitement, chichement lyrique”), and says that it offers not “a grandeur of presence, a grandeur of composition” but instead a “grandeur of orientation” in its fundamental humanism: “in the end, here is a poetry that does not offer the ear or the eye an unexpected and indisputable body of vibrations. Neither the brilliance of colors, nor the magic of sound. At most, rhythm, but primitive, the rhythm of jazz or tom-tom — that is, breaking down man’s resistance at that point of most basic humanity, the nervous system” (“Car enfin, voilà une poésie qui n’offre pas à l’oreille ou à l’oeil un corps inattendu et indiscutable de vibrations. Ni l’éclat des couleurs. Ni la magie de son. Tout au plus du rhythme, mais de primitif, de jazz ou de tam-tam c’est-à-dire enfonçant la résistance de l’homme en ce point de plus basse humanité qu’est le système nerveux”).

What does it even mean to say, then, that Césaire was “influenced” by this reading of African American poetry? Does the Cahier, too, operate at the level of the nervous system when it grovels and groans (C’est toi sale bout du monde. Sale bout du petit matin. C’est toi sale haine), or when it glows and — unexpectedly, marvelously — barks like a dog (mon âme luise aboie luise / aboie aboie aboie)?

Better, I think, to ask the simple question embedded in the subtle grammar of Erica’s poem: what does it mean to “fall into a text,” to live with it, but to live in it, to breathe it as a medium or an elixir; to dream in it, perchance to drown?

This is also to ask about the ways a legacy, even the idea of a legacy, can become a trap, a purgatory (“a queue that stretches around the corner”), a way to “deafen oneself with blindness,” an unguarded door. Last year I did an oral history with the saxophonist Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre, who passed away a few weeks ago. Kalaparusha was one of the giants of the 1960s generation of avant garde Chicago musicians, but also something of a tragic figure, one whose career was derailed by the undercurrent of drugs. In a wrenching 2010 video interview, Kalaparusha calls his saxophone a “starvation box.” He has to play it, he can’t stop playing it, even though he knows he can’t make a living by playing it. The hunger artist: here as though the conundrum is packed up and ready to take along with you when you go.

It is a stunning idea, articulated with a resignation that is a peculiar mix of fury and devotion: that one’s instrument, the very tool of one’s art, could also be the medium of one’s destruction. Is this idea already audible in Césaire, even if perhaps only as a whisper of anticipation, in the way it hints at its own afterlife, insisting not on legacy-by-fiat but instead on non-clotûre, radical openness, and on the ways any legacy is unavoidably, treacherously constriction, entrapment: “and bind, bind me without remose / … / bind, bind me, bitter brotherhood / strangling me with your lasso of stars …” (“et lie, lie-moi sans remords / … / lie, lie-moi, fraternité âpre / m’étranglant de ton lasso d’étoiles …”)?

voix: si lymphatiques
aisées, aimées, communes,
hélées: dés tintin quiconque, temples muets,
un accès trop barbu et certain pour défaire
jadis ce lacet qui tient aussi.

One of the few extra-curricular books I brought with me to Paris was Dany Laferrière’s remarkable 2009 novel L’enigme du retour, which a former student had given me as a present. While it too shifts intriguingly between verse and prose, L’enigme du retour only loosely recalls Césaire’s Cahier d’un retour au pays natal in form and content (the novel is written in the voice of a Haitian man living in Montreal who returns to Haiti after the death of his father). Instead it seems more accurate to say that it carries the Cahier — one book accompanied by another. The narrator explains early on that he “always” travels with a “well-thumbed” and “crinkled” (“fripé”) copy of Césaire’s poem, and his tale is punctuated by his reading of the Notebook, as though reading it helps him navigate the uncertain form of his own uncertain quest.

Laferrière’s book is deeply concerned with what one might call the enigma of inheritance, as much as with the enigma of return, and one of its threads concerns a suitcase that the narrator’s father had left in a safe deposit box. Supposedly it contains his father’s most cherished possessions. But the narrator isn’t able to claim his legacy: he can’t figure out the combination of the suitcase lock. Later, meditating on all the ways we carry “baggage” with us when we travel, he concludes that “if one really wants to leave, one has to forget the very idea of a suitcase. Things don’t belong to us” (“Si on veut vraiment partir il faut oublier l’idée même de la valise. Les choses ne nous appartiennent pas”).

Influence, if there is such a thing, is never a how-to manual passed down hand-to-hand and obeyed. It is something that takes place — to quote Ralph Ellison, writing about the kernel of artistic innovation, so elusive in hindsight — “off to the side, beyond the range of attention, like a death blow glimpsed from the corner of the eye.” It might be, even paradigmatically, selective hearing, faulty hearing, mishearing, of words mumbled (as the Cahier puts it, “we are mumblers of words” [“nous sommes des marmonneurs de mots”]) until they take on new and unexpected meaning.

In fact, this is one of the lessons of the Cahier itself, or at least of the enigma of its composition, which famously commenced with a detour that somehow was also a return. Recall that Césaire started writing the poem in the summer of 1935 when, unable to afford to go home to Martinique, he accompanied his friend Petar Guberina to Croatia. It was the landscape there — elsewhere, as though by necessity — that took Césaire back, as he explained later: “the countryside, the cut of the coast, exile, the sea, everything reminds me of Martinique. And from the third floor of the house, before a landscape whose splendor reminded me of Carbet, I see a swarm of islands: ‘Petar, look at that one: that’s my favorite. What is it called?’ ‘Martinska!’ ‘What? It’s Martinique, Pierrot!’ In other words, due to a lack of money, I arrive in a country that is not my own, which I am told is named Martinique.” Influence, if there is such a thing, the Cahier tells us, is this sort of epiphanic misrecognition, stumbled upon at the other end of exile, as one spins bereft and disoriented: a view you reach without a suitcase.

voices sewn to loam that dare
to ease away from communion’s
icy hail, the tinny key in your temples, moot
incense, to barb instead a defiance
of dice along a tinted sea.  


☞ See the rejoinder by Erica Hunt and/or leave your own response below!


3 thoughts on “The Enigma of Return

  • Brent:
    This is such a wonderful follow up the terrific piece you wrote on influence. Conventional ways of speaking about intellectual or literary “influence,” at least as much as political “success,” especially regarding Césaire and colonial/Third World thinkers, really need to be rethought. Your sharp poetic formulations — almost nothing that is not nothing, enigma of influence, epiphanic misrecognition … which takes place off site, baggage that is carried — all point in just the right direction (to my mind). I wholly agree with you about the trap of legacy, Césaire’s mindfulness about that trap and his commitment to a kind of radical openness. And yet, at the same time, he was also attuned to seizing, awakening, activating unrealized legacies, affiliating and claiming filiation. Like Benjamin a kind of radical remembrance enacted against domesticating forms of commemoration. (Especially apt today with death of Mandela as we will surely see.) I love the image of the guy whose actually holding the safe deposit box but can’t claim his father’s legacy because he doesn’t know the combination. Arendt writes about this kind of predicament (through René Char), but which also seems to crystallize a key aspect about the politics of emancipation in the black Atlantic.

  • Your intervention here offers me another lens through which to think about Erica’s poem – one that anticipates what she ultimately makes central to her rejoinder: that is, the simple fact that your gesture here is transnationalizing, border-crossing; that your reflection is rooted in the way Césaire’s aesthetic and thematics – stone-in-pond-style – ripple ever-outward across national and linguistic borders – into the anglophone space, in particular (which is something to think about and even problematize, as I hope Carrie Noland will incite us to do a bit during the forum). Another thing that strikes me in reading this: in the entire piece you reference only one woman. Here, as everywhere on our site, including in the very title of this forum (that I’ve co-organized!), women are all but absent from our considerations of Césaire’s legacies. Shame on us? Shame on Césaire? I mean to provoke here, of course, but not gratuitously or for the sake of finger-wagging. I’d quite like us to take this up in conversation…

    • Perhaps one reason that discussions of Cesaire so rarely attend to women–whether to specific women writers whose work speaks to Cesaire’s in some deep way, or to ideas of femininity that resonate in his work–is that it’s still a challenge to think humanism and sexual difference together, rather than in agonistic terms. Cesaire’s humanism travels well in transnationalist discourses that emphasize relationality and situatedness because it clearly anticipated and helped to usher in those values. But his calls for respecting and bringing together “particular peoples within larger forms or frameworks of transcontinental solidarity” (Gary’s phrase) tend to be abstractly formulated, and the universalizing impulse one finds in his poetry especially isn’t easily reconciled with a sexual politics that doesn’t subsume women under a generalized “man.” It’s not clear to me how to work through this in the way I think Gary is urging us to do. Also, on the question of poetic genealogies, I notice that so far in this discussion Cesaire’s poetry has been richly situated within Caribbean and African American poetic currents but not French ones beyond the Antilles, or, even more broadly, within transnational francophone currents. Wouldn’t this surprise Cesaire himself? I would be interested to hear more about Cesaire’s evolving position in the French canon and his possible legacy in contemporary French and European poetry, as well as in French-language poetry from outside France. In mainland France, have his poetry and poetic theory been routinely taught, and which of their features have been emphasized at different points in history? Is there a tradition of the macaronic in French poetry since Cesaire? And so on…

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