Césaire and Poetic Knowledge

Rejoinder by Erica Hunt

[Prompt: Present-day poetic imagination]


I first encountered the poetry of Aime Césaire in translation, as I suppose many primarily English speakers do in this country.  For that reason, I read at the mercy of translation, dependent on an approximate art and science that must fuse the separate sensibilities of writer’s intention and translator’s inference with the currents of contemporary reception.

The first poems I read were in the collection, Cadastre (1961/1973), translated by Emile Snyder.  The cover of the book, on which a brown tribal mask floated on white coated cover stock, is clear enough in memory, as to be almost still shelved with the C’s in my library, though the volume has been replaced by The Collected Poems (1983), translated by Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith.

The poems in Cadastre, which amazed when first encountered – 30 years ago? – remain luminous, every line an instigation/invitation to follow thought threaded through precise usage, (“vitelline membrane”),  and to dive into dictionary and reference (botanical, medical, geologic, and so on).

Revised, by Césaire himself in subsequent editions, re-translated as new versions of Césaire’s collections are restored, to this reader, his poems are just as enigmatic – if not more – cadastral or registers of internal and external pressures integral to their time of production. They are rich, extreme, inexhaustible, clearly the product of an omnivorous and dense poetic imagination, that pushes through the layers of textual revision – intertextuality between versions, and for me, the exigencies and interests of the translators, as well.

With the publication of Solar Throat Slashed (2011) we were gifted with a revelatory – and restored edition, and gained access to the parent collection of poems from which Cadastre had been excerpted, expurgated poems that had been trimmed of “extravagance.”

Translators James Arnold and Clayton Eshelman framed the earlier Cadastre as a remnant text, tidied up to align with Césaire’s political radicalism as he stepped into a public role as voice for postcolonial Martinique.

Césaire’s editorial review reduced the irruptive, transgressive, and linguistic density of an earlier Surrealist and radically associative poetry, turning it to face outward to its political public, perhaps at the expense of its inner life, flamboyant in language and feeling.

Césaire the political poet is contrasted with Césaire the revolutionary artist, who stands at some distance from Césaire, the poet alchemist.

I wonder if one can really name these aspects of Césaire as if they were separate, or successive moods, evolutions of sensibility?  Whether I read the poems from the Cahier (Notebook) in its 1939 or 1945 or 1956 or later versions, I read each of these aspects as if they were laminate, layered, and besides these broad aspects, I find many more moods, moves in the poems.

They form a “replenishing knowledge” and are self- and externally replenished by repeated reading.

Cadastre must have travelled with me through thousands of mornings when I’d find myself frustrated by the stumps in the English language that I could not always make work to convey, pierce or vault my desire, grief, or the draw of intellectual dishevel.  Césaire’s translated poems spoke to my urge to shake up poetics from ready-made complacencies, release the rhetoric of political poetry from the fog of condescension, an uncritical monologic, unified self of poetic “voice.”

Here, in Césaire was the anti-lyrical lyric, revolutionary, multi-vocal and political sensibility possessing an audacious opacity:

under the reserve of my uvula, there is a reserve of boars
under the grey stone of the day there are your eyes a shimmering conglomerate of coccinella
in the glance of the disorder there  is the swallow of mint and broom which melts away to be reborn in the tidal wave of your light
Calm and lull oh my voice the child who does not know that the map of spring is always to be drawn again
the tall grass will sway gentle ship of hope for the cattle
the long alcoholic sweep of the swell
the stars with the bezels of their rings never in sight will cut the pipes of the glass organ of evening  zinnias
will then pour into the rich extremity of my fatigue
and you star please from your luminous foundation draw lemurian being—of man’s unfathomable sperm the yet undared form
carried like an ore in woman’s trembling body
— Césaire Notebook tr: Eshelman and Smith 1983

A passage of intense sensory power, provocations of taste, color, shadow, and glint and visual degree – and yet at the limits of what is it is possible to visualize, extends the ordinary act of seeing. As Césaire says in “Poetry and Knowledge,” “the image ceaselessly sublates the perceived” or, in other words, denies what can be perceived while preserving some trace of the original perception.

The passage I cite above from the Eshleman and Arnold Collected Poems version of the Notebook, is absent from the recently translated original 1939 edition.

In some paradoxical sense, each of these versions of the Notebook, and of the poems in Cadastre, are sublations, traces of poems written and re-written, visible through the layers. And their moods and registers are various, are meant to yield new expanses of poetic knowledge.

“To revise is not always to suppress, however, and Césaire’s pentimento shows through his over painting.”
–Robert Bray

Alex Gil in a recent article, “Bridging the Middle Passage,” speaks of bridge texts in Césaire’s Notebook. The passage above may be one of those bridges, or interlays, that accrete new knowledge, new experience into older versions of the text.

The Césaire passage cited above is inserted into a sequence that follows Notebook’s scene of greatest abjection, when the speaker pantomimes European contempt for the supposed vacuity of Black people, the pongos, grotesque creators of nothing.  In contrast, the section quoted is rooted in an erotically charged body, almost Edenic, able to speak/read/reach into the essence of the animals, flora and of nature around the body, to join bodies and to make from a “rich extremity of fatigue” something that speaks to the cosmic regeneration.  It is an image of rebirth and of possibility even in the face of the prior moods of this poem, which brim with humiliation and the experience of participating in one’s own negation.

These lines operate in a lyric register (check), and make frequent use of “I” (check), but in many cases, the lines hold their distance – swoon in imagery – to the point of undermining the lyric voice, by impeding comprehension with abstractions grasped in some space between reference, allusion and the speculative, the what if, a present conditional.

Again and again in Césaire’s poems, we are asked to see what cannot be seen so as to stretch – to exercise the powers of the imagination. A “replenishing knowledge.”

I read in Césaire – and in the many poets who have learned from him (Jayne Cortez, Will Alexander, Amiri Baraka, Nathaniel Mackey, many others) – a synchronous and sinuous use of image, the capacity to move from the prophetic to the revolutionary, from the mythological to the mundane, from the lyric to the analytic and back.

Césaire’s poems have been texts in motion, their instability and evolution from prose to poetry and back to poetry from edition to edition and from translation to translation are in some way constitutive, implicit in their aesthetic strategy, an embrace of fluidity, and a quest to exceed conventional limitations.

“On the marvelous contact of the interior totality and exterior totality, perceived imaginatively and simultaneously by the poet, or more precisely within the poet, marvelous discoveries are made.”
– Césaire “Fifth Proposition,” Poetry and Knowledge

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2 thoughts on “Césaire and Poetic Knowledge

  • Three excellent pieces, thank you.

    My questions are quite straightforward. Is it true to say that following Césaire there have been no major French Caribbean (i.e., non-Haitian) poets? If so, how can this be explained, and is Césaire somehow implicated in this?

  • The Cries of the Seagulls

    “In Africa, when an old man dies, it is a library that burns down.” An apt metaphor indeed, which in its time served its author’s archival purpose well and brought him much applause. Conversations and campaigns immediately began: aren’t we going to sort out, label and preserve (and with the utmost care) what we once (not so surreptitiously) contributed to destroy? Didn’t we all have a hand in it?

    What then is today’s trope for the young man, the little girl, the mother at the end of her rope, drowning — as we peruse the prose of our everyday life– in all that blue, “slobbering, rambling beauty”? See Orpheus fall to the bottom of the terrifying abyss, strike its sand with his heel and slowly work his way up to the surface. Intent on paradise, or the next best thing, and vociferous:

    There still remains one sea to cross Il y a encore une mer à traverser
    oh still one sea to cross oh encore une mer à traverser
    that I may invent my lungs pour que j’invente mes poumons
    that the prince may hold his tongue pour que le prince se taise
    that the queen may lay me pour que la reine me baise
    still one old man to murder encore un vieillard à assassiner
    one madman to deliver un fou à délivrer

    Some, full of contempt for Orpheus’ youthful madness, insist that his dreams need to be confined within real, unbreachable walls, nets and borders. But of poetry, of beauty what could this architecture of discipline know?
    Poetry, “this manner of being that stems from the most human of all revolts one experiences when confronted by both these immense desires we all carry within and the small bits that life enable us to live.”
    And beauty that “will be convulsive or not at all.”
    Poetry and beauty — the naked migrants of our age who land in Lampedusa know them better than anyone.

    To be sure, three hundred convulsed bodies will test one’s faith; tears will be shed throughout the land and the conch (the lambi of despair) will cry: “Disgrace on us all!” But verily the sea, “this grey vault,” cannot lock them up for long: they will ride their own death, cross and re-cross the ocean, blowing the conch of a new gospel (le lambi de la bonne nouvelle) and writing their wishes on the wet skin of History:

    grant me on the ocean sterile donnez-moi sur l’océan stérile
    but somewhere caressed by the promise of the clew-line mais où caresse la promesse de l’amure
    grant me on this diverse ocean donnez-moi sur cet océan divers
    the obstinacy of the fierce pirogue l’obstination de la fière pirogue
    and its marine vigor et sa vigueur marine.

    “Some have just climbed out of the cold wet Atlantic just to be here. We shiver together.”

    Today’s poetic imagination –the one that stands for subversive cadence –”unexpectedly standing in these pirogues that rear under the attack of the swells,” speaks.

    “And silence turns into worry that the volcano will speak, leave the door open and unguarded, the night running. ”

    For “my mouth shall be the mouth of those calamities that have no mouth, my voice the freedom of those who break down in the solitary confinement of despair,” retorts our immense Poet. And unto those who, in “the air stagnant without the brightness of a single bird,” choose to remain deaf to the hopes of the living and to the supplications of the dying, blind also to the epic played before their very eyes, he utters: ecce homo.
    “A sea of miseries is not a proscenium, a man screaming is not a dancing bear…
    (Une mer de douleurs n’est pas un proscenium,…un homme qui crie n’est pas un ours qui danse…”)

    Or a seagull that cries.


    – Amadou Hampate Ba
    – André Breton Nadja. NRF, 1928
    – Aimé Césaire Notebook of a Return to my Native Land.translated by Clayton Eshlemn & Annette Smith. U of California Press, 1983
    – Édouard Glissant
    – Nikki Finney, National Award Acceptance Speech
    – Erica Hunt “For Césaire.” /poetic-imagination/for-cesaire/
    – Annie Lebrun Surréalisme et subversion poétique. Stanford French Lecture Series 1991
    – Sarah Stillman “Lampedusa’s Migrant Tragedy, and Ours.” The New Yorker, October 10, 2013.
    – Derek Walcott “The Sea is History.”

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