Quid Proprium: Aimé Césaire, Nature, and the Revolutionary Americas

Response by Millery Polyné

[Prompt: Césaire and the Revolutionary Afro-Americas]

and I grow I the seated
steatopygous Man
reflections of swamps of shame of acquiescence
in my eyes
–not a wrinkle of air moving about
the notches of his limbs—
on age-old thorns

I grow like a plant
remorseless and unwarped
toward the ungnarled hours of day
pure and confident as a plant
toward the ungnarled hours of evening

The end!
My feet follow the wormy meandering
my woody limbs circulate strange saps
plant plant

and I speak
and my word is peace
and I speak and my word is earth
and I speak
bursts in the new sun
and I speak:
through knowing grasses time glides
the branches were pecking at a peace of green flames
and the earth breathed under the gauze of mists
and the earth stretched. There was a cracking
in its knotted shoulders. There was in it veins
a crackling of fire
Its sleep peeled off like an August guava tree
on virgin islands thirsty for light
and squatting in its hair
of running water
at the back of its eye the earth awaited
the stars.

“rest, my cruelty,” I thought

my ear against the ground, I heard Tomorrow
–Aimé Césaire, “Les pur-sang” (The Thoroughbreds), Les Armes Miraculeuses, 1946

et je pousse moi l’Homme
stéatopyge assis
en mes yeux des reflets de marais de honte
—pas un pli d’air ne bougeant aux
échancrures de ses membres—
sur les épines séculaires

Je pousse comme une plante
sans remords et sans gauchissement
vers les heures dénouées du jour
pur et sûr comme une plante
sans crucifiement
vers les heures dénouées du soir

La fin!
Mes pieds vont le vermineux cheminement
mes membres ligneux conduisent d’étranges sèves
plante plante

et je dis
et ma parole est paix
et je dis et ma parole est terre
et je dis
la Joie
éclate dans le soleil nouveau
et je dis:
par de savants herbes le temps glisse
les branches picoraient une paix de flames vertes
et la terre respira sous la gaze des brumes
et la terre s’étira. Il y eut un craquement
à ses épaules nouées. Il y eut dans ses veines
un pétillement de feu.
Son sommeil pelait comme un goyavier d’août
sur de vierges îles assoiffées de lumière
et la terre accroupie dans ses cheveux
d’eau vive
au fond de ses yeux attendit
les étoiles.

“dors, ma cruauté”, pensai-je

l’oreille collée au sol, j’entendis
passer Demain

Nature proved to be a site of truth and wonder for Martiniquan poet Aimé Césaire. It was ubiquitous to his poetry and his other surrealist-influenced writings. Moreover, the value of employing organs of nature in his work is that it helps to engineer a post-colonial citizen. Nature, or more specifically in the Césairean context, the Atlantic material and cosmological world and its processes of transformation (e.g. birth, metamorphosis, and atrophy), was poetry and revolutionary because its architecture and contours inspired the “creative impulses” (Césaire, “Poetry and Knowledge) of the mind. Césaire’s nature, which has been “made to do different kinds of imaginary work” in relation to its synergy with the history, evolving culture(s) and somatic beauty and pain of African-descended peoples, allows him to mine the forces that bind black peoples connection to place. Furthermore, it illuminates what  the poet’s concerted quest for a “vital order of a primary character” that creates and normalizes an ontological self within an historic climate of “systemic inferiorization” of African-descended peoples.

One finds clues to this vital order in Césaire’s prominent essay, “Poetry and Knowledge.” In it, Césaire asserts the limitations and deficiencies of scientific knowledge and expounds on humankind’s methodical approach to phenomena – to list, classify and measure. In the end it proves harmful and renders the species impaired (a lion “gnawed away from within” Césaire, “Poetry and Knowledge”). Interestingly, Césaire’s call for a search of the “quid propium of things” – a so-called “pure state” or “pre-established vital order” – through his championing of poetic knowledge, is not necessarily contrary to scientific consciousness but firmly in conversation with the natural sciences (particularly biology, astronomy and earth sciences). One of the central inquiries in both poetic and scientific knowledge is the question of primordial instruction, transformation, and a phenomenon’s behavior and relationship to others. Recognize Césaire’s nod to evolutionary biology towards the end of his poem, “The Thoroughbreds.” Published after the Vichy imperial control of French land, the reader witnesses the emergence of a thinking and politicized human being. This figure, “steatopygous Man,” is perhaps racially marked, reminiscent of the journeys and tribulations of Saartjie Baartman, a Khoikhoi woman whose body was boorishly consumed by a 19th century European public. Césaire demonstrates that from the primordial swamp from where humankind emerges she consciously meditates on and matures beyond the “shame of acquiescence.” Césaire professes in “Les pur-sang”:

I grow like a plant
remorseless and unwarped
toward the ungnarled hours of day
pure and confident as a plant
toward the ungnarled hours of evening

The conscious body representing universal man and the (post)colonial subject is simultaneously rooted and in a process of ascent, unrepentant about his/her surge, resistance, and prosperity. Yet, Césaire explores the depths of the unconscious through poetry and poetical knowledge because it “contains…the original relationships that united us with nature.” “The animal, the vegetable, the mineral are within us,” Césaire contends in “Poetry and Knowledge,” “Man is not only man. He is universe.” Nature in Césaire’s poetry is performing the semiotical and psychological work of “disalienation and detoxification,” as he calls it in an interview with René Depestre, during the late colonial period.

It is this revolutionary process of disalienation, or what scholar Walter D. Mignolo references as “delinking,” that helps us better understand Césaire’s purpose of nature and how it has been employed materially, textually, in addition to how it is understood historically in an insurgent Americas. These natural materials and images that have nourished and sickened, obscured and revealed, unified and severed helped to generate a dynamic Creole culture in the Americas, but also “plant[ed] new seeds” of defiance and revolt, sometimes ephemeral yet nonetheless significant to individual and/or systemic change. The examples are limitless: consider the use of cornmeal or wheat flour in the making of a vévé to serve the lwa in Haiti; the mountainous terrain that allowed for maroon communities in the Caribbean and Latin America to develop; the small plots of land that provided precious, but yet all too brief moments of autonomy; or the “August guava tree,” depicted in “Les pur-sang” as a symbol of “stability and also abandon” can also represent an awakening. These limbs of nature are critical to a revolutionary consciousness and the making of Creole and post-colonial identity, even though that process of post-colonialism in the Americas and beyond has yet to be fully realized. Arguably, as part of that legacy of deploying nature in political scholarship and arts, scholar, poet, and musician Michel-Rolph Trouillot engages similar poetic methods in his understudied Ti Dife Boulé Sou Istoua Ayiti (1977). In a captivating narrative detailing significant moments of the Haitian Revolution and the history of Haiti, kenep (quenepa), cucumbers, eggplants, fireflies and a variety of fruit and other natural elements are utilized to ground the reader, to translate and to make clear to the poor, industrious Haitian citizen who possesses the most radical potential, that this is their land. Understand and break the rules. Your future is there for the taking.

In the introduction to Discourse on Colonialism, historian Robin D.G. Kelley astutely observes that this text did not serve as a “road map or a blueprint to revolution. It is poetry and therefore revolt.” Yet, during the readers’ journey(s) through and return travels to Discourse and Césaire’s poetry (for no one can engage with Césaire’s oeuvre just once) what new sensory discoveries will s/he pick up on and embrace or reject that may lead to enlightenment? What clues are left by the side of the road, within the brush of the Caribbean interior or whirling in the “ripe tornados”? How will the landscape shift once you reach the summit’s peak and you stop, and say to yourself: “Dye mon, gen mon” (Beyond mountains are more mountains). Therein lie the intrigue and complexity in Césaire’s work. It encourages us to continue on our voyage for poetical knowledge, where marginalized peoples can “grow” and “speak” unforgivingly.

Works Cited


☞ See the counter-response by Anne Eller and/or leave your own response below!


3 thoughts on “Quid Proprium: Aimé Césaire, Nature, and the Revolutionary Americas

  • Dear Millery Polyné,

    Your analysis shows why Aimé Fernand David Césaire (1913-2008), is appropriately labeled “nègre fondamental,” given his pre-eminent status as a founding figure of Negritude, along with Léopold Sédar Senghor. I will add that “Papa Césaire” is unquestionably the embodiment of the historic passion of blackness and/or African-ness. More specifically, it confirms the impact of Césaire’s oeuvre which remains the master work of will and consciousness on the part of the black race. Merci!

    Guillaume Yoboué

    • Thanks so much for your reply Guillaume. I believe you said it best: “Césaire’s oeuvre…remains the master work of will and consciousness…” Bravo.

  • Millery, thank you for this beautiful and thoughtful reflection. I particularly appreciate the way you highlighted the links between poetic knowledge and sensorial knowledge, and how these in turn speak to historical consciousness. Your discussion reminded me of the narratives I heard from participants in “memory walks” in Guadeloupe. In these events rivers, breadfruit trees, and sugar fields stand as evidence to previous communities of toil and to previous forms of resistance. The participants in these walks would often describe their experiences by distinguishing between two forms of knowledge: “Savoir” and “Connaisance” – they would argue that before participating in the walks they knew about certain historical events (je savais) -but after the walks they felt an intimate relationship to the past (je connais). Their somatic engagement with the landscape offered a different connection to the past: history was alive in the landscape and they were its contemporary witnesses – they knew history, rather than just knowing of it. I had never connected this to the historiographic methods Trouillot deploys in Ti Difé, but now I see how much this resonates. I had also never thought about this in relation to Césaire’s ideas of poetic knowledge, but am now wondering if perhaps when Césaire suggests that the poet engages “with his whole being” he is not referencing the importance of the somatic – of the landscape, but also of the body in place – which both of your pieces nicely evoke.

Comments are closed.

Thank you!

Thank you all who participated in our event! We have received great feedback from the community and feel very proud of what we accomplished. We didn't do this alone, and we give credit where credit is due. Please visit our credits page to see a list of all of those who made this happen.

Be part of the conversation

In the time leading up to our live forum at Columbia’s Maison Francaise, we encourage you to get involved. Our scholars have gotten the ball rolling on this site with a brief back-and-forth exchange. We hope you’ll find these dialogues compelling and we ask you to add your own reflections on the topics at hand by leaving a reply someplace (or places) on the site - as lengthy or as concise as you'd like. The responses we accumulate here will provide the point of departure for our forum discussions on December 6. Now, please join us on this digital humanities adventure!

Roll up your sleeves

On December 5, over the course of one day, you are invited to help to help us compile the largest online bibliography of primary and secondary sources related to Césaire. The main group will gather at the Studio@Butler, but you are welcome to join us from anywhere. Open to students, scholars, librarians, and technologists the researchathon will train and organize task-based teams (data entry, web and catalog research, programming, etc) and go live at the end of the day. To learn more or get ready visit our researchathon page.