“La misère d’une poésie”; a poetry of poverty

Counter-response by Carrie Noland

[Prompt: Transatlantic Networks and Contexts]


So let us do what the Internet does best: access what’s out there to be accessed. That’s the only choice I have at the moment – no library, no books to consult. As I write, my mother is in the Cardiac Care Unit of the Beth Israel Hospital and I have traveled here to care for her. Thus, I have to construct a response to Christopher Winks’s remarks on Césaire from just what I have on my screen.

Luckily, my laptop is rich with Césaire materials. Thanks to A. James Arnold’s generosity, I have on my desktop the proofs for the three volumes of works by Césaire (Poésie; Théâtre; Essais et Discours) that will be published by the CNRS later this year. I also have almost-final versions of my four chapters on Césaire, chapters that will appear in my forthcoming book. And of course, I have the entire Internet (although not really “of course” – I’m fortunate indeed that the hospital has free WiFi). So I am going to try my best to respond cogently using the materials I have at hand. This is an experiment in sequestration, different in obvious ways from that experienced by Martiniquans under the Vichy regime, but still a situation of constraint.

I read the New York Times, so I know that any interested surfer can access absolutely anything Emily Dickinson ever scribbled through the efforts of Amherst and Harvard. The rights to publish Césaire’s works online have not been granted thus far, and so little but the most famous excerpts of his poetry can be found. What one can do, however—and it is worth doing—is view the “tapuscrit” (typed and hand-written manuscript) of the original 1939 version of the Cahier on the webite of the Assemblée Nationale. It is a moving experience to view this manuscript, at least for me, for many reasons. The last few pages are not typed but appear instead in Césaire’s sculpted yet vigorous handwriting. As opposed to the published versions of the manuscript, the verses are not perfectly justified. Near the end especially, Césaire moves the beginning of his lines incrementally toward the right. The spacing of these words seems to reflect what would be the rhythm of his oral delivery, or the rhythm of his thinking as he writes. The final pages (added in response to a request for a different ending from the Volontés editor, Georges Pellorson) look as though they were composed in one great rush, without revision. The thickness and decisiveness of the strokes, the slant of the explanation points, the delicacy of the accent marks – these are all traces of the author’s presence, his imprint on the page. Since these traces are semantically striking, one wonders why there has been no effort (as there has been for Dickinson) to circulate in published form Césaire’s extant manuscripts, why no fetishization of his hand has occurred.

The second reason I am moved by the manuscript as I view it on my screen has something to do with the quality of the paper Césaire used. The paper is now brown; the last page is missing a little segment from the right side where the word “ancestrale” ends, as if pulled away by a damp thumb. I am reminded of something I learned while researching the paper that Henri Michaux used during roughly the same period, which is that fine paper was expensive and usually writers had to resort to cheap stock. We know from biographers that Césaire was extremely poor when he was a student in Paris. Apparently (if memory serves me) he did not live on the Rue d’Ulm “campus” but instead rented a small hotel room somewhere outside of town. (Please correct me if I’m wrong.) The point I am getting at is that this was a young man who had no money, a young man who came from a place where no one – at least no one Black – had any money. This was someone who experienced poverty and knew how poverty looks, sounds, tastes, feels, and – most vividly – smells.

Last Thursday, I had the immense good luck to be invited by Alex Gil to accompany him to a reading of excerpts from the new translation of the original Cahier by A. James Arnold and Clayton Eshleman at the Americas Society on Park Avenue. What struck me most as I listened to a poem I know so well is to what a great extent this poem is about poverty. I had never really heard that before. Everyone had told me that the Cahier is about “the Black unconscious” or “the search for African roots.” We know now, better than we used to, that this version of the Cahier is not really a Surrealist poem. (Césaire probably knew something about Surrealism through the editors of Légitime défense, but it is not clear that he read the poetry of Breton, Eluard, or Aragon). Further, we cannot even be sure that this version of the Cahier is a Communist poem. Certainly, we can discern a dialectical pattern if we want to, but concepts like the “proletariat” and “class conflict” are not really part of its self-conception. No, I believe this poem is fundamentally about poverty. Nude, bare life misère.

In the Lettre à Maurice Thorez Césaire distinguishes between the “proletariat” of France and the “paysannerie” of Martinique, indicating that the pre-industrialized economic landscape of his island should not be treated as identical to the working class landscape of France. Similarly, in “Introduction au Folklore Martinique,” co-authored with René Ménil for the fourth issue of Tropiques (January 1942), Césaire directs our attention to incessant return of the same themes in the stories Lafcadio Hearn collected: “Eating, drinking, themes incessantly taken up, even in dreams….When we have exhausted all the archives, consulted all the files, dug into all the abolitionist papers, it it to these stories that we will return in order to grasp, in all its eloquence and pathos, the huge poverty of our enslaved ancestors.”

Arguably, the structure of dialectical materialism and the topology of the Freudian psyche are things we impose upon Césaire’s poem from without. I believe that what Césaire is really doing in the Cahier is trying to find a poetic language for poverty, a language crouched in the interstices of ideology, a language of particular apprehensions adequate to describing the experience of living in “mud and shit,” as Dany Laferrière puts in while describing Port-au-Prince.

Perhaps it was the selections Arnold and Eshleman chose for their reading that night. Quoi qu’il en soit, the poem appears to me now to return incessantly to that ground of eloquence and pathos, that “grande misère” (I do not have their lovely new translation on my computer, so I need to quote from the old one accessed through Poets.org):

At the end of daybreak burgeoning with frail coves, the hungry Antilles, the Antilles pitted with smallpox, the Antilles dynamited by alcohol, stranded in the mud of this bay, in the dust of this town sinisterly stranded.

At the end of daybreak, the extreme, deceptive desolate eschar on the wound of the waters; the martyrs who do not bear witness; the flowers of blood that fade and scatter in the empty wind like the screeches of babbling parrots; an aged life mendaciously smiling, its lips opened by vacated agonies; an aged poverty rotting under the sun, silently; an aged silence bursting with tepid pustules, the awful futility of our raison d’être.

[L]es Antilles, dynamitées d’alcool”  Of course.  Martinique: the land of the distilleries. Critics have long spoken of the volcanic in Césaire’s poetry, the images of violent eruption that they associate with Mont Pelée. But what actually explodes Césaire’s homeland, leaving the “ville plate”? Alcohol. Not the galvanizing force of righteous anger, mounting to a high pitch, but cheap, available, local alcohol.  “[L]es Antilles qui ont faim.” Yes, that’s right. Hunger. What devastates the island? Isolation, hopelessness, helplessness – but most of all hunger. The island’s “life,” Césaire’s personification goes, has had its lips “opened” by the agony of emptiness, an emptiness so great that even agony itself has moved on (“des angoisses desaffectées”).  The mouth is no longer a portal for food, it seems, but a gaping hole, a “deceptive” scar. Such is poverty: a “creux” that appears like a bulge, a lie, a “boursouflure,” he will tell us later. In the Cahier, Césaire has set himself the task of conveying that hunger which is only absence, a task that Dany Laferrière calls upon other writers of the Caribbean to take up:

On ne parle pas d’avoir faim parce qu’on n’a pas mangé depuis un moment. On parle de quelqu’un qui de tout temps n’a jamais mangé à sa faim, ou juste assez pour survivre et en être obsédé.

Cést quand même étonnant, cette absence de la faim comme thématique qui pourrait intéresser les artistes toujours en quête de sujets. Très peu de romans, de pièces de théâtre, d’opéras ou de ballets ont la faim comme thème central. Et pourtant il y a aujourd’hui un milliard d’affamés dans le monde. Est-ce un sujet trop dur… trop cru? (L’Énigme du retour [Boréal, 2010], 136).

You don’t talk about hunger with respect to someone who hasn’t eaten for just a while. You talk about someone who has never eaten his fill, who has always had just enough to survive and thus is obsessed by hunger.

Still, it’s surprising, this absence of hunger as a major theme, a theme that could interest artists forever in search of a subject. There are very few novels, plays, operas, or ballets that take hunger as a central theme. And yet today there are billions of starving people in the world.  Is the subject just too hard… too crude? (my translation)

I suspect that when Césaire began writing the first propulsive stanzas of the Cahier he was searching around for some avatar, some example of a writer who had already written substantively about hunger. Christopher Winks mentions the influence of Baudelaire, Lautréamont, and Rimbaud. But the young Normalien would have found little to inspire his own treatment. Baudelaire’s interest in poverty is prurient; even in his seemingly most compassionate moments he is interested in poverty as part of a Christian symbolism or an erotics of decay. Lautréamont, too, is fascinated by evil, the bad seed. I wonder, in Les Chants de Maldoror are there descriptions of destitution that sound anything like Césaire’s? Gutenberg.org gives me Chants 1 through 6, but I do not find passages that strike me as equivalent. Perhaps one of the reasons Césaire was partial to Hugo is because in his poems (but also in works such as Les Misérables), hunger is the central theme. However, Hugo tends to infuse his scenes of poverty with the light of spiritual transcendence. The reader is meant to feel urges toward charity. I would argue that there is no such thing in Césaire. In 1935 he has to invent a language for raw, grace-less, spiritually irredeemable poverty; he has to forge a descriptive system both for hunger and its glorious – but utterly worldly – satiation, as in the Noël episode, with its description of succulent sausages smelling of sage. He has to make the very description of poverty into a challenge to dialectics:  Find something here, in “an aged poverty rotting under the sun, silently” – to redeem.  Take this – says Césaire – and make it worth something. Like power. Like Negritude.

Ultimately, I believe that Césaire’s huge impact throughout the Black Atlantic and the African continent has as much to do with his fulsome descriptions of baseness as with the stridency of his declarations (“ASSEZ DE CE SCANDALE”). The process of aestheticizing hunger, that is, leads in his case to a recognition that such an experience might serve as the basis for solidarity (perhaps this also explains his admiration for Claude McKay’s Banjo). We can call this solidarity “class solidarity,” or “race solidarity,” or “hunger solidarity.”. But it is also something more. Césaire creates a solidarity that passes through an aesthetic moment. It involves those of us who have not suffered, day after day, from hunger. I am hoping that poetry scholarship – close study of the text – can help us to understand how.


October 29, 2013

On the front page of today’s New York Times I read the following: “Gov. John R. Kasich let loose on fellow Republicans in Washington: “I’m concerned about the fact there seems to be a war on the poor,” he said.” Perhaps Eldridge Cleaver was right, then, when he wrote about Césaire in Soul on Ice that “he’s the big gun from Martinique.”


☞ See the rejoinder by Christopher Winks and/or leave your own response below!


One thought on ““La misère d’une poésie”; a poetry of poverty

  • I agree that Cesaire is trying, as you say, to “find a poetic language for poverty,” so that even as he describes the images of destitution and ties them to the landscape, he is simultaneously refusing to apologize for them and be ashamed of them. It is the opposite of his refusal to identify with the man on the tram– be reclaiming these images he reclaims his identity as linked to where he comes from.

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