Aimé Césaire; Notebook of a Return to the Native Land (1939)

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Translated by A. James Arnold and Clayton Eshleman

 

1
At the end of the small hours 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.

2
At the end of the small hours, 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 cries 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

3
the dreadful inanity of our raison d’être.

4
At the end of the small hours, on this very fragile earth thickness
exceeded in a humiliating way by its grandiose future—the volcanoes will
explode, the naked water will bear away the ripe sun stains and nothing will
be left but a tepid bubbling pecked at by sea birds—the beach of dreams and
the insane awakening.

5
At the end of the small hours, this town sprawled—flat, toppled from its
common sense, inert, winded under its geometric weight of an eternally
renewed cross, indocile to its fate, mute, vexed no matter what, incapable of
growing according to the juice of this earth, encumbered, clipped, reduced,
in breach of its fauna and flora.

6
At the end of the small hours, this town sprawled—flat. . .
And in this inert town, this squalling throng so astonishingly detoured
from its cry like this town from its movement, from its meaning, not even
worried, detoured from its true cry, the only cry one would have wanted to
hear because it alone feels at home in this town; because one feels that it
inhabits some deep refuge of shadow and of pride, in this inert town, this
throng detoured from its cry of hunger, of poverty, of revolt, of hatred, this
throng so strangely chattering and mute.

7
In this inert town, this strange throng that does not huddle, does not
mix; clever at discovering the point of disincasement, of flight, of dodging.
This throng that does not know how to throng, this throng, one realizes, so
perfectly alone under the sun, like a woman one thought completely
occupied with the lyric cadence of her buttocks, who abruptly challenges a
hypothetical rain and enjoins it not to fall; or like a rapid sign of the cross
without perceptible motive; or like the sudden grave animality of a peasant,
urinating standing, her legs parted, stiff

8
In this inert town, this desolate throng under the sun, not connected with
anything that is expressed, asserted, released in broad earth daylight, its
own. Not with Josephine, Empress of the French, dreaming way up there
above the nigger scum. Nor with the liberator fixed in his whitewashed
stone liberation. Nor with the conquistador. Nor with this contempt, nor
with this freedom, nor with this audacity.

9
At the end of the small hours, this inert town and its beyond of lepers, of
consumption, of famines, of fears crouched in the ravines, of fears perched in
the trees, of fears dug in the ground, of fears adrift in the sky, of piled up
fears and their fumeroles of anguish.

10
At the end of the small hours the morne forgotten, forgetful of
exploding.

11
At the end of the small hours the morne in restless, docile hooves—its
malarial blood routs the sun with its overheated pulse.

12
At the end of the small hours the restrained conflagration of the morne,
like a sob gagged on the verge of a bloodthirsty burst, in quest of an ignition
that slips away and ignores itself.

13
At the end of the small hours, the morne crouching before bulimia on the
outlook for tuns and mills, slowly vomiting out its human fatigue, the morne
solitary and its blood shed, the morne bandaged in shade, the morne and its
ditches of fear, the morne and its great hands of wind.

14
At the end of the small hours, the famished morne and no one knows
better than this bastard morne why the suicide choked in complicity with his
hypoglossal jamming his tongue backward to swallow it; why a woman
seems to float belly up on the Capot River (her luminous obscure body
submissively organized at the command of her navel) but she is only a
bundle of sonorous water.

15
And neither the teacher in his classroom, nor the priest at catechism will
be able to get a word out of this sleepy little picaninny, no matter how
energetically they drum on his shorn skull, for starvation has quicksanded
his famished voice into the swamp of hunger (a word-one-single-word and
we-will-forget-about-Queen-Blanche-of-Castille, a word-one-single-word,
you-should see-this-little-savage-who-doesn’t-know-any-of-God’s-Ten-
Commandments),
for his voice gets lost in the swamp of hunger,
and there is nothing, really nothing to squeeze out of this little brat,
other than a hunger that can no longer climb to the rigging of his voice,
a sluggish flabby hunger,
a hunger buried in the depths of the Hunger of this famished morne.

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16
At the end of the small hours, the disparate stranding, the exacerbated
stench of corruption, the monstrous sodomies of the host and the sacrificing
priest, the impassable beakhead frames of prejudice and stupidity, the
prostitutions, the hypocrisies, the lubricities, the treasons, the lies, the
frauds, the concussions—the panting of a deficient cowardice, the heave-
holess enthusiasm of supernumerary sahibs, the greeds, the hysterias, the
perversions, the harlequinades of poverty, the cripplings, the pruritus, the
urticaria, the tepid hammocks of degeneracy. Right here the parade of
laughable and scrofulous buboes, the forced feeding of very strange
microbes, the poisons without known alexins, the sanies of really ancient
sores, the unforeseeable fermentations of putrescible species.

17
At the end of the small hours, the great still night, the stars deader than a
smashed balafo.

18
The teratical bulb of night, sprouted from our baseness and self-
denials. . .

19
And our idiotic and insane stunts to revive the golden splashing of
privileged moments, the umbilical cord restored to its ephemeral splendor,
the bread, and the wine of complicity, the bread, the wine, the blood of
veracious weddings.

20
And this joy of former times making me aware of my present poverty, a
bumpy road plunging into a hollow where it scatters a few shacks; an
indefatigable road charging at full speed a morne at the top of which it
brutally quicksands into a pool of clumsy houses, a road foolishly climbing,
recklessly descending, and the carcass of wood that I call “our house,”
comically perched on minute cement paws, its coiffure of corrugated iron in
the sun like a skin laid out to dry, the dining room, the rough floor where nail
heads gleam, the beams of pine and shadow across the ceiling, the spectral
straw chairs, the gray lamp light, the glossy flash of cockroaches in a
maddening buzz. . .

21
At the end of the small hours, this most essential land restored to my
gourmandize, not in diffuse tenderness, but the tormented sensual
concentration of the fat tits of the mornes with an occasional palm tree as
their hardened sprout, the jerky orgasm of torrents and from Trinité to
Grand-Rivière the hysterical grandsuck of the sea.

22
And time passed quickly, very quickly.
After August and mango trees decked out in all their lunules, September
begetter of cyclones, October igniter of sugarcane, November purring in the
distilleries, there came Christmas.
Christmas arrived, announcing itself first with a tingling of desires, a
thirst for new tendernesses, a burgeoning of vague dreams, then with a
purple rustle of its great joyous wings it had suddenly flown away, and after
that its abrupt fall out over the village making shack life burst like an
overripe pomegranate.
Christmas was not like other holidays. It didn’t like to gad about the
streets, to dance on public squares, to mount the carousel horses, to use the
crowd to pinch women, to hurl fireworks into the faces of the tamarind trees.
It had agoraphobia, Christmas did. What it wanted was a whole day of
bustling, preparing, a cooking and cleaning spree, endless jitters, about

not-having-enough,
about-running-short,
about- getting-bored,
then at evening an unimposing little church that would benevolently make
room for the laughter, the whispers, the secrets, the love talk, the gossip and
the guttural cacophony of a plucky singer and also boisterous pals and
shameless hussies and shacks up to their guts in succulent goodies, and not
stingy, and twenty people can crowd in, and the street is deserted, and the
village turns into a bouquet of singing, and you are cozy in there, and you eat
good, and you drink heartily, and there are blood sausages, one kind only
two fingers wide twined in coils, another broad and stocky, the mild one
tasting of wild thyme, the sharp one spiced to an incandescence, and
steaming coffee and sugared anisette, and milk punch, and the liquid sun of
rums, and all sorts of good things that drive your taste buds wild or dissolve
them into subtleties, or distill them to the point of ecstacy or cocoon them
with fragrances, and you laugh, and you sing, and the refrains flare on and
like coco palms:

ALLELUIA
KYRIE ELEISON … LEISON … LEISON,
CHRISTE ELEISON … LEISON … LEISON.

And not only do the mouths sing, but the hands, the feet, the buttocks,
the genitals, and your entire being that liquefies into sounds, voices and
rhythm.
At the peak of its ascent, joy bursts like a cloud. The songs don’t stop, but
roll now anxious and heavy through the valleys of fear, the tunnels of
anguish and the fires of hell.

And everybody starts pulling the nearest devil by the tail, until fear
imperceptibly fades in the fine sand lines of dream, and you really live as in a
dream, and you drink and you shout and you sing as in a dream, and doze
too as in a dream with rose petal eyelids, and the day comes velvety as a
sapodilla, and the liquid manure smell of the cacao trees, and the turkeys
shelling their red pustules in the sun, and the obsessive bells, and the rain,
the bells. . . the rain. . .
that tinkle, tinkle, tinkle. . .

23
At the end of the small hours, this town sprawled-flat. . .
It crawls on its hands with the slightest desire to drill the sky with a
stature of protest. The backs of the houses are frightened by the sky truffled
with fire, their feet by the drownings of the soil, they chose to perch
shallowly between surprises and treacheries. And yet the town still advances.
It even grazes every day further beyond its tide of tiled corridors, prudish
shutters, gluey courtyards, dripping paintwork. And petty hushed-up
scandals, petty unvoiced guilts, petty immense hatreds knead the narrow
streets into bumps and potholes where the wastewater grins longitudinally
through the turds. . .

24
At the end of the small hours, life prostrate, you don’t know how to
dispose of your aborted dreams, the river of life desperately torpid in its bed,
neither turgid nor low, hesitant to flow, pitifully empty, the impartial
heaviness of boredom, distributing shade equally on all things, the stagnant
air unbreeched by a limpid bird.

25
At the end of the small hours, another little house very bad-smelling in a
very narrow street, a miniscule house that harbors in its guts of rotten wood
dozens of rats and the turbulence of my six brothers and sisters, a cruel little
house whose demands panic the ends of our months and my temperamental
father gnawed by one persistent ache, I never knew which one, whom an
unexpected sorcery could lull to melancholy tenderness or drive to towering
flames of anger; and my mother whose legs pedal, pedal, day and night, for
our tireless hunger, I am even awakened at night by these tireless legs
pedaling by night and the bitter bite in the soft flesh of the night by a Singer
that my mother pedals, pedals for our hunger both day and night.

26
At the end of the small hours, beyond my father, my mother, the shack
chapped with blisters, like a peach tree afflicted with curl, and the thin roof,
patched with pieces of gasoline cans, which create swamps of rust in the
stinking sordid gray straw pulp, and when the wind whistles, these odds and
ends make a noise bizarre, first like the crackling of frying, then like a brand
dropped into water the smoke of its twigs flying up. . . And the bed of boards
from which my race arose, my whole entire race from this bed of boards,
with its kerosene case paws, as if it had elephantiasis, that bed, and its
kidskin, and its dry banana leaves, and its rags, yearning for a mattress, my
grandmother’s bed (Above the bed, in a jar full of oil a dim light whose flame
dances like a fat cockroach. . . on this jar in gold letters: MERCI).

27
And this rue Paille, this disgrace,
an appendage repulsive as the private parts of the village that extends right
and left, along the colonial road, the gray surge of its “shingled” roofs. Here
there are only straw roofs, spray-browned and wind-plucked.

28
Everyone despises rue Paille. That’s where the village youth go astray.
It’s there especially that the sea pours forth its garbage, its dead cats and
croaked dogs. For the street opens onto the beach, and the beach alone
cannot satisfy the sea’s foaming rage.
A blight this beach as well, with its piles of rotting muck, its furtive
rumps relieving themselves, and the sand is black, funereal, you’ve never
seen a sand so black, and the scum glides over it yelping, and the sea
pummels it like a boxer, or rather the sea is a huge dog licking and biting the
shins of the beach, biting them so persistently that it will end up devouring
it, for sure, the beach and rue Paille along with it.

29
At the end of the small hours, the wind of long ago—of betrayed trusts, of
uncertain evasive duty and that other dawn in Europe—arises. . .

30
To leave. My heart was humming with emphatic generosities. To leave. . .
I would arrive sleek and young in this land of mine and I would say to this
land whose loam is part of my flesh: “I have wandered for a long time and I
am coming back to the deserted hideousness of your sores.”
I would come to this land of mine and I would say to it: “Embrace me
without fear. . . And if all I can do is speak, it is for you I shall speak.”
And again I would say:
“My mouth shall be the mouth of those calamities that have no mouth, my
voice, the freedom of those who break down in the prison holes of despair.”
And on the way I would say to myself:
“And above all, my body as well as my soul beware of assuming the sterile
attitude of a spectator, for life is not a spectacle, a sea of miseries is not a
proscenium, a man screaming is not a dancing bear. . .”
And behold here I am come home!

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31
Once again this life hobbling before me, what am I saying this life, this
death, this death without meaning or piety, this death that so pathetically
falls short of greatness, the dazzling pettiness of this death, this death
hobbling from pettiness to pettiness; these shovelfuls of petty greeds over the
conquistador; these shovelfuls of petty flunkies over the great savage; these
shovelfuls of petty souls over the three-souled Carib,
and all these deaths futile
absurdities under the splashing of my open conscience
tragic futilities lit up by this single noctiluca
and I alone, sudden stage of these small hours
where the apocalypse of monsters cavorts
then, capsized, hushes
warm election of cinders, of ruins and collapses

32
-One more thing! only one, but please make it only one; I have no right
to measure life by my sooty finger span; to reduce myself to this little
ellipsoidal nothing, trembling four fingers above the line, I a man to so
overturn creation, that I include myself between latitude and longitude!

33
At the end of the small hours,
the male thirst and the desire stubborn,
here I am, severed from the cool oases of brotherhood
this so modest nothing bristles with hard splinters
this too sure horizon shudders like a jailer.

34
Your last triumph, tenacious crow of Treason.
What is mine, these few thousand deathbearers who mill in the calabash
of an island and mine too the archipelago arched with an anguished desire to
negate itself, as if from maternal anxiety to protect this impossibly delicate
tenuity separating one America from the other; and these loins which secrete
for Europe the hearty liquor of a Gulf Stream, and one of the two slopes of
incandescence between which the Equator tightropewalks toward Africa.
And my non-closure island, its brave audacity standing at the stern of this
Polynesia, before it, Guadeloupe split in two down its dorsal line and equal in
poverty to us, Haiti where negritude rose for the first time and stated that it
believed in its humanity and the funny little tail of Florida where the
strangulation of a nigger is being completed, and Africa gigantically
caterpillaring up to the Hispanic foot of Europe, its nakedness where Death
scythes widely.

35
And I say to myself Bordeaux and Nantes and Liverpool
and New York and San Francisco
not an inch of this world devoid of my fingerprint and my calcaneus on the
spines of skyscrapers and my filth in the glitter of gems!
Who can boast of being better off than I?
Virginia. Tennessee. Georgia. Alabama.
Monstrous putrefactions of revolts stymied,
marshes of putrid blood
trumpets absurdly muted
Land red, sanguineous, consanguineous land

36
What is also mine: a little cell in the Jura,
a little cell, the snow lines it with white bars
the snow is a white jailer mounting guard before a prison
What is mine
a lone man imprisoned in whiteness
a lone man defying the white screams of white death
(TOUSSAINT, TOUSSAINT LOUVERTURE)
a man who mesmerizes the white sparrow hawk of white death
a man alone in the sterile sea of white sand
an old coon standing up to the waters of the sky

Death traces a shining circle above this man
death stars softly above his head
death breathes in the ripened cane of his arms
death gallops in the prison like a white horse
death gleams in the dark like the eyes of a cat
death hiccups like water under the Keys
death is a struck bird
death wanes
death vacillates
death is a shy patyura
death expires in a white pool of silence.

37
Swellings of night in the four corners of these small hours
convulsions of congealed death
tenacious fate
screams erect from mute earth
the splendor of this blood will it not burst forth?

38
And now a last raspberry:
to the sun (Not strong enough to inebriate my very tough head)
to the mealy night with its golden hatchings of erratic fireflies
to the chevelure trembling at the very top of the cliff,
where the wind leaps in bursts of salty cavalries
clearly I read in my pulse that for me exoticism is no provender.

39
Leaving Europe utterly twisted with screams
silent currents of despair
leaving timid Europe which collects and proudly overrates itself
I summon this beautiful egotism that ventures forth
and my ploughing reminds me of an implacable cutwater.

40
So much blood in my memory! In my memory are lagoons. They are covered
with death’s-heads. They are not covered with water lilies.
In my memory are lagoons. No women’s loin-cloths spread out on their
shores.
My memory is encircled with blood. My memory has a belt of corpses!

41
and machine gun fire of rum barrels brilliantly sprinkling
our ignominious revolts, amorous glances swooning
from having swigged too much ferocious freedom

42
(niggers-are-all-alike, I-tell-you
vices-all-the- -vices, believe-you-me
nigger-smell, that’s-what-makes-cane-grow
remember-the-old-saying:
beat-a-nigger, and you feed him)

43
around rocking chairs contemplating the voluptousness of quirts. . .

44
I circle about, an unappeased filly
Or quite simply as they love to see us!
Cheerfully obscene, sweet on jazz to cover their
extreme boredom.
I can boogie-woogie, do the Lindy-hop and tap dance.
For a special treat the muting of our
groans muffled with wah-wah. Wait. . .
Everything is as it should be. My good angel grazes
the neon. I swallow drumsticks. My dignity
wallows in puke. . .

45
Sun, Angel Sun, curly Angel of the Sun.
For a leap beyond the sweet and greenish sculling of the waters of
abjection!
But I approached the wrong sorcerer. On this exorcised earth, cast adrift
from its precious malignant purpose, this voice that cries, little by little
hoarse, vainly, vainly hoarse, and there remain only the accumulated
droppings of our lies—and they do not respond.

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46
What madness to dream up a marvelous entrechat above the baseness!
By Gad the Whites are great warriors
hosannah to the master and to the nigger-gelder!
Victory! Victory I tell you: the conquered are content!
Joyous stenches and songs of mud!

47
By a sudden and beneficent inner revolution I now honor my repugnant
ugliness.

48
On Midsummer Day, as soon as the first shadows fall across the village of
Gros-Morne, hundreds of dealers gather to exchange their horses on rue “DE
PROFUNDIS” a name at least honest enough to announce an onrush from
the shoals of Death. And truly it is from Death, from its thousand petty local
forms (cravings unsatisfied by Para grass and tipsy bondage to the
distilleries) that the astonishing cavalry of impetuous nags surges
unenclosed toward the great-life. What galloping! what neighing! what
sincere urinating! what prodigious droppings! “a fine horse difficult to
mount!”—“A proud mare sensitive to the spur!”—“A fearless foal superbly
pasterned!”
And the shrewd fellow whose waistcoat displays a proud watch chain,
palms off, instead of full udders, youthful mettle, genuine contours, either
the systematic puffiness from obliging wasps, or obscene stings from ginger,
or the helpful distribution of several gallons of sugared water.

49
I refuse to pass off my puffiness for authentic glory.
And I laugh at my former puerile fantasies.
No, we’ve never been Amazons of the king of Dahomey, nor princes
of Ghana with eight hundred camels, nor wise men in Timbuktu under Askia
the Great, nor the architects of Djenne, nor Mahdis, nor warriors. We
don’t feel under our armpit the itch of those who in the old days carried a
lance. And since I have sworn to leave nothing out of our history (I who love
nothing better than a sheep grazing his own afternoon shadow), I may as
well confess that we were at all times pretty mediocre dishwashers,
shoeblacks without ambition, at best conscientious sorcerers and the only
unquestionable record that we broke was that of endurance under the
chicote. . .
And this land screamed for centuries that we are bestial brutes; that the
human pulse stops at the gates of the barracoon; that we are walking
compost hideously promising tender cane and silky cotton and they would
brand us with red-hot irons and we would sleep in our excrement and they
would sell us on the town square and an ell of English cloth and salted meat
from Ireland cost less than we did, and this land was calm, tranquil,
repeating that the spirit of the Lord was in its acts.

50
The slave ship! proclaim my certain and darkest instincts, the sails of
black clouds, the polymasting of somber forests and the Calebars’ harsh
magnificence, a glaring memory of the whitening prow—this skeleton!

51
I hear coming up from the hold enchained curses, the death gasps of the
dying, the sound of someone thrown into the sea. . . the baying of a woman
in labor. . . the scraping of fingernails searching for throats. . . the flouts of
the whip. . . the seething of vermin amidst the weariness. . .

52
Nothing could ever lift us toward a noble hopeless adventure.
So be it. So be it.
I am of no nationality recognized by the chancelleries
I defy the craniometer. Homo sum etc. . .
Let them serve and betray and die
So be it. So be it. It was written in the shape of their pelvis.
And I, and I,
I who sang the hard fist
You must know the extent of my cowardice.
One evening on the streetcar facing me, a nigger.

A nigger big as a pongo trying to make himself small on the streetcar
bench. He was trying to leave behind on this grimy bench his gigantic legs
and his trembling ravenous boxer hands. And everything had left him, was
leaving him. His nose which looked like a drifting peninsula and even his
negritude discolored as a result of tireless tawing. And the tawer was
Poverty. A big unexpected long-eared bat whose claw marks in his face had
scabbed over into crusty islands. Or rather, Poverty was, like a tireless
worker, laboring over some hideous cartouche. One could easily see how that
industrious and malevolent thumb had kneaded bumps into his brow, bored
two parallel and troubling tunnels in his nose, over-exaggerated his lips, and
in a masterpiece of caricature, planed, polished, and varnished the tiniest
cutest little ear in all creation.

He was a gangly nigger without rhythm or measure.
A nigger with a voice fogged over by alcohol and poverty.
A nigger whose eyes rolled a bloodshot weariness.
A shameless nigger and his toes sneered in a rather stinking way at the
bottom of the yawning lair of his shoes.
Poverty, without any question, had knocked itself out to finish him off.
It had dug the socket, had painted it with a rouge of dust mixed with
rheum.
It had stretched an empty space between the solid hinge of the jaw and
the bones in an old tarnished cheek. Had planted over it the small shiny
stakes of a two- or three-day beard. Had panicked his heart, bent his back.

And the whole thing added up perfectly to a hideous nigger, a grouchy
nigger, a melancholy nigger, a slouched nigger, his hands joined in prayer on
a knobby stick. A nigger shrouded in an old threadbare coat. A comical and
ugly nigger, with some women behind me sneering at him.
Me I turned, my eyes proclaiming that I had nothing in common with
this monkey.

He was COMICAL AND UGLY,
COMICAL AND UGLY for sure.
I displayed a big complicitous smile. . .
My cowardice rediscovered!
Hail to the three centuries that uphold my civil rights and my minimized
blood.
My heroism, what a farce!
This town fits me to a t.

And my soul is prostrate. Prostrate like this town in its refuse and mud.
This town, my face of mud.
The baptismal water dries on my forehead.
For my face I demand the vivid homage of spit!…
So, being what we are, ours the warrior thrust, the triumphant knee, the
well-plowed plains of the future!
Look, I’d rather admit to uninhibited ravings, my heart in my brain like a
drunken knee.

53
My star now, the funereal menfenil.

54
And on this former dream my cannibalistic cruelties.
Bullets are in the mouth thick saliva
our heart from daily lowness bursts
the continents break the fragile bond of isthmuses
lands explode in accordance with the fatal division of rivers
and the morne which for centuries kept its scream within itself, draws and
quarters the silence in its turn
and this people an ever-rebounding valour!
and our limbs vainly disjointed by the most refined tortures, and life even
more impetuously springing up from this dunghill—unexpected as a soursop
amidst the decomposition of breadfruit!

55
On this dream so old in me my cannibalistic cruelties

56
I was hiding behind a stupid vanity
destiny called me I was hiding behind it
and suddenly there was man on the ground! His feeble defenses scattered,
his sacred maxims trampled underfoot, his pedantic rhetoric so much hot air
through each wound.
There was man on the ground
and his soul appears naked
and destiny triumphs in watching this soul which
defied its metamorphosis in the ancestral quagmire.

57
I say that this is right.
My back will victoriously exploit the chalaza of fibers.
I will deck out my natural obsequiousness with gratitude
And the silver-braided bullshit of the postillion of Havana, lyric baboon
pimp for the splendor of slavery, will be more than a match for my
enthusiasm.

58
I say that this is right.
I live for the flattest part of my soul.
For the dullest part of my flesh!

59
Tepid small hours of ancestral heat and fear
I now tremble with the collective trembling
that our docile blood sings in the madrepore.

60
And these tadpoles hatched in me by my prodigious ancestry!

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61
those who invented neither powder nor compass
those who could harness neither steam nor electricity
those who explored neither the seas nor the sky
but knew in its most minute corners the land of suffering
those who have known voyages only through uprootings
those who have been broken in by so much kneeling
those whom they domesticated and Christianized
those whom they inoculated with degeneracy
tom-toms of empty hands
inane tom-toms of resounding sores
burlesque tom-toms of tabetic treason

62
Tepid small hours of ancestral heat and fear
overboard with my alien riches
overboard with my genuine falseness

63
But what strange pride of a sudden illuminates me?

64
O friendly light
O fresh source of light
those who invented neither powder nor compass
those who could harness neither steam nor electricity
those who explored neither the seas nor the sky
but those without whom the earth would not be the earth
gibbosity all the more beneficent as more and more the earth deserts the
earth
silo where that which is earthiest about earth ferments and ripens
my negritude is not a stone, its deafness hurled against the clamor of the day
my negritude is not a leukoma of dead liquid over the earth’s dead eye
my negritude is neither tower nor cathedral

65
it takes root in the red flesh of the soil
it takes root in the ardent flesh of the sky
it breaks through opaque prostration with its upright patience.

66
Eia for the royal Cailcedra!
Eia for those who never invented anything
for those who never explored anything
for those who never conquered anything

67
but who yield, seized, to the essence of all things
ignorant of surfaces but captivated by the motion of all things
indifferent to conquering, but playing the game of the world
truly the eldest sons of the world
porous to all the breathing of the world
fraternal locus for all the breathing of the world
drainless channel for all the water of the world
spark of the sacred fire of the world
flesh of the world’s flesh pulsating with the very motion of the world!

68
Tepid small hours of ancestral virtues
Blood! Blood! all our blood aroused by the male heart of the sun
those who know about the femininity of the moon’s oily body
the reconciled exultation of antelope and star
those whose survival walks on the germination of the grass!

69
Eia perfect circle of the world and enclosed concordance!

70
Hear the white world
horribly weary from its immense effort
its rebellious joints cracking under the hard stars
its blue steel rigidities piercing the mystic flesh
hear its proditorious victories touting its defeats
hear the grandiose alibis for its pitiful stumbling

71
Pity for our omniscient and naïve conquerors!

72
Eia for those who never invented anything
for those who have never explored anything
for those who never conquered anything

73
Eia for joy
Eia for love
Eia for grief and its dugs of reincarnated tears

74
And here at the end of this small hour my virile prayer
that I hear neither the laughter nor the screams, my eyes fixed on this town
that I prophesy, beautiful,

75
grant me the courage of the martyr
grant me the savage faith of the sorcerer
grant my hands the power to mold
grant my soul the sword’s temper
I won’t flinch. Make my head into a figurehead
and as for me, my heart, make me not into a father nor a brother,
nor a son, but into the father, the brother, the son,
nor a husband, but the lover of this unique people.

0_550_414

76
Make me resist all vanity, but espouse its genius like the fist the extended
arm!
Make me a steward of its blood
make me a trustee of its resentment
make me into a man of termination
make me into a man of initiation
make me into a man of meditation
but also make me into a man of germination

77
make me into the executor of these lofty works

78
the time has come to gird one’s loins like a brave man.

79
But in doing so my heart, preserve me from all hatred
do not make me into that man of hatred for whom I feel only hatred
for sheltered as I am in this unique race
you still know my catholic love
you know that it is not from hatred of other races
that I demand of myself to be a digger for this unique race
that what I want
is for universal hunger
for universal thirst

80
to summon it free at last

81
to generate from its intimate closeness
the succulence of fruit.

82
And see the tree of our hands!
it turns for all, the wounds cut in its trunk
the soil works for all
and toward the branches a headiness of fragrant precipitation!

83
But before reaching the shores of the future orchards
grant that I deserve those on their belt of sea
grant me my heart while awaiting the earth
grant me on the ocean sterile
but somewhere caressed by the promise of the clew-line
grant me on this diverse ocean
the obstinacy of the proud pirogue
and its marine vigor.

84
See it advance rising and falling on the pulverized wave
see it dance the sacred dance before the grayness of the village
see it trumpet from a vertiginous conch
see the conch gallop up to the uncertainty of the mornes
and see twenty times over the paddles vigorously plow the water
the pirogue rears under the attack of the swells, deviates for an instant,
tries to escape, but the paddle’s rough caress turns it,
then it charges, a shudder runs along the wave’s spine,
the sea slobbers and rumbles
the pirogue like a sleigh glides onto the sand.

85
At the end of these small hours, my virile prayer:

86
grant me the muscles of this pirogue on the raging sea
and the irresistible gaiety of the conch of good tidings!

87
Look, now I am only a man (no degradation, no spit perturbs him)
now I am only a man who accepts emptied of anger
(nothing left in his heart but immense love)
I accept. . . I accept. . . totally, without reservation. . .
my race that no ablution of hyssop mixed with lilies could purify
my race pitted with blemishes
my race ripe grapes for drunken feet
my queen of spittle and leprosy
my queen of whips and scrofula
my queen of squama and chloasma

(oh those queens I once loved in the remote gardens of spring against the
illumination of all the candles of the chestnut trees!).
I accept. I accept.
and the flogged nigger saying “Forgive me master”
and the twenty-nine legal blows of the whip
and the four-foot-high prison cell
and the spiked carcan
and the hamstringing of my runaway audacity
and the fleur de lys flowing from the red iron into the fat of my shoulder
and Monsieur VAULTIER MAYENCOURT’S kennel where I barked six
poodle months
and Monsieur BRAFIN
and Monsieur de FOURNIOL

and Monsieur de la MAHAUDIERE
and the yaws
the mastiff
the suicide
the promiscuity
the bootkin
the shakles
the rack
the cippus
the headscrew

88
And my special geography too; the world map made for my own use, not
tinted with the arbitrary colors of scholars, but with the geometry of my
spilled blood

89
and the determination of my biology not a prisoner to a facial angle, to a
type of hair, to a well-flattened nose, to a clearly melanian coloring, and
negritude, no longer a cephalic index, gold plasma, or soma, but measured by
the compass of suffering

90
and the Negro every day more base, more cowardly, more sterile, less
profound, more spilled out of himself, more separated from himself, more
wily with himself, less immediate to himself

1969_15_DJ_RR01

91
I accept, I accept it all

92
and far from the palatial sea that foams under the suppurating syzygy of
blisters, the body of my country miraculously laid in the despair of my arms,
its bones shattered and in its veins the blood hesitating like a drop of vegetal
milk at the injured point of a bulb. . . Suddenly now strength and life assail
me like a bull and I revive ONAN who entrusted his sperm to the fecund
earth and the water of life circumvents the papilla of the morne, and now all
the veins and veinlets are bustling with new blood and the enormous
breathing lung of cyclones and the fire hoarded in volcanoes and the gigantic
seismic pulse that now beats the measure of a living body in my firm
embrace.

93
And we are standing now, my country and I, hair in the wind, my hand puny
in its enormous fist and the strength is not in us, but above us, in a voice that
drills the night and the hearing like the penetrance of an apocalyptic wasp.
And the voice proclaims that for centuries Europe has force-fed us with lies
and bloated us with pestilence,
for it is not true that the work of man is done
that we have no business being in the world
that we parasite the world
that it is enough for us to heel to the world

94
whereas the work of man has only begun

95
and man still must overcome all the interdictions wedged in the recesses of
his fervor
and no race has a monopoly on beauty, on intelligence, on strength
and there is room for everyone at the convocation of conquest and we know
now that the sun turns around our earth lighting the parcel designated by
our will alone and that every star falls from sky to earth at our omnipotent
command.

96
I now see the meaning of this ordeal: my country is the “lance of night” of my
Bambara ancestors.
It shrinks and its tip desperately retreats toward the haft when it is sprinkled
with chicken blood and it states that its temperament requires the blood of
man, his fat, his liver, his heart, not chicken blood.
And I seek for my country not date hearts, but men’s hearts which in order to
enter the silver cities through the great trapezoidal gate beat with virile
blood, and as my eyes sweep my kilometers of paternal earth I number its
sores almost joyfully and I pile one on top of another like rare species, and
my total is ever lengthened by unexpected mintings of baseness.

And there are those who will never get over not being made in the likeness of
God but of the devil, those who believe that being a nigger is like being a
second-class clerk: waiting for a better deal and upward mobility; those who
bang the chamade before themselves, those who live in a corner of their own
deep pit; those who drape themselves in proud pseudomorphosis; those
who say to Europe: “You see I can bow and scrape, like you I pay my
respects, in short I am not different from you; pay no attention to my black
skin: the sun scorched me.”
And there is the nigger pimp, the nigger askari, and all the zebras shaking
themselves in various ways to get rid of their stripes in a dew of fresh milk.

97
And in the midst of all that I say hurray! my grandfather dies, I say hurray
the old negritude progressively cadavers itself.
No bones about it: he was a good nigger.
The Whites say it was a good nigger, a really good nigger, massa’s good ole
darky.
I say hurray!
He was a good nigger indeed
poverty had wounded his chest and back and they had stuffed into his poor
brain that a fatality no one could collar weighed on him; that he had no
control over his own destiny; that an evil Lord had for all eternity inscribed
Thou Shall Not in his pelvic constitution; that he must be a good nigger;
must honestly put up with being a good nigger; must sincerely believe in his
worthlessness, without any perverse curiosity to verify the fatidic
hieroglyphs.

98
He was a very good nigger

99
and it never occurred to him that he could hoe, dig, cut anything, anything
else really than insipid cane.

100
He was a very good nigger.

101
And they threw stones at him, chunks of scrap iron, shards of bottles, but
neither these stones, nor this scrap iron, nor these bottles. . .
O peaceful years of God on this terraqueous clod!

102
And the whip argued with the bombilation of the flies over the sugary dew of
our sores

103
I say hurray! The old negritude progressively cadavers itself
the horizon breaks, recoils and expands
and through the shredding of clouds the flashing of a sign
the slave ship cracks from one end to the other. . . Its belly convulses and
resounds. . . The ghastly tapeworm of its cargo gnaws the fetid guts of the
strange suckling of the sea!

104
And neither the joy of sails filled like a pocket stuffed with doubloons, nor
the tricks played on the dangerous stupidity of the patrol ships prevent it
from hearing the threat of its intestinal rumblings.

105
In vain to amuse himself the captain hangs the biggest loudmouth nigger
from the main yard or throws him into the sea, or feeds him to his mastiffs.

51d35d12fdf1bad6fded9f39a0c90282--centre-pompidou-art-moderne

106
Reeking of fried onions the nigger scum discovers in its spilled blood the
bitter taste of freedom

107
And the nigger scum is on its feet

108
the seated nigger scum
unexpectedly standing
standing in the hold
standing in the cabins
standing on the deck
standing in the wind
standing under the sun
standing in the blood

standing

and

free

standing and no longer a poor creature in its maritime freedom and
destitution gyrating in perfect drift
and there it is:
most unexpectedly standing
standing in the rigging
standing at the tiller
standing at the map
standing under the stars

standing

and

free

and the lustral ship advances fearlessly over the crumbling waters.
And now our ignominious plops
are now falling and rotting away

109
rally to my side my dances
my bad-nigger dances
the carcan-break dance
the prison-spring dance
the it-is-beautiful-good-and-legitimate-to-be- a-nigger dance
Rally to my side my dances and let the sun bounce on the racket of my hands
But no the unequal sun is not enough for me

coil, wind, around my new growth
light on my cadenced fingers
To you I surrender my conscience and its fleshy rhythm
To you I surrender the fire in which my weakness sparkles
To you I surrender the chain gang
To you the swamps
To you the non-tourist of the triangular circuit

Devour wind
To you I surrender my abrupt words
Devour and encoil yourself
And coiling round embrace me with a more ample shudder
Embrace me unto furious us
Embrace, embrace US
But having also bitten us!

To the blood of our blood bitten us!
Embrace, my purity mingles only with your purity
so then embrace!
Like a field of upright filaos
at dusk
for multicolored purities.
And bind, bind me without remorse

bind me with your vast arms of luminous clay
bind my black vibration to the very navel of the world
Bind, bind me, bitter brotherhood
Then, strangling me with your lasso of stars
rise, Dove
rise
rise
rise

I follow you who are imprinted on my ancestral white cornea
Rise sky licker
And the great black hole where a moon ago I wanted to drown
It is there I will now fish
the malevolent tongue of the night in its immobile veerition!


 

NOTEBOOK OF A RETURN
TO THE
NATIVE LAND

 

In August 1939, Paris readers of the avant-garde literary magazine Volontés opened issue 20 to find a long poem by a student who had just left the École Normale Supérieure to return to Martinique. Aimé Césaire’s “Cahier d’un retour au pays natal” (“Notebook of a Return to the Native Land”) was laid out in 109 stanzas in four sequences of mixed prose and verse. The rhythms of the stanzas recalled the long lines Paul Claudel had pioneered in his Cinq grandes odes (Five Great Odes) at the beginning of the last century. Claudel had laid claim to a physiological grounding of his rhythms in the diastolic/systolic rhythm of the human heart. The linking devices between the stanzas suggest Charles Péguy’s insistent use of repetition, anaphora, and paratactic construction in poems much longer than Césaire’s that were highly praised between the two world wars. Passages in the later sequences of the 1939 “Notebook” indicate that Césaire had taken to heart Rimbaud’s goal of visionary poetry. In denouncing the effects of colonialism on his Caribbean island home, Césaire demonstrated that he had also understood the corrosive poetics of Lautréamont.

Césaire postponed identifying his speaker in order to foreground the collective suffering of colonial society. The first twenty-four stanzas are a panoramic presentation of the island—poor, diseased, lacking a real identity—in which personification allows the hills ( mornes ), the shacks, and the unsanitary conditions of the little towns that grew up around the sugar plantations to express the physical degradation and the moral ugliness resulting from three centuries of colonial neglect. The population is present in the aggregate, an undifferentiated “one” or “you” that is then disarticulated into body parts—mouths, hands, feet, buttocks, genitals—in the Christmas festivity section. Punctuation is typical of parataxis: commas, semicolons, colons, which serve to pile up effects until they overwhelm the reader’s senses. The “I” emerges only in stanza 20, where Césaire focuses on a foul-smelling shack as a synecdoche of colonial society. Introduction of the speaker’s family at this point stresses the mother’s sacrifice for her children and the father’s moods alternating between “melancholy tenderness” and “towering flames of anger.” The transition from the first to the second sequence involves a shift of focus away from the sickness of colonial society to the speaker’s own delusions. He alludes in stanza 29 to “betrayed trusts” and “uncertain evasive duty.” He imagines his own heroic return to the island: “I would arrive sleek and young in this land of mine and I would say to this land. . . .” In the course of the second sequence, the speaker comes very gradually to a realization of his own alienation as a consequence of colonial education. Moral prostration and a diminished sense of self are related directly to the colonial process and its cultural institutions. The same stanza includes the long narrative segment devoted to the old black man on the streetcar. Césaire multiplies signifiers of blackness that clearly denote both his physical and moral self. Centuries of dehumanization have produced a “masterpiece of caricature.”

The third sequence introduces a series of interrogations about the meaning of blackness or negritude in the context of the speaker’s alienation from those values he will posit as African. From this point on, the speaker adopts a prayerful attitude that is signalled formally by ritual language. Stanzas 64 through 67 afford a positive response to the negative characteristics of colonized peoples expressed in stanza 61. In this new sequence, Césaire evokes the “Ethiopian” peoples of Africa, whose fundamental difference from Hamitic peoples he learned from Leo Frobenius’s book on African civilization. Suzanne Césaire described these traits in Tropiques : “Ethiopian civilization is tied to the plant, to the vegetative cycle. // It is dreamlike, mystical and turned inward. The Ethiopian does not seek to understand phenomena, to seize and dominate exterior reality. It gives itself over to living a life identical to that of the plant, confident in life’s continuity: germinate, grow, flower, fruit, and the cycle begins again” (GCD). The third sequence sets up a contrapuntal structure in which the Ethiopian characteristics of sub-Saharan Africans, as the Césaires understood them, are opposed positively to the Splengerian evocation of European decadence found in stanzas 39 and 70. A reversal of attitude on the part of the speaker, who in stanza 61 could see only the negative connotations of these same characteristics, results from this dynamic. The beginning of his own personal transformation shows him that these peoples are “truly the eldest sons of the world” and, indeed, the “flesh of the world’s flesh pulsating with the very motion of the world.”

A dozen stanzas, from 80 to 91, detail the sufferings of African slaves torn from their native cultures to toil, suffer, and die in the plantations of the Americas from Brazil through the West Indies to the southern United States. Names of diseases are enumerated like rosary beads in stanza 87 before the speaker intones a litany of the punishments permitted by the Black Code that governed slaves’ lives until abolition in 1848. No doubt because of stress placed on the political implications of the version published in 1956, the network of religious allusion in which Césaire’s denunciation of slavery is couched has gone largely unnoticed. It is probable that Césaire intended to give voice to Du Bois’s double consciousness. His goal in 1939 was surely to create for colonized blacks in the French empire a version of Alain Locke’s New Negro. Like many modernists in the English-speaking world, he used the language of religion—or, more accurately, a comparative mythology that includes the Bible—to elaborate a vocabulary and syntax of spiritual renewal. As the penultimate sequence of the “Notebook” comes to its climax, the speaker prepares to undergo a profound transformation. Stanzas 88 and 89 present the geography of suffering black humanity. The latter stanza replies directly to the claims made by “scientific” racism in stanza 52 in the context of the speaker’s assimilationist delirium. His infernal descent hits bottom in stanza 90: “and the Negro every day more base, more cowardly, more sterile, less profound, more spilled out of himself, more separated from himself, more wily with himself, less immediate to himself.” The isolated line that constitutes stanza 91 reiterates the spiritual motif of sacrifice: “I accept, I accept it all.” The process of anagnorisis is then complete; with self-awareness comes a new consciousness of what is at stake. The speaker must, in conclusion, reach a position that transcends the colonial dead end.

The speaker’s spiritual renewal opens with a pietà. The body of his country, its bones broken, is placed in his despairing arms. In stanza 92, the life force overwhelms him like some cosmic bull that lends its regenerative power. The initially bizarre image of the speaker spilling his seed upon the ground like the biblical Onan invites the reader to consider a far more primitive scene of the fecund earth being impregnated by the speaker’s sperm. The round shape of the mornes , which early on had assumed a symbolic role in the geography of the island, now signifies the breast whose nipple is surrounded by a life-giving force. The entire island becomes a living, sexualized being that responds to the speaker’s firm embrace. Cyclones are its great breath, and volcanoes contain the seismic pulse of this primal mother goddess with whom the speaker breaks the taboo of incest. The consequences of this life-giving embrace are both immediate and transformative. Already in stanza 93, the island is standing erect, side by side with her lover-son who through stanza 96 will denounce the centuries-old process of pseudomorphosis.

Pseudomorphosis was readily identifiable in 1939 as a key word in the lexicon of Oswald Spengler, whose Decline of the West was much discussed between the two world wars. By including this technical term toward the end of the third sequence of his long poem, Césaire named the process by which the speaker and his island society had come to be physically ill, morally prostrate, and ideologically deluded. In Césaire’s view, colonial society had been impeded from developing its own original forms and institutions by the imposition of French cultural norms on a population transported from Africa. Négritude as it is presented in the poem did not yet exist in 1939, still less was it the harbinger of any movement. Négritude in the 1939 “Notebook” is the ideal result of an inner transformation that must overthrow the old behaviors ( la vieille négritude ) so that a new black humanity (negritude in its positive sense) might emerge.

Césaire finally exorcises the memory of the slave ship in stanzas 103–105. He first announces its death throes: “The ghastly tapeworm of its cargo gnaws the fetid guts of the strange suckling of the sea!” He then details the horrors inflicted upon slaves carried on ships surprised on the high seas after the abolition of the trade. The sole surviving edited typescript is accompanied by a manuscript conclusion that begins with the last five lines of stanza 108. In an accompanying letter to the editor of Volontés, Césaire called his new ending “more conclusive” than the one he had originally submitted for publication. In the final stanza, the speaker identifies with the mauvais nègre who calls all of nature into play during his transformation. He enjoins the spirit of the air to take over from an unreliable sun: “encoil yourself,” “devour,” “embrace,” and especially “bind me.” The images of binding by the wind (6 repetitions) complete the series begun by “devour” and “encoil.” The speaker is to be bound to his people in a sacrificial act that sanctifies the transition from individual to collective identity. If the reader has followed the multiple biblical allusions that have sustained the vehicle of this transformation, it becomes clear in the final dramatic stanza that the Holy Spirit of Christianity has been supplanted by an ancient divinity of the natural world. This is particularly apparent in the final image of a celestial Dove that, after ritually strangling the speaker with its lasso of stars, bears him up to the heavens. After expressing an earlier desire to drown himself in despair, the speaker utters a final sybilline phrase that brings the poem to its abrupt conclusion: “It is there I will now fish / the malevolent tongue of the night in its immobile veerition!”

The publication history of the Cahier/Notebook in French presents the reader with a palimpsest in which each subsequent version (two in 1947, one in 1956) foregrounds new elements while pushing others into the background. The New York bilingual edition published by Brentano’s in January 1947 is fundamentally different from all others in its allegiance to surrealist poetics and radical individualism. In October 1943, after revising the 1939 text for publication in New York, Césaire wrote that “To Maintain Poetry” one must “defend oneself against social concerns by creating a zone of incandescence, on the near side of which, within which there flowers in terrible security the unheard blossom of the ‘I’. . . .” With respect to the 1939 text, Césaire proceeded in 1947 by accretion, adding new elements to heighten a poem that he intended to remove even further from socio-political concerns. Specifically, he inserted at the beginning of the third movement of the poem, at stanza 63, a sequence of some fifty stanzas that he had published in 1942 under the title “In the Guise of a Literary Manifesto.” In the wartime magazine Tropiques, it was dedicated to André Breton. The effect of the new passage is precisely that described in the excerpt from “To Maintain Poetry” quoted above. When the Brentano’s text was printed in January 1947, it was already anachronistic. It embodied Césaire’s commitment to the surrealist program of psychic liberation and freedom from constraints of all types during the second world war.

The first Paris edition of the Cahier , published by Bordas just weeks after the New York edition but prepared some four years later when the poet was a sitting Communist member of the French legislature, is clearly a transitional version. We can locate it midway between the spiritual quest of the 1939 text and the politically committed text of 1956, both in its formal and its ideological aspects. Formally, the long sequence adapted from “In the Guise of a Literary Manifesto” was moved from the third to the second movement of the poem, beginning at stanza 37, so as to give the impression that the speaker’s transformation has already begun at that early stage. Still more conclusively, Césaire wrote a new initial stanza, the effect of which was to disrupt the impersonal tone of the entire first movement, from which the “I” was absent from 1939 through the New York edition of 1947. All readers of the post-1956 editions of the poem recall it because of its aggressive tenor: 

At the end of daybreak . . .
Beat it, I said to him, you cop, you lousy pig, beat it, I detest the flunkies of order and the cockchafers of hope. Beat it, evil grigri, you bedbug of a petty monk. Then I turned toward paradises lost for him and his kin, calmer than the face of a woman telling lies, and there, rocked by the flux of a never exhausted thought I nourished the wind, I unlaced the monsters and heard rise, from the other side of disaster, a river of turtledoves and savanna clover which I carry forever in my depths height-deep as the twentieth floor of the most arrogant houses and as a guard against the putrefying force of crepuscular surroundings, surveyed night and day by a cursed venereal sun.

One can scarcely overestimate the effect of this passage, which situates the speaker personally and politically over against a society that is policed by “the flunkies of order.” Moreover, on the threshold of this new iteration of the poem, the speaker already knows the lessons revealed only in the conclusion of the 1939 text. As a frame tale, this vision worthy of Lautréamont places in a recent past the evocation of the sick colony (stanzas 1-24) that was in fact the narrative present of the poem in its two earlier versions. Finally, readers of The Miraculous Weapons , published just a year earlier, could recognize in the “other side of disaster” one of Césaire’s recurring metaphors for the slave trade and its consequences. The frame tale inaugurated by the new overture to the Cahier/Notebook was completed in the 1947 Bordas edition by four new stanzas that Césaire placed strategically just prior to the finale:

by the clinking noon sea
by the burgeoning midnight sun
listen sparrow hawk that holds the keys to the orient

by the disarmed day
by the stony spurt of the rain
listen dogfish that watches over the occident

listen white dog of the north, black serpent of the south
that cinches the sky girdle

and for this reason, [white-toothed] Lord, the frail-necked men receive and perceive deadly triangular calm
This new material contained a political allegory alien to earlier texts of the poem. In the context of the looming Cold War, images of whiteness, predatory dogs, and dogfish sharks designated clearly enough the capitalist world of the West that Césaire set over against the Soviet “sparrow hawk that holds the keys to the orient.” Political allegory was absent from the poetics of the Cahier/Notebook from 1939 to the 1947 New York edition. Still more important perhaps was the rhythmic break the new material introduced just prior to the speaker’s final revelatory vision. By redirecting the reader’s attention from the spiritual transformation of the speaker onto a political plane, the frame of reference and the conditions for producing meaning were strategically modified. The Bordas text thus represents both a denial and a reorientation of the poetics Césaire had practiced in revising his long poem between 1941 and 1943. They certainly resulted from Césaire’s frustration over the French government’s refusal to grant full political and economic rights to its West Indian citizens from 1946 to 1948.

In a clear break with his previous editorial practice of accretion and transposition, Césaire in 1956 for the first time engaged in substantive suppression of elements in the text that no longer resonated with his new political orientation. Since we have published a detailed summary (AFM), a few representative samples will suffice here:

• In stanza 63 of the Brentano’s edition, maintained in Bordas at stanza 37, “Behold then the horsemen of the Apocalypse” clearly referenced the Book of Revelation (translated as Apocalypse in French). When the line was suppressed in 1956, the reference to “the apocalypse of monsters” in stanza 31 lost much of its spiritual connotation.

• In the same stanza, the question “Who and what are we?” contained in the answer a clear reference to Vodun: “Hougans. Especially hougans. For we want all the demons. . . .” Present from the Brentano’s to the Bordas edition, it had to be deleted from the Présence Africaine version for the same reasons as the foregoing examples.

• In stanza 75, the speaker’s “virile prayer” includes “grant me the courage of the martyr,” which was already omitted from the Brentano’s edition of 1947.

• In stanza 79 of the 1939 text, the speaker, praying for preservation “from all hatred” declares “you know my catholic love”; in the Brentano’s edition we read “love” without any modifier; in the Bordas edition “my tyrannical love” accords nicely with the new orientation described above; all later editions retain this change, which represents a complete reorientation of the image from a spiritual to a political register.

Suppression of material that had reinforced a spiritual interpretation of the poem was counterbalanced in 1956 by the insertion between 87 and 88 of a dozen new stanzas that foreground the suffering of individual laborers whom Césaire named: Siméon Piquine, Grandvorka, Michel Deveine. Moreso than in the Bordas edition, politics intervened to make of the wretched of the earth the new heroes of the poem. Thus, when the reader comes to “And my special geography too. . .” in stanza 88, s/he sees the “I” as another example of these oppressed laborers. Consequently, from 1956 onward, the Cahier/Notebook would define negritude as a socio-political ideal, no longer the spiritual quest it had been in its first two iterations.

Césaire’s postwar interventions in the Cahier/Notebook also separate it from the first decade of his practice as a lyric poet. Whereas Solar Throat Slashed (1948) and Lost Body (1950) represent further elaborations of Césaire’s surrealist poetics tempered by his new political experience, the Notebook entered the realm of ideological and political discourse with the Bordas edition of 1947. It is no accident, in our view, that the Notebook should have been published after 1956 by Présence Africaine along with Césaire’s political essays, whereas his new poetry would be published by Éditions du Seuil, which was emerging as the foremost publisher of poetry in Paris. For the remainder of his career, Césaire would maintain a clear separation between his political identity—which included the Cahier/Notebook —and his identity as a modernist poet.


The Complete Poetry of Aimé Césaire
Translated by A. James Arnold and Clayton Eshleman
Wesleyan University Press © 2017

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