ONCE POETS HAVE an established legacy — this sadly outdated concept having now been confused with celebrity — it becomes increasingly likely that their poetry will be judged solely according to that legacy. As such, only a decade after his death, Aimé Césaire (1913–2008) is still largely read — when he is read at all — as the gray, bespectacled founder of négritude: a hieroglyphic, unfamiliar monument one is compelled to pay homage to at some point or another, but one which nevertheless leaves most onlookers in the English-speaking world both perplexed and uncertain. The Complete Poetry of Aimé Césaire, recently published by Wesleyan University Press, thus takes on a fairly formidable task: it promises to leave us in no doubt as to Césaire’s central importance to 20th-century poetry, as well as to showcase all of his lyric work in a cripplingly weighty bilingual edition, which is based on the definitive, 1,800-page edition of all of Césaire’s texts, published in France in 2013 to mark the centenary of the poet’s birth.
Invariably presented as inventive, influential, and political, the myth of Césaire’s established biography is all too tightly nut-shelled. A product of France’s peripheries and the recipient of scholarships that sent him to the capital at the age of 18 in the hopes he would eventually constitute a part of the colonial establishment, Césaire was educated in the finest establishments in Paris — the Lycée Louis-le-Grand and the École Normale Supérieure. Despite his numerous literary protestations to the contrary, he wore his assigned fate like a glove, serving as the mayor of Martinique’s capital, Fort-de-France, for over half a century, which overlapped with two lengthy spells as a deputy in France’s National Assembly, leading to his local nickname, Papa Césaire. From his post at the head of his island’s political institutions, however, or so the story goes, Césaire launched an all-out assault on the French literary establishment. It didn’t take him long to breach the walls, again, or so the myth goes. By age 26 — ever the prodigy, another reason the French couldn’t help appropriating and pigeonholing him — he had published his first draft of the book that would finally establish him in their eyes as the Black voice: Notebook of a Return to the Native Land (Cahier d’un retour au pays natal). Famously championed by André Breton — although it says a lot that Breton “discovered” him only after Breton left France and had begun living in exile in the United States — Césaire, like Mallarmé and Whitman before him, took his poetic lines on long walks, employing all the elements at his disposal to craft a new language that could express his Blackness, or rather more specifically, his Africanness, his Caribbeanness. To the French, Césaire was deep, dark, primal Africa. He was the Third World, but he was also a surrealist; as such, he was wild and domesticated: in brief, a permanent exhibit in the Musée du quai Branly expressly crafted to be regurgitated in European and North American lecture theaters.
Contrary to this portrait, Césaire could actually prove both jaggedly colloquial and barbed in a manner that challenged all of the presupposition espoused by many of his so-called supporters. A perfect example of this comes courtesy of “Reply to Depestre Haitian Poet: Elements of an Ars Poetica,” one of The Complete Poetry’s highlights, which as the editors, Clayton Eshleman and A. J. Arnold rightly inform us, is “by far the most important” poem featured in Noria, a mini-collection which appeared in 1976. The poem, first published in the mid-1950s, was sparked by Césaire’s distaste of Louis Aragon’s “socialist-realist poetics” as mouthed by one of Aragon’s disciples, René Depestre. It provides an insight into the effusive and restlessly combative Césaire who lies within the marbled bust prominently placed on most post-colonial shelves:
It is true that this season they are turning out nicely rounded sonnets
for us to do that would recall far too well
the sugary juice that back there drool the distilleries in the mornes
when the slow thin oxen circle round to the buzzing of the mosquitoes
Ouch! Depestre a poem is not a mill for
crushing sugar cane stalks not at all …
Correctly interpreting the Stalinist class-based approach as one that unwittingly — and counterproductively — excluded race from the political discourse, Césaire reclaimed his right to break the constraints of European thought and maroon himself (a verb used to pay homage to the “marron” runaway slaves who set up independent communities in the Caribbean). Speaking in mock-conference talk, Césaire continues:
It is assuredly a very great problem
the relation between poetry and Revolution
content conditions form
and if we took into account the dialectical detour
by which form taking its revenge
like a strangler fig suffocates the poem
I don’t accept to write the report
I’d rather look at the spring.
While French critics and their English counterparts celebrated their fictional idol, all truly realistic appraisals of the poet were, unsurprisingly, produced by his followers in the so-called periphery. As the Créolité poets Jean Bernabé (1942–2017), Patrick Chamoiseau (b. 1953), and Raphaël Confiant (b. 1951) made clear in their 1989 manifesto, In Praise of Creoleness (Éloge de la Créolité): “Césairian Négritude is a baptism, the primal act of our restored dignity. We are forever Césaire’s sons […] Neither Europeans, nor Africans, nor Asians…” Debts to his life and work are still being acknowledged now. In an homage he presented at the Salon du livre in Casablanca in 2013, the Moroccan poet Abdellatif Laâbi paid his dues to his “beloved,” or his “Azizi” — “our local Arabic term of endearment reserved for one’s oldest brother” — with the following words: “I don’t know what place your Cahier will secure in the annals of our contemporary literature, but for us in the nations of the South, especially in the Antilles, sub-Saharan Africa and the Maghreb, I dare say that your Cahier was a watershed moment, in that there was a time before and a time after it.”
Like Robert Lowell, a near coeval, Césaire obsessively reedited his texts, thus presenting a considerable challenge for Eshleman and Arnold. As they elucidate in their introduction, “each edition of Cahier [from 1939 to 1947] appeared in a different cultural and historical context and was modified accordingly,” and while the editors opted to use the 1939 version, they penned a “brief description of the major alterations” that took place between 1947 and 1956, which they opted to term “postwar interventions.” Partly thanks to this scholarly dedication — despite the fact that Césaire could certainly benefit from an accessibly short and reasonably priced Selected, as far as I am aware, nobody has yet attempted it — The Complete Poetry is worth a serious read. It includes all eight of Césaire’s collections — The Original Cahier (1939), The Miraculous Weapons (1946), Solar Throat Slashed (1948), Lost Body (1950), Ferrements (1960), i, laminaria… (1982), Noria (1976), and Like a Misunderstanding of Salvation (1994), three of which are unavailable elsewhere. If that wasn’t enough to merit the $50 cover price, the glossary and notes are both impressive and unlikely to be surpassed for at least a while. As for the translators (and editors) themselves, one could have hardly asked for more given that A. J. Arnold was the man behind the centenary edition of Césaire’s work in France, Poésie, Théâtre, Essais et Discours (CNRS Éditions, 2013), while Clayton Eshleman — whose The Complete Poetry of César Vallejo (University of California Press, 2007) I much admire — has worked on Césaire on and off for almost 50 years.
All of which partly explains my surprise at finding several passages in The Complete Poetry where Eshleman — I name him alone given that the introduction clearly states that “Eshleman was solely responsible” for the final translations — needlessly softens Césaire’s language in various places, failing to capture the silky forcefulness of his tone. In “Dwelling I,” “je t’emmerde” is rendered as “screw you,” missing out on the harder “fuck you,” which would have been more appropriate given that it’s an insult hurled at a prison guard. The title of the poem “Quelconque” is similarly (mis)turned into the hard-edged and boringly quotidian “commonplace” even though “ordinary” would have been far better. Inept titles unfortunately pop up everywhere, as with “Le temps de la Liberté,” which could have been smoothly flipped into “Freedom Days,” but is instead dulled down to “The Time of Freedom,” which loses the plural to boot — an oversight that is nonetheless immediately remedied, in my opinion, by the poem’s fantastic first line in English: “Whiskey had let down its dirty hair.” While this may seem like quibbling, one will inevitably stumble across misinterpretations that needlessly mar The Complete Poetry’s overall excellence. Take this line from “Viscera of the Poem” (“Viscères du Poème”): “Angoisse tu ne descendras pas tes écluses dans le bief de ma gorge.” Eshleman’s translates this to: “Anguish you shall not lower your floodgates into the reach of my throat.” Eshleman’s translation changes “locks” to “floodgates,” losing the slow downward trajectory explicitly suggested by Césaire in the original, which could have been captured with “you shall not descend down.” Furthermore, Césaire’s implication in this poem is clear: anguish is a ship creeping down the canal of the throat, and the image of the floodgates instead turns that slow-burning emotion into a mere body of water.
Césaire, like many essential non-English poets in translation, has been worked on by several hands, and his English-language translators — as is the case with many of those who have worked on “foreign” poets of his stature — tend to split into two categories. There are the stiff-fingered academics, who, lacking a true artistic understanding of the text before them, force their logic onto the poet’s opaqueness, opening the door to an endless litany of misinterpretations — and then there are the poet-translators, many of whom strip the multiple layers of meaning present in the original to preserve the sanctity of the word, as if poets were aetherine spirits devoid of any intellectual depth satisfied only by the sound of their own craftsmanship. Both approaches tend to leave one with a faded replica of the original and the best translations, to my mind, do their best by adopting elements of both. While Eshleman and Arnold — along with Ralph Manheim and Gregson Davis — have done much to rescue Césaire’s poetry from such regrettable efforts as John Berger and Anna Bostock’s co-translation of Return to my Native Land (Archipelago Books, 2014), which, like Berger’s efforts from Arabic, is deplorable for misreading, or rather, ignoring the original and somehow simultaneously managing a terrible grasp of his mother language’s grammar — it is perhaps fair to say that Césaire hasn’t yet found a truly fitting voice in English.
The Complete Poetry of Aimé Césaire is a bilingual edition, but did it need to be? Pundits tend to call these tomes labors of love, which are both “necessary” and “handsome,” yet are they? Vanity aside — there is something very satisfying and academically rewarding about filling your shelves with “authoritative” hardcovers — one should nevertheless provide some justification for the murder of too many trees. For what it’s worth, producing a bilingual edition seems to me an exercise in futility. Those able to read Césaire in French should definitely do so and therefore a tome like The Complete Poetry is fairly useless to them, as it is to English-language readers, who are obviously unable to read the originals. As such, bilingual editions appear valuable only to that horde of faux literati who populate our review pages and who seem more engrossed in the scholarly production process than the actual poetry itself. For my money, much of the space devoted to the originals could have been used to reproduce at least one of Césaire’s plays, A Season in the Congo, a dramatization of Patrice Lumumba’s life, perhaps, or The Tragedy of King Christophe, a study of Haiti’s second monarch.
Those eager to approach Césaire’s work should buy this book, but it should probably only be a starting point or reference guide. As for those who wish to see “Papa” in all his earthly glory, they would be well served by tracking down a copy of Euzhan Palcy’s commensurately crafted documentary biopic Aimé Césaire: A Voice for History. This is an excerpt from Césaire’s first speech in the movie:
Picture this sight: ten volcanoes simultaneously spewing their lava to create Martinique. It’s amazing, an extraordinary birth, more impressive than any big bang, a cosmic wrath, creative wrath. We are far from any “drifting under a sluggish sea,” it’s much more than that, it is the land of anger, the land of exasperation, a land which spews out life, and that is what we must prove ourselves worthy of, life, this creativity must be collected and carried on. We must carry on and not fall slumber into acceptance and resignation. This is History’s challenge, Nature’s challenge.
Without such biopics, our image of Césaire might eventually become purely hagiographic, if it hasn’t already, and that would be an inestimable loss.
André Naffis-Sahely’s debut collection of poems is The Promised Land: Poems from Itinerant Life (Penguin, 2017). His translations include over 20 titles of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction from French and Italian, including works by Honoré de Balzac, Émile Zola, Tahar Ben Jelloun, Abdellatif Laâbi, and Alessandro Spina. Several have been featured as “books of the year” in the Guardian, Financial Times, and NPR. He is currently a Visiting Teaching Fellow at the Manchester Writing School.