AT THE LOCKS OF THE VOID:
CO-TRANSLATING AIME CÉSAIRE
I first discovered Aimé Césaire in the second issue of Jack Hirschman’s tiny Hip Pocket Poems, 1960. Césaire’s prose poem, “Lynch 1,” since edited out of the 1948 Soleil cou coupé (Solar Throat Slashed), was translated by Emile Snyder, a French transplant who was an early translator of Césaire. The poem sank into me like a depth charge. Emile’s translation was adequate, but a close scrutiny of it and the original text revealed that he simplified a few of the poem’s erudite words and tropes, so I retranslated it in 1995 during the O.J. Simpson trial. Here it is:
Why does spring grab me by the throat? what does it want of me? so what even if it does not have enough spears and military flags! I jeer at you spring for flaunting your blind eye and your bad breath. Your stupration your infamous kisses. Your peacock tail makes tables turn with patches of jungle (fanfares of saps in motion) but my liver is more acidic and my venefice stronger than your malefice. The lynch it’s 6 PM in the mud of the bayou it’s a black handkerchief fluttering at the top of a pirate ship mast it’s the strangulation point of a fingernail up to the carmine of an interjection it’s the pampa it’s the queen’s ballet it’s the sagacity of science it’s the unforgettable copulation. O lynch salt mercury and antimony! The lynch is the blue smile of a dragon enemy of angels the lynch is an orchid too lovely to bear fruit the lynch is an entry into matter the lynch is the hand of the wind bloodying a forest whose trees are galls brandishing in their hand the smoking torch of their castrated phallus, the lynch is a hand sprinkled with the dust of precious stones, the lynch is a release of hummingbirds, the lynch is a lapse, the lynch is a trumpet blast a broken gramophone record a cyclone’s tail its train lifted by the pink beaks of predatory birds. The lynch is a gorgeous shock of hair that fear flings into my face the lynch is a temple crumbled and gripped by the roots of a virgin forest. O lynch lovable companion beautiful squirted eye huge mouth mute save when an impulse spreads there the delirium of glanders weave well, lightning bolt, on your loom a continent bursting into islands an oracle contortedly slithering like a scolopendra a moon settling in the breach the sulfur peacock ascending in the summary loophole of my assassinated hearing.
In its “logic of metaphor” chain reaction, its linking of social terror with the violence of sudden natural growth, and its sacrifice of a male hero for the sake of sowing the seeds of renewal, “Lynch 1” is a typical and very strong Césaire poem of the late 1940s. For years I didn’t know what to make of it, yet its strangeness was mesmerizing. It seemed to imply that for the speaker to suddenly inhale deeply, to offer himself to the wild, was to induct the snapping of a lynched neck. Erotic aspects of the poem came to mind in the 1970s when I saw the Japanese film, Realm of the Senses, in which the sex-addicted male lead makes his partner choke him to wring the last quiver out of his orgasm.
At that time I started to read Césaire at large bilingually and determined that he was a poet of extraordinary importance, and that he had not been translated as well as he might be (at that point only around one-third of his poetry had been translated at all). I decided, as I had with César Vallejo in the 1960s, that the best way to read Césaire would be to translate him, since the antiphonal traffic of translation, for me, opens up a greater assimilative space than monolingual reading. I will have more to say about this later.
In 1977 I received a California Arts Council “Artists in the Community” grant which involved my teaching poetry for a school year in the predominantly African-American Manual Arts High School in south-central Los Angeles. I got the idea of translating Césaire’s “Notebook of a Return to the Native Land” while teaching at Manual Arts and presenting the translation to my students at the end of the year. As soon as I began to seriously work on the poem, I realized that I was in over my head, and that to do a thorough job I would have to work with a co-translator.
I teamed up with Annette Smith, a Professor of French in the Humanities Division at the California Institute of Technology and, to make a long story short, working 20 or so hours a week, we translated all of Césaire’s 1976 Complete Poetry between 1977 and 1982. Our work was published in 1983 by University of California Press as Aimé Césaire: The Collected Poetry. We had planned to call the book, “The Complete Poetry,” but in 1982 Césaire surprised us with a new collection, moi, laminaire (i, laminaria), which we subsequently translated along with Césaire’s early poetic oratorio, Et les chiens se taisaient (And the Dogs were Silent). This collection was published in 1990 by the University Press of Virginia as Aimé Césaire: Lyric and Dramatic Poetry 1946-1982.
Our working method was as follows: we would both read a poem and take notes on it. Then Annette would dictate a version of it to me which I would take home and type up, questioning this and that in an attempt to isolate specific translation problems in the second draft. In most cases, Annette would have spotted difficulties that I was not aware of. Our work on the third draft was mainly an attempt to theoretically solve these problems, leaving us with the challenge of how to actually translate them.
We worked together as much as possible, in tandem, as it were, constantly questioning each other’s information and solutions. By doing so, we avoided the often disastrous results that occur when the person responsible for the original language hands or mails a literal version to the person responsible for the second language and he finishes it on his own. In our case, I met with Césaire in Paris twice on my own and once, when we had our questions down to a dozen, with Annette. At the point that a final draft was possible, I holed up for two weeks in the stacks of the Cal Tech Library with a typewriter and piles of reference materials.
As a co-translator, I have been extremely fortunate to have had two great co-translators to work with, Annette and, with Vallejo’s posthumously-published poetry, José Rubia Barcia. Besides being very alert and responsible, Annette and José were both rigorously honest, which means in this context, among other things, being able to express ignorance, which leaves a problem open, rather than sealing it into a guess.
While the syntactical difficulties involved in translating Césaire are formidable, to properly discuss them we would all have to sit down at a table, as Annette and I did, and examine original texts against their translational possibilities. Here I would like to draw upon some of the material from our “Translators’ Notes” in our Introduction to The Collected Poetry. Annette was primarily responsible for this material (in a spirit that balanced my primary responsibility for the final American version of the text).
Syntactical difficulties aside, the lexicological ones were even more taxing. Large numbers of rare and technical words constantly kept us bent over various encyclopedias, dictionaries of several languages (including African and Créole), botanical indexes, atlases and history texts. Once we were fortunate enough to identify the object, we then had to decide to what extent the esoteric tone of the poetry should be respected in the American. Dispatching the reader to the reference shelf at every turn in order to find out that the object of his chase was nothing more than a morning glory (convovulus) or a Paraguayan peccary (“patyura”) hardly encouraged a sustained reading.
A delicate balance had to be maintained between a rigorously puristic stand and a systematic vulgarization. The case of plant names was especially complex, as we had to be careful to highlight Césaire’s concrete and political interest in Caribbean flora. The following comments by Césaire himself (from a 1960 interview) reinforced our concerns in these regards: “I am an Antillean. I want a poetry that is concrete, very Antillean, Martinican. I must name Martinican things, must call them by their names. The caňafistula mentioned in ‘Spirals’ is a tree; it is also called the drumstick tree. It has large yellow leaves and its fruit are those purplish bluish black pods, used here also as a purgative. The balisier resembles a plantain, but it has a red heart, a red florescence at its center that is really shaped like a heart. The cecropias are shaped like silvery hands, yes, like the interior of a black’s hand. All of these astonishing words are absolutely necessary, they are never gratuitous . . .”
Neologisms constituted another pitfall. Some were relatively easy to handle because their components were obvious. “Negritude,” “nigromance,” “strom,” and “mokatine” were clear by association with “infinitude,” “nécromancie,” “maelstrom,” and “nougâtine” (a rich French almond candy). But coining equivalents for “rhizulent,” “effrade,” and “desencastration” (which we translated respectively as “rhizulate,” “frightation,” and “disencasement,” in the last case giving up on the castration aspect, required a solid sense of semantics.
Only Césaire himself was in a position to reveal, in a conversation with me in a Paris cafe, that “verrition” which preceding translators had interpreted as “flick” and “swirl” had been coined on a Latin verb “verri” meaning “to sweep,” “to scrape a surface,” and ultimately “to scan.” Our rendition (“veerition”) attempted to preserve the turning motion (set against its oxymoronic modifier “motionless” as well as the Latin sound of the original - thus restituting the long-lost meaning of an important passage (the last few lines of “Notebook of a Return to the Native Land”).
As a final example, the problems involved in translating the word “nègre” go to the heart of Césaire’s poetics. Put as simply as possible, the lexical background is as follows: before the Second World War the French had three words to designate individuals or things belonging to the black race. The most euphemistic was “Noir” (noun or adjective). The most derogatory was “négro.” In between, on a sort of neutral and objective ground, was the word “nègre,” used both as a noun or as an adjective (as in “l’art nègre”).
For the general public, “noir” and “nègre” may well have been interchangeable, but the very civilized and very complexed Antilleans considered themselves as “Noirs,” the “nègres” being on that distant continent, Africa. And it is in this light that one must read Césaire’s use of the word “nègre” and its derivatives “nègritude,” “nègrillon” and “nègraille”: he was making up a family of words based on what he considered to be the most insulting way to refer to a black. The paradox, of course, was that this implicit reckoning with the blacks’ ignominy, this process of self-irony and self-denigration, was the necessary step on the path to a new self-image and spiritual rebirth. It was therefore important to translate “nègre” as “nigger” and its derivatives as derivatives or compounds of “nègre” and “nigger” (“negritude,” “nigger scum,” “little nigger,” etc).
Césaire’s “Notebook of a Return to the Native Land,” as allusively dense as “The Waste Land,” and as transcendental as “The Duino Elegies,” is one of the truly great poems of the 20th century. With its 1055 lines that constantly shift back and forth between poetry and prose poetry it is more of an extended lyric than an epic. After the initial burst, it moves into a brooding, static overview of the psychic and geographical topology of Martinique, generally in strophes that evoke Lautréamont’s Maldoror.
A second movement begins with the speaker’s urge to go away; suddenly the supine present is sucked into a whirlpool of abuses and horrors suffered by blacks throughout their colonized and present history. The non-narrative “fixed/exploding” juxtapositions in this movement reveal Césaire’s commitment to surrealism even though thematic development is always implied. The second movement reaches its nadir in a passage where the speaker discovers himself mocking an utterly degraded old black man on a streetcar.
The final, rushing, third movement is ignited by the line: “But what strange pride suddenly illuminates me?” In a series of dialectical plays between the emergence of a future hero giving new life to the world and images from the slaves’ “middle passage” of the past, the “sprawled flat” passivity of the first movement is transformed into a standing insurrection that finally wheels up into the stars. The incredible burden of the poem is that of a parthenogenesis in which Césaire must conceive and give birth to himself while exorcising his introjected and collective white image of the black. Here is the initial burst, which contains in telegraphic shifts, many of Césaire’s life-long themes:
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.
Three sentences: two swift commands to the police and priests, followed by a third made up of ten hairpin curving clauses containing Césaire’s basic contraries: on one hand, he commits himself to a sacred, whirling, primordial paradise of language, open to his subconscious depths and destructive of “the reality principle,” or as he himself puts it, “the vitelline membrane that separates me from myself.”
On the other hand, his quest for authenticity will also include confronting the colonial brutality in his own overpopulated and defeated Martinique where, as Michel Leiris once pointed out, “no one can claim to be indigenous, since the Indians who were the first inhabitants were wiped out by immigrants from Europe a little over three centuries ago and since the white settlers made use of Africa to furnish its manpower.”
This is a vision of Eden that also includes its nightside, a dyad that is incredibly difficult to maintain, because a vision of paradisiacal wholeness and existent human suffering in the present negate each other. A significant part of the energy in Césaire’s language is generated by his attempt to transform the language of the slave masters of yesterday and the colonial administrators of his own day into a kind of surfrançais, as in surreal, a super-charged French that in its own fashion is as transformational as surrealism attempted to be of bourgeois, patriarchal, French mentality.
In terms of Césaire’s career as a poet (which extends from the late 1930s to the early l990s), the first half of my earlier set of contraries –— a whirling paradise of language –— dominates the 1940s. Much of the writing in the 1946 Les armes miraculeuses (The Miraculous Weapons) has a hallucinatory concentration to it, as if Césaire has taken Rimbaud’s illuminated vistas to a new plane. Here are the first two pages of the seven page “Les pur-sang” (“The Thoroughbreds”):
And behold through my ear woven with crunchings
and with rockets the hundred whinnying
thoroughbreds of the sun syncopate harsh uglinesses
amidst the stagnation.
Ah! I scent the hell of delights
and through nidorous mists mimicking flaxen
hair –— bushy breathing of beardless
old men –— the thousandfold ferocious tepidity
of howling madness and death.
But how how not bless
unlike anything dreamt by my logics
hard against the grain cracking their licy piles
and their saburra and more pathetic
than the fruit-bearing flower
the lucid chap of unreasons?
And I hear the water mounting
the new the untouched the timeless water
toward the renewed air.
Did I say air?
A discharge of cadmium with gigantic weals
expalmate in ceruse white wicks
Essence of a landscape.
Carved out of light itself fulgurating nopals
burgeoning dawns unparalleled whitescence
deep-rooted stalagmites carriers of day
O blazing lactescences hyaline meadows
toward streams of docile neroli incorruptible
hedges ripen with distant mica
their long incandescence.
The eyelids of breakers shut –— Prelude –—
yuccas tinkle audibly
in a lavender of tepid rainbows
owlettes peck at bronzings.
the uproar, beyond the muddled heart of this
Who gets lost and rips and drowns
in the reddened waves of the Siloam?
The lights flinch. The noises rhizulate
The sky yawns from black absence
the suns the rains the galaxies
fused in fraternal magma
pass by toward the safe necropolises of the sunset
and the earth, the morgue of storms forgotten,
which stitches rips in its rolling
lost, patient, arisen
savagely hardening the invisible faluns
and the sea makes a necklace of silence for the earth
the sea inhaling the sacrificial peace
where our death rattles entangle, motionless with
strange pearls and abyssal mute
the earth makes a bulge of silence for the sea
in the silence
behold the earth alone,
without its trembling nor tremoring
without the lashing of roots
nor the perforations of insects
empty as on the day before day . . .
In 1978, I tried to explain to Florence Loeb the daughter of the famous Parisian art dealer, the desire for the prodigious in Césaire’s poetry and some of the circumstances under which it takes root. She listened to me and then said something I will never forget: “Césaire uses words like the nouveaux riches spend their money.” She meant, of course, that this prodigal son of France, educated and acculturated by France, should cease his showing off, racing his language like roman candles over her head, and return to the fold (to the sheepfold, I might add, to a disappearance among the millions for whom to have French culture is supposed to be more than enough). To this aristocratic woman, Aimé Césaire’s imaginative wealth looked like tinsel. I carried this sinister cartoon of his power around with me for a couple of years. One morning what I wanted to say was a response to Césaire himself:
Spend language, then, as the nouveaux riches spend money
invest the air with breath newly gained each moment
hoard only in the poem, be the reader-miser, a new kind of snake
coiled in the coin-flown beggar palm, be political, give it all away
one’s merkin, be naked to the Africa of the image mine in which
biology is in a tug-of-war with deboned language in a tug-of-war with
Auschwitz in a tug-of-war with the immense demand now to meet the complex
actual day across the face of which Idi Amin is raining –
the poem cannot wipe off the blood
but blood cannot wipe out the poem
in its mourning leaves, in cortege through the trunk of the highway of
history in a hug-of-war with our inclusion in
the shrapnel-elite garden of Eden.
Césaire’s spontaneous, dream-like surges of language that dominate the 1940s seem to be posited on a belief in the possibility of a fundamental change in the Martinican situation as well as in human society at large. I should mention here that Césaire backed up his poetic ideology with a parallel full-time career of political action: at the end of 1945, he was elected mayor of Martinique’s capital, Fort-de-France, and, as a member of the French Communist Party, became one of the deputies to the Constituent Assembly from Martinique.
He was responsible for the bill in the French parliament that transformed the so-called “créole” colonies –— Martinique, Guadeloupe, French Guiana, and Réunion — into constituent departments of France with full right of citizenship for all their inhabitants, an act for which he has been bitterly criticized by more radical Caribbean thinkers who insist on independence, and for whom departmental status represents a serious compromise.
In the 1950s, and since, Césaire’s language of paradise has been increasingly freighted with political consternation, based on the limitations and complications in any genuine change. Ferrements (Ferraments), published in 1960, is permeated with fantastic evocations of black bondage through history. It is as if every line in this collection is the “Flying Dutchman” of a slave ship, each word the ghost of branded flesh. We are told a relentless tale of abduction, pillage, and dumping, of vomiting broken teeth, of ants polishing skeletons, of chunks of raw flesh, of spitting in the face, of trophy heads, of crucifixion.
The transition point between Ferraments and the much earlier Miraculous Weapons is Césaire’s shortest collection, Corps perdu (Lost Body), ten poems, published in 1950 and illustrated with thirty-two engravings by Picasso (in 1986 George Braziller published a facsimile edition of this book with Annette’s and my Introduction and Translation). In Lost Body Césaire seems to have realized that in certain ways the black would remain in exile from himself and, in effect, not enter the house called negritude that Césaire had been building for him.
In “Word,” the opening poem of Lost Body, the speaker commands the “word” (which initially suggests The Word, or Logos) to keep vibrating within him. At the moment that its waves lasso and rope him to a voodoo center-stake where a shamanic sacrifice ensues, it is also revealed that the “word” is “nigger” –— and, by implication, the curare on the arrow tips –— as the quiver of social stigmata associated with “the word ‘nigger”’ are emptied into him.
When Annette and I visited Aimé Césaire in his apartment in Paris in 1982, after we had received responses to our final batch of questions, we asked him if he would read us a poem. From some 500 pages of published work, he chose the title poem of Lost Body. Here is the poem in our translation:
I who Krakatoa
I who everything better than a monsoon
I who open chest
I who Laelaps
I who beat better than a cloaca
I who outside the musical scale
I who Zambezi or frantic or rhombos or cannibal
I would like to be more and more humble and more lowly
always more serious without vertigo or vestige
to the point of losing myself falling
into the live semolina of a well-opened earth
Outside in lieu of atmosphere there’d be a beautiful
haze no dirt in it
each drop of water forming a sun there
whose name the same for all things
would be DELICIOUS TOTAL ENCOUNTER
so that one would no longer know what goes by
–— a star or a hope
or a petal from the flamboyant tree
or an underwater retreat
raced across by the flaming torches of aurelian-jellyfish
Then I imagine life would flood my whole being
better still I would feel it touching me or biting me
lying down I would see the finally free odors come to me
like merciful hands
finding their way
to sway their long hair in me
longer than this past that I cannot reach
Things stand back make room among you
room for my repose carrying in waves
my frightful crest of anchor-like roots
looking for a place to take hold
Things I probe I probe
me the street-porter I am root-porter
and I bear down and I force and I arcane
Ah who leads me back toward the harpoons
I am very weak
I hiss yes I hiss very ancient things
as serpents do as do cavernous things
I whoa lie down wind
and against my unstable and fresh muzzle
against my eroded face
press your cold face of ravaged laughter
The wind alas I will continue to hear it
nigger nigger nigger from the depths
of the timeless sky
a little less loud than today
but still too loud
and this crazed howling of dogs and horses
which it thrusts at our forever fugitive heels
but I in turn in the air
shall rise a scream so violent
that I shall splatter the whole sky
and with my branches torn to shreds
and with the insolent jet of my wounded and solemn
I shall command the islands to be
For a moment, Césaire’s body of work buckles with the dilemma that true humanity might only be discovered in madness or apocalypse. The severity of this moment is registered by the wrenching ending where the black, although torn apart by the white devil’s hounds, destroys the sky and re-creates primal islands in one paroxysmic gesture. Such an ending recalls Hart Crane’s poem, “Lachrymae Christi,” in which a Nazarene/Dionysus who is crucified, torn asunder, and burned at the stake is beseeched to reappear whole. Both poems confront the reader with a radical vision of creativity that is bound up with an assimilation of such destructiveness as to render it in the same moment, sublime and absurd.
Earlier I contrasted translating with monolingual reading. As the translator scuttles back and forth between the original and the rendering, or in this case engages in dialogue with a co-translator, a kind of “assimilative space” does open up, in which “influence” may be less contrived and literary than when drawing upon masters in one’s own language. Before considering why this may be so, I want to propose a key difference between a poet translating a poet and a scholar translating a poet.
While both engage the myth of Prometheus, seeking to steal some fire from one of the gods to bestow on readers, the poet is also involved in a sub-plot that may, as it were, chain him to a wall. That is, besides making an offering to the reader, the poet-translator is also making an offering to himself –— he is stealing fire for his own furnaces at the risk of being overwhelmed –— stalemated –— by the power he has inducted into his own workings.
But influence through translation is different than influence through reading masters in one’s own tongue. If I am being influenced by Ezra Pound, say, his American is coming directly into my own. You read my poem and think of Pound. In the case of translation, I am co-creating an American version out of –— in the case of Césaire –— a French text, and if Césaire is to enter my own poetry he must do so via what I have already, as a translator, turned him into. This is, in the long run, very close to being influenced by myself or by a self I have created to mine. Antonin Artaud once wrote: “I want to initiate myself off of myself –— not off the dead initiations of others.”
When I speak of creating an American version out of a French text, I don’t want to imply that I think of myself as writing my own poem in the act of co-translating Cesaire — or to put it more vividly, à la Kafka’s “In the ‘Penal Colony,” writing my own sentence in the back of a victimized text. I do not believe in so-called “free translations,” Lowellian “Imitations,” or Tarn’s “transformaions.”
I see the poet-translator in the service of the original, not attempting to improve on it or to out-wit it. He must, alone or with a co-worker, research all archaic, rare, and technical words, and translate them (in contrast to guessing at them or explaining them). As I see it, the basic challenge is to do two incompatible things at once: an accurate translation and one that is up to the performance level of the original.
All translations are, in varying degrees, spectres or emanations. Spectral translations haunt us with the loss of the original; before them, facing the translator’s inabilities or hubris, we feel that the original has been sucked into a smaller, less effective size. Like ghosts, such translations painfully remind us to what an extent the dead are absent. Emanational translations, on the other hand, are what can be made of the original poet’s vision; while they are seldom larger than their prototypes, good ones hold their own against the prototype and they bring it across as an injection of fresh poetic character into the literature of the second language.
The emanation and spectre distinction is originally William Blake’s but I am lifting it out of his bisexual vortex and applying it to the influence one poet may have upon another. As someone who has been translating almost since I began to write poetry, I have probably been much more influenced by César Vallejo, Aimé Césaire, and Antonin Artaud than I have by any English or American poets.
Taking into consideration the curious matter of self influence that seems to be one of the mixed blessings of poetic translation, I would say that their combined and most potent gift has been one of permission –— of giving me permission to say anything that would spur on my quest for authenticity and for constructing an alternative world in language. Here I would also keep in mind Vicente Huidobro’s sterling injunction: “Invent new worlds and back up what you say.”
Surely influence in the form of the gift I have described is emanational and not the spectral blockage Harold Bloom equates with the whole matter of influence in his wrong but useful study, The Anxiety of Influence. Poets who have somehow managed to speak, if only in part, in an original way, convey a permission to do the same to some of those who assimilate their work.
Poets who primarily represent a dilution of others' energies — I am tempted to say “academic poets” here, but such is true for “anti-academic” or street or experimental poets as well –— tend to project a spectral influence. Uninspired and conventional writing is much more the result of the writer's timidity, evasiveness, and willingness to be easily shaken loose from what he has sunk his teeth into than it is of the innovators he has read.
I worked on Césaire when I was beyond my apprenticeship to poetry and thus his effect is less initiational, much less crucial to my being a poet, than is Vallejo's. However I got seriously involved with Césaire at the same time that I was starting a long period of field and library research on what I have come to call “Paleolithic Imagination & the Construction of the Underworld.” Césaire's dyadic emphasis on both the deep past (“I am be fore Adam I do not come under the same lion”) and the often unbearable present encouraged me, on my own terms, to try and do the same.
The most direct use I have made of Césaire’s poetry is in my poem from the late 1980s called “The Sprouting Skull,” a fantasia based in part on the four lines that end Césaire's poem, “Lay of Errantry.” In 1995, struggling to find a way to write about the Brown and Goldman murders and the trial and acquittal of O.J. Simpson in a way that would not simply restate what readers and TV observers already knew, Césaire's description of three fabulous beasts in another poem edited out of Solar Throat Slashed gave me the idea of creating my own fabulous beast images for Simpson, Brown, and Goldman at the moment the murders occurred. Once these images were in place, I was able to finish the poem, “Gretna Green.”
The use of Césaire’s work in such pieces is a kind of bonus based more on familiarity with his writing than on being porous to its character. Aspects of Césaire’s solemnity, ferocity and tenderness, startling imaginal shifts, and word coinage, have become mixed into the strata of my subconscious. Occasionally I will look at a poem after I have written it and sense that while there is no visible presence of an influence there is a lot of Césaire weather in the climate of its construction. I would like to end this presentation with one such poem, “Short Story,” written in 1992. I’m pretty confident that the last two lines would not have been written without the assimilated companionship of Aimé Césaire.
Begin with this: the world has no origin.
We encircle the moment, lovers
who, encircling each other, steep in
now we know the meaning of life.
Wordsworth’s recollection: wreck election,
the coddling of ruins, as if the oldest man
thinking of the earliest thing
offers imagination its greatest bounty.
A poem is a snake sloughing off the momentary,
crawling out of now (the encasement of
into layered, mattered, time.
Now is the tear and ear of terra’s torn era.
For the serpentine, merely a writhe
We posit Origin in order to posit End,
and if your drinking water is sewage,
to do so is understandable.
When the water is pure, Lilith’s anatomy
Is glimpsable in each drop.
But the water is never pure.
Before time, there appears to have been
a glass of pure water.
Therefore, we speculate, after time,
there will be another.
Life, a halo surrounding emptiness.
Continue with this: not body vs. soul,
but the inherent doubleness of any situation.
Thus in fusion there is also abyss.
Conclusion: I am suspended between origin and now,
or between origin and a bit before now.
Unknotting myself from both ends,
I drop through the funnel the y in abyss offers.
Nothing satisfies. And,
my suffering is nothing. Two postage stamps
glued, back to back,
What is missing? A poetry so full of claws
as to tear the reader’s face off.
Too much? Look what men do to women.
Why should art be less?
Poetry’s horrible responsibility:
in language to be the world.
Written for the 1998 Lecture Series at La Maison Francaise of Columbia University, and read there on November 11th. The lecture was first published in New American Writing, Summer, 2000.