Toward a Poetry & Poetics of the Americas (2): Aimé Césaire, from the original 1939 Notebook of a Return to the Native Land
Translation from French by A. James Arnold and Clayton Eshleman
[J.R.’s note. Earlier this year I began with Heriberto Yépez the exploration of a possible assemblage of a newly reconsidered “poetry of the Americas.” The driving idea was to imagine a multilingual/multinational/multipoetic juxtaposition of poetries drawn from the work of poets engaged as natives and strangers in the creation of a new & necessarily experimental poetry & poetics. Coincident with that has been the publication of Aimé Césaire’s original 1939 version of Notebook of a Return to the Native Land (Wesleyan University Press), in a new English translation by A. James Arnold & Clayton Eshleman. The poem in that sense places Césaire in Martinique, a département of France but a coincidental part of the Americas all the same, and links him & us to the emergent negritude for which it was, among other things, an early declaration, and he its major spokesman. The merging of all of that or their crude juxtaposition, for what we may finally make of it, is a key part of the assemblage we hope to compose. The following strophes, with their sense of “this impossibly delicate tenuity separating one America from the other,” speak ineluctably to that vision.
The reader should also check an earlier posting on Poems and Poetics -- here and here -- which includes in another context Arnold's & Eshleman's excellent note on the nature & context of the original Notebook.]
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 nonclosure 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.*
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
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
What is also mine: a little cell in the Jura,* a little cell, the snow line
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 black man 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 is a shy patyura*
death expires in a white pool of silence.
Swellings of night in the four corners of this first light
convulsions of congealed death
screams erect from mute earth
the splendor of this blood will it not blast forth?
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.
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.
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
My memory is encircled with blood. My memory has a belt of corpses!
and machine gun fire of rum barrels brilliantly sprinkling
our ignominious revolts, amorous glances swooning
from having swigged too much ferocious freedom