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POETRY MONTH 30/30/30: Inspiration, Community, Tradition: DAY 30! (Could it be?) :: Lindsey Boldt on Aimé Césaire

The other night poets Julian Brolaski and E. Tracy Grinnell were in town and in a bar rotten with poets in North beach, we got to talking about translation and our varying positions on the desire vs. intimidation spectrum in relation to doing our own translations. I brought up the Martinican poet, Aimé Césaire, as an example of a poet whose writing would interest me enough to translate it. I had been saying how French can feel too precise, too clean, too “le mot juste” when I really love a hot mess. Aimé Césaire takes French, a very coy language, very good at hiding its skeletons, and busts open the closets letting the nasty flesh-dripping zombies come out…and muck things up. Césaire’s French, one that excretes vivacity, vitriol and jouissance like the flora and fauna, the active volcanoes he invokes in his poems, reminds us of the proliferation of Frenches, just like our current proliferation of Englishes, that exist in spite of and because of France’s imperialist history.
Julian brought up the hybridity of Cesaire’s texts, specifically thinking of his “Cahier d’un retour au pays natal” [Notebook of a return to the native land] which reminded me of my first encounters with Césaire in college. I had never seen prose live and move like his–be that “free”. I had been trying to wake my own prose writing from a death-like stupor when a professor of French and Francophone literature, Maryanne Bailey, who had visited Césaire in Martinique, introduced us to his collected poetry, translated by Clayton Eshleman. We read it both in French and English and I learned in the process that if you want your writing to live on the page it really helps if you hate the language, hate its restrictions and biases. You have to be willing to beat it up and knock it around a bit. You have to let your true ambivalence show. No, more than that, you have to make the language speak your radical visions; the same ones that would tear apart and rip out at the roots the society that grew that language and the shit storm you grew up in. As Césaire says in his essay “The Responsibility of the Artist” when referring to decolonization,“What is necessary is to destroy it, that is, tear out its roots. This is why true decolonization will either be revolutionary or will not exist.” [ed: full text at link]
After I learned what the French and the French language had done to Haiti, Algeria, Senegal, Guadalupe, Martinique, I couldn’t love French enough to translate it because I thought I had to love it. Césaire didn’t love French, but it was still his and he sang through it, made it bleed tree sap, volcanic lava, his own blood and Martinique’s.
When it comes to writing poems, in French, English or any other Imperialist language that has been used to justify and sustain oppression, it helps not to be complacent (duh?). It helps to scream a bit in the most particular voice you can muster. It helps to read Aimé Césaire, and be reminded that art and activism, artist and activist are not mutually exclusive terms or descriptors of identity, but aspects of an awake and engaged life.
While rereading Césaire for this piece, I’ve also been reading: The Art of Not Being Governed by James C. Scott, Dahlgren by Samuel R. Delaney, Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness and various articles about how best to prepare for tomorrow’s May Day demonstrations. If you’re looking to get psyched for May Day, or wondering where you might fit in, I recommend taking a look at Aimé Césaire’s biography here:
and reading his essay “The Responsibility of the Artist.”
And checking out this website: How to skip work on May Day,
Here’s an excerpt from Césaire’s “Notebook of a Return to the Native Land” to get you started/hooked:
“At the end of the wee hours…
Beat it, I said to him, you cop, you lousy pig, 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.
At the end of the wee 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.
At the end of the wee hours, the extreme, deceptive desolate bedsore on the wound of the waters; the martyrs who do not bear witness; the flowers of blood that fade and scatter in the empty wind like the screeches of babbling parrots; an aged life mendaciously smiling, its lips opened by vacated agonies; an aged poverty rotting under the sun, silently; an aged silence bursting with tepid pustules, the awful futility of our raison d’etre.”
–from “Cahier d’un retour au pays natal” (Notebook of a Return to the Native Land)
by Aimé Césaire, translated by Clayton Eshleman
And here is an excerpt from some new prose writing I’ve been doing inspired by Césaire and my involvement in Occupy Oakland.
Puff sleeves like blown lace. Barbie gets her thumb stuck cuz her elbow don’t unbend and you shove it through the opening so she can wear the dress. Braided bodice borrowed from the Quinsenera or Cotillion. Wigs from wig & weave shop, “Glamour Wigs” of piles of corn silk curls, white to match the makeup. Wrapping wringlets around fingers, tugging giggles. White girls in whiteface, pigeon lipped play Antoinette revised to “People’s Principessa”.
Sara and I would put on ball gowns and go out into the cold, having bought them at the Goodwill, the shop on Mission St., having found them in the box, at the creative reuse depot, at the estate sale. Hers a pink number, like cat lips, Big League Chew, magenta like Barbie’s Ferrari. Mine, aqua blue 80’s shadow, like Wendy’s nightgown, blue raspberry Icee sucked near-dry. We, two faces of Aurora, fought over by 2 out of 3 fairy godmothers : Make it pink! Make it blue! Make it pink! Make it blue! and as the movie ends, the jeweled book closes, the animated dress twirls around the female body flashing between the girl color and the boy color. As the last page flips, it’s pink, I think, that we see last.
We hand cupcakes to cops, present them on the flats of our hands, stretching an arm perpendicular to our pink and blue bodies, hoping not to change that color scheme. But proffered cake goes cake to face, hurled. “We are cake-eaters too!” they holler and others holler for them. “O’ please remember the cops, ones desirous of cake, pieces of pie, part of large percentages of pie charts like you.” But their faces reek of cake crumbs, leftovers slopped on like stubble, they’ve been feeding at the trough and we don’t thread daisies into flash-bang barrels.
Lindsey Boldt is a poet, performer, editor, teaching artist and author of Overboard out now from Publication Studio. She lives in Oakland, California.
[Editor’s note: in this the final day of our series it seems only right that Lindsey and Césaire together should be sounding the drum for the responsibility of the poet/artist, on this day before the Occupy May Day General Strike. Lindsey came to us via Frank Sherlock, who wrote for us earlier this month on the inspirational Etal Adnan. We are happy to have her, and Césaire, as we close this celebration. Oh and hey, check this out! The Poetry Foundation’s Harriet Blog mentioned us on twitter the other day!
“POETRY MONTH 30/30/30: Inspiration, Community, Tradition at Exit Strata is awesome! Poets and poets important to them: “
We agree wholeheartedly. More editorial recap from me in a nonthunderstealing new post. Thank you from the bottom of my heart!
-Lynne DeSilva-Johnson, series editor]

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