Cultural Transmission in the Making

Solar Throat Slashed
, Aimé Césaire, translated and edited by A. James Arnold and Clayton Eshleman (183pp, Wesleyan University Press)

When I was working very part time with undergraduates at the University of Warwick, I recall saying that they had access to more poetry from all over the world, and from the past, than any previous generation of students ever. I had no clear view of the implications, but two consequences seemed apparent; one, that the English canon of literature (and it might be said 'the native English voice') was to become only a small part of would now be available, and, two, that picking and choosing could lead into a dizzying variety of traditions and individual voices. And is English the language most translated into? Is English the second language for millions of people now across the globe? What does this mean for poetry's diversity? What is the response to all this by the school exam boards?

I suppose none of it can be quantified. A question I ask myself now, of these books of translated poems to which I find myself responding, who is reading them? Where are they in the early 21st century mix?

Aimé Césaire's Solar Throat Slashed
(Soleil cou coupé), as an example of cultural transmission in the making, is as complex as it gets, and the book sets this out well, it's a book with a fine feel and look to it - and it's for another discussion whether a such a hardback takes on willynilly more significance than most translations coming out in paperback or floppy plastic.

Césaire (1913-2008), born in Martinique, came to hold political posts there and in the French National Assembly. Our accidents of birth pattern our lives: he found himself of African descent in the French-speaking colonised Caribbean.

My memory tells me that for very many years the Penguin 'Return to my native land' was Césaire's only presence in English. I don't recall knowing that the coining of 'négritude', pride in African roots, was Césaire's with Léopold Senghor and others way back in 1934.

My copy, bought in January 1970: Cahier d'un retour au pays natal
, Présence Africaine, 1956; Penguin Books 1969, Return to my native land, translated by John Berger and Anna Bostock. Read (my note tells me) by Cy Grant at the Centre for West African Studies, Birmingham University, January 1989. Probably I had heard him read it before, in the late 1970s. A handout supplied by Cy Grant drew on the Introduction to Césaire's Collected Poetry, translated by Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith.

A.James Arnold in his Introduction to the book under review tells us that 'Readers of Clayton Eshleman's and Annette Smith's translation of Césaire's Collected Poetry
(California Press 1983) may be in for a shock.'

He tells us that almost 40% of the original poems of Solar Throat Slashed
, had been cut by Césaire, with much editing of what remained, for his collection re-titled as Cadestre in 1961. The present book restores everything, and in pages of notes tells us what had been changed or omitted, directing our attention sometimes to pages of that 1983 The Collected Poetry.

What Césaire, becoming more politicised, had decided should go missing - in Arnold's shorthand - was Modernisn. The early influence of - and shared consciousness with - Breton and Artaud especially, had been self-edited out, gone was 'Césaire's practice of free associative metaphor' that had been essential to the ethos of the 1948 edition. The emphasis now was towards the more overtly political, emphasising négritude.

I am not in possession of the 1983 translation, but the present book enables such reconstruction. The book is definitive in having on facing pages the 1948 French and its (new) translation. I do have Eshelman & Smith's 1990 Lyric and Dramatic Poetry, also introduced by Arnold, where the poems i,laminaria ...
[sic, with dots, 1982] are briefer and, it seems to me, breathe more easily. They have facing page translation, and the book has also Césaire's own 1944-45 essay, 'Poetry and Knowledge'.

My reference to his having made his poems 'more overtly political' should not give any impression of a Césaire who became simplistically polemical. This would seem far from the truth. While whole poems were omitted by him and radical shifts made in others, I can't see that his poetic passion was ever for mere speech-making. While also, to read again and again in the notes: 'This poem was eliminated' does seem to conjure rather a fierce mood.

I do at this point want to register two niggles: the poems in the notes are not given page references to the text; and the poems should have had either indented run-on lines or have had numbered lines by, say, the tens. Cross-referencing here is not at all straightforward.

Here is the whole of 'The Tornado' exactly as printed:

By the time that
                          the senator noticed that the tornado was sitting in his plate
                          on fat beet buttocks
                          with the sliced sausage of its thighs
                          lecherously crossed
the tornado was in the air foraging through Kansas City
By the time that
                           the minister spotted the tornado in the blue eye of the
                           sheriff's wife
it was outside displaying to everybody its huge face stinking like ten thousand
niggers crammed into a train
in the time that it took for the tornado to guffaw into a whore's vagina
it performed over everything a nice laying-on-of-hands those beautiful white
clerical hands
In the time that it took God to notice
                           that he had drunk one hundred glasses of executioner blood
                           too many
the city was a brotherhood of white and black spots scattered in cadavers on
the hide of a horse felled at full gallop
In the time that it took for the tornado to write a detective novel the tornado
wearing its cowboy hat seized hold of it shouting HANDS UP in the
loud empty voice that God employs when speaking to chickens--and
everything trembles and the tornado twisted the steel and birds were falling
thunderstruck from the sky
And the tornado having suffered the provinces of the memory rich debris of
the executed
spat from a sky stored full of judgments everything trembled for a second
time the twisted steel was retwisted
And the tornado that had gobbled up like a flight of frogs its herd of roofs
and chimneys noisily exhaled a thought the prophets had never known how
to divine

This illustrates several things. One, the lengths of the lines, two, uncertainty about what is line and what is run-on, three, omission of most punctuation, and, four, the word 'niggers', to which the Introduction devotes some discussion of then and now, of shifting cultural meanings (the French being 'n¸gres').

The Notes tell us that lines 3-5 were cut by Césaire, as was 'into a whore's vagina' (line 11, whereas the line spacing looks like it's line 12); lines 18-21 were cut - but which are lines 18-21? We have to find a clue in 'of the executed' having been cut from line 22.

Another almost page-length poem called 'Rain' tells something more of Césaire's self-editing. The poem was 'eliminated' by him, while lines 17, 18, 25 and 26 became another poem. Because of the difficulty of counting lines (above) I am not sure which those lines were. And trying to take cues from the French doesn't help; lines there run on sometimes parallel, sometimes differently, and it makes me wonder if any definitive versions exist: perhaps only in Césaire's handwritten drafts.

Capitalisation of lines is not a clue. Of this poem, the opening block of what has, probably, eight lines, eight or nine in the French, has only the first capitalised. Capitals thereafter may mark a line, although some continue (if spread out) to two page widths and more. If capitalisation means lines, 'The Tornado', almost a page in length, has only six lines.

Does it matter? Maybe, maybe not. One likes to think a line is part of the essential thing being made. A.James Arnold in his Introduction says something perhaps related. "The type of metaphor that André Breton described as exploding-fixed is particularly well suited to Césaire's poetic persona. Rather than resolving the tension between elements brought into unexpected contact in his strings of associative metaphors, the exploding-fixed type burst like fireworks from the accumulation of its strange, contradictory elements. The result is a numinous revelation of we know not what, unknown and perhaps unknowable, that nonetheless promises renewal and transformation."

Worth a whole seminar, this. Even a lifetime's bother. Here are some lines from 'Rain':

Rain wasp nest beautiful milk whose piglets we are
Rain I see your hair which is perpetual explosion of sandbox tree fireworks
your hair of misinformation promptly denied
Rain who in your most reprehensible excesses takes care not to forget that
Chiriqui maidens pull suddenly from their night corsage a map of thrilling

If I had come upon this authorless I would have thought Breton and thereabouts (and the book's title is from Apollinaire), and I wonder if Allen Ginsberg had read him.

If I was working still with undergraduates I would say relish this book, it breaks the boundaries of race and culture while speaking those particular passions, read it aloud to the corridors and fields, and I would say, 'But don't imitate it,' only relish it and with as much passion find your own thing.

       © David Hart 2011