Monday, May 05, 2014

Aimé Césaire’s non-notebook

Some books inscribe themselves on your bones.

The minute I felt the caustic spray of the first lines of John Berger and Anna Bostock’s 45-year-old rendition of Aimé Césaire’s Return to My Native Land, just reissued by Archipelago Books (‘At the end of the small hours…Get away, I said, you bastard of a cop, swine get away.’), I was in its thrall. This translation burns with fresh and righteous acid.

It’s far from a literal version—a fact you can judge from the cover. Cahier d’un retour au pays natal means ‘Notebook of a return to the birth land.’ Berger and Bostock’s tummy tuck on the title seems a sacrilege, but it eats away the pretense that it’s just a miscellany of journal jottings: this poem seethes with raw facts and fancies about servitude, forced migration, colonization, and slavery. It shines an unsparing dry-ice spotlight on our complicity. It’s not a notebook; it’s an indictment.

Return to my Native Land is verbal napalm. Césaire’s words molest your complacency, Molotov your privilege, blowtorch your preconceptions and, generously, just when you’re near death, anneal your already-burnt body and conjure a hard new seed of consciousness. This is poetry both of scorched earth and the phoenix.

Reading this translation, I understood for the first time Cesaire’s complicated feelings about his heritage—the forced journey from Africa to Martinique—and his new journey to Europe, to the motherland of his colonizers, all compressed in a line documenting his “leap across the sweet greenish fluid of the waters of shame.” And, with renewed respect, I perceived his complicated, wishful and ultimately unrequited relationship with the West, summed up in the immortal line, “I have come to the wrong witch-doctor.”

With Berger and Bostock as my guides, I discovered Aimé Césaire as the Walt Whitman of the Americas. Born just 21 years after the Brooklyn and Camden master died, Césaire (1913-2008) is the avenging Whitman, the blaming bard, the wordsmith of coruscating hate and transformative self-loathing—a stance Whitman (“I do not decline to be the poet of wickedness”) would have understood and admired. I have no idea if Césaire ever read Song of Myself, but compare:

knowing my tyrannical love you know
it is not by hatred of other races that I prosecute for mine.

encompass worlds, but never try to emcompass me,
I crowd your sleekest and best by simply looking toward you.

My name is Bordeaux and Nantes and Liverpool and New York and San Francisco
Not a corner of the world but carried my thumb-print
and my heel-mark on the backs of skyscrapers and my dirt in the glitter of jewels.

Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff. I give them the
same, I receive them the same.

Accommodate yourself to me, I won’t
accommodate myself to you!

I celebrate myself, and sing myself
and what I assume you shall assume,
for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

Césaire published Return in 1939, when he was an angry young man, and reissued it, revised, in 1947, and again, more completely bowdlerized, in 1957, when he was a middle-aged politician. By then he was mayor of Fort-de-France (serving from 1945 to 2001 with just two years--1983 and 1984--out of office) and a member of France's National Assembly (from 1946 to 1956 and 1958 to 1993.) Perhaps he deemed the overt and violent sexuality unfitting and unflattering for a public figure. Perhaps he wanted a more didactic and predictable tone. B and B translated Césaire’s authorized version—the shrunken ’57 edition. But no matter. Their English is packed with passion and shot-through with sexuality.

Return ends with a contaminated and corrosive plea for peace:

It is you I follow, follow
stamped on my eye’s ancestral white cornea
Rise licker of the sky
and the great black
hole where I wished to drown myself by another moon.
it is there that I would fish
for the night’s evil tongue in its seized swirl!

Césaire doesn’t let anyone off the hook. And why should he? We are all equally implicated, the same peaceful patterns stamped on our corneas, the same death-wish moons drowning our hopes, the same descent into defeat, as we are licked and ultimately suffocated by our dense planet’s evil tongue.

Just being able to say this is a victory, a bold statement of life.