In reading the text translated by Eshleman and Smith, we begin with a speaker’s return to a native and colonized land, candidly describing the beauty of the place (in this place, localizing within the Caribbean) as well as the challenges within it. That speaker explores oppression, systemic and internalized, eventually coming to the point of defining resistance and blackness/identity within and outside of that oppressed reality. I mention oppression particularly as the text begins with the immediate and direct address to an officer, a representative of order, who also serves as a representative of oppression and the flunky of larger systems. In the text, Césaire also offers a critique of the “throng which does not know how to throng, / this throng, so perfectly alone under the sun” pointing to the complacency and the ignorance (imposed and internalized) of the people, the poverty of that people as a result of colonialism. He resists against the treatise of an oppressor of saying such things that with colonization came technological advances or access to education. He also connects the struggles of those who are oppressed, particularly people of color: “a Kaffir-man/a Hindu-man-from-Calcutta / a Harlem-man-who-doesn’t vote … (p. 15).
In this work, this is an attempt to speak for the voiceless: “‘Embrace me without fear … And if all I can do is speak, / it is for you I shall speak … And above all, my body as well as my soul, / beware of assuming the sterile attitude of a spectator, / for life is not a spectacle, / a sea of mysteries is not a proscenium, / a man screaming is not a dancing bear.” I come to think again of the connection of Modernist African Poetry as connected still to the present moment. How does social media anesthetize people to the realities of injustice, using video or Facebook posts or tweets that are communicated out but lead to no resistance? How, too, does the poet figure in to reconnecting to reality? In the text, Césaire offers a historical example of resistance and pride, Toussaint Louverture, but he doesn’t engage in a glossy treatment of a hero; rather, he writes of Toussaint to talk of the emergence of negritude (p. 19), the pride and complexity of blackness, which does not belong to one place alone: “not an inch of this world devoid of my fingerprint / and my calcaneus on the spines of skyscrapers and my filth / in the clitter of gems! / Who can boast of being better off than I?” All the world has been influenced by blackness and yet it comes not to hierarchy of influence of status in respect to blackness. Césaire calls black people to a recognition of the complexity even of the natural world (rivers and ocean especially) to cross the sea of self (p. 55) in order to come to a place of power and knowing. He does not only concern himself with blackness; he also speaks of whiteness and white supremacy: “Here the white world / horribly weary from its immense efforts / its stiff joints crack under the hard stars / … Pity for our omniscient and naive conquerors!” From momentary pity, he moves to lauding black ancestors, using the musical sound of “Eia” to conjure love, joy, and recognition, going to acceptance of all of the complexity of blackness.
In this text, Césaire starts to define and redefine negritude as liberatory, accepting, resisting of denial of history, glorying in the contours of blackness and possibilities.
So, I’m thinking about this work in connection with my own work. Over and over again, water (rivers and oceans) have come through in the poetry. Those sources of water are burial sites for peoples, sites of bloody rebellion and hope, sites of loss and erasure.
Quotes about water from this text:
“I have become a Congo resounding with forests and rivers / where the whip cracks like a great banner / the banner of a prophet / where the water goes / likouala-likouala” (p. 23)
“while we force steaming gates, words, ah yes, words! / but words of fresh blood, / words that are tidal waves and erysipelas and malarias” (p. 28)
“But what strange pride suddenly illuminates me! … let the ovaries of the water come where the future stirs its testicles” (p. 39)
“in the glance of disorder there is this swallow of mint and broom / which mlets away to be rebordn in the tidal wave of your light” (p. 39
“my negritude is not a leukoma of dead liquid over the earth’s dead eye” (p. 41)
“But before reading the shores of future orchards … grant me on the ocean sterile / but somewhere caressed by the promise of the clew-line / grant me on this diverse ocean /the obstinancy of the fierce pirogue / and its marine vigor / See it advance rising and falling on the pulverized wave” (p. 44)
“islands scars of the water” (p. 48)
“And I lick you with my seaweed tongues.” (p. 48)
“the water of life overwhelms the papilla of the morne” (p. 50)
“There still remains one sea to cross / oh still one sea to cross / … It is I!” p. 55
I’m thinking a lot about water in connection with the Middle Passage. How would my vampires have come to the New World during the 1700s/1800s, if not as slaves? How does one persist in that journey with an insatiable thirst for blood and water? What does that engagement as victim of crime after crime also connect with the act of feeding upon the weak and the strong to survive? If this is seen as a trauma connected to survival, and trauma can pass in genetic memory, how does this pass on to one’s child?
Some questions that I am considering.