The New Worlds of Aimé Césaire

At the Living Heart

Translating Aimé Césaire.


Aimé Césaire was one of the foremost French poets of the 20th century. He was also one of the foremost leftists on his home island of Martinique and in the French National Assembly. Upon his death in 2008, he was honored with a state funeral attended by then-President Nicolas Sarkozy—ironic, considering Césaire’s refusal to meet with him in 2005, after the passage of a bill compelling French history teachers to emphasize the “positive aspects” of French colonialism.

In 2013, the centenary of Césaire’s birth was marked by academic conferences and new scholarly editions of his work. His words still have enormous power outside the classroom as well—at the Festival d’Avignon that year, for instance, the playwright Dieudonné Niangouna revealed that while he was imprisoned during the Second Congo War and forbidden from speaking or reading French, he hid lines from Césaire’s long poem, Cahier d’un Retour au Pays Natal, on the inside of his shirt.

Although Césaire published eight books of poetry and several plays, his artistic legacy continues to be defined by Cahier. First appearing in 1939, in the avant-garde magazine Volontés, this modernist epic narrates an unfolding personal and political crisis: Its speaker is returning to the Antilles from France with an intense awareness of how colonialism has not only damaged his home but also infiltrated his sense of history, geography, and language.

Since 2013, three English translations of this book-length poem have become widely available. Initially published in the aftermath of the explosive protests and unrest in France in May 1968, John Berger and Anna Bostock’s version was the first English translation of Césaire to appear in the United Kingdom; it was reissued by Archipelago Books shortly after Césaire’s centenary. In September 2017, Clayton Eshleman and A. James Arnold released their bilingual volume The Complete Poetry of Aimé Césaire, based on Arnold’s definitive French editions and drawing on Eshleman’s experience of translating Césaire for more than 50 years. Shortly thereafter, in November 2017, a new translation appeared from N. Gregson Davis, a professor of ancient Greek and Latin poetry at Duke University who grew up in Antigua.

Academic publishing can be sluggish and strange, so it’s hard to assign any specific intentionality to this series of Césaire volumes. Nonetheless, the appearance of so much Césaire at the same time is significant—the opportunity for a wider American appreciation of the poet seems to have finally arrived. Which translation of Cahier shapes that appreciation, however, will depend on the way it speaks to our present as much as it accurately reflects Césaire’s past.

As translated by Arnold and Eshleman, the poem begins:

At the end of the small 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.

The circular, despairing description of the Caribbean island in poetic prose establishes the tone and technique for Cahier’s first 21 sections, which describe an enervated landscape seen and felt “at the end of the small hours,” Arnold and Eshleman’s translation of “au bout du petit matin,” an Antillean Creole expression for the low-lit time between night and morning. The stability created by this repeated phrase establishes a feeling of both relief and uncertainty when the poem breaks from the pattern by introducing its estranged first-person speaker. This unnamed voice emerges in the act of depicting his return. The shift from descriptions of place to narrative actions is translated as follows by Davis:

To leave. My heart murmured with pronounced altruism. To leave… I would arrive suave and young in this land of mine and I would say to this land whose mud is an ingredient of my flesh: “I have wandered for a long time and I am coming home to the abandoned ghastliness of your sores.”

I would come to this land of mine and I would say to it: Embrace me without fear…

From here, the poem stages a series of explorations of black colonial life—as an embodied experience, as a historicized orientation to power, and as an opportunity for radical, transnational collectivity. In this last mode, as translated by Berger and Bostock, Césaire develops a voice of rhapsodic demolition:

we sing of poisonous flowers
bursting in meadows of fury;
skies of love struck by clots of blood;
epileptic mornings; the white
burning of abyssal sands, the sinking of wrecked ships in the middle of nights rent by
the smell of wild beasts.

What can I do?

I must begin.

Begin what?

The only thing in the world that’s worth beginning:
The End of the World, no less.

Hardly a nihilist, Césaire is expressing the extent of antiblack violence and the awesome capaciousness required to help reestablish his nation’s culture and independence. There is a sense that these “songs” need to be sung, but also an anticipatory liberation from the need to sing them.

Césaire’s sense of a productive anger provides an alternative to today’s digitally enabled pronouncements of resistance, which are easier than ever to make and (unsurprisingly) seem less effective. His poetry offers a model of artistic and political opposition that equips people with more than stress and anxiety. Cahier has planetary goals; it deepens shallow notions of identity and suggests that a subjectivity informed by powerlessness can be useful for understanding, and overturning, power. The conditions of black colonial subjectivity, more than any specific person’s experience of it, are Césaire’s central focus, even as the poem parallels aspects of the poet’s own life.

This is what Suzanne Césaire means by suggesting, in her essay “1943: Surrealism and Us,” that her husband’s poetry was surrealist because it marked “an activity which assigns itself the goal of exploring and expressing systematically the forbidden zones of the human mind, in order to neutralize them.” It is in this spirit of exploring trauma that Césaire ends the poem with a quiet revolt, occurring in montage amid what some have called the original site of antiblack violence, translated here by Davis:

The nigger cargo that was sitting down
is unexpectedly standing upright
upright in the hold
upright in the cabins
upright on the bridge
upright in the wind
upright under the sun
upright in the blood

In form and content, Cahier is a challenging poem, which makes it easy to understand why it has lacked a wider popular appreciation—and why it is increasingly important for poets and scholars to help spread its visibility. Reading across the three translations of Cahier quoted above may overrepresent the poem’s shifts in tone, but their differences reveal the many facets of Césaire’s political and poetic commitments across his career as much as they speak to a given translator’s skill.

These differences begin, appropriately enough, with the word cahier. Eshleman and Arnold opt to translate the poem’s title directly, as Notebook of a Return to the Native Land, whereas Davis renders it as Journal of a Homecoming. Davis explains that he selected “journal” because it “is etymologically related to the French words jour [day] and journal [newspaper],” though it also has the benefit of leaning closer to common speech. Berger and Bostock dispense with cahier entirely, titling their version Return to My Native Land and explaining that their choices were guided by a desire to preserve the poem’s “thinking content…[which is] both political and poetic.”

Although framing the poem as a written thing seems as important as stressing the “return” to a “native land,” Berger and Bostock’s statement points to a crucial split in the reception of Césaire’s work—during his lifetime and since. There is a tendency to treat his development as a poet as distinct from his political work; this notion has given rise to two starkly opposed impressions of Césaire, each coinciding with a different version of Cahier, which he revised continually throughout the 17 years between 1939 and 1956—and even later. On the one hand, there’s the Europhilic, moderate, and youthful Césaire, whose 1939 Cahier anticipates his own return to Martinique in the face of an impending global war; on the other, there’s the mature, political firebrand, whose 1956 revision appeared the same year he addressed the First International Congress of Black Writers and publicly resigned from the French Communist Party, although without renouncing communism or Marxism. To be sure, by revising the poem at all, Césaire himself played a role in shaping this interpretation.

But according to Gary Wilder, author of Freedom Time, a recent study of Césaire and the Senegalese poet Léopold Senghor, “anyone who looks closely at his life, political acts, and range of writings will quickly see that Césaire defies easy characterization, that he disrupts conventional oppositions.” Indeed, Césaire’s best-known political text, Discourse on Colonialism, features many of the same rhetorical maneuvers we find in his poetry, and his appreciation of political change was at least partly aesthetic, describing the very word “decolonization” as “beautiful” and defining poetry as “that process which through word, image, myth, love and humor establishes me at the living heart of myself and of the world.”

Some of this “humor” comes from Césaire’s mordant descriptions of that world, as in Eshleman and Arnold’s translation of Cahier:

And we are standing now, my country and I, hair in the wind, my hand puny in its enormous fist and the strength is not in us, but above us, in a voice that drills the night and the hearing like the penetrance of an apocalyptic wasp.

And the voice proclaims that for centuries Europe has force-fed us with lies and bloated us with pestilence,

for it is not true that the work of man is done

And yet the shifts between the 1939 and 1956 versions might be more accurately described as adjustments in tempo and rhythm rather than political allegiance. The later version reads more quickly and with more frequent syncopation; it contains nearly twice as many sections, though these are just as often due to rearrangement as they are to the inclusion of new material. This allows a greater concentration on individual terms and images, though it loses some of the nuance that comes from moments when the speaker appears to doubt himself. For example, this section—originally three lines that conclude a long passage about being illuminated by racial pride, and three more lines marked off as their own section—becomes, in the 1956 version, a balanced resolution, with three negative and three positive statements (translated here by Davis):

My negritude is not a stone, its deafness heaved
against the clamor of day
my negritude is not a film of dead water on the dead eye
of earth
my negritude is neither a tower nor a cathedral
it delves into the red flesh of the soil
it delves into the burning flesh of the sky
it digs through the dark accretions that weigh down its righteous

The repetitive description of what something is not—a definition by refusal—is one of Césaire’s most distinctive techniques, and it’s integral to what Wilder has described as Césaire’s “radically literalist practices.” By employing a surprising range of references, Césaire points to the alternative possibilities latent within the language of oppression. When Césaire insists on what his “negritude is not,” we need to understand it not only as a gesture of self-definition, but also as an enactment of insurgent precision at a time when the operation of power would prefer rhetorical pliancy.

Defining “negritude” outside of this passage, however, is more difficult, and yet it brings us closer to understanding how these new translations can illuminate current debates in black ontology and cultural criticism. Coined by Césaire in an article for L’Étudiant Noir (The Black Student), “negritude” refers to an aesthetic and political movement that Césaire initiated with Senghor and the French Guianese poet Léon Damas while the three were studying in Paris in the mid-1930s. They were responding to colonialism and Eurocentric notions of culture by articulating a global black experience and venerating the black body. They were influenced less by the writing of Claude McKay and Langston Hughes than by the Harlem Renaissance’s example of a defiantly racial literary movement, one that not only allowed but encouraged self-definition. In a lecture from the late 1970s, Césaire described the origins of “negritude” thus: “in the darkness of the great silence, a voice was raising up, with no interpreter, no alteration, and no complacency, a violent and staccato voice, and it said for the first time: ‘I, Nègre.’”

Césaire began writing Cahier around the same time that he coined the term, and it plays a pivotal role in his general technique. By crafting new terms out of a dominant language, Césaire turns individual words and phrases into sites of resistance—the poem ends with “verrition,” variously translated as “sweeping stillness” (Davis), “seized swirl” (Berger and Bostock), or “immobile veerition” (Eshleman and Arnold), but with all of these translations losing the Latinate suggestion of “spring” (ver).

The invention of “negritude” sidesteps the more likely choice négrité to capture the allusions to “attitude” and “study” (from étude), which enhance the term’s use in Cahier, not only as a term of self-definition, but as a vector for solidarity (or the lack thereof). The word appears at the halfway point of both the ‘39 and ‘56 versions, when the poem’s speaker sees an enormous and impoverished man on a streetcar, catalogs his apparent misery, and finds him “Comical and Ugly,” echoing Charles Baudelaire’s description of a tortured albatross. Here Césaire confronts the worst of his inherited prejudices. And it is also, crucially, where Césaire begins to pick apart an aspect of a specific person (“un nègre”) rather than as a self-contained yet generalized concept (“negritude”). Eshleman and Arnold translate the passage this way:

One evening on the streetcar facing me, a nigger.

A nigger big as a pongo trying to make himself small on the streetcar bench. He was trying to leave behind on this grimy bench his gigantic legs and his trembling ravenous boxer hands. And everything had left him, was leaving him. His nose which looked like a drifting peninsula and even his negritude discolored as a result of tireless tawing. And the tawer was Poverty.

Eshleman and Arnold believe that “the original goal of Césaire’s negritude project was spiritual,” and therefore render this passage as though the streetcar rider’s “negritude” is something along the lines of an aura. Berger and Bostock substitute the word “Negro,” perhaps an anodyne choice at the time of their translation.

Davis’s translation is more sensitive to the underlying “challenge of how to render in English the noun nègre,” which, he says, has “pejorative reverberations.” Davis writes that he’s chosen “to vary my rendition of the word nègre in my English version according to the thematic context, on the grounds that the intensity of its charge is nuanced and varied throughout Cahier.” He reserves using “nigger” for sequences explicitly connected to the dehumanizing violence of the slave trade, or those that dramatize the psychological impact of the speaker’s time in Europe.

In reference to the man on the bench, Davis refers to a “black man” and his “blackness,” intensifying the visual connection to the process of lightening and curing leather and making the bodily impact of the man’s immiseration clear. Nevertheless, Davis is clear about what meaning Césaire is trying to communicate: “His physical appearance and his whole demeanor are deliberately exaggerated, presented in terms of a caricature that conforms to the standard portrait of the black man in the eyes of the white.” More important, whereas the other translators turn to slurs to destabilize the reader with sudden eruptions of hate, Davis coaxes this passage (and the poem as a whole) toward a consciousness that is shared by the poem’s speaker and the man on the streetcar, and that bridges their vastly different life experiences.

Césaire himself gave “negritude” a mutable definition, one that is guided by a sense that there is something that is shared, necessarily and meaningfully, by all black people. The legacy of this position on racial essentialism and exceptionalism has been taken in many directions. For Césaire, it was an important stance against European fascism—when the head censor in Vichy France prevented Césaire and his fellow editors from publishing their literary journal Tropiques on the grounds that it was racist, they responded: “‘Racists,’ yes. Racism like that of Toussaint Louverture, Claude McKay, and Langston Hughes—against the racism like that of Drumont and Hitler.” In a 2008 interview with the journal Callaloo, Césaire described one particularly bracing deviant application: “One day I shuddered when I learned that Mobutu was interested in Négritude. He calls it authenticity, doesn’t he? My hair stood on end!”

The ambiguity found in negritude’s sense of “authenticity” is at the core of the interpretation of Césaire’s writing that is now best known in America. While Frantz Fanon was a student of Césaire’s at Martinique’s Lycée Schoelcher, and later an aide for Césaire’s first mayoral campaign in Fort-de-France, he was known to recite passages of Cahier from memory. (Césaire held that office from 1945 until 2001.) In Black Skin, White Masks (1952), Fanon’s theoretical analysis of antiblack prejudice and its effects, he offers a less admiring position: Fanon’s book includes frequent disparaging references to the poem, which he takes as evidence of a naive and self-denying belief that “the world will open up as borders are broken.” Later in the book, Fanon interpolates that moment of recognition on the streetcar in Cahier by inserting himself in the role of the enormous man on the bench. A white child fearfully announces his presence to an attending mother:

In the train, it was a question of being aware of my body, no longer in the third person but in triple…. I was taking up room. I approached the Other…and the Other, evasive, hostile, but not opaque, transparent and absent, vanished. Nausea….

“Look, a Negro! Maman, a Negro!”

“Ssh! You’ll make him angry. Don’t pay attention to him, monsieur, he doesn’t realize you’re just as civilized as we are.”

This moment of forced identification denies Fanon his own sense of being, and as the chapter goes on, he invokes the “my negritude” sequence as an example of further denial:

While I, in a paroxysm of experience and rage, was proclaiming [Césaire’s lines], he reminded me that my negritude was nothing but a weak stage. Truthfully, I’m telling you, I sensed my shoulders slipping from this world, and my feet no longer felt the caress of the ground. Without a black past, without a black future, it was impossible for me to live my blackness.

Over the past decade, Fanon and his disagreement with Césaire have become centrally important to the theoretical movement known as “Afro-pessimism.” Led by Frank B. Wilderson III and Jared Sexton, two professors at the University of California, Irvine, the Afro-pessimists define themselves as “theorists of Black positionality who share Fanon’s insistence that, though Blacks are indeed sentient beings, the structure of the entire world’s semantic field—regardless of cultural and national discrepancies—‘leaving,’ as Fanon would say, ‘existence by the wayside’—is sutured by anti-Black solidarity.” (Though Wilderson and Sexton write for a mainly academic audience, Ta-Nehisi Coates, among others, gives voice to aspects of their thinking for a wider audience.) For Wilderson, Afro-pessimism takes blackness to be primarily “a structural position of noncommunicability” rather than a “variously and unconsciously interpellated identity.” That is to say, blackness is created through the denial of self-definition rather than in any experience or quality that precedes that denial or exists beyond it.

But there has been a complementary response from other theorists, who turn to the places where these sutures of antiblackness seem to be drawn the tightest and yet find reason for optimism. In her book In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, Christina Sharpe looks to the hold of the slave ship to recover a sense of relationality, turning “hold” itself into community responsibility and witnessing. “How are we beholden to and beholders of each other in ways that change across time and place and space and yet remain?” she asks. Similarly optimistic, Nahum Dimitri Chandler uses jazz poetics in his book X—The Problem of the Negro as a Problem for Thought to insist on variability within black subjectivity without denying its existence as a discrete and specific mode of being, drawing on prefixes like “ana- (“up, back”) and “para- (“beside, adjacent to”) to show how seemingly binary experiential logics can be modified, adjusted, and riffed on to become more sensitive to specific lives.

Perhaps the most prominent of these optimists, the poet and scholar Fred Moten turns directly to Fanon’s writing on Césaire. In particular, Moten is interested in Fanon’s frustration with Césaire’s use of pidgin and words of his own coinage: “The new speech, which animates Césaire’s poetry as well as Fanon’s invocation of Césaire in the interest of disavowing the new speech, is where we discover, again and again, the various and unrecoverable natality that we share.” Connecting Fanon’s quarrel with Césaire to Hannah Arendt’s belief that all human activity, and especially political activity, carries the promise of new creation—a promise latent in the unrepeatable nature of each person’s birth, hence “natality”—Moten helps us to see the new dimensions that this debate has acquired over time. Césaire was self-consciously preoccupied with making something new in art and politics alike, but reading his poetry today (with a stronger sense of the historical specificity of his writing) provides the present with the kind of historical investigation of blackness that Fanon felt was unavailable. But more important, the fact that Césaire did so through the materiality of language indicates blackness’s power for a new “communicability” not rooted in an essentialized idea of race, but in new methods of critiquing the cultural machinery that essentializes. For Césaire, new words hold the promise of new worlds. Poetry isn’t the only expressive mode where this kind of language work can happen, but it still is the best.

With its careful attention to the historicization of the terms of antiblackness, as well as its rich sense of Césaire’s manipulation of those terms, Davis’s Journal provides the best access to Cahier. There are reasons to seek out the other translations: Berger and Bostock’s is a fascinating historical document and, with its lack of critical apparatus, feels more like reading and less like study. Eshleman and Arnold have provided a durable entryway into Césaire’s entire poetic career, and if Cahier is less well-known than it should be, his brief lyrics are even more so. But Davis’s Journal provides the most powerful articulation of Césaire’s “new speech,” along with the necessary contextualizing tools to recognize and appreciate this power. In doing so, Davis has not merely translated a great work of modernist poetry and an essential document in postcolonial history; he has created a present-day source of timely dissent.

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Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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