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: