Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Nathan Spoon's Exploding and Whirling: A Review of The Complete Poetry of Aimé Césaire, Translated by A. James Arnold and Clayton Eshleman

Translated by A. James Arnold and Clayton Eshleman
Series: Wesleyan Poetry Series, Hardcover: 994 pages
Publisher: Wesleyan; Bilingual French-English ed. edition (September 5, 2017)
ISBN-10: 081957483X

Exploding and Whirling: The Complete Poetry of Aimé Césaire, Translated by A. James Arnold and Clayton Eshleman, Reviewed by Nathan Spoon


The poetic journey of Aimé Césaire, a Black Francophone, begins in 1939 with the appearance of Notebook of a Return to the Native Land, a long poem demonstrating the extent to which he has already internalized the poetic energies of predecessors as eminent as Rimbaud, and then continues until the 1994 publication of the twenty-two poems that comprise Like a Misunderstanding of Salvation…, his last book. Between these two works, is the oeuvre of a remarkable surrealist poet and founder (along with Léopold Senghor) of Négritude, a literary movement that united Black writers anywhere in the world based on their shared African ancestry.


With Notebook Césaire strikes forcefully, in a poem, made up of one-hundred and nine sections, that at first offers protracted descriptions, laying bare the collective hardships of life in colonized Antilles,

   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.

This is a reader’s introduction to a sweeping, spiraling voice very different from the sweeping, spiraling voice American readers of poetry know:

I celebrate myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

As the translators of this volume note, the narrator of Notebook is not introduced until the twenty-fifth stanza. This gives a firm sense of what becomes more pronounced as Césaire moves along through his years and decades. The concern for others expressed in his poems, especially for other Black people, and the intense descriptions of the world beyond the individual self, are prominent to the degree that the self is best understood in relation to others and the otherness of society and world. If Whitman can afford to be cosmic, as he is in the opening lines to “Song of Myself”, Césaire, by contrast, cannot.


This leads into what is most unique about Césaire. For all his incendiary experimentation, subversiveness and even blasphemy, he is constantly pressing the vision of the eminent end of colonialism. Here is another contrast: in relation to his predecessors, which also include Baudelaire, Lautréamont, Mallarmé, and Péguy, Césaire can be blasphemous, but not entirely blasphemous. While Rimbaud says of Hell, “I swallowed a monstrous dose of poison,” “How nicely I burn” and “The air of Hell will tolerate no hymns,” Césaire describes a living hell, with hope for a better future threaded though it:

I say hurray! The old negritude progressively cadavers itself
the horizon breaks, recoils and expands
and through the shredding of clouds the flashing of a sign
the slave ship cracks from one end to the other… Its bell convulses and resounds… The ghastly tapeworm of its cargo gnaws the fetid guts of the strange suckling of the sea!

Solar Throat Slashed & Other Poems of Note

Despite Césaire’s differing circumstances and concerns, his seminal collection is, as the translators of this volume present it, Solar Throat Slashed (touched on in my note at the end of this post). It is a collection of seventy-two short poems (no poem runs beyond two pages, and many take up less than half a page) that offers a far more comprehensive line than the line of Notebook of a Return to the Native Land. To provide a sense of range, here are excerpts from several poems, along with a description of the gist of each.

Some poems are elliptical like “Intercessor”

O torn sun
blind peacock magical and cool
with arched test tube hands
futile eclipse of space

and some are simple like “The Wheel” (appearing immediately after “Intercessor”):

The wheel is man’s most beautiful and sole discovery
there is the sun that turns
there is the earth that turns
there is your face turning on the axle of your neck when you weep…

Some are joyous like “Samba”

All that from a cove combined to form your breasts all the hibiscus bells all the pearl oysters all the jumbled tracks that form a mangrove all the sun that is stored in sierra lizards all the iodine needed to make a marine day all the mother-of-pearl needed to delineate the sound of a submarine conch
If you wanted them to
the drifting tetraodons would move hand in hand

Some are whimsical like “Solid”

holy shit they have secured the universe and everything weighs―every-thing―the plumb line of gravity having been installed at the facile bottom of solidity―the uranium deposit the garden statutes the perverse loves the street that merely pretends to be the fluid stream don’t mention it whose pace more sluggish than my feet there is nothing up to and inclu-ding the sun that has not stopped its clouds forever fixed.

Some poems, as already mentioned, are blasphemous, while others are more devoutly religious. Some are by this point in Césaire’s writing expected, and some are entirely unexpected. Still, the poems are shot through with the poet’s central concerns, but these poems carry that concern into a larger arena, as does the poem “Torture” (and, although it is tempting to quote this brief poem entirely, here is the second half):

All those who know how to show on imperial purple great blots of dark sperm accompanied by a diagram of their fall
all those whose fingers are an unprecedented sumptuousness of butterflies curved according to the earth’s axis
O all those whose gaze is a carousel of birds born of a superhuman balance of sponges and of fragments from a galaxy extinguished beneath a small railway station’s heel


Going into and then on from Solar Throat Slashed, and through the rest of the poet’s oeuvre, a reader discovers expansions and contractions of vision, as well as a general movement into and then away from spiritual potencies, allowing the poet to address political concerns, before again embracing the spiritual. Through it all Césaire remains intensely imaginative, proving himself master of a poetic voice that is, as Jean-Paul Sartre describes it, “beautiful like nascent oxygen.” With The Complete Poetry of Aimé Césaire, A. James Arnold and Clayton Eshleman have produced a seminal achievement in the translation history of Aimé Césaire unlikely to ever be surpassed.    


Leaves of Grass, 150th Anniversary Edition, Edited and with a New Afterward by David S. Reynolds, Oxford University Press, 2005

A Season in Hell & the Drunken Boat, Arthur Rimbaud, Translated by Louise Varèse, Preface by Patti Smith, New Directions, 2011

Poetry Editor’s Blog, March 2018