Monday, April 11, 2005

Poem: Aimé Césaire + Appomattox Court House + Cecil Taylor

For today an excerpt of one of the 20th century's greatest long poems, written by another of my favorite poets, the great 94-year-old Martinican former schoolteacher and politician Aimé Césaire (1913-), who with the poet and later first president of Senegal Léopold Sédar Senghor and the French Guyanese writer Léon G. Damas formulated the concept and movement of négritude in Paris in the 1930s, which materialized initially in the creation of the literary review L'etudiant noir.
Césaire, who coined the term négritude, completed
Cahier d'un retour au pays natal (Notebook of a Return to My Native Land) in 1939 (though it wasn't published in full until 1947); the poem immediately gained recognition as one of the significant poetic achievements of its generation; combining the aesthetic techniques of surrealism with an emphasis on African and Caribbean subject matter, with in a tone of furious lyric authority and oracular subjectivity that burns through the entire poem.

Césaire has subsequently published many other books of poetry, including a number of important politically charged collections, and, in 1955, Discours sur la colonialisme (Discourse on Colonialism, for which Robin D. G. Kelley wrote an outstanding introduction for the 2000 edition), which strongly influenced his former student Frantz Fanon. Édouard Glissant, one of the leading Caribbean intellectuals and theorist of post-coloniality and antillanité, was another of his students. In the late 1950s, he began writing plays, another genre in which he excelled; among his major plays include The Tragedy of King Christophe, on the Haitian leader; A Season in the Congo, on the late Zairean leader Patrice Lumumba; and a post-colonial adaptation of The Tempest. Césaire also served as Mayor of Fort-de-France, the capital of Martinique, and as a member of the French Assembly, from 1945-1993, using his position as a platform to demand improvements for the people of Martinique (Patrick Chamoiseau, the Martinican author of the magnum opus Texaco has critiqued the dependency this created) and for Third World liberation.

Now, to the excerpt from his poem, which I found online (I don't have my copy of the volume with me in Chicago), translated by Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith, which I slightly altered:

From Notebook of a Return on My Native Land

At the end of daybreak. . .
Beat it, I said to him, you cop, you lousy pig, beat it,
I detest the flunkies of order and the cockroaches of hope.
Beat it, evil gris-gris, you bedbug of a petty monk. Then I turned
toward paradises lost for him and his kin, calmer than the face
of a woman telling lies, and there, rocked by the flux of a
never exhausted thought I nourished the wind, I unlaced the
monsters and heard rise, from the other side of disaster, a
river of turtle doves and savannah clover which I carry forever
in my depths height-deep as the twentieth floor of the most
arrogant houses and as a guard against the putrefying force
of crepuscular surroundings, surveyed night and day by a cursed
venereal sun.

At the end of daybreak burgeoning with frail coves, the hungry
Antilles, the Antilles pitted with smallpox, the Antilles dyn-
amited by alcohol, stranded in the mud of this bay, in the dust
of this town sinisterly stranded.

At the end of daybreak, the extreme, deceptive desolate eschar
on the wound of the waters; the martyrs who do not bear witness;
the flowers of blood that fade and scatter in the empty wind
like the screeches of babbling parrots; an aged life mendacious-
ly smiling, its lips opened by vacated agonies; an aged poverty
rotting under the sun, silently; an aged silence bursting with
tepid pustules,
the awful futility of our reason for being.

At the end of daybreak, on this very fragile earth thickness
exceeded in a humiliating way by its grandiose future--the vol-
canoes will explode, the naked water will bear away the ripe
sun stains and nothing will be left but a tepid bubbling pecked
at by sea birds--the beach of dreams and the insane awakening.

At the end of daybreak, this town sprawled-flat, toppled from
its common sense, inert, winded under its geometric weight of
an eternally renewed cross, indocile to its fate, mute, vexed
no matter what, incapable of growing with the juice of this
earth, self-conscious, clipped, reduced, in breach of fauna
and flora.

Copyright (c) 1939, 1947, 2005, by Aimé Césaire, all rights reserved.
Copyright (c) 2001, 2005, by Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith.

Appomattox Court House Signing
I missed that Friday marked the 140th anniversary of Confederal General Robert E. Lee's surrender to General-in-Chief of the Union Army Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House in Virginia, which officially put down the longest and largest organized treason in our country's history and officially ended the United States of America's Civil War (1861-1865). I would have loved to witness this event with my own eyes--in Union blue, of course, my blunderbuss tucked under my arm (though I probably wouldn't have made any of the paintings or photos, which all emphasize the nobility of the defeated Lee and the shambling modesty of great Grant--but none of the black Union soldiers or the "contraband" Negroes are pictured).

Were this country ever to truthfully reckon with its history, this day would be at the very least a national holiday. On his news blog, Steve Gilliard offers his commentary, as well as Democratic Leadership Council official and Southerner Ed Kilgore's thoughts on this momentous date. I recommend both.

Cecil Taylor in Ruvo, 2000
Also, March 25, 2005 was the 75th birthday of one of my heroes, the poet and musician Cecil Taylor, an artist who ranks among the most original and significant figures in the American and African-American radical aesthetic tradition. His music, which he continues to create and perform, is the "Sound Structure of Subculture Becoming" (Matthew Goodheart).

Or to quote Fred Moten, "In Taylor float/drift/linger/cut are fresh in the improvised parlance of another architecture, another geometry" (from In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition, p. 47.)

"I've always tried to be a poet more than anything else, I mean, professional musicians die. (Phone rings) /Then the music, the imagination from the music led into the words..."
(Cecil Taylor, Spencer Richards, liner notes, Cecil Taylor, Live in Vienna, Leo, 1988--from Moten.)

Belated Happy Birthday, CT!


Also, congratulations to Bernie T. at Bejata, for completing his culinary studies! Marcus Samuelsson, Jacques Pepin and Alice Waters, watch out!

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