Sunday, January 10, 2010

Extra! Extra!


Soleil cou coupé
[in English: Solar Throat Slashed]
(Paris: K éditeur, 1948)

Read all about it! . . . and start spreadin’ the news!

The news? Yes, the news, the news that will, or should, excite all readers of poetry: over the last few days and weeks more than a dozen Aimé Césaire poems never before published in English (or, in the case of a few poems, published previously only in little ’zines not widely circulated) have been posted on-line. And, wait, there’s more: as explained below, additional previously untranslated Césaire poems will be available soon!

The recently web-published Césaire poems, jointly translated by A. James Arnold and Clayton Eshleman, appear at good ol’ Bookslut (five poems), the ever-wondrous alligatorzine (another five), at the oldest continuously published weekly magazine in the U.S. (The Nation, natch), and [updated January 13th] at Jerome Rothenberg’s blog (three poems). Hyper-links to the poetry underlie each of the website or journal titles in the preceding sentence. I don’t mind, at all, if you check out the new-in-English Césaire poems right now. Please, go! I’ll catch you, perhaps, on the rebound.

The “story” behind these mostly new-to-English poems – and the story these and other new translations will themselves make over the next year or so – is quite interesting if you’ve read and love Cesaire, and interesting even if you haven’t, in that it illustrates how poems, even powerful amazing ones, can sometimes become all but lost over time, but can then marvelously re-appear.

The basic back-story here is that in 1948, Césaire published the French-language Soleil cou coupé (in English: Solar Throat Slashed), a 120 page collection of 72 poems. Coming as it did just a few years after he had met Andre Breton, and following in any event his deep love for poets such as Rimbaud and Lautreamont, surrealistic associative metaphors and automatic writing greatly energize Césaire’s book.

However, the poetry of the book took quite a turn about a decade after its initial publication. As Eshleman explains in a note accompanying the translations at Bookslut:
In the late 1950s, as Césaire became more politically focused, he radically revised this book, eliminating 31 of the 72 poems, and editing (some severely, some slightly) another 29.
You can do the math. As a result of extreme self-editing, Soliel cou coupé, by the time it appeared in Césaire’s French-language Ouevres Complètes, was greatly reduced. And thus, as good as the Solar Throat Slashed section is in the landmark 1983 UC Press edition of Césaire’s Collected Poetry (translated by Eshleman and Annette Smith) – and it is excellent – it is but a faint shadow of the 1948 original edition’s full glory. In short, one of Césaire’s greatest books, or the poetry in it, has never appeared in English at anything close to its full measure and essence.

What’s more, these days Césaire’s great book is scarce even in the original French. While less expensive copies can sometimes be found, some are priced at $400 and up.

Merde alors! What’s a reader, a curious lover of Césaire poetry-reader in particular, to do?

Well, once again: Extra! Extra! Read all about it! . . . and start spreadin’ the news. First, more of these previously unavailable in English Césaire poems will be appearing in the months to come, including (per e-mails sent by Eshleman in response to this post) in Jubilat, Denver Quarterly (Spring 2010), Mantis (published at Stanford), and New American Writing.

Even better, all these new translations by Arnold and Eshleman, whether linked to above or to appear in journals in the coming months, are just the start. The REALLY big news is that next year (2011), Wesleyan University Press will publish the original 1948 version of Soleil cou coupé, translated by Arnold/Eshleman and titled Solar Throat Slashed, in its entirety!

Saperlipopette! Hourra! Absolument-Alléluia! Oui! Oui! Oui-Oui-Oui!

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The Césaire poetry from Soleil cou coupé translated by Arnold/Eshleman and published recently includes verse poems, prose poems, and those in which both kinds of writing occur. Among the latter is “Permit,” the first of the five published at Bookslut. It’s one of the Césaire works that’s never before been published in English, having been cut by the poet from the collections previously translated.

Here are the first several (of about thirty) lines of “Permit” in the Arnold/Eshleman translation. The line-breaks here on Blogger for the prose-like first four lines differ from those at Bookslut, but then at that site the translated lines break differently than in the French original. With that proviso, here then is Césaire’s poetry:
Easy prolongation of deglutition by the obscene trismegistic mouth of a brown-bellied marsh sticky sundews of a happy muck listening in their lips what fraternal news their days are de rigueur in this world knotted by too much smoky breath masking the peppery verve of the storm

Lean lean on the abyss on vertigo
lean lean on nothingness
lean lean on the conflagration

I love how unfamiliar or obscure vocabulary (i.e., “deglutition” and “trismegistic”) almost immediately gets me off balance, how the unpunctuated jammed together phrases push me around even more, and how once I am way out there the (if I may say, given the dominant mouth-focus of the prose section) tasty images (e.g., “sticky sundews” and, in particular, “the peppery verve of the storm”) make my mind taste (and think) this way, that way, and all sorts of other ways.

I love too how the big mouthful of unpunctuated prose switches just-like-that to short verse lines. And I love the (if this makes sense, and I think it does) repetitive repetitions in the verse lines quoted above, as well as the hard-to-summarize but I sure do feel it wild primal state evoked by “abyss,” “vertigo,” “nothingness” and “conflagration,” all of which we are exhorted to “lean on.”

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These lines quoted above, and the whole of “Permit,” -- and the state I’m put in when reading them -- remind me, and strongly, of something Césaire writes about in his essay “Poésie et connaissance” (“Poetry and Knowledge”). The essay, first published in 1945, is a statement of poetics and related matters. In the essay’s first paragraphs, Césaire contrasts the limits of “scientific knowledge,” based on methodical modes of thought, with “poetic knowledge.” It can be read, in a translation by A. James Arnold, in Lyric and Dramatic Poetry, 1946-1982, a collection of Césaire texts published in 1990 by The University Press of Virginia.

Césaire in his essay doesn’t directly or precisely define “poetic knowledge.” He does, however, persuasively suggest several aspects of it. One of the most basic of these is that sometimes humans discover (using here Arnold’s translation ) “the most solid truths without benefit of induction or deduction, as if by flair.”

Now that’s a statement, stressing the efficacy of instinct and intuition via its neat use of “by flair,” that I heartily endorse.

Césaire also makes an assertion near the start of his “Poetry and Knowledge” that requires him to peer back imaginatively (and to me convincingly) to times of yore. And I mean really, really yore, yore as yore gets, in fact: to our antediluvian beginnings. We humans, Césaire writes, have never been closer to “certain truths” than at our primordial start, when our ancestors (using again the Arnold translation) “discovered with emotion the first sun, the first rain, the first breath, the first moon.”

That’s a great thought, I think, and of course one we all can sort of recognize in that each of us, after all, had our own individual “first” with each of the matters listed. Césaire also lists, or rapidly ticks off in three short sentences (plus an explanatory fourth) what humans felt during those first discoveries. He does so in a stand-alone paragraph, and I’ll do the same. Here’s what Césaire says was felt when “in fear and rapture” we humans experienced “the throbbing newness of the world” (again, the translation is A. James Arnold’s):
Attraction and terror. Trembling and wonderment. Strange-
ness and intimacy. Only the sacred phenomenon of love can
still give us an idea of what that solemn encounter have
been . . .
The ellipsis is in the original. Hey, do you see what I see? The qualities listed by Césaire, the states, emotions, and/or mind-sets of those who first experienced the world, are close, very close, to what’s felt – what I feel – when reading poems, the best, most intense of them at least. Wonderment. Strangeness. Attraction. And yes, sometimes Trembling and maybe even Terror and Intimacy too.

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The same sort of first-encounter qualities just discussed also apply to “Lynch 1,” a prose poem that is another of the recently published Arnold/Eshleman Césaire translations (it leads off the set published just a few days ago at alligatorzine). “Lynch 1,” while cut from the collection by Césaire (and thus not included in the UC Press Collected Poetry), has been previously published in English, twice.

Its first translation, by Emile Snyder, appeared in 1960, in an issue of Jack Hirschman’s tiny ‘zine Hip Pocket Poems. As such, it had limited circulation, then and since. However, it was via that translated poem, in that little ‘zine, that Clayton Eshleman first discovered Césaire, as Eshleman himself explains in his 1998 essay “At The Locks of The Void: Co-Translating Aimé Césaire” (available in his The Grindstone of Rapport: A Clayton Eshleman Reader (Boston: Black Widow Press, 2008)).

This is a sidelight to the main point here (which is the wonder of “Lynch 1”), but think about it. For all the small ‘zine-ness of that 1960 translation, it was the seed that, along with considerable curiosity, skill, work (by Eshleman and co-translator Smith), and time, eventually brought about both the 1983 UC Press edition of Cesaire’s Collected Poetry and (to bring us to the here-and-now) the poems spotlighted here today. A poem, no matter where published, can lead to BIG things.

With regard to the actual poem, Eshleman in “At The Locks Of The Void” also explains that in the mid-1990s he translated “Lynch 1” on his own. He along with A. James Arnold has now translated the poem again, and it is this newest version that appears at alligatorzine (and thus will appear in Solar Throat Slashed when Wesleyan publishes the entire translated book next year).

As to the content of “Lynch 1,” well, I must defer, at least at the start, to what Eshleman himself has written about it. He’s as experienced a reader of Césaire as anybody, and even if he somehow wasn’t, what he writes about the poem strikes me as exactly right. Here again from Eshleman’s essay, “At The Locks Of The Void” (italics added for emphasis):
“Lynch 1” is a typical and very strong Césaire poem of the late 1940s. For years, I didn’t know what to make of it, yet its strangeness was mesmerizing. It seemed to imply that for the speaker to suddenly inhale deeply, to offer himself to the wild, was to induct the snapping of a lynched neck. Erotic aspects of the poem came to mind in the 1970s when I saw the Japanese film Realm of the Senses, in which the sex-addicted male lead makes his partner choke him to wring the last quiver out of his orgasm.
Without meaning to disrespect the merits of anything else written, I italicized the one sentence because I find it deeply inspiring as a reader of poetry, and equally telling about Césaire’s poem.

Let me explain. Clayton Eshleman is among the top tier of astute poetry readers and thinkers of our time. If you need proof, please see the work he edited into the runs of Caterpillar (1967-1973) and Sulfur (1981-2000), any number of essays or books he’s written (in particular, Juniper Fuse: Upper Paleolithic Imagination & the Construction of the Underworld), and the many books of his own poetry. Eshleman is also – and about this I speak from personal experience, having received comments from him that promptly, politely and pointedly took issue with certain things written here in the glade) – a quick, certain thinker (to be clear, I find that an excellent and commendable quality, and feel the same about his willingness to tell you what he thinks).

In sum, one of the tippy-top poet-reader/thinkers of our time, after reading Césaire’s “Lynch 1,” writes (and yes, I am repeating myself, and again adding italics for emphasis, but do so because this is really key):
For years, I didn’t know what to make of it, yet its strangeness was mesmerizing.
See my point(s)? First, Eshleman directly indicates he stayed with Césaire’s poem “for years.” That’s inspiring, a lesson about how to keep at poetry, and one I hope I learn well and always follow. One poem, read for years, even if, or especially if, it’s a mystery. That’s the way is should be.

Second, what a tribute to Césaire, that “Lynch 1” kept its . . . its poetry, that’s what I’ll call it, for so many years. That its strangeness, its mystery, stayed with it. When a poem keeps its life full-on even when somebody such as Eshleman comes after it, well, that’s a great poem. Un point c’est tout.

And what a double-tribute to Césaire’s “Lynch 1,” and a keen way to describe any great poem, to say that its “strangeness was mesmerizing.” And yes, keen readers here, seeing Eshleman’s comment, you should think back to the quotation above from Césaire’s “Poetry and Knowledge,” regarding what humans felt when first encountering the throbbing newness of the world: “Attraction and terror. Trembling and wonderment. Strangeness and intimacy.” I see a similarity between the two, an equivalency between what Eshleman writes he experienced with the poem, and what Césaire states was felt by those who first experienced, for example, rain, or the moon. Do you?

If you haven’t already done so, please consider reading “Lynch 1” at alligatorzine (click here to go). And even knowing that some may have read the poem already, I’m going to end this post by quoting three sentences (one medium length, one short, one very, very long), from near the middle of the Arnold/Eshleman translation. In them, in a wild rush of prose, Césaire makes with words something along the lines of Rimbaud and Lautreamont, language-energy that arrays ever more way out there where wonderment, strangeness , attraction and trembling feel very, very right:
[ . . . ] Lynch it’s 6 PM in the mud of the bayou it’s a black handkerchief fluttering atop a pirate ship mast it’s the strangulation point of a fingernail in the carmine of an interjection it’s the pampa it’s the queen’s ballet it’s the sagacity of science it’s the unforgettable coitus. O lynch salt mercury and antimony! Lynch is the blue smile of a dragon enemy of angels lynch is an orchid too lovely to bear fruit lynch is an entry into matter lynch is the hand of the wind bloodying a forest whose trees are galls brandishing in their hands the living flame of their castrated phallus, lynch is a hand sprinkled with the dust of precious stones, lynch is a release of hummingbirds, lynch is a lapse, lynch is a trumpet blast a broken gramophone record a cyclone’s tail dragged by the pink beaks of raptors.
[ . . . ]
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[rear cover]
Aimé Césaire
Soleil cou coupé
[in English: Solar Throat Slashed]
(Paris: K éditeur, 1948)
(compare to the front cover,
at the top of this post,
and note where the carving is cut!)

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Aimé Césaire
(26 June 1913 – 17 April 2008)


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6 comments:

Heller Levinson said...

Mesmerizingly Illluminating, Steven, ... you pass the "Thrill" along, in abundance!

Steven Fama said...

Thanks Heller. These Cesaire poems are rich, and the Arnold/Eshleman + Wesleyan project is just fantastic.

David Grove said...

"Fama is an entry into Césaire." You remind me a little of K. Koch's Making Your Own Days, especially the passage about Césaire in that book: you have a clear, accessible way of leading people into poetry they might find intimidatingly obscure. You can teach people how to dig it without understanding it.

I see why Eshleman thought of Realm of the Senses--a film I like, incidentally. I think of Burroughs' obsession with hanging/ejaculation. The fragment you quote could almost be described as a chain of metaphors for "the little death." Lynch (neck-snapping) is 6 pm bayou goop (darkness, i.e. death) is black pirate flag (darkness/death, and pirates used to hang and be hanged) is fingernails drawing blood as they sink into a throat (sorry if that's unduly graphic) is "unforgettable coitus" is "a release of hummingbirds" (hummingbirds represent peace and love, among other things--a fresh metaphor for orgasm) is a "trumpet blast" (a jazzy metaphor for orgasm) is an orchid--a symbol of perfection. The dead woman is perfected, as Plath said. The bloody fingernail becomes the hand of the wind bloodying becomes a dusty hand... Parts of this fragment I don't know what to do with, but they are, as you say, mesmerizing.

Anonymous said...

greatest poet who ever lived. thanks for posting these.

Steven Fama said...


Dear David Grove --

Thanks for the kind words and interesting comment. That's a great close reading of the fragment from "Lynch 1." And I'll check out the K. Koch book -- didn't realize he'd written about Césaire.

I really appreciate that part of your comment that suggests the possibility of digging without understanding. It reminds me of a quotation on that subject, a great statement I think, and one I long ago took to heart. Here it is:

"And what is this absolute necessity for understanding? Isn't it enough that a book or painting awake response rather than meaning? [ . . . ] Does one have to understand a beautiful woman or the stars in order to love them?"

– Harry Crosby, "Observation-Post," in transition, No. 16-17 (June, 1929), page 203

Ed Baker said...

nicely "on the money"
Steve.

I just recently read
Andre Breton's

Martinique: Snake Charmer

and in the intro is mentioned

Euzhan Palcy "(whose films include

Sugar Cane Alley, A Dry White Season,
and

a documentary on Aime Cesaire) ..."