Saturday, November 13, 2010

Aimé Césaire

Five Poems


Soleil cou coupé
[the unexpurgated first edition]
(Paris: K éditeur, 1948)

as translated by

A. James Arnold and Clayton Eshleman


Solar Throat Slashed
[the unexpurgated 1948 edition]
(Wesleyan University Press, [scheduled for May 2011])
[available for pre-order now!]

The glade today happily presents five poems by Aimé Césaire, as translated by A. James Arnold and Clayton Eshleman from the great Martinican poet’s unexpurgated 1948 first edition of Soleil cou coupe (front cover pictured above). These translations are previously unpublished and will appear in Solar Throat Slashed (Wesleyan University Press, announced for May 2011, front cover also pictured above), the first full edition in English of Césaire’s book.

The backstory here is that in the years after Soleil cou coupe was published Césaire greatly re-worked his book, eliminating 31 poems entirely and cutting text, to varying degrees, in another 29, leaving only 12 poems untouched. As such, many individual poems, in whole and in part, have been for decades hard to find, particularly in English.

I posted here in the glade about the Arnold/Eshleman translation of Soleil cou coupe in early January, after reading several poems from it published at alligatorzine and Bookslut. Since then, additional translations have appeared at the Poems and Poetics blog, Guernica Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, and New American Writing 28 (please click on each journal title to read the Césaire work) . I continue to exclaim, the same as ten months ago, “Absolument-Alléluia!” and “Oui-Oui-Oui!” for these poems. As Eshleman writes:
Solar Throat Slashed is Aimé Césaire’s most fulgurating collection of poetry. Animistically dense, charged with eroticism and blasphemy, and imbued with African and Vodun spirituality, this book takes the French surrealist adventure to new heights and depths. A Césaire poem is a crisscrossing intersection in which metaphoric traceries create historically-aware nexuses of thought and experience, jagged solidarity, apocalyptic surgery, and solar dynamite.
Eshleman’s first adjective here – fulgurating – seems to me just about exactly right. A charge, a strong and sudden blast of energy, hits me in the mind and spirit when I read the translations from Césaire’s book linked to above, and those presented below.

In this regard, consider please, in the poems below, the staggering questions that begin “Scalp,” the series of similes that explode in the middle of “Totem,” the variety of tom-toms that drum throughout “Ex-Voto For A Shipwreck,” the super-enthusiasm of “Ode To Guinea,” and the awesome listing, at the last third of “Antipodal Dwelling,” of the materials that make up the poet’s self-home.

Ready for the energy? Here then are five poems – bolts of word-lightning – by Aimé Césaire, translated by Arnold and Eshleman, from Solar Throat Slashed:


It is midnight

the sorcerers have not yet come

the mountains have not melted

have I sufficiently told the earth

not to set itself up in fear of sunstroke?

Shall I tighten my throat with a cord made from the ivy of my mutterings?

fish gatherers of water and its receptacle

it is above your heads that I speak

like the stars in the honey drool from my bad dreams and the earth it has birthed beneath us

It is true that I left my fingernails full in the flesh of the cyclone amongst the brawl of huge cockchafers

even to making spurt a new yellow semen

throwing myself under its belly to measure

my rutting


by the hard blood of rape

between two criminals

I know the hour

he who dies

he who leaves

But one but I

enclosed in the tuft that benumbs me

and by the grace of dogs

beneath the innocent and liana-unpleating wind

a hero of the hunt helmeted with a golden bird



From far to near from near to far the circumciseds’ sistrum and a sun outside principles drinking in the glory
of my chest a big slug of red wine and flies

how from tier to tier from distress to heritage would the totem not leap its tepidity of hearth and treason
to the top of the office complex?

like the salty inadvertence of your destructive tongue

like the wine of your venom

like your porpoise back laughter in the silver of the shipwreck

like the green mouse born of the beautiful captive water of your eyelids

like the flight of gazelles of fine salt of snow over the wild heads of the women and of the abyss

like the broad stamens of your lips in the continent’s blue net

like the rifle crack of the minute in the tightened woof of time

like the gorse chevelure that stubbornly grows in the off-season of your marine eyes

quadriga horses stamp the savanna of my vast open speech

from white to fawn

there are sobs silence the red sea and the night



Hélé helélé the King is a great king

let his majesty deign to look up my anus to see if it contains diamonds

let his majesty deign to explore my mouth to see how many carats it contains

laugh tom-tom

laugh tom-tom

I carry the king’s litter

I roll out the king’s carpet

I am the king’s carpet

I carry the king’s scrofula

I am the king’s parasol

laugh laugh tom-toms of the kraals

tom-toms of the mines laughing beneath their cape

sacred tom-toms laughing about your rat and hyena teeth under the very nose of the missionaries

tom-toms of salvation who don’t give a damn about all the salvation armies

tom-toms of the forest

                tom-toms of the desert

               black still virginal muttered by each stone

unbeknownst to the disaster—my fever

weep tom-tom

weep tom-tom

soft tom-tom

soft tom-tom

burned down to the impetuous silence of our shoreless tears

soft tom-tom

            softer still substantial ear

(red ears—ears—distantly the rapid fatigue)

soft tom-tom

roll soft no faster than a log for distant ears

        without utterance without purpose without star

the pure carbon duration of our endless major pangs

roll roll deep roll soft tom-toms speechless deliriums

russet lions without manes processions of thirst stench of the backwaters at night

tom-toms that protect my three souls my brain my heart my liver

harsh tom-toms that maintain on high my dwelling

of water of wind of iodine of stars

over the blasted rock of my black head

and you brother tom-tom for whom sometimes all day long I keep a word now hot now cool in my mouth
like the little-known taste of vengeance

tom-toms of kalahari

tom-toms of Good Hope capping the cape with your threats

O tom-tom of Zululand

Tom-tom of Shaka

tom tom tom

tom tom tom

King our mountains are mares in heat caught in the full convulsion of bad blood

King our plains are rivers vexed by the rotting provisions drifting in from the sea and from your caravels

King our stones are lamps burning with a dragon widow hope

King our trees are the unfurled shape taken by a flame too big for our hearts too weak for a dungeon

Laugh laugh then tom-toms of Kaffirland

like the scorpion’s beautiful question mark

drawn in pollen on the canvas of the sky and of our brains at midnight

like the shiver of a sea reptile charmed by the anticipation of bad weather

of the little upside-down laugh of the sea in the sunken ship’s gorgeous portholes



And by the sun installing under my skin a factory of power and eagles

and by the wind upon my salt-tooth power complicating its best-known passings

and by the black along my muscles in sweet sap effronteries rising

and by the woman supine like a mountain unsealed and sucked by lianas

and by the woman with the little-known cadastre where day and night play mora for spring water

and precious metals

and by the fire of the woman in whom I seek the road of ferns and Fouta Jallon

and by the closed woman opening upon nostalgia


peoples of the ponds

cover with ponds the fields of your long skies

into the low copse cast your prophets

and put their birds out to the wet nurse of the reds surely

let us die and at the hour when on the dial of the subduers

the sun slashes the eared seal’s breast

oh amazons

by the wailing of the bow

by the glory of my nights

by my loins spurting more than ever

by the brown odor of a morning agitated in my nostrils

from the depth of a delirium without trembling

                        I HAIL YOU

Guinea whose rains from the curdled summits of volcanoes

shatter a cattle sacrifice for a thousand hungers

and thirsts of unnatural children

Guinea wood and plant beautiful wild and climbing

rubbed stone from which never sparks a female light

Guinea with tendrils if

all the gin drunk hotter than the plaited blood of the gulfs

I had a begging bowl to decant as from the trees the fruitful blood of your women

by my feet hail Guinea

the forest

hail the alley open on all sides

Guinea oh! the cries

like the bodies of escapees falling virginal in the posthumous camp of the forest

Guinea oh! the cries

like rock salt needles

Guinea oh! the cries

trade wind or monsoon

Guinea of your cry of your hand of your patience

there remain for us always some arbitrary lands

and when killed near Ophir leaving me mute forever

out of my teeth out of my skin let there be made

a ferocious fetish guardian of the evil eye

as your solstice shakes me strikes me and devours me

with each step you take Guinea

mute after all from an astral depth of medusas



Crucible in which is born the world hair humus of the first earth

hair first worry stone

when the rain shall be the thread with which bit by bit the world undoes itself

when the sun shall be a spider in which to lose ourselves one by one

when the sea shall be an octopus to spit our hopes at us in our faces

when the moon shall uncoil and will unroll for us its long serpent body

when the volcano shall shake its wrinkled pachyderm body

when the wind shall no longer blow because we have forgotten to strike the wind stones

when the stones shall cease to speak for having preached too much in the desert

(entangling my veins an entire forest down to its lowest branches

entangling my veins completely the water and the regime of faithful fires

entangling that from the bottom shall dash waterlilies in my face and my blood

of redemption and my shoulders slipping better than any knots


a drop of water in the precious alembic of water tables that shall go to the window and
cry out in Esperanto that the weather is fine poorly heard by the volutes scored by our bitterest spit)

a drop of fire in the throat without risk of wind

firefly and water I shall assemble myself in little drops of water of fire too beautiful for any other architect

dwelling made of water glimpsed upon waking

dwelling made of rumpled perfumes

dwelling made of spangled sleep

dwelling made of swelled chests stretched out of benumbed lizards

strength lines me up on the shadowless meridian

pythons crews of catastrophes unnatural brothers of my longitude

roads raise themselves to the height of green-eyed female gnomes intersected with

prayers taking aim at us on the footbridge of the malfunctioning compass sky

dwelling made of a laying-on of palms of hands

dwelling made of red cheetah eyes

dwelling made of a rain of shells of sand

the revolver shots give me a halo too vast this time for my head which arrives via portage in spare parts


Aimé Césaire
(26 June 1913 – 17 April 2008)



Jenny said...

Those words are astonishing. Wow. Thank you.

Prasanna Choudhary/प्रसन्न कुमार चौधरी said...

Just wonderful. Reminds me of Suzanne Cesaire's call to 'embrace the domain of the stange, the marvelous and the fantastic, a domain scorned by people of certain inclinations. Here is the freed image, dazzling and beautiful, with a beauty that could not be more unexpected and overwhelming. Here are the poet, the painter, and the artist, presiding over the metamorphoses and the inversions of the world under the sign of hallucination and madness.' The translation deliciously conveys the magical charm of Aime Cesaire. Thank you very much.

Steven Fama said...

Thank you Jenny and Prasanna, for taking the time to share your responses to the poems. Needless to say, I agree with your views that Césaire's words, in these Arnold/Eshleman translations, are astonishing and wonderful.

And Prasanna, special thanks for putting in the great Suzanne Césaire quotation. Googling around, I've sourced that quotation to a 1941 issue of Tropiques, which you probably know was edited by Aimé Césaire and René Ménil from 1941-1945. It's a great statement.

Also from Tropiques, from about the same time, a statement by Césaire:

Par l'image on va à l'infini."

(in my translation, "By the image one goes to the infinte")

Thanks again for the comments.

Jess said...

Just discovered this poetry AND your translations. Pretty much stunned. Reminds me of a hybrid of Rimbaud and Burroughs, with a dash of Eliot. BRILLIANT.

Steven Fama said...

Jess -- thanks for giving Cesaire's poems a read but no, these are not my translations. As stated at the top of and in the post, these English versions are the most excellent work of A. James Arnold and Clayton Eshleman.