Aimé Césaire (1913-2008) was an Afro-Martinican francophone poet, author and politician. Césaire is most well-known as the co-creator (with Léopold Senghor) of the concept of negritude. He was a member of the Communist party and active supporter of a progressive Socialist movement in his native Martinique. Some notable publications are Cahier d'un retour au pays natal (prefaced by André Breton), Cadastre, Discours sur le colonialisme and Toussaint Louverture: La Révolution française et le problème colonial.
The Aimé Césaire translations presented here are from the 1948 Soleil cou coupé. A. James Arnold and I are cotranslating this collection of 72 poems, which were radically cut and altered by Césaire in the 1950s, leading to his in effect gelded collection, Cadastre, in 1961. Césaire cut out 31 poems and altered, some radically, some marginally, another 29. Wesleyan University Press will publish our translation in 2011 (www.wesleyan.edu/wespress).
While Lynch 1 is one of the poems cut from the original 1948 Soleil cou coupé by Césaire when the manuscript for Cadastre was assembled (probably in the late 1950s), I translated it myself in 1995 (during the O.J. Simpson trial), making use of an earlier translation of the poem by Emile Snyder, a French transplant who was an early translator of Césaire's poetry. A brief commentary on this bizarre piece may be found on p. 132 of Companion Spider (Wesleyan University Press, 2002), which follows my 1995 version. In the fall of 2009, A. James Arnold and I retranslated my earlier translation and our translation is the one presented here. There is a fascinating translation problem near the end of the piece: I had originally translated the phrase "meurtrière sommaire" as "summary loophole." While "loophole" is one of "meurtrière's" meanings, here it is general and vague. More specific are two other meanings: "murderess" and "murder-hole" (a hole in the ceiling of a castle through which defenders could throw dangerous or noxious substances at attackers). Given the erotic seams in the poem, "murderess" seems quite relevant but if used alone eliminates the equally cogent "murder-hole." We have chosen to coin "murderess-hole" (in the spirit of some of Césaire's coinages) to engage both potential meanings. We have also tightened, as it were, "summary" to "succinct."
Chevelure is one of the heavily edited ones that was in a cut form published in Cadastre. The 1948 unexpurgated version is more complex and beautiful in our sense of it. The edited 1961 version of the poem, which I cotranslated with Annette Smith, was published in Aimé Césaire: Collected Poetry (U of Cal Press, 1983). It is reproduced here as an example of Césaire's "editing." [CE]
Wouldn’t you have taken it bombarded by lateritic blood
for a beautiful stripped tree
the invincible and spacious cockcrowing already in invincible departure toward
one imaginesa witches’ sabbath of splendor and cities
all the juices rising in the lust of the earth
all the poisons distilled by the nocturnal alembics in the involucres of the Malvaceae
all the thundering of the Saponaria
are like these discordant words written by the flames of pyres
over the sublime oriflammes of your revolt
ingenuous flames licking a rare heart
the forest will remember the water and the sapwood
as I too remember the compassionate snouts
of big rivers that stumble around like blind men
the forest remembers that the last word can only be
the flaming cry of the bird of ruins in the bowl of the storm
Innocent who goes there
forget to remember
that the baobab is our tree
that it barely waves arms so dwarfed
that you would take it for an imbecilic giant
inhabited by my insolence my tombs my twisters
mane bundle of lianas violent hope of the shipwrecked
sleep softly by the meticulous trunk of my embrace my
Clayton Eshleman has also cotranslated with Annette Smith: Notebook of a Return to the Native Land (Wesleyan University Press, 2001), Lost Body (Braziller, 1986) and Aimé Césaire: Lyric and Dramatic Poetry 1946-1982 (including And the Dogs were Silent, and i, laminaria, University Press of Virginia, 1990).
A. James Arnold is the author of: Modernism & Negritude / The Poetry and Poetics of Aimé Césaire (Harvard University Press, 1981). He is also one of the editors of Césaire's Complete Works now being assembled in Paris.