Aimé Césaire Soleil cou coupé (selection)
translated from the French by A. James Arnold and Clayton Eshleman

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Why does spring grab me by the throat? what does it want of me? so what if it does not have enough spears and banners! I jeer at you spring for flaunting your blind eye and your bad breath. Your stupration your corrupt kisses. Your peacock’s tail makes spirit tables turn with patches of jungle (fanfares of marching sap) but my liver is more acidic and my venefice stronger than your malefice. 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. Lynch is a gorgeous chevelure that dread flings into my face lynch is a temple destroyed by roots and gripped by a virgin forest. O lynch loveable companion beautiful squirted eye huge mouth mute unless a jerking there spills the delirium of mucus weave well, lightning bolt, on your loom a continent exploding into islands an oracle contortedly slithering like a scolopendra a moon settling in the breech the sulfur peacock ascending in the succinct murderess-hole of my assassinated hearing.


Wouldn’t you have thought it bombarded by laterite blood
a beautiful stripped tree
the invincible and spacious cockcrow in the already invincible departure toward an imagined witches’ Sabbath of splendor and of cities

O vat in which to surprise the colloquium of the gallop and of the wind
O matter dog suns gyrating in the clicking hooks of their unnamable gel
O in the savannahs of silence the faceless glories flowing into the pistils’ hollow gloom

Undulating innocent
all the juices rising in the lust of the earth
all the poisons that nocturnal alembics distill in the involucres of the malvaccae
all the saponaria’s thunder
are like these discordant words written by the flaming of the pyres over the sublime oriflammes of your revolt

ingenious flames licking a rare heart
plague you will fix our landscapes in the broken vapors of a meadow of lighthouses and you will signal the anguish playing with shoulders attached to splashings but never around the head
the least halo of a future read in the oubliette of expectation
where the ocean designates a perfidious elaboration of diamonds to the scorn of matutinal phrases
innocent who ventures there I am under the forest of a flesh that watches me
that we be attentive and docile
sleeping faces in the stifling of schisms
will emerge to render inoperable the most modern technological inventions

The forest will remember the water and the sapwood
as I too remember the mollified snouts
of big rivers that stumble about like blind men
searching for their slurry eyes
the forest remembers that the last word can only be
the blazing cry of the bird of ruins in the bowl of the storm
Innocent who ventures there
forget to remember
that the baobab is our tree
that it badly waves arms so dwarfed
that you would take it for an imbecilic giant
and you
sojourn of my insolence of my tombs of my twisters
mane bundle of lianas stubborn hope of the shipwrecked
sleep softly in the meticulous trunk of my embrace my woman
my citadel


On the quest for my steps
in the heat of the temple poorly circumscribed by a scar
this distance that always increases
the weed of my light
all I’ve been able to gnaw of a wall (diaphragm the holothurian creates at each daybreak)

hold on! nuggets and swallows’ nests will fall to me
a wave of rattlesnakes and clinkers will fall to me
this case in which I hide my wisdom tooth will fall to me

this bundle of leaves which keep me from hearing through the ferocious camouflage of my undivided sweat
when they thrash the walnut trees in the forever blue fields of lands imported by the deluge
in a sowing of cesspools
among the children’s choir of the moraine
under the mother-of-pearl daggers they use to mark the foreheads and the horns of the ether that sings in the sloes

A tsetse cake will fall for the Te Deum
a carcass couched in sand
imperial eagle handcuffs a collar of glass beads
enough will fall to make the level of the Thames rise
                                                        a cockatoo for the pope
Something will always fall a police informer a sacristan a telephone pole a clove
Let’s go for a prayer of chalcedony dust for a dead leaf for a bank thicket of badly dissolved blood for the fauna reinvented for that badly candlelit tiger burning as best it can at the start of its tracks
                                                        A smoked herring will fall
Why wretched name of a scruple not make placid time sweat and re-sweat so that all our bribed blood will fall onto the finally drunken soil
and the truly clear word its thunder


When the night of the world comes and the streetlamps become motionless tall girls yellow bows in their hair and a finger to their lips
when the light in the pane cuts its pigtail and fries its eggs in a drop of blood taken from the snow of the wounded
and the heavy wine of noon casts its seed to the midnight stars there will be airy baskets of fog in my soul that will be summoned to disgorge buckets of light
solitude will open miniscule windows
onto the beautiful radiophonic friendship of numbers
and in the reconversion of the calendar in the bonfire of the day board
the day will be so pure that days will be visible in it

crow sweet servant
raucous and voluptuous like me
plunder of thick air and chatty space there will be
a decapitated auto pump on the chopping block of time for making wolf masks
the laughter of children at an unnoticed recess causing one to think of capons causing one to think of the devoured causing one to think
of the prophets whom men hunted from their dreams with blows of gray stones

your day is coming without purpose on borrowed feet
like a house nigger bearing agile milk

the last hanged man turns his legal eye in the chaste zero of repentance and absurdity

suave crow song of the mandrake
venomous and tranquil like me
there are still to be loosened the blue stones of the castle
and the painless geometry of the lie

with your black signature honor the white page
escaped from the dead season of virginal embrace

strong-minded crow
upright behind the trapdoor of your cry
when the scrupulous inventory of everyday words begins
for it will be time to think of witnesses less hairy than the stars
—in what clogs did your presence flee? my guardian angel
having arisen from the patience of the sidewalk and from the flame of the gutter
will say
his terrestrial fingers near a leafy basin sowing in vain
words tasting of bread and of snare

I will answer nothing
but I will guide him along the meridian line
to the chaste epiphany of a blood rose window of a shower of light of the great brown effort of a forge where is wrought
the black thrust of a gesture bathed in white sand

then from she who awakens to their boa constrictor vocation
the strangler routes of the landscape that they were instructed to nurse
to she who makes the sacred peacocks of my incorruptible life warble with recollection
the red oxen will lead the day back to the tomb where afroth a champagne warmth bubbling with buds and atolls
will open tired palms
in the air there will be fine weather workmen ocelli and crystal stags great virginal words pious alligators
whose teeth our very wise birds will clean

sleep root knotter
I water your fallow fields
capture the voice that makes termites build high
in my skull their funereal pyramid spanned by a flight of multicolored pigeons

and you bird hit by the slingshot of mirages
beating your head on the ceiling of the sun
and of the stars and of dreams and of the void
from isle to isle the clear water that you disdain
o you prisoner of your wax that parchments praise
you shall fall
crumpler of stars crusher of grasses great body


Eyes attached to their tall hypertrophied peduncle cashew-tree and tannin pus eyes fixed on me like the gaze of bad fruit like slaughterhouse flies like a vigilante’s beard
I am for sure the most pierced being in the world
each man who encounters me giving himself the right to drive a nail as chance directs at my head my heart my hands my eyes

but my greatest joy is to foil their blows: ferocity of my intimacy where they expected to find the void—a void of sand and crumbly termite wood in place of the sapwood that at my unseasonable pleasure I make for myself—

Contrite is their anchor
while my ink lying low and cooing still resurfaces as sap to give me a color with which conveniently to wait and to surprise (in this forest where you would have to be as stupid as Christ and cabbage to get crucified) the imbecility of robbers’ blows of nails always lying in wait

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

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 imagines—a witches’ sabbath of splendor and cities

Undulating innocent
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

Your hair
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
and you
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
my citadel

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.

English translation © A. James Arnold and Clayton Eshleman
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