I was working very part time with undergraduates at the University of Warwick,
I recall saying that they had access to more poetry from all over the world,
and from the past, than any previous generation of students ever. I had no
clear view of the implications, but two consequences seemed apparent; one,
that the English canon of literature (and it might be said 'the native
English voice') was to become only a small part of would now be available,
and, two, that picking and choosing could lead into a dizzying variety of
traditions and individual voices. And is English the language most translated
into? Is English the second language for millions of people now across the
globe? What does this mean for poetry's diversity? What is the response to
all this by the school exam boards?
I suppose none of it can be quantified. A question I ask myself now, of these
books of translated poems to which I find myself responding, who is reading
them? Where are they in the early 21st century mix?
Aimé Césaire's Solar Throat Slashed (Soleil cou coupé), as an example of cultural transmission in the making,
is as complex as it gets, and the book sets this out well, it's a book with a
fine feel and look to it - and it's for another discussion whether a such a
hardback takes on willynilly more significance than most translations coming
out in paperback or floppy plastic.
Césaire (1913-2008), born in Martinique, came to hold political posts there
and in the French National Assembly. Our accidents of birth pattern our
lives: he found himself of African descent in the French-speaking colonised
My memory tells me that for very many years the Penguin 'Return to my native
land' was Césaire's only presence in English. I don't recall knowing that the
coining of 'négritude', pride in African roots, was Césaire's with Léopold
Senghor and others way back in 1934.
My copy, bought in January 1970: Cahier d'un retour au pays natal, Présence Africaine, 1956; Penguin
Books 1969, Return to my native land, translated by John Berger and Anna Bostock. Read (my
note tells me) by Cy Grant at the Centre for West African Studies, Birmingham
University, January 1989. Probably I had heard him read it before, in the
late 1970s. A handout supplied by Cy Grant drew on the Introduction to
Césaire's Collected Poetry,
translated by Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith.
A.James Arnold in his Introduction to the book under review tells us that
'Readers of Clayton Eshleman's and Annette Smith's translation of Césaire's Collected
Press 1983) may be in for a shock.'
He tells us that almost 40% of the original poems of Solar Throat Slashed, had been cut by Césaire, with much
editing of what remained, for his collection re-titled as Cadestre in 1961. The present book restores
everything, and in pages of notes tells us what had been changed or omitted,
directing our attention sometimes to pages of that 1983 The Collected
What Césaire, becoming more politicised, had decided should go missing - in
Arnold's shorthand - was Modernisn. The early influence of - and shared
consciousness with - Breton and Artaud especially, had been self-edited out,
gone was 'Césaire's practice of free associative metaphor' that had been
essential to the ethos of the 1948 edition. The emphasis now was towards the
more overtly political, emphasising négritude.
I am not in possession of the 1983 translation, but the present book enables
such reconstruction. The book is definitive in having on facing pages the
1948 French and its (new) translation. I do have Eshelman & Smith's 1990
Lyric and Dramatic Poetry, also introduced by Arnold, where the poems i,laminaria
... [sic, with dots,
1982] are briefer and, it seems to me, breathe more easily. They have facing
page translation, and the book has also Césaire's own 1944-45 essay, 'Poetry
My reference to his having made his poems 'more overtly political' should not
give any impression of a Césaire who became simplistically polemical. This
would seem far from the truth. While whole poems were omitted by him and
radical shifts made in others, I can't see that his poetic passion was ever
for mere speech-making. While also, to read again and again in the notes:
'This poem was eliminated' does seem to conjure rather a fierce mood.
I do at this point want to register two niggles: the poems in the notes are
not given page references to the text; and the poems should have had either
indented run-on lines or have had numbered lines by, say, the tens.
Cross-referencing here is not at all straightforward.
Here is the whole of 'The Tornado' exactly as printed:
senator noticed that the tornado was sitting in his plate
on fat beet buttocks
with the sliced sausage of its thighs
the tornado was in the air foraging through Kansas City
By the time that
the minister spotted the tornado in the blue eye of the
it was outside displaying to everybody its huge face stinking like ten thousand
niggers crammed into a train
in the time that it took for the tornado to guffaw into a whore's vagina
it performed over everything a nice laying-on-of-hands those beautiful white
In the time that it took God to notice
he had drunk one hundred glasses of executioner blood
the city was a brotherhood of white and black spots scattered in cadavers on
the hide of a horse felled at full gallop
In the time that it took for the tornado to write a detective novel the
wearing its cowboy hat seized hold of it shouting HANDS UP in the
loud empty voice that God employs when speaking to chickens--and
everything trembles and the tornado twisted the steel and birds were falling
thunderstruck from the sky
And the tornado having suffered the provinces of the memory rich debris of
spat from a sky stored full of judgments everything trembled for a second
time the twisted steel was retwisted
And the tornado that had gobbled up like a flight of frogs its herd of roofs
and chimneys noisily exhaled a thought the prophets had never known how
This illustrates several things. One, the lengths of the lines, two,
uncertainty about what is line and what is run-on, three, omission of most
punctuation, and, four, the word 'niggers', to which the Introduction devotes
some discussion of then and now, of shifting cultural meanings (the French
The Notes tell us that lines 3-5 were cut by Césaire, as was 'into a whore's
vagina' (line 11, whereas the line spacing looks like it's line 12); lines
18-21 were cut - but which are lines 18-21? We have to find a clue in 'of the
executed' having been cut from line 22.
Another almost page-length poem called 'Rain' tells something more of
Césaire's self-editing. The poem was 'eliminated' by him, while lines 17, 18,
25 and 26 became another poem. Because of the difficulty of counting lines
(above) I am not sure which those lines were. And trying to take cues from the
French doesn't help; lines there run on sometimes parallel, sometimes
differently, and it makes me wonder if any definitive versions exist: perhaps
only in Césaire's handwritten drafts.
Capitalisation of lines is not a clue. Of this poem, the opening block of
what has, probably, eight lines, eight or nine in the French, has only the
first capitalised. Capitals thereafter may mark a line, although some
continue (if spread out) to two page widths and more. If capitalisation means
lines, 'The Tornado', almost a page in length, has only six lines.
Does it matter? Maybe, maybe not. One likes to think a line is part of the
essential thing being made. A.James Arnold in his Introduction says something
perhaps related. "The type of metaphor that André Breton described as
exploding-fixed is particularly well suited to Césaire's poetic persona.
Rather than resolving the tension between elements brought into unexpected
contact in his strings of associative metaphors, the exploding-fixed type
burst like fireworks from the accumulation of its strange, contradictory
elements. The result is a numinous revelation of we know not what, unknown
and perhaps unknowable, that nonetheless promises renewal and
Worth a whole seminar, this. Even a lifetime's bother. Here are some lines
nest beautiful milk whose piglets we are
Rain I see your hair which is perpetual explosion of sandbox tree fireworks
your hair of misinformation promptly denied
Rain who in your most reprehensible excesses takes care not to forget that
Chiriqui maidens pull suddenly from their night corsage a map of thrilling
If I had come upon this
authorless I would have thought Breton and thereabouts (and the book's title
is from Apollinaire), and I wonder if Allen Ginsberg had read him.
If I was working still with undergraduates I would say relish this book, it
breaks the boundaries of race and culture while speaking those particular
passions, read it aloud to the corridors and fields, and I would say, 'But don't
imitate it,' only relish it and with as much passion find your own thing.
David Hart 2011