Beneath Martinique’s Beauty, Guided by a Poet (Aimé Césaire)

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Exploring Aimé Césaire’s Martinique: Scenes from the Caribbean island on the 100th anniversary of the poet and politician’s birth—a travel article by SYLVIE BIGAR for The New York Times. Follow the link below for a photo gallery and practical travel information.

As the stories poured out, eyes sparkled, smiles widened, hands danced. Everyone I met on Martinique harbored at least one intimate memory of Aimé Césaire — a quiet encounter or speech etched forever in their consciousness — but they all agreed: this poet, playwright and politician, who achieved an almost monumental status on the Caribbean island, was the most humble man they had ever known.

Take, for instance, Daniel Houcou, one of two drivers assigned to Mr. Césaire in the final decade of his life. Most afternoons, Mr. Houcou would ferry the poet as he crisscrossed the 45-mile-long island armed with his beloved botanic treatise (its title seems to be lost to history). “He would suddenly spot a tree and ask me to stop and climb in the back so we could look it up together,” Mr. Houcou said.

I first visited Martinique at age 15, on a tropical interlude with my Swiss parents, and was instantly engulfed in the Caribbean breath. It would be the first of many visits. As an adult, after a move to New York, I began to venture beyond the bougainvillea and the beaches. I hiked the menacing volcano Mount Pelée; I explored the rain forest; I discovered the people. And then I discovered Mr. Césaire’s words and was bewitched. They gave me new insights into the painful history of Martinique.

Though raw, enraged even, his poetry is anchored in his love of his native land: “My beautiful country with its high sesame shores,” he called it. So when I heard that this year marked the 100th anniversary of his birth (he died in 2008), I planned a voyage through Martinique and its history, with its favorite son as my guide. In the waves, along the windy slopes of the volcano, in the banana fields, his voice unearthed for me the human tales hidden under the beauty of the island.

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Born in 1913 on what was then a French colony, Mr. Césaire spent his formative years in the 1930s studying in Paris, where, with the help of other prominent black intellectuals, he established the concept of négritude, the conscious act of acceptance and pride in one’s own African background and a rejection of colonial racism and oppression.

In 1939, Mr. Césaire, then only 26, returned to Martinique to teach literature, shortly after the publication of “Notebook of a Return to the Native Land.” The anti-colonialist surrealist scream of a poem put the idea of négritude into action, exposing the horrors of slavery and its legacy. “We are walking compost hideously promising tender cane and silky cotton,” he wrote. In 1941, a ship carrying a group of writers and artists fleeing occupied France docked on the island. Mr. Césaire’s subsequent interactions with the French surrealist André Breton and the Cuban artist Wilfredo Lam, whose attentions helped bring Mr. Césaire to prominence, started a lifelong network of friendship and intellectual exchange.

In 1945, Mr. Césaire was asked to head the Communist ballot in the mayoral elections of Fort-de-France, the capital, and to his surprise he was elected mayor, a position he held until 2001 (except briefly in 1983 and 1984). Days before Soviet tanks invaded Budapest in 1956, he resigned from the French Communist Party and later helped to found the Martinican Progressive Party. For 48 years, Papa Césaire, as many still call him, also served as deputy of Martinique to the National Assembly in Paris, where he led the peaceful transition from French colony to department.

Assisting me in my mission was the tall, elegant and affable Mr. Houcou. We started in Fort-de-France, where even the airport is named for Mr. Césaire, and then followed the sinuous Route de la Trace, built on the site of an old trail used by Jesuits in the 18th century, stopping at Camp Balata, a park and 19th-century military fort, where the poet often strolled. To one side of me, the five cone-shaped peaks of the volcanic Pitons du Carbet range loomed in the distance; to the other, the bay of Fort-de-France shimmered under the sun. As I walked the “literary path” the city had recently installed along an allée of majestic mahogany trees, I paused to read markers featuring quotes from Breton and prominent Martinicans, including Mr. Césaire: “I am obsessed with nature, with the flower, with the root,” one of his reads. “It is all linked to my situation as a man exiled from his primordial.”

We headed to the Balata Botanical Garden, where I tiptoed hesitantly on the swaying aerial bridges, terrified to look down. Safely across and breathing again, I recognized the sculptural, red heliconia flower — the symbol of Mr. Césaire’s Progressive party. As we drove on, the rain forest grew impenetrable. Ripples of wind along walls of gigantic ferns brought to mind the “otherworldly chatter of the arborescent ferns” that Mr. Césaire wrote about in his poem “Rapacious Space.”

I was eager to get to his seaside hometown, Basse-Pointe, where he loved to watch the Atlantic breakers, “from Trinité to Grand-Rivière, / the hysterical grand lick of the sea.” Only an hour away from the tropical forest, a steep cul-de-sac led to a cove where black sand — volcanic powder, really — painted the water emerald green and the deafening surf sounded a continuous drumbeat.

By contrast, Mount Pelée, a short drive inland, was ominously silent. Around me, grassy furrows belied its buried violence. (Laurence Appoline, the owner of Le Refuge de L’Aileron, a cafe on the volcano’s slopes, told me that “whenever we saw the sedan, we knew Césaire was back to watch the volcano and watch over us.”) After five miles, we reached St. Pierre and the Kapok Tree: “Tree non-tree / beautiful immense tree/the day on it settles / frightened bird.” The town had reigned as the chic capital of the island until the volcano erupted on May 8, 1902, killing about 30,000 people. Carbonized, the tree had somehow revived, its now humongous branches hovering high over the stunning melancholic ruins that remain of the town. “Papa Césaire was awed by the tree’s stature and resilience,” Mr. Houcou said.

The next day, I headed to the small museum housed in the theater that was Mr. Césaire’s old Fort-de-France mayoral office. In the formal courtyard, I spotted a bench recently installed by the Toni Morrison Society in honor of the anniversary. Inaugurated in 2006, the organization’s Bench by the Road Project, which places benches in various spots notable to the black experience, was inspired by Ms. Morrison’s observation that there were no memorial sites to pause and mourn the millions of souls ripped from Africa. “There is no wall, or park, or tower, or skyscraper lobby — there is not even a small bench by the road,” she said. Today, the memorials recognize transformative events and individuals in the history of the African diaspora.

I thought of slave ships brimming with chained men and women, but also of my mother and grandmother, escaping through the roof of their Paris apartment building, seconds after Nazi soldiers rang their bell on July 16, 1942. I sat on the bench and, overcome by melancholy, wept.

Inside the museum, the poet’s voice was piped into his office to eerie effect; photographs, artifacts, manuscripts and even his glasses, set on his desk, perpetuated the feeling that he might suddenly appear. Instead, across the hallway, I met his daughter Michèle Césaire, the artistic director of the Théâtre Aimé Césaire. “My father created numerous cultural centers where people could study dance, music, theater or pottery for free,” she said. “And they still exist.”

Later, I strolled in Fort-de-France, taking in the vibrant hodgepodge: French-accented boutiques; a market overflowing with mangoes and pineapples; the stunning belle epoque Schoelcher Library created in Paris for the 1889 World’s Fair and then rebuilt on Martinique piece by piece.

The atmosphere is very different 25 miles away, on the craggy Caravelle Peninsula. In her remarkable 1994 documentary, “Aimé Césaire: A Voice for History” (reissued in 2006 with a new subtitle, “A Voice for the 21st Century”), the Martinican filmmaker Euzhan Palcy showed Mr. Césaire in his trademark beige suit, hands clasped behind his back, walking among the ruins of Château Dubuc, a sugar plantation founded in 1725 on the peninsula. There, I listened, enthralled, as Dimitri Charles-Angèle, an erudite dreadlocked guide, brought to life the habitation, travails and pains of the plantation’s nearly 300 slaves.

These impassioned tales were good preparation for the Cap 110 Memorial at Anse Caffard, across from the Diamond Rock, on the southwestern corner of the island. For sheer beauty, I had always enjoyed Southern Martinique, with its white beaches and undulating hills clad in banana trees, but I had learned only recently that the volcanic rock that rises over 500 feet from the surrounding water — today one of the island’s best diving spots — had witnessed the devastating wreck of a clandestine slave ship in 1830. In homage to the captives who perished there, the Martinican artist Laurent Valère sculpted 15 towering but hunched concrete figures set in a triangle (alluding to the triangular slave trade, in which slaves and goods were exchanged between Africa, the Americas and Europe) and looking pensively toward the Gulf of Guinea off the coast of West Africa. The characters’ postures seemed to strain under the weight of the past.

But I wanted to go farther south. On the coast, a few miles past the Diamond Rock, I stopped on a hill and looked back. I could clearly distinguish the profile of Morne Larcher, a bluff most often referred to as the Sleeping Woman. Mr. Césaire may have been smitten: he penned an entire poem dedicated to her. “Survivor survivor,” he wrote. “You my exile and queen of this rubble / Ghost forever inapt at perfecting her kingdom.” In the poet’s words, I felt the pain of history: the juncture of nature and peoples, and the universality of our voyage.

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