From The New York Times “Poetry Pairing” feature by Shannon Doyne. For the NYT’s article on the Aimé Césaire Museum Go to related article »
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Lucie Thésée was an almost completely unknown schoolteacher in Martinique when her poems started appearing Aimé Césaire’s journal Tropiques in 1942. Later her poems made their way into the larger francophone world.
By Lucie Thésée
Look straight, and don’t tremble, wreckage of my hanged race:
a sarabande dancer, Japanese muslin tight on her live-wire hips
arrives with the moonlight, fast as the tam-tam drums.
She’ll take you to the grand esplanade where the gallows
tell your story, tell of your dim bronze halos
licked away by a pale man’s greed.
Leave your gallows tears behind,
the long-drawn vowels of the lost names of flowers,
the long-drawn cries of your burden of grain,
the long-drawn cries of your burden of seed-pods,
and the long-drawn cries of the seed-pods cut and hung.
Shipwreck of my race, twisted in the wind-rush,
fall from your broken gallows, wrack, wreck, and driftwood,
my bloodied race.
My bloodied race fearful, scab-dried, sterile, paralyzed,
the low-caste wallflowers trembling at a ball for mice —
no. Leave your gallows, there, those: the gallows of time-gone-by.
Lift your chestnut-dark and heavy limbs, up from out the shipwreck’s carnage,
and up through those long blue-green rolling waves.
Sing the wind’s songs, and collect what’s needed, drop by shivering drop,
in this, your Lenten fasting, in this, your sorcerer’s midnight, under this, the whip.
Leave the gallows, the sap of its cut-wood spits on your skin.
You’d hang there, yourself in effigy? No. Live sap runs in the driftwood branch.
You’ll play, gentle, a light wind in the shimmering green of a dancer’s beaded muslin skirt,
and your broken music will move in the foolish grass that still believes in death —
leave your gallows-bones there, in the fool’s green shroud …
Scratch with the rusted nail of melody, because you live, wreckage of my race,
the sky will not forget you, nor the graveyard’s earth, fertile and walled.
Your blood still dances, a wreckage of joy, joy soured,
obstinate joy, wild and unbroken,
shipwreck of my race, sarabande.
— Translated from the French by Robert Archambeau
Times Selection Excerpt
In “Beneath Martinique’s Beauty, Guided by a Poet,” Sylvie Bigar writes about Martinique, its history and the legacy of Aimé Césaire, who was, in addition to a writer and politician, an earlier publisher of Lucie Thésée’s poetry.
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.
… 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.
“Sarabande” appeared in the June 2011 issue of Poetry.
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For the original report got to http://learning.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/01/16/poetry-pairing-sarabande/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0