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15 Creole Culture in the Poetry of Sybil Kein MARY L. MORTON New Orleans has been built on a rich ethnic mix. Part of its cultural history consists of traditions shared among many groups, yet each group has its own particular history. Ironically, just when the leveling forces of the twentieth-century have threatened the diversity of Louisiana's cultural groups, Sybil Kein has perpetuated the Creole experience in her art. She affirms pride in her identity and the need to preserve the essence of the origins, struggles, and the life of the Louisiana Creole. The speakers in her poems weave the webs showing the past in the present, as they range from historical to contemporary. The importance of Kein's poetry cannot be overestimated, not for the art alone, but for the artistic preservation of Creole history—creating voices of truth that deny the distortions, sentimentalized or not, of the "tragic mulatto" themes found in literature. Not since Alice DunbarNelson 's essay of 1916-1917, "People of Color in Louisiana," has there been such a vital depiction of Creole life, though the short-lived television show Frank's Place briefly gave the nation some cultural history of the New Orleans African Creole. In Louisiana, Dunbar-Nelson's "people of color" translates "les gens de couleur libre" and though not all free people of color were Creole nor all Creoles free, the terms are often used synonymously because of the recurrent coincidence of the two. The opening poem found in Sybil Kein's collection An American South, "1724 La Nouvelle Orleans," celebrates and defines the New Orleans Creole. 31 ? 318 MARY L. MORTON Based on the historical wedding of Jean-Baptiste Raphael and Marie Gaspard recorded at St. Louis Cathedral, Kein's poetic account has the couple vowing to preserve their progeny's freedom: "Creoles. / Gens de couleur. / Libres" (3). A major component of Creole cultural history is the French language in all its variations: Cajun, vernacular, Creole, gombo or patois, and le bon franqais. The careful distinctions are recorded in the literary history of the state and in Dorice Tentchoff's 1975 linguistic study found in The Culture ofAcadiana, 1975. The variety of language spoken reflected complex social factors. Not only do the varieties of French delineate group association, but history and literature reflect the outsider status of the Americain, Texian, or whoever spoke no variety of French or who spoke some variety badly. The French Literature of Louisiana died until the publication of Kein's Gombo People, originally published in 1981. Here the original poems in the Gombo dialect were translated into English. One poem, dedicated to the Creole scholar Ulysses Ricard, credits him with helping to preserve les cenelles, the poems of nineteenth-century Creole poets, to "grow / once again, . . . / like your faithful Creole love" (26). Kein's poetry has not only aided a Creole renaissance, but one of celebrating French Louisiana. Kein's ability with le bonfran^ais, along with her gombo-speaking personae, reflect her superb scholarship and living experience with the culture. She says, "The language was the language of my people, my ancestors , the language I love and admire. . . . I want to make sure the language is not forgotten or that the people who spoke it will not be forgotten." In her poetry, while artfully incorporating linguistic history, Kein often makes jokes around the language, a way of ridiculing ignorant or snobbish people. Louisiana's most characteristic dish, enjoyed by all groups, a stew thickened with okra, gumbo or gombo, takes its name from the Bantu word for okra. Gombo also denotes Creoles and their language, the source for the title, Gombo People. In the introduction to that book, the scholar Ulysses S. Ricard Jr. describes his joy in Kein's using the Creole language as her medium; the art sanctioning the language and concomitantly celebrating and giving a voice to those whose voices have been lost. The most specific linguistic metaphor of the collection is a humorous Creole rendition of "the melting pot" entitled "La Chaudriere pele CREOLE CULTUREIN THE POETRYOF SYBIL KEIN 319 la gregue" (Gombo People 39-40). The title derives from an old proverb showing the irony of name calling when the pot calls the kettle black. A particular kind of white enameled drip coffee pot is called "la gregue," a Greek coffee pot, underscoring the rich ethnic mix described in the poem: "Nous tous descendants des Francais, Espagnols, / Africains, Indiens , Acadiens, Haitiens / et tout z.autres Gombo People...


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