Research in African Literatures 37.2 (2006) 125-140
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"A Man Was Here":
Aimé Césaire Revisited
The four poems translated here are from "Comme un malentendu du salut," the last section of La poésie (496–97, 501–02, 517–18, 519–22), a volume in which, in 1994, Daniel Maximin and Gilles Carpentier gathered the totality of Aimé Césaire's poetic works, including a number of poems unpublished until then. "Parole due" ("Speak Now") had appeared in a limited edition in 1993 (Atelier Dutrou). "Configurations" ("Configurations") appeared in the first pages of Aimé Césaire ou l'athanor d'un alchimiste (Athanor 7–9), then in the journal Po&sie (50 : 10–12), along with "Espace-rapace" ("Rapacious Space"). "Pour un cinquantenaire" ("For a Fiftieth Anniversary") had never been published before.1
The four poems have in common that they were written by an aging Césaire looking back over his life and situating himself in history (not without a humorous wink to posterity), in his present landscape and context, and in relation to the future, but always in the end, situating himself in poetry. Their references to the past display a quite justified satisfaction, more explicit in "For a Fiftieth Anniversary," which commemorates the first publication of the Cahier d'un retour au pays natal (Notebook of a Return to the Native Land).2 Césaire reminds his reader that he was the first to stand up against the colonial oppressor and to denounce an "unforgettable wound." He alludes to himself as a "torch," a banner," a "standard." In fulfilling this historical mission, he was obeying a "dictate" that made him the "guardian" not only of his native land but also of higher political and moral principles.
This discreetly triumphant CV is not, however, gratuitous, in view (we are told) of people's general tendency to oblivion ("the wind inexpert at remembering meanders") as well as of previous attacks on Césaire from a younger generation of Caribbean writers3 who find his political and cultural stand to have been not radical enough. In "For a Fiftieth Anniversary," Césaire takes a small jab at those who, "stung to the quick," resent that his authority always remained unquestionable.
References to the present show the poet as an old man, taking a last inventory of his beloved island. We encounter again the exuberant Caribbean fauna and flora familiar to Césaire's readers. In his wanderings, the old man daydreams of various transformations, possibly reincarnations. At times he fancies himself as powerful as a volcano, at other times taking to the high seas in ghostly ships, at others still slipping into a vegetative state—albeit one with a panache ("the plume on my head"). A ludic and somewhat ludicrous "minister" of "this strange court," he can orchestrate [End Page 125] the elements of the landscape to his own fancy ("Rapacious Space"4 ), while recognizing that his best days are, no doubt, days of creative anger (at the end of the second section of "Configurations").
Feeble and obsolete as he may be, the old poet remains nonetheless involved with the future, as suggested by the child's figure encountered in "Speak Now." Whether the exhortations to marching on and keeping a straight path and a strong voice are self-addressed or for the benefit of the next generation is not clear, but the intention and general direction display a cautious optimism.
The three-dimensional effigies that Césaire presents to us culminate in statements on the vital importance of language and, in particular, on the quasi-Cosmogenetic power of poetic language. At this apex, political and poetic language become one, since the latter was able to generate and record the uprising of a small island (Martinique, here referred to as a rock) as well as to resonate universally, for the rock is "bound to the whole universe." We are reminded here of Césaire's ambition in the Notebook: ". . . for as entrenched as I am in this unique...