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The Complete Poetry of Aimé Césaire

Review by Allan Graubard

The Complete Poetry of Aimé Césaire
Translated by A. James Arnold and Clayton Eshleman
Bilingual Edition
Wesleyan University Press, 2017

Consider Aimé Césaire: a black man born in 1913 in a small town in Martinique, then a French colony, whose parents provided well enough for him and his four siblings but in the shadow of rural poverty; a brilliant young student who finally escaped his island home for Paris and the École normale supérieure, where he obtained an advanced studies diploma, his thesis on writers of the Harlem Renaissance; a young poet who would quickly evolve to a poet of the first order, and who found his voice, not in exile, but by returning to Martinique, this island which he detested and loved then, and which his extraordinary Notebook of a Return to the Native Land reveals in all its poverty, cultural myopia, racial oppression, and lush conflictive beauty; a co-founder of négritude and anti-colonialist who found in surrealism a ready staging ground, which he used poignantly and powerfully; an animator in the maturation of black consciousness in the Caribbean, Africa, and South America; a statesman (elected and re-elected mayor of Fort de France for fifty plus years with a seat in the French National Assembly); an axial presence in the transition from French Caribbean colonial possessions to departments in France and the broader struggle for independent statehood in French Africa as elsewhere.

Consider Aimé Césaire: co-founder of négritude’s initial magazine, Etudent Noire1, during his student days in Paris (1935) and the surrealist Tropiques2 (1941-1945), after his return to Martinique as a teacher during the Vichy fascist period; author of eight collections of poems, four plays, and decisive critical works, including his 1945 Poetry and Knowledge and his 1955 Discourse on Colonialism – the latter apparently quite important for scholars and activists involved in black liberation struggles, from Civil Rights and Black Power to antiwar movements.

Consider Aimé Césaire in his totality, as a man, poet, playwright, critic, teacher, politician, citizen, husband, and father (ever so briefly touched on here) – and then turn to this new volume of his complete poetry, finally translated into English, understanding that at last we have his works as he originally wrote them and as they appear in the French edition of his poems published in 1994. As the translators, A. James Arnold and Clayton Eshleman, rightly note in their commentary, this original collection reveals the poet in his true scope and depth, without the various edits and alterations he made when a member of the French Communist Party (1945—1956).

It is thus the man entire who speaks to us now through his poetry, and the poetry that speaks of this man, and all he writes about the world he lived in.

The Poetry

Notebook of Return to the Native Land

In August 1939, an avant-garde literary magazine in Paris, Volontes, publishes a long poem in prose and verse by a Martiniquan student recently in Paris. Aimé Césaire has just returned to his native island.3

The poem is panoramic and riveting, as much an expression of disgust at what Césaire finds upon his return to Martinique as an embrace of its complexity. This island colony formed by slavery and its repercussions over three centuries cannot continue as it has. Its people must awaken to their history, which roots in Africa, and the racist policies of assimilation by a White French authority that has compromised their identity, as much psychologically as socially. The authentic emancipation of Martiniquan blacks is the only resource that will ensure the reclamation of their unique yet common humanity.

How can it happen? Political and economic rebellion is one route but certainly incomplete, and its rhetoric abstract and depersonalizing. Before this rhetoric is the concrete human reality that Césaire faces and that his poetry grapples with first hand. As with Whitman, it is this interchange that fuses in the poem, transforming it and the poet at white heat.

He begins the poem, with its 109 stanzas, at ground zero with an infectious refrain, “At the end of the small hours,” noting with the single line of stanza 4 the pressured compass he endures: “the dreadful inanity of our raison d’être.” Thereafter, the arc of the poem pulses with descriptions of what and whom he encounters, including himself, as in stanza 49: “I refuse to pass off my puffiness for authentic glory. /And I laugh at my former puerile fantasies” — referring in part to a glorified Africa.

In stanza 52, however, he defines his rebellious freedom as poet divorced from known references: “I am of no nationality recognized by the chancelleries.” While several lines further on he draws in raw, real terms an unforgettable portrait of an encounter on a streetcar; the near counterpoint infusing the poem with as much scope, and as true to life, as Césaire is capable of: “one evening on the streetcar facing me, a nigger. /A nigger big as a pogo trying to make himself small on the streetcar bench.” Then the focus shifts, magnifying its significance: “He was COMICAL AND UGLY,/COMICAL AND UGLY, for sure/I displayed a big complicitous smile…/My cowardice rediscovered!...MY heroism, what a farce!”

Césaire, though, is no fool and however much he takes his people, his town, his culture and history to task, his inspirations – from the Harlem Renaissance, jazz, Pan-Africanism, French symbolists and surrealists, etc. – enable his exaltation of a nobility to come rooted in rhythm, the implicit lyrical rhythm of the poem and the visceral rhythm of dance and ritual, as he notes in stanza 67: “but who yield, seized, to the essence of things/ignorant of surfaces but captivated by the motion of all things/indifferent to conquering, but playing the game of the world/truly the eldest sons of the world!”

Twenty stanzas on, Césaire begins a chant balanced on the bitter, cutting blade of slavery. But through it there quickly emerges an admission of compassion and festivity that, for this reader, holds the character of the poet and the resonance of the poem in its grasp: “I accept…I accept…totally, without reservation…/, my race that no ablution of hyssop mixed with lilies could purify.” And the last stanza invites us to dance with an accent that we can easily recognize, simply because it returns through the generations, then as now: “rally to my side my dances/my bad nigger dances…”

From this poem written on the bloody cusp of World War II by a black man returned to his native Martinique, a poet and leader of consequence appears, soon to step onto an international stage.


In 1941, Andre Breton is a newly arrived exile in Martinique from France. One afternoon, while searching for a ribbon for his daughter at a Fort de France variety store, he notices a small magazine on the counter: Tropiques. Curious, he purchases a copy. As he reads his astonishment grows. On this small colonial island cast off by the war is a vivacious expression precise to surrealism. He soon meets the editors. For Breton as for Aimé Césaire, the meeting will invigorate a rapport that survives their differences. Tropiques quickly identifies as surrealist, with Breton’s collaboration. Breton’s essay on Césaire, A Great Black Poet, which discusses their meeting and its broader significance, after several pages turns to The Notebook…. For Breton, this “irreplaceable document” is “nothing less than the greatest lyrical monument of our time.”4


Miraculous Weapons and Solar Throat Slashed

In these two books of poems, published in 1946 and 1948, Césaire’s enrichment of contemporary surrealism unfolds. The former is published in 1946; a majority of its 26 poems first appearing in Tropiques and other poems in allied surrealist magazines. The latter book is published in 1948 with 72 poems.5 As recognition for the brilliance and verve of his work expands, his public life evolves. In 1945, he runs for the mayoralty of Fort de France on the Communist Party ticket and wins, though not yet a party member. He joins the party several months later.6

Between the two books similar means and motivations prevail if reaching full maturation in the latter book. While rooted to the here and now, Césaire exalts the rebellious freedom he has gained as poet with social consequence. An incantatory, prophetic persona feeds the epiphanic charge of his metaphors. Sexual and erotic energies embrace the tropical landscape and its heated cycles as they reveal to Césaire the woman he loves and, by extension, Martinquan women. The African serpent, vegetation and other gods of Egypt and the Near East, magic, Voudoun, and Zoroastrianism uproot Christian icons and beliefs. The heavy historical wounds of slavery burn under an anti-colonialist insurrectional horizon. Literature will either follow suite or lose its historical valor.

The Miraculous Weapons sets the stage in its first poem, “Gunnery Warning,” where Césaire stoically waits “at the edge of the world” for a spiritual and politic rebirth in “the brushfire of brotherhood.” In “The Thoroughbreds,” which follows, Césaire seeks the emergence of “men” free of historical calamity, and finds in himself, a vision of man and Earth: “at the backs of his eyes the earth awaited/ the stars.” In “Have No Mercy for Me,” while facing a swamp, he sees it anew as “a viper born from the blond force of/resplendence”; whose poisonous bite is an antidote to a greater poison: racism. “Serpent Sun,” the fourth poem in the book, erupts from its first line: “serpent sun eye bewitching my eye/and the sea verminous with islands crackling in the fingers of flamethrower/roses and my intact thunderstruck body.”

The poems, however short or long, imbued with dense lyrical deliria, populate a realm quite clearly our own yet brimming with visionary excess. Here is “the wind that is no more now than a pole for gathering the fruits of all/the seasons of the sky” (“Poem for the Dawn”); here Césaire notes: “as for me I have nothing to fear/I am before Adam…” (“Visitation”); here is “your flour-covered body where mahogany oil pumps the precious/gears of your/tidal eyes/with your crocus sex” (“Bateke”); here “male flowers will sleep in coves of mirrors/and even the armor of trilobites/will sink in the half-light of forever” (“Perdition”).

The poem from which the title of the book is taken continues the assault with: “The great machete blow of red pleasure full in the face” and its provocative rejoinder: “there was blood and that tree called flamboyant and which never deserves its name more than on the eve of cyclones and of sacked cities…”

Titles to proceeding poems follow apace with their own spice: “The Irredeemable,” “Night Tom-Tom,” “Water Woman,” “Automatic Crystal Set,” which lets us know that “the rain has eaten the sun with chopsticks.” And what of the poem “Conquest of Dawn” where: “We die our deaths in forests of giant eucalyptus coddling the wreckage of/preposterous steamers/in the country where grow/unbreathable drosera”

Throughout is Césaire, suddenly freed from the lethargic poor enmity of living in Martinique as a second-class citizen with a language that he transmutes in a cyclically mythic dance that returns him to an interpreted Africa yet to realize independence in real time, and his native hope for a post-colonial island.

“The Dogs Were Silent,” a long dramatic poem in the form of an oratorio, concludes the book. Written in high convulsive style, it tells of a rebel who provokes his people to revolt but who is killed. According to the translators, the work associates the main character, “the Rebel,” with Osiris whom Set murders, and whose body cut into multiple pieces Isis magically revives as Spring revives the wintry land.

Solar Throat Slashed capitalizes on what its predecessor has gained with purpose and velocity, giving new life to surrealism and French letters. For readers interested in the wider scope of Césaire’s activities, it is also published just before his “Discourse on Colonialism” appears in first draft in a French magazine.7

The collection opens with the poem “Magic” as the first line sings: “with a thin slice of sky on a hunk of earth/you beasts hissing into the face of this dead woman.” An ever restless, ironic conclusion restates his freedom as poet with the “five-branched chancelloress stars” whose “…drops of fallen milk/reinstate a black god ill born of his thunder.”

One after the other, the poems transform the history of the black experience in the repressive context of European colonialism and slavery, and as they do so a shared expression of cross-racial commonalities emerges. Leading the way is a heightened sense of immanence born from Césaire’s vision of political and mythic revolt, his wit, this infectious tropical Caribbean island, his embrace of love as elective affinity, and more.

The third poem in the collection, “Lynch I”, with its matter-of-fact yet startling title, begins with questions as if the poet were caught by the terrifying subject and terrified victim: “Why does spring grab me by the throat? what does it want of me…I jeer at you spring for flaunting your blind eye and your bad breath. Your debauchery your corrupt kisses…” Who or what is Lynch — a person, plant, place or thing, the poet’s friend, enemy or lover? As he enumerates the multiple beings that the term possesses, it engorges the entirety of the present in which he lives. Lynch and lynching’s are everywhere and nowhere; in the mud of a bayou at dusk, on “a black handkerchief atop a pirate ship mast,” as ghost, woman, friend or victim whose “beautiful squirted eye” and “huge mouth” are “mute unless a jerking there spills the delirium of mucus…” Its companion poem, “Lynch II,” placed later in the collection, focuses on the effect of the act with a tearing, tender lament: “eye without shores without memory…”//“with in his nostrils unhoped for flowers/with on his back the youthful flight of the curlew birds of phosphorescence…”

In “Mississippi,” with its racially torqued, terrorist history, Césaire ends the poem defiantly: “Too bad for you men who do not see that you cannot stop me from building/to his fill/egg-headed islands of flagrant sky/under the calm ferocity of the immense geranium of our sun”

A new mythology has begun to form under Césaire’s prescient eyes. After the slaughter and destruction of WWII, the veritable absence of myth – of any myth worth our allegiance — has become a leading conduit for surrealist response. “The Sun’s Knife Stab in the Back of Surprised Cities” thus depicts a composite creature with biblical reference: “And I saw a first animal/it had a crocodile body equine feet a dog’s head but when I looked more/closely in place of buboes were scars left at different times by storms on a/body long subjected to obscure ordeals…”

Inspired by complexities, parallelisms, and inherent song, Césaire’s lyrical gifts flower in “Son of Thunder”; a poem whose subject may refer to his wife, Suzanne, beautifully merged with their island. It is a poem of eight lines that I have never tired of reading. “And without her deigning to seduce the jailers,” it begins, “/at her bosom a bouquet of hummingbirds has exfoliated/at her ears buds of atolls have sprouted…”

This expansiveness finds ever-greater reason in an admission “From Millibars of the Storm.” Rising from the barometric pressures exerted by the storms of time and disasters, the poem exists “to liberate the space where bristles the heart of things and the advent of man”
Jockeying back and forth between his foci, weaving them into rare poetic combustions, vegetal entities infuse Césaire’s “Chevelure” with the smell and girth of their interplay : “all the juices rising in the lust of the earth/all the poisons that nocturnal alembics/distill in the involvucres of the/malvacae/all the saponarias’ thunder/are like discordant words written by the flaming of the pyres over the/sublime oriflammes of your revolt”

As with its predecessor, Miraculous Weapons, the titles of the poems have their own appeal, as they mark out their human and mythic geography: “Transmutation,” “Apotheosis,” “Ex-Voto for a Shipwreck,” “All the Way from Akkad from Elam from Sumer,” “Noon Knives,” “At the Locks of the Void,” “Ode to Guinea,” or “Antipodal Dwelling” – in which poetry is likened to a: “Crucible in which is born the world hair humus of the first earth…”

Césaire concludes the book by clarifying the ethical force of the poetic as he knows and lives it with his family, friends, and colleagues in “The Light’s Judgment”: “Over the arc of a circle/in the public movement of shorelines/the flame/is solitary and splendid in its/upright judgment”.

Later Works

It will be four years before Césaire publishes another book of poems with four additional books to follow. Each is a compelling testament that readers can encounter as they will.

Lost Body publishes in 1950 with 10 poems and 32 engravings contributed by Picasso in an expensive edition for wealthy collectors.8 It advances a vision of négritude “from the depths of the timeless sky,” as Césaire opening couplet tells. However, what “body” from the title is “lost” other than the body of language Césaire seeks to revalorize and the language of a body that speaks in gestures exclusive to his space, both intensive (linguistic and physical) and extensive (international). “Lost Body,” the fifth poem in the collection, tells us where the body, or parts of it, can be found: Krakatoa, monsoon, cloaca, Zambezi, and the “dark forgiving earth,” from which he, Césaire, “will command the islands to exist.”

Ten years later Ferrements publishes, with 49 poems; the same year, 1960, when 13 French colonies gain independence. As the translators note, it is this book that “establishes Césaire as the poet of decolonization.” The title, which refers to the iron shackles that slaves wore, belongs to the slave trader’s vocabulary; an overlay with twisted roots that infect Césaire’s present still. Coincident with this book is a subtle change to methodology. He forefronts the charged political context rather than the metaphorical richness and lyricism that has distinguished his work thus far.

Its first poem, “Ferraments,” sets the scene on a slave boat under full sail, which nauseates Césaire. Later poems deal with more intimate, and past and current events, collectively experienced. These include: “Hail to Guinea,” on the birth of the new nation; “The Time of Freedom,” responding to the brutal repression of a Leftist Ivorian political movement, published eight days after this event9; “Memorial for Luis Delgres” – the last defender of black freedom in Guadeloupe, killed by Napoleonic forces during the capture of Fort Matouba, May 26, 1802, who reintroduce slavery that Delgres sought to abolish; and “On the State of the Union,” which speaks of the cruel lynching of 14-year old Emmitt Till in Mississippi in 1955. The last image of the final poem in the book offers a ray of hope but only by confronting what has and does occur, this: “outrageous horizon of course/a child will half open the door…”

i, lamninaria publishes in 1982, an homage to his friend Wilfrado Lam who dies that year, and as a means to collect his poems over the last two decades. Casting back over the struggles he has engaged, the writing done and progress achieved, a moderate, even elegiac tone permeates. Circulating through different poems as an ironic half-shading is the despair and anger he feels, the reified culture and depressed economy he must contend with, and the inbred memory of slavery, both desultory and enraging. Not one to linger, he memorializes Leon Damas, fellow co-creator of négritude, and his friend Franz Fanon, whose philosophy and writings, also critically evolved from it. As Césaire notes in the first line of the first poem in the collection: “I inhabit a sacred wound.”

Noiria and Like a Misunderstanding of Salvation follow, the last publishing in 1994, both of which contain brilliant, moving poems. His public life continues, though, as mayor, which he finally ends at age 88 in 2001. Four years on the city makes him its first honorary mayor then he causes a minor scandal when refusing to meet with French president, Sarkozy, as protest over a new law recognizing the positive aspects of colonialism. On April 17, 2008, Aimé Césaire dies at age 94. On the steps of the Pantheon in Paris a plaque is set that celebrates him.

The Complete Poetry of Aimé Césaire is a fundamental work for readers of twentieth century poetry, and those especially interested in the relationships that define a poet’s response to his fraught and bloody time. Aimé Césaire passion for fully realized selfhood and the reformation of black identity in the lush, raw, engaging poetry that we know him for is testament enough to ensure his significance in the 21st century.

What in Césaire time is different from ours? And what can we learn from this poet who, in defying colonialism, helped to transform that inheritance, his inheritance, into a ground from which independent choice and states arose; a chameleon ground, no doubt, but one at least where we can see each other as we see ourselves, and who or what we might become?


1 Etudient Noire is co-founded by Césaire, Leopold Sedar Senghor from Senegal and Leon Damas from French Guiana. It explores the experience of French speaking black students and peoples under colonialism.
2 Tropiques is co-founded by Aimé Césaire, his wife Suzanne, and Rene Menil. Repressed by the authorities in 1943, it publishes clandestinely until 1945.
3 In 1941 it is published in Havana, in Spanish, with a forward by Benjamin Peret and drawings by Wilfrado Lam; just returned to his native Cuba. It is re-published thereafter in numerous editions and languages.
4 The essay first publishes in Hemispheres (Yvon Goll, ed., New York, Fall/Winter 1943-1944); then as the preface to the first French-English publication of the poem (Yvon Golll & Lionel Abel, trans., Brentano’s 1947).
5 The publication of the complete book here, as originally titled, restores Césaire cuts and edits, which he made to frame the book as more responsive to political struggles and communist perspectives. In 1961, although having broken with the party five years prior, the re-publication of the book with the title Cadastre sustains this redaction; with 27 poems cut entirely and large and small edits to 23 other poems.
6 Césaire resigns from the French CP in 1956 in solidarity with Pan-African perspectives and as criticism of its reactionary literary principles.
7 The essay is published as “Impossible Contact” in Chemins du monde. During this period, as the translators note, “the political climate was tense and repression in colonies severe,” including Madagascar and the Setif massacre in Algeria.
8 In 1986 an English trade version of the book, translated by Clayton Eshelmen and Annette Smith, is published (New York: George Brazillier, Inc.).
9 In 1954, the poem appears twice in Russian translation; in a Moscow literary magazine Literaturnaya Gazeta, and in a book of ethnography on the people of Africa Narodni Afriki.

Allan Graubard is a poet, playwright and critic. A recent play, Woman Bomb/Sade, was produced in New York in 2008.

This review first appeared in Pacific Rim Review of Books #23