If All I Can Do Is Speak, It Is For You That I Speak

Amy Wright on Martinican Poet Aimé Césaire

When André Breton was shopping for a ribbon for his daughter in 1940 in Martinique, he happened upon a magazine that had just come out. The periodical, Tropiques, was graced with "an extremely unpretentious cover" that gave no hint of the wealth of ideas it contained. Describing this encounter in the essay "A Great Black Poet," Breton introduces Aimé Césaire's Cahier d'un retour au pays natal [Notebook of a Return to the Native Land,] exclaiming, "I could not believe my eyes: For what was said was what had to be said...All the grimacing shadows were torn apart, scattered; all the lies, all the mockery shredded: Thus the voice of man was in no way broken, suppressed—it sprang upright again like the very spike of light." The "grimacing shadows" to which Breton refers are due to a long history of imperialism and slavery darkening the French-colonized island, and the ever-looming shadows of social unrest thrown from factions trying to gain Martinique's independence from France. The primary power of Césaire's poetry, Breton writes, is in its "power of transmutation," which turns even the dark shadows of "ugliness and servitude" into "freedom itself." Put another way, this power to transform, to spring up like fireweed against disaster is a way of reclaiming the island's 1,128 square kilometers and expanding its land area into an infinite ideological space.

Césaire's relationship to his native land is an "ex-centric" one, to borrow a term from psychoanalytic theory, meaning one that is outside or at some distance from the mainland or dominant cultural narrative. Lacan, in "The Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious or Reason since Freud," describes "the self's radical ex-centricity to itself with which man is confronted" as Freud's discovery: "Where Id was, there shall Ego be." This discovery is one of the necessity of movement, of "reintegration and harmony," Lacan says: "I could even say of reconciliation"of the self to "come to the place where that was." For the purposes of my argument, I mean only to skim the surface of this theory as an illustration of home as something to be reconciled by separation and reintegration as in Césaire's "Return to" his native Martinique after pursuing his education in Paris. He writes:

To go away...I would arrive sleek and young in this land of mine and I would say to this land whose loam is part of my flesh: "I have wandered for a long time and I am coming back to the deserted hideousness of your sores." I would go to this land of mine and I would say to it: "Embrace me without fear...And if all I can do is speak, it is for you I shall speak."

To "go away" in order to arrive, he emphasizes as a prerequisite for seeing again, for unfolding the secrets of place with the dual access of insider and one who has been outside, an islander made strange by the measurements of difference. By traveling outside the frame, he can better see what is contained.

Part of the re-vision involved in his return means to see things, perhaps for the first time, as they actually are. For Césaire it meant being able to see and accept "the deserted hideousness" of Martinique's sores, no longer in innocence or ignorance, but with the insight borne of contrast. In Shaping and Reshaping the Caribbean, Martin Munro describes the dizziness and disorientation of the Antillean's place in the world. Martinique is among the smallest of the French territories, included in the lesser Antilles, an island chain in the eastern Caribbean sea.  Divided as the lower Antilles islands are between North and South America, Munro describes the geographical effect of "belonging to none" but feeling the "influences of each...simultaneously." This division is further complicated by French governance and Martinique's tense racial history. Munro draws upon the symbolism of the island image as an isolated and adrift region that connotes defenselessness, illustrating the dislocating sensibility of the Martinican's sense of belonging neither wholly to Africa nor to Europe but to "a myriad of paradoxes" at the heart of a collective memory debilitated by a "recent past of repression and debasement." This memory is characterized by images of slavery's horror and brutality. The "inevitable product" as Munro sees it is a "fundamental break in present consciousness with any fixed, stable notions of identity." I see his point, but where he goes next is to claim that Césaire's aim is to heal this gap, to smooth the wound and "recover a community that slavery and colonialism have repressed and destroyed." Here I have to wonder if the break isn't serving a function that shouldn't be honored. Césaire is, after all, the great spokesperson for négritude, the movement that asserted black cultural difference as the most effective defense against French political and intellectual hegemony; therefore, I would like to suggest another way of reading this space using Frederic Jameson's dialectic of the rupture and break in A Singular Modernity. In Jameson's text, rupture is a means of inciting a powerful present from its past, thus offering an opportunity for self-creation and independence. For, in a seamless present, one cannot reflect on or learn from the past. A "radical break" is necessary for consciousness to assert itself and to construct an understanding of what has just happened. The present is recognized, in Jameson's reading, only in hindsight. Or, "I must come to the place where that was," to restate Lacan.

Césaire left Martinique as a bird leaves the nest, to study at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand for an educational scholarship in Paris. Here he met his wife and fellow student, Suzanne Roussi, with whom he founded the literary journal Tropiques that introduced him to Breton. The geographical and cultural separation has the psychological effect of rupture Jameson indicates. The break is necessarily illusory, as is awareness of the present moment a narrative drafted in the brief interim in which it becomes past. It is an exhilarating phase and I am not surprised that during it Césaire fell in love, but it is not the finale of the process Carl Jung describes of individuation, or becoming whole. An individual is tasked with the responsibility of integrating those fragments that have been born of the split. It is as much magic as adultishness—to "summon this egotism beautiful," as Césaire exclaims in the notebook, but it is not often born of this process a movement of such ferocious love. The wider the breach to reconcile, the more triumphant the bridge.

"My mouth," Césaire says, "shall be the mouth of those calamities that have no mouth." Césaire became an institutionally sanctioned and celebrated mouth to the extent that his name is invoked by the Martinique Promotion Bureau. Some seventy years after Césaire began the work of "ploughing...an implacable cutwater," the wounds of history have blossomed into an "Isle of Flowers," by which Martinique is favored as a tourist spot. They are perhaps counting on tourists not to read his poetry, as it testifies, like tree rings, to the layers of drought and bloodshed within it. In Césaire's lesser-known collection of poems, Lost Body/Corps Perdu, he mediates on how "everything that was ever torn apart / has been torn apart in [him];" his body contains the losses, the lives lost to imperial subjugation, just as it contains "the word nigger / like the sun bleeding from its claw / onto the sidewalk of clouds."

The idea of containment by the body recalls the feminist slogan, "the personal is political" in its inverse. In Césaire's work the political is personal. His Lost Body draws upon the connection between the island and the drifting body. Re-integration is a process of grieving, stitching, as an old woman over her quilt mourns the fit of the dress she is using to patch it. Long at his work of becoming a voice that could speak from "a lagoon" of memory, Césaire developed what translators Annette Smith and Clayton Eshleman call "the incredible burden" of Cesaire to "conceive and give birth to himself while exorcising his introjected and collective white image of the black." That it requires such determination is emblematic of the négritude movement and reflects a process that is more natural than might first appear. The "palatial sea that foams beneath the suppurating syzygy of blisters," Césaire writes, thickens the blood, and what is born in the individual is a world that encompasses the "enormous breathing lungs of cyclones and the fire hoarded in volcanoes and the gigantic seismic pulse."

Click here to read an excerpt of Aimé Césaire's Solar Throat Slashed translated by A. James Arnold and Clayton Eshleman.