To Sweep, To Scan


Aimé Césaire, Notebook of a Return to the Native Land, trans. Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith. Wesleyan, 2001. $14.95.



Since its appearance in Aimé Césaire: The Collected Poetry (University of California) in 1983, Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith’s translation of Aimé Césaire’s Notebook of a Return to the Native Land has earned the honor of being the authoritative, definitive English version of this 20th century masterpiece. Now, revised and reissued as a single volume, Wesleyan has made the poem widely available (especially for students) at a reasonable price. The new version also includes the inspiring and inspired introduction to the first bilingual edition by André Breton (1941), a tribute that acknowledges the impact of French Surrealism on Césaire. In addition, a commentary on the poem and chronology of the poet help the reader locate the work culturally and historically. This extended lyric marks the beginning of Césaire’s search for Negritude and assertion of poetry’s visionary import. The first of three movements is especially stunning – a psychic and geographical topography of Martinique with telegraphic shifts that link social terror with the violence of sudden natural growth. This section sets the stage for Césaire’s dialectical plays; here notably setting a dense, rich paradise of language against the confrontation of brutality and suffering in Martinique. 


The poem ends on the fixed/exploding juxtaposition of “motionless verrition” – “immobile verrition” in the original French – a phrase that goes unnoted in the Collected, but the note in the new Wesleyan edition, is typically of the changes made overall – expanded, wildly helpful, and concise.  Previous translators have used the words “flick” and “swirl” for “verrition,” words that completely obscure the fact that Césaire, according to the new edition’s notes, coined the word from “verri,” the Latin for “to sweep, to scrape a surface, to scan.” “Verrition” also, the notes reveal, “attempts to preserve the ‘veer’ or turning motion (set against the oxymoronic modifier ‘motionless’).” Juxtaposition enacts the poem’s politics on a structural, almost molecular level.


Césaire manipulates a multitude of political tensions into linguistic forms. The sheer force and momentum of the poem’s language “breaks into the forbidden.” Césaire’s political interest in creating a very material language world is manifest in the poem’s condensed lyricism, extended syntax, and especially in the wealth of rare and technical words. African and Creole words rub up against botanical and geographical words. Slang sits beside archaic usages and neologisms.  Césaire makes powerful use of the friction between native and colonizer tongues when they are in fact the same tongue. In a kind of sur-French, Césaire’s supped up, super-electrified lexicon  “masters” and reinvents the language.  In its subversion of French, the poem enacts the rebellion and resistance the poem calls for. The poem represents one mind, and many minds, united by a civic emergency, by illimitable anger, and by the urgent and disquietingly search for metamorphosis. If as The New York Times reported last October, “in the weeks since the terrorist attacks, people have been consoling themselves – and one another – with poetry in an almost unprecedented way,” and readers are in fact hungry for moving and outraged political poetry, then Césaire’s poem, as it moves from alienation to revolt to integration, will, especially now, feed us and feed on us. 




Christine Hume’s Musca Domestica (Beacon Press, 2000).