Photo of Aimé Césaire, Paris, 1982 (photo: © A. James Arnold; image courtesy A. James Arnold)

In the aftermath of the Nazi atrocities of World War II, the European intelligentsia were dumbfounded that imperialism and genocide had suddenly turned inward on its most prolific modern exporters — Europeans themselves. This is one of the many indictments laid out in Aimé Césaire’s searing Discourse on Colonialism (1950). “A civilization that plays fast and loose with its principles,” Césaire adds, “is a dying civilization.”  

Since Césaire’s death in 2008 at age 94, as democracies devolve into autocracies and wealthy nations sidestep poorer ones on our endangered planet, Discourse on Colonialism remains prescient about the barbarity that informs civilization. In literary terms, its enduring relevance tends to overshadow Césaire’s standing as the most influential Modernist poet in Caribbean literature, an imaginative writer who molded the French language to make a personal poetry characterized by hypnotic physicality, ritualized anguish, and metaphorical exorcisms. That body of work has been appearing in a raft of new English translations, revealing a perseverance the poet describes in “Course,” from the swan song collection Like a Misunderstood Salvation and Other Poems (Northwestern University Press, 2013): 

with my strict saliva I kept the blood flowing
so it would not waste in oblivious squamae
on uncertain seas I rode
the dolphins of memory […]
wherever I landed I ploughed the furrow
Aimé Césaire, Like a Misunderstood Salvation and Other Poems (Northwestern University Press, 2013)

Césaire navigated many “uncertain seas.” He grew up poor in Basse-Pointe, Martinique, earned a scholarship to study in Paris in the 1930s, and then won admission to L’École Normale Supérieure, where he befriended poets LéonGontran Damas of French Guyana and Léopold Sédar Senghor, who, decades later, became the long-serving progressive President of independent Senegal. Together they looked to America’s Harlem Renaissance to forge a Francophone Black aesthetics that would ensure their poetry — and their politics — against being imitations of white, mainstream French culture. 

On a break from studies, Césaire visited the Croatian coast near Martinšćica and was inspired to write Cahier d’un retour (1939), a book-length poem about his native Martinique, and an impassioned lyric-epic composition that the poet would revise and expand over the years. First published in the Parisian journal Volontés while Césaire and his wife, writer Suzanne Roussi, were moving back to Martinique in 1939, it appeared in 1943 in a Spanish-language edition, translated by Cuban ethnographer Lydia Carbrera, prefaced by French poet Benjamin Péret, with drawings by painter Wilfredo Lam, and, then, after the war, in new editions by influential publishers in Paris and New York, championed by Surrealist powerbroker André Breton. 

Journal of a Homecoming (Duke University Press, 2017) relies on the final, augmented 1956 version and features critical context by the late Nigerian literary scholar F. Ibiola Irele, who had been the first and most prominent Césaire expert. It includes a tour de force 74-page introductory essay as well as a 150-page appendix that provides Irele’s granular commentary on the original French, parsing the text’s idioms, neologisms, etymologies, puns, and geographical, historical, and literary allusions.

Aimé Césaire, Journal of a Homecoming (Duke University Press, 2017)

Unparalleled in mid-20th century French literature, Journal of a Homecoming resembles prose-verse hybrids like Comte de Lautréamont’s Chants of Maldoror (1869) and Arthur Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell (1873). The Journal’s incantatory stanzas — 174 in this 1956 version — develop into a tripartite whole that might be described as a journey through hopeless desolation, poetic assuagement, and secular rebirth, as the poem unfolds like a séance reviving ancestral spirits from a vanquished Martinique. As Irele puts it, the poem represents a “consciousness turning wholly against […] its formative context.” “I was inoculated with debasement,” the speaker declares, “I am breaching the vitelline membrane that separates me from my truer self.” 

The poem’s language is tactile and multisensory so that the island’s topography radiates  psychosocial meanings — chattering parrots, an overripe pomegranate, diseased peach trees, volcanic magma beneath the hills, “a great gallop of hummingbirds,” and a browbeaten populace hidden in the island’s gullies or high up in its trees. Other images allude to the Black diaspora: the Atlantic crossing of imprisoned Africans, the mercenary sacking of the Antilles by rum and sugar industries, and the lashings administered by white subjugators who appear as spectral and abject as their victims. A young voice “dies away in the swamp of hunger” and the island’s “sand is so black […] the howling foam slithers over it”; a woman drowned in Martinique’s Capot River is a “dark glow” and a “bundle of resounding water.” 

The bolero-like litanies stir up a new creative consciousness, which the speaker claims for himself and names négritude, a force that is “neither a tower nor a cathedral/ it delves into the red flesh of the soil/ it delves into the burning flesh of the sky.” This impassioned state of grace subsumes the racial debasement of nègre, that pejorative invented by French imperialists that he would wield like a refrain in rousing poetic counter-statements through all his subsequent collections. 

The momentum that followed Cahier d’un retour propelled the poet into the political arena, too. In 1944 an extended residency in Haiti immersed him in that island’s literary arts and political cultures. Inspired by the heroism of Haitian Revolutionary leaders like Toussaint Louverture, he ran for mayor of Martinque’s capital city, Fort-de-France, a position he’d hold for over 50 years, while also serving as the island’s representative deputy in the French Assembly. As the latter he helped to pass the postwar legislation that turned Martinique into a département d’outre-mer (overseas department) of the French nation, a bitter compromise for Césaire, the fervent anti-assimilationist.

Aimé Césaire, The Complete Poetry of Aimé Césaire (Wesleyan University Press, 2017)

Taking in all of the poetry, including the original 1939 version of Cahier d’un retour and an unearthed early verse play, the bilingual compendium The Complete Poetry of Aimé Césaire (Wesleyan University Press, 2017) is the product of veteran Césaire translator Clayton Eshleman and leading Césaire scholar A. James Arnold, both of whom visited with the poet himself for advice and guidance. The resulting volume adheres closely to the original French, showing how the writer sublimated public strife and civic struggles into private passions, creating an erotic, atavistic, and refined literary Surrealism, especially in the fiery collections The Miraculous Arms (1946) and Solar Throat Slashed (1948).  

In the more spare and introspective vehemence of Lost Body (1950) — originally published in a special edition with engravings by Pablo Picasso — images of air and water frequently reposition carnal struggles of earthly existence, as in “the sidewalk of clouds” and “the new coralline heart of the tides.” Following Ferraments (1960), Césaire stopped publishing poetry for over 20 years as he turned to playwriting to widen his audience and address histories that he’d only intimated at in the poetry.

Aimé Césaire, A Season in the Congo (Seagull Books, 2018)

In the early to mid-1960s, that turn yielded historical dramas that have since been staged around the world, now out in crisp new English translations. The Tragedy of King Christophe (Northwestern University Press, 2015) and A Season in the Congo (Seagull Books, 2018) are verse dramas that use choral voices, symbolic omens, and grim gallows humor to depict, respectively, the doomed leadership of Haitian anticolonial general Henri Christophe, circa 1820, and the coup d’etat that led to the assassination of progressive democratic President Patrice Lumumba of Congo in 1960. 

The return to poetry in the 1980s and ’90s shows his work’s phantasmal cadences addressing newer themes like weathered hope, troubled, ever-vigilant memory, and the finitude of all things, including suffering itself. 

In the newly published Resolutely Black: Conversations with Françoise Vergès (Polity Press, 2020), Césaire, interviewed at home in Martinique in 2004, is by turns regretful about the divisiveness that followed postcolonial compromises and gratified by hard-won social and economic advancements on behalf of Martinique. 

Aimé Césaire, Resolutely Black: Conversations with Françoise Vergès (Polity Press, 2020)

Even in advanced age, the poet still fought the powerful. In 2005, after French President Jacques Chirac’s government had passed a law requiring that all French schools, including those in overseas regions, teach the “positive role” of colonialism, Césaire refused to meet Nicholas Sarkozy, then the interior minister, on Sarkozy’s planned visit to Martinique, a stinging rebuke that led to the trip’s cancellation. 

Years into the new millennium, the principled anticolonialist still believes the only hope left to humanity is that powerful nations deliver on their long-professed ideals, especially those articulated in the Enlightenment-era document Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789). “France didn’t colonize other countries in the name of human rights,” Césaire reminds Vergès, while he also warns her against the stances of “victimhood,” “sectarianism,” and a self-defeating anti-Western purism, pointing out that “the progressive claim in the Declaration is that all people have the same rights, simply because they are human.”  

In 2008, following Césaire’s death, French President Sarkozy oversaw the ceremony that placed the poet’s name in the Panthéon in Paris. Upon discovering his work, the reader can imagine the Martiniquan writer answering the empire’s honors with the reminder that poetry, without compromising its artistry, can implicitly demand those human rights, those “universal” dignities long espoused and, to this day, denied to millions across the world in order to profit the few. As he puts it in “Millibars of the Storm,” “Let’s not placate the day but go out our faces exposed/ facing those unknown countries that cut off the bird’s whistles.” 

Aimé Césaire’s Like a Misunderstood Salvation and Other Poems (2013) is published by Northwestern University Press; Journal of a Homecoming (2017) is published by Duke University Press; The Complete Poetry of Aimé Césaire (2017) is published by Wesleyan University Press; The Tragedy of King Christophe (2015) is published by Northwestern University Press; A Season in the Congo (2018) is published by Seagull Books. Resolutely Black: Conversations with Françoise Vergès (2020) is published by Polity Press. They are available online and in bookstores.

Tim Keane's writing on poetry and visual art has appeared in Modern Painters, The London Magazine, Utne Reader, The Brooklyn Rail, Vision China, and in Joe Brainard's Art (University of Edinburgh...