That unmistakable major tone that distinguishes greater from lesser poets.
-Andre Breton on Aime Cesaire
Those who've helped me find my way out of the various fogs in my life are owed a debt that can never be repaid. All I can do is pay homage and be thankful for having found them.
So it is with Aime Cesaire, a titan of a being if ever there was one.
His passing not only removes a true voice against oppression, but marks the end of an era for me. The last of the classic Surrealists, it was through Breton that I first discovered Cesaire, first, in his poetry, then in his diatribe Discourse on Colonialism, which pre-dated Fanon's later, more well-known works.
But what I appreciated so much about Cesaire was his insightfulness, the way he'd analyze the colonial dynamic down to the interpersonal level, down to the way one spoke. In the French colonized Carribean, that meant an ongoing war between Patois and French, which I talked about in an earlier post that cites Euzhan Palcy's, Sugarcane Alley. By the way, Palcy made a doc on Cesaire which I was lucky to see at the Pan-African Film Fest several years ago. It's good, and quite a thrill to see the man himself.
As the story goes, Breton was on a layover in Martinique and in a haberdashery when he picked up a copy of Tropiques, edited by Cesaire, and began to read one of his poems. Immediately struck by the Surrealist techniques, Breton hunted Cesaire down. Cesaire would confirm his allegiance to Surrealism, not only in technique in art, but the morality of the "movement."
It's easy to take pot shots at Breton these days, and in certain snobbified circles, it's of a fashion. I myself have plenty of problems with the man, and the many "ex-communications" throughout Surrealism's stormy existence (Ernst, Desnos, Aragon...) attest to this fact. And as problematic as it is for a privileged, white Frenchman to bestow the seal of approval upon a black colonial, he also staunchly praised him to the skies and brought Cesaire to the attention of those who could take his voice to the ends of the earth.
Cesaire's intransigent spirit was like a giant pillar that runs to the core of the earth. When like so many other leftists, he joined the French CP, he soon became disillussioned with their ability to answer the colonial question, but specifically, the black question. Negritude. Like Ellison's nameless Invisible Man, the CP would fall short and prompt a great riposte, his ascerbic, Letter to Maurice Thorez, the then CP head.
I try and communicate to Renee that you have to get your head and heart right. That means having an intellect that's armed to the teeth, but the spirit to fire rockets. To not be a pussy doesn't mean acting hard, it means being hard. The kids in the barrio have it all wrong; it's not their fault, because what do you expect from a situation like that? Which is why Dr. Huey P. Newton's observation that the best Panthers were always the brothers off the corner, the hustlers, gangstas, fucking degenerates, because once politicized, they became fierce enemies of oppression. Were there problems in that scenario as well, like sexism and homophobia? Of course. That's a fact. But that doesn't invalidate the revolution that overcomes a person in shedding that "old skin." After all, don't those things also exist in boardrooms and any other echelon of power? Or worse, amongst priests who pray on young people?
And so Cesaire spoke to and for "those who don't even speak proper French."
This my favorite poem that I cited last year.
Aime Cesaire is dead. Long live Aime Cesaire.
JUDGEMENT OF THE LIGHT
Transfixing muscles and blood
devouring all eyes this intense bright mass of foliage
crowning with truth our usual lights
a ray a spray from the triumphant sun
by means of which
justice will be done
and every arrogance washed away
Household vessels and human flesh slip away into the thick
neck of the waves
silences by way of contrast have begun to exert the most
Around the circumference of the circle
among public activities along the riverbanks
stands solitary and splendid in its upright judgment