Translator's Note: Sarabande
In 1941, his writings banned by the Vichy government and looking for any safe harbor, André Breton found himself in Martinique. Fine weather notwithstanding, he might almost have been at home in Paris: the place was buzzing with Surrealist activity. Aimé Césaire and his circle were just launching Tropiques, a literary review dedicated to Surrealism, Négritude, and anti-colonialism. Martiniquais Surrealism was primarily a game for men, despite Suzanne Césaire’s theoretical contributions to the journal. But the poetry of an almost completely unknown schoolteacher, Lucie Thésée, appeared in many issues of Tropiques, and eventually made its way into the larger Francophone world.
Despite the anthologizing of her work in various collections devoted to writing from the French colonies, and praise from the critic Léon Damas, we still know surprisingly little about Thésée. Certainly this has nothing to do with any shrinking-violet quality on her part: Thésée was a courageous woman, even to the point of recklessness. With Martinique under Vichy rule, Tropiques was singled out for persecution. The military government accused the journal of being “racial and sectarian,” a vehicle of hatred and division. A letter was sent back to the military officials, saying:
“Racists,” “sectarians,” “revolutionaries,” “ingrates and traitors to the country,” “poisoners of souls,” none of these epithets really repulses us.
“Poisoners of Souls,” like Racine,...
“Ingrates and traitors to our good Country,” like Zola, . . .
“Revolutionaries,” like the Hugo of “Chatiments.”
“Sectarians,” passionately, like Rimbaud and Lautréamont.
Racists, yes. Of the racism of Toussaint-Louverture, of Claude McKay and Langston Hughes against that of Drumont and Hitler.
As to the rest of it, don’t expect for us to plead our case, nor vain recriminations, nor discussion.
We do not speak the same language.
Lucie Thésée’s name appears beneath these courageous phrases, near Aimé Césaire.
Thésée’s poetry is incantatory, rich in images, subtly erotic, and almost never translated into English. Like all Surrealist writings, it poses special challenges, as the translator can’t always rely on context to determine the meaning of ambiguous phrases, and the atmospherics of the writing are at least as important as the denotative significance. I’ve played a little loose with denotation here, hoping to catch some of Thésée’s music and bring it with me into English. —ra
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This poem originally appeared in the June 2011 issue of Poetry magazine