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The Anglophone Rediscovery of Aimé Césaire


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In The Nation, scholar and writer David B. Hobbs compares three English translations of Aimé Césaire’s best-known poetic work, Cahier d’un Retour au Pays Natal, including the first major translation—done in 1968—and two more recent academic translations. Hobbs examines how the different translators handle Césaire’s subtle wordplay, as well as the political allusions he makes throughout the poem. Ultimately, Hobbs suggests that the new translations of Cahier indicate a growing interest in Césaire in the Anglophone world, where his work has influenced recent intellectual currents like Afro-pessimism and the work of Fred Moten. Here’s an excerpt:

Césaire’s sense of a productive anger provides an alternative to today’s digitally enabled pronouncements of resistance, which are easier than ever to make and (unsurprisingly) seem less effective. His poetry offers a model of artistic and political opposition that equips people with more than stress and anxiety. Cahier has planetary goals; it deepens shallow notions of identity and suggests that a subjectivity informed by powerlessness can be useful for understanding, and overturning, power. The conditions of black colonial subjectivity, more than any specific person’s experience of it, are Césaire’s central focus, even as the poem parallels aspects of the poet’s own life.

This is what Suzanne Césaire means by suggesting, in her essay “1943: Surrealism and Us,” that her husband’s poetry was surrealist because it marked “an activity which assigns itself the goal of exploring and expressing systematically the forbidden zones of the human mind, in order to neutralize them.” It is in this spirit of exploring trauma that Césaire ends the poem with a quiet revolt, occurring in montage amid what some have called the original site of antiblack violence.

Image of Aimé Césaire via associationracines.com.