Francophone Caribbean Poetry and Saint-John Perse


Saint-John Perse

André Breton once called Saint-John Perse, “The man of my epoch most tirelessly in search of all men.”

Édouard Glissant gave him the title, “The last herald of a systematic universe.”

Breton, Glissant, Perse: All three are poets of the Francophone world. Breton, most associated with French surrealism, was born in Normandy in 1896. Glissant, the great theorist of creolization and of Caribbean poetics, was born on the island of Martinique in 1928. Perse, a diplomat by profession who was also awarded the Nobel Prize for his poetry in 1960, was born on the island of Guadeloupe in 1887. I have placed the two quotes above one after another because, without additional context, Breton and Glissant seem to be saying the same thing, or at least something similar, about Saint-John Perse: that his poetry is expansive, that he is the seeker of a universal Humanity. But there are opposite values attached to what Breton and Glissant see in Perse. Breton means to praise his work. Glissant is highlighting a limitation.

Untitled-1What accounts for these opposite values that Glissant and Breton bring to their readings of Perse? Is it generational difference? Is it cultural difference? Breton is speaking of a contemporary whereas Glissant is speaking of an antecedent. Breton is rooted in metropolitan France. Glissant is an Antillean poet. Perse, for what it’s worth, was the first Caribbean-born writer to be awarded the Nobel, although his literary persona is that of the eternal exile and the wanderer, which is what is really at the heart of what Glissant has to say about him. Glissant does not, he can not in the same way that Breton does, see any heroism in Perse’s insistence on being unencumbered by particularity, traveling the world in search of Truth. He sees this tendency in Perse but urges us not to accept it blindly. Glissant himself hesitates in the face of Perse’s wanderings. Something is not right. And what has really troubled Glissant is that Perse’s background overlaps in too many places with his own, and not because of any “universality” on the part of his poetry. No, Glissant recognizes, maybe with some unease, things about Perse that only one Creole can know about another.

André Breton’s praise of Perse, in the meantime, has become anachronistic. The “search for all men” is mostly abandoned now; we can be thankful for that. Contemporary readers will likely be in sympathy with Glissant when he writes, in his 1976 article on Saint-John Perse, that “the world can no longer be shaped into a system. Too many Others and elsewheres disturb the fragile surface.” Strip away all of the false universality from Perse and the interesting thing that is left is the part of himself he tries so urgently to hide. We are left to puzzle over his Caribbean background, the roots that were no roots at all because they sent him soaring into the endless voyages known as the pure state of exile.

“Perse both turns his back on us, and is one of us,” writes Glissant, and he is not the only French West Indian poet for whom Saint-John Perse is a lingering presence, a source of uncertainty, sometimes a target, and occasionally a brother. Consider Aimé Césaire’s poem, “Voodoo Ceremony for Saint-John Perse”, written shortly after Perse’s death. Césaire’s ambivalence in this poem is a magnificent, troubled, celebratory, angry ambivalence and his ability to express this complex feeling is what separates Césaire from lesser poets. Here are the final verses:

“(and did he see it did the stranger see it
Redder still than the blood of Tammuz
Than our Decebalian faces
Did he see it did the stranger see it?)

Birds profound
Turledoves of darkness and resentment

and may the arch catch fire
And from one ocean to another
May the sumptuous magmas in volcanoes answer each other
To honor, with all muzzles all portholes smoking,
Under sail towards the high seas,
The ultimate Conquistador on his last voyage”


Aimé Césaire

There is something tortured here, as there often is in Cesaire’s poetry. The source of the anguish in this case is this “stranger” and whether he “saw it” (saw what? Something that to Césaire is of unspeakable importance. Is it “Did he see me?”). What Césaire is essentially asking is whether the stranger is a stranger at all. He seems unsure. His reaction is to claim Perse (to celebrate him) while simultaneously keeping his distance.

Glissant, without making any reference to Césaire’s poem, notices the same two reactions in himself, and notices also that these contradictory feelings leave an ambiguous aftertaste:

“these two reactions are liable to leave something unexplained in Perse: the reaction that makes us want to drag him back forcefully to his Caribbean roots (him, the inveterate wanderer); the other one that makes us eager to whiten him as a French Creole, with that twisted legacy from which he secretly suffered.”

This is, I think, exactly to the point. It relieves Perse of his universality while explaining his thirst for it. Perse, it seems is a product of history after all – and a particular Antillean one at that. Césaire and Glissant, linked to him by that history, are uncertain of him, uncertain of his Caribbean whiteness, “a fragile Caribbean-ness” Glissant calls it in Perse’s case. On the other side of the uncertainty is insight, the sort of insight about Perse that Glissant summons easily and naturally, and which a Frenchman like Breton would probably not necessarily have access to. Perse, Glissant writes, is:

“Reliving the dilemma of the White Creole, caught between a metropolitan history that does not include him (and that he, in reaction, claims meticulously and energetically as his legitimate ancestry) and the natural world of the Caribbean which engenders new points of growth that he must perhaps deny.”

There it is: The roots of Perse’s poetic sensibilty, if not of his cultural belonging. The alienation that is sometimes the product of a Caribbean whiteness (I do not think Glissant means Caucasians only. He is not speaking of sinister things like racial essences). The alienation that sometimes leads to the sensibility of the wanderer. Constant travel can soothe the pain of homelessness. This seems to be Perse’s response.

And yet Glissant is still cautious. Perse’s wandering is his freedom and also his privilege. “He is not involved in this history, as he was free to walk away from it,” writes Glissant. Whether we agree or not, it is true that Perse’s wanderings did not lead him back to the source, but ever onwards and outwards.

Increasingly these days Perse is mentioned as an influential Caribbean poet. One only has to read his poem “To Celebrate a Childhood” with its images of “cows smelling of cane syrup”, and “mute faces the color of papayas and boredom”, to get a sense of the images that he carried with him his whole life. Perhaps they are the images that also sustained him. What’s remarkable about this poem is that its tone is both nostalgic and ecstatic, not a usual combination. A celebration of loss? His remembrance is not a melancholic remembrance. It is the memory of an island he left behind, a landscape within him that no amount of wandering into the universal heart of mankind could erase or blur.

A few samples from Saint-John Perse’s “To Celebrate a Childhood”:

In those days they bathed you in water-of-green-leaves; and the water
Was of green sun too; and your mother’s maids, tall glistening girls,
Moved their warm legs near you who trembled…
(I speak of a high condition, in those days, among the dresses, in
The dominion of revolving lights.)”

“…O! I have cause for Praise!
My forehead under yellow hands,
My forehead, do you remember the night sweats?
Midnight unreal with fever and the taste of cisterns?
And the flowers of blue dawn dancing on the bays of morning
And the hour of noon more sonorous than a mosquito, and arrows
Shot out by the sea of colors…”


A British Virgin Islands Stamp featuring Saint-John Perse.


On “The Roberto Bolaño Myth”

Image courtesy of The UK Guardian.

Image courtesy of The UK Guardian.

“We have enough,” Sam Carter concludes in a review of Woes of the True Policeman, the latest of Roberto Bolaño’s unfinished works to be published posthumously in the United States. Forceful words, but Carter doesn’t doubt Bolaño’s talent. He thinks that the late Chilean writer’s publishers are damaging his legacy:

“The continued publication and popular packaging of [Bolaño’s] incomplete work may actually be diluting his reputation as a writer of varied talents and fearless ambition.”

The way Bolaño’s body of work has been handled in the U.S. has sometimes been confusing, and people are noticing. One commenter on a recent review over at lit-blog The Millions sums up this confusion well:

“… The past 4 or 5 years has seen so many posthumously released Bolaño works that I sort of feel exhausted by them all. So much after the fact praise that I sometimes wonder if much of it is just hype and/or a fad.”

In 2012, Bolaño’s “myth” may be larger than his books. He is more than just a writer. He is the new face of Latin American literature in the United States, where a new generation of allegedly post-national readers are bored with the obstinate regionalism and unfashionable Marxism of the old Magical Realists. Some critics haven’t been so happy with this turn of events, and maybe they’re right. Maybe it’s wise to be suspicious of men who appear to answer so completely the desires of their times.

In a 2009 article entitled “Bolaño Inc.”, Salvadoran writer Horacio Castellanos Moya notes with suspicion that a distorted version of Bolaño’s life story has often been as important to his excited reception in North America as his writing. Castellanos Moya concludes that those who work in the shady realm where marketing and literature meet must be responsible for this villainy. Afterall, Bolaño has been dead for years and, if he is being exploited by large publishing conglomerates, can’t complain.

Horacio Castellanos Moya. Image courtesy of New Directions Books.

Horacio Castellanos Moya. Image courtesy of New Directions Books.

Castellanos Moya argues that a market-ready image of the late Chilean writer as a down-and-out rebel, a social drop-out and failed revolutionary, has been created to sell his books to young and cynical cosmopolitans in the United States (he points out that Paste magazine even gave him the ridiculous title of “The Kurt Cobain of Latin American Literature”). Castellanos Moya is disgusted that the life of a talented writer, and a personal friend, could be fashioned by marketing teams into whatever they felt would compliment a particularly edgy-looking bookjacket photo. He writes:

“The market has its landlords, like everything on this infected planet, and it’s the landlords of the market who decide the mambo that you dance, whether it’s selling cheap condoms or Latin American novels in the U.S.”

This is a cynical view, but the inflation of Bolaño’s time in prison facing down Chilean fascism, and the fabrication of his apparently non-existent heroin addiction do look pretty damning in this light. Castellanos Moya assures us, with evident joy at disappointing those who believe that Bolaño was a cross between Che Guevara and a junkie poet, that the writer died a committed family man living a middle-class suburban life and that he spent most of his time writing.

As a concerned friend of Bolaño, Castellanos Moya’s argument has a lot of force. But then the essay takes a turn. Out of duty or habit he polishes off dusty terms like “The U.S. Culture Industry” and the “North American Imagination” to argue that U.S. readers are also using a false image of Bolaño to confirm their stereotypes about their southern neighbors. If the entire canon of Latin American literature can no longer be reduced to García Márquez, then it can now be reduced to this new discovery: a prickly former Trotskyite/anarchist who wrote huge, labyrinthine postmodern novels, and — did you hear? — was a drug-addict (he wasn’t) and served time in a dictator’s prison (a little over one week).

A young Bolaño (image courtesy of

A young Bolaño (image courtesy of

Castellanos Moya’s complaints are part of the inevitable debates over cultural ownership that arise every time an artist becomes an international phenomenon and the meaning of his or her work becomes, again, inevitably complicated. It’s fine to question what happens to a writer when he or she gets lifted out of his or her cultural context. But there are other related questions that Castellanos Moya doesn’t ask that may be more interesting. Why is Bolaño marketed as an opponent of the neoliberal global order (he fought against Pinochet!), when at the same time he can be interpreted as a defender of its core values (“Nationalism is a statue of shit slowly sinking in the desert”)? This leads to contradictions that may open the door to a more radical critique of his work — and also his “myth” — for those, like Castellanos Moya, who are suspicious of his sudden rise to fame among the powerful.

There is at least one glaring hole in the argument that the “Bolaño Myth” has been constructed by greedy capitalists and ugly Americans engaged in cultural tourism though. Many of Bolaño’s books, most obviously the semi-autobiographical The Savage Detectives, are elaborate works of self-mythology. When asked in his final interview in the Mexico edition of Playboy Magazine what it was like to be regarded as the Latin American writer with the most promising future, a terminally-ill Bolaño responded with the amusement that only a stoic can muster:

“It must be a joke. I am the Latin American writer with the least promising future. But on that point, I am the type with the most past, which is what matters anyway.”

In other words, Bolaño knew what he was doing. That’s not the same as saying that even during his lifetime his narrative wasn’t starting to get away from him. Here are his own words on book publishers’ (and not just U.S.-based ones) fascination with his detainment by the Pinochet government:

“…I was detained for eight days, although a little while ago in Italy, I was asked, ‘what happened to you? Can you tell us a little bit about your half a year in prison?’ That’s due to a misunderstanding in a German book where they had me in prison for half a year. At first they sentenced me to less time. It’s the typical Latin American tango. In the first book edited for me in Germany, they give me one month in prison; in the second book – seeing that the first one had sold so well – they raise it to three month; in the third book I’m up to four months; in the fourth book it’s five. The way it’s going, I should still be a prisoner now.”

It’s true: Bolaño did see an economic angle to the way publishers occasionally mishandled his life story (point one for Castellanos Moya and “Bolaño Inc.”). It seems that he also felt that he was, at least on some level, being stereotyped based on international views of Latin America as a land of dictatorship and revolutionary fervor (point two for Castellanos Moya, although Bolaño refers to Germany; he did not live to see his widespread success in the United States).

But the final sentence of Bolaño’s response — and also the general tone of his many interviews — suggests that he didn’t take any of this too seriously. What he took seriously were books, first other writers’ and then, by extension, his own. It’s that sensibility that may allow Bolaño to outlast not only inferior posthumous cash-ins, but also his own mythology.