At the end of the wee hours, this town sprawled-flat, toppled from its common sense, inert, winded under its geometric weight of an eternally renewed cross, indocile to its fate, mute, vexed no matter what, incapable of growing with the juice of this earth, self-conscious, clipped, reduced, in breach of fauna and flora.You might know that this is from the first few stanzas of Césaire's masterpiece, Notebook of a Return to the Native Land, a book-length poem completed in 1939 and published in 1947. He was writing about his return to his native Martinique, looking at it just before dawn and exhorting it to awaken and know itself. As it happened, Césaire was a communist, a surrealist poet, a mayor, and a co-founder of the Négritude movement, which was basically the first black power movement. He was writing for and about black people in Africa, Europe and the Americas.
At the end of the wee hours, this town sprawled-flat...
And in this inert town, this squalling throng so astonishingly detoured from its cry as this town has been from its movement, from its meaning, not even worried, detoured from its true cry, the only cry you would have wanted to hear because you feel it alone belongs to this town; because you feel it lives in it in some deep refuge and pride in this inert town, this throng detoured from its cry of hunger, of poverty, of revolt, of hatred, this throng so strangely chattering and mute.
But it seems to me, these 70 years later, that he could have been writing about our current town, yours and mine, the town we now call the United States of America, the town our black president consecrates with a flag lapel pin and a "God bless..." at the conclusion of every major speech. Césaire could have writing about us here and now:
At the end of the wee hours, this town sprawled-flat, toppled from its common sense, winded under its geometric weight, indocile to its fate, vexed no matter what, incapable of growing with the juice of this earth, self-conscious, clipped, reduced, in breach of flora and fauna, this throng so astonishingly detoured from its true cry, this throng so strangely chattering and mute.
To me, there is something of lost self-love, of tail-chasing vexation, of false eruption and capped realization, both in the nation of which Césaire wrote and the one in which we now live.
That's one of the great things about poems. They're like spoken time machines. If it's true, it's true. Doesn't matter when.