—A review by Tontongi
The Glissantian world is made of all sorts of historic malevolence changed to possibilities; it is the space where the alterity of the encounter among humans can become an agency for change. Even the tale told by the 14th-century Malian emperor Mansa Musa is revealed with human elements, thanks to the passion and erudition of French-Senegalese-American author Sylvie Kandé. Kandé and her former student, Haitian-American poet and professor Danielle Legros Georges, were reunited twice recently, reading in duo at the Grolier Poetry Book Shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts on May 18th 2022, and again on November 10th at the Brookline Booksmith in Brookline, MA, engaging in a mission to revive from contemporary amnesia long-past epics of extraordinary proportions.
Poets Danielle Legros Georges (left) and Sylvie Kandé reading at Grolier Book Shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on July 19th 2022. —photo Tanbou.
Danielle Legros Georges’s endeavor is no less striking: an introduction to the US-American public—and perhaps to the Franco-Anglophone world at large—of the great Franco-Haitian poet Ida Faubert, nearly lost to time and the historic domination of male voices within Haitian letters. Faubert was born in 1882, daughter of Haitian President Lysius Salomon. Salomon was eventually overthrown and fled to France when Faubert was six years old, during France’s Belle Époque (end of 19th century–beginning of the 20th century).
In addition to appreciation of Faubert’s independent spirit and valiant affirmation of freedom for women, the reader can perhaps sense why poet-translator Georges is drawn to her poems: many of them of personal, intimate nature, others traversed with a lyrical view of the natural world, but all imbued with a desire to name the throbbing sadness of exile and loss. An attuned translator, Danielle Georges is able to capture both the poems’ depth and their clarity:
Poet Sylvie Kandé reading at Grolier Book Shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on July 19th 2022. —photo Tanbou.
The leaves fall, it’s Autumn
The tall boxwood trees perfume the air.
A bird’s song in the clear sky
Seems a monotonous wail.
I think of those eyes so precious to me
While the roses wither
And I foresee leaden days
With all their bitterness. [From the poem “Autumn” page 53.]
Les feuilles tombent, c’est l’automne,
Et les grands buis parfument l’air,
Un chant d’oiseau dans le ciel clair
Semble une plainte monotone.
Je pense aux yeux qui me sont chers
Tandis que se flânent les roses,
Et je pressens les jours moroses
Avec tous leurs chagrins amers. [Tiré du poème «Automne», page 52.]1
Danielle Legros Georges reading at Grolier Book Shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on July 19th 2022. —photo Tanbou.
Sylvie Kandé’s book, a bilingual (French-English) epic poem, centers on the figure of Abubakar II, or Manden Bori, one of the founders of the Malian Empire. Mansa Musa inherited the throne from his predecessor, who refused to believe that “it was impossible to discover the extreme limit of the Ocean, [and] burned with the desire to do so.”
Abubakar II was never seen again after leading an expedition of “two thousand boats: a thousand for himself and his men, and a thousand others for the provisions” to the Atlantic Ocean, making them predecessors to a later explorer’s trans-Atlantic voyage, perhaps changing our own course, opening “…the possibility of another history, if the Malinké expeditions had, before Christopher Columbus, ‘discovered’ America.”
L-R: Sylvie Kandé, Carol Menkiti, Danielle Legros Georges, and Eddy Toussaint Tontongi at Grolier Book Shop, July 19th 2022. —photo Tanbou.
There are moments in everyday life when imaginative reverie joins actual, factually proven occurrence of reality, to stir the senses, creating another, different level of both reality and the means to apprehend it. Poets and poetry often do that, as attested by South America’s magical realism. Seeing Danielle and Sylvie together—both of them emanating from the three sides of the enslaving trade triangle, yet embracing the world not solely as warring enclaves of alienation, but as communicable experiences to share—gave to me, their reader, a sense of kinship with the extraordinary historical events they relate. As Kandé writes in the preface to her book, The Neverending Quest for the Other Shore / [La quête infinie de l’autre rive] “evokes the tribulations, triumphs and contemplations of those who, out of taste for adventure, a thirst for knowledge, or economic necessity set out in pirogues upon the Atlantic. Once were thousands who, under the direction of Abubakar II, alias Bata Manden Bori, alias Manden Mori or Bakari, set a course for America…”2
Sylvie Kandé stretches the glamorous and tragic quality of the explorers’ experience to include today’s migrants whom she considers as part of an epic journey to new discovery with alternative meaning.
Although the fate of the fleet for discovery that the Malian king took to the Atlantic Ocean was not conventionally documented, Kandé, invents a new world in her poem, taking the reader not only to a distant past but also toward a sublimated nobility of the migrant, like Jean Genet did with his character Divine or García Lorca with the Spanish Gitanos or Roma people, the validation of the Other, of the downtrodden, be they migrants, prisoners, queer people, drag performers, vagabonds…
Danielle Legros Georges’ translative journey is of the same order with a somewhat more direct question to the historically male-dominated world of Haitian poetry: Why is poet Ida Faubert not more prominent in literary history? I was happy to see Faubert’s collection of poems Cœur des îles, published in Paris in 1939, cited in the seminal anthology Histoire de la littérature haïtienne, published by Pradel Pompilus in 1961 (Port-au-Prince, Haiti). The reviewer describes Faubert’s poems: “The first is inspired by a melancholic and delicate amorous fervor. The second by these little nothings that a fine feminine sensitivity detects: a look, a color of hair, the moaning wind, a tree in the yard, etc.”
Although he acknowledges that some of the poems in the collection “are the most beautiful and moving”, the reviewer adds: “Ida Faubert writes without research but with elegance. Jean Vigneaud acknowledged that there are grace, subtlety and measure in her verses.3 “Without research? Would the reviewer say the same of his male writers?”
With Island Heart / Cœur des îles, Danielle Georges invites 21st-century readers to familiarize themselves with this unique voice of an exceptional 20th-century Haitian woman:
All around me there’s chatter, but I stay distant
Unmoved by any gesture, unmoved by any word.
Each minute deepens my anguish and grief.
Though I try, I can’t seem to conquer my ennui.
Fragile hope fades in the passing hour
And night’s shadow shrouds my soul
Grown even more weary. [From the poem “Absence”, page 47.]
Et pourtant l’air est plein de parfums pénétrants
On parle autour de moi ; je demeure lointaine ;
Les gestes et les mots me sont indifférents,
Chaque minute accroît mon tourment et ma peine.
Malgré l’effort, je ne puis vaincre mon ennui.
Je sens s’évanouir dans cette heure qui passe
Mon trop fragile espoir, et l’ombre de la nuit
Enveloppe mon âme encore un peu plus lasse. [Tiré du poème «Absence», page 46.]
I will not say more about Sylvie’s and Danielle’s respective books; I leave it to the reader to discover those hidden treasures, but I can relate the pleasurable personal experience of seeing these authors read together, in Cambridge, and weeks later in Brookline, Massachusetts.
At the conclusion of each of the two readings, Danielle and Sylvie invited me to join them for a meal. It filled me with an inner joy, both as literary critic and a friend, to be in the company of these two great writers who contribute to reinstate literature to one of its more revered roles: remembering and naming. For to name, as Sartre said, is to change. Naming the unspoken reveals the truth and the meaning of our own actions and those of our ancestors. At both readings, I relished the exquisite occasion of being witness to the symbiotic dynamism between the two writers, their respect for each other, their love, as teachers, for sharing knowledge and experience. Attendees’ questions and comments reflected the delectation of being served with great literature.
Besides their benevolent work as sharers of the muse, both Danielle Legros Georges and Sylvie Kandé teach at US universities, respectively at Lesley College in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and SUNY Old Westbury, in New York. Legros Georges, a former Poet Laureate of Boston, is the author of poetry collections Maroon (Curbstone Press, 2001), The Dear Remote Nearness of You (Barrow Street Press, 2016), Letters from Congo (Central Square Press, 2017), as well as articles, essays, and the anthology of contemporary Boston poems, City of Notions (Boston Mayor’s Office of Arts and Culture, 2017).
Sylvie Kandé (left) and Danielle Legros Georges reading at Brookline Booksmith in Brookline, Massachusetts, on November 10th 2022. —photo courtesy Amya Diggs.
Kandé has published three collections of poems, Lagon, lagunes. Tableau de Mémoire (2000), La quête infinie de l’autre rive : épopée en trois chants (2011), Gestuaire (2016) with the prestigious French publisher Gallimard. Others works of hers include Terres, urbanisme et architecture “créole” en Sierra Leone, 18ème–19ème siècles (L’Harmattan, 1998) and Discours sur le métissage, identités métisses. En quête d’Ariel (L’Harmattan, 1999).
Sylvie Kandé’s epic poem of more than 100 pages, adorned with an excellent English translation by Alexander Dickow, would be given more justice if read in its entirety, but some passages merit a special mention:
Another voice warbles a lament
missing the sweet land of Mali
in gold and in forests so lavish
her rivers carriers of life
the Joliba that separates the lands and unites them
her cities palisaded with tata:
Dukajalan and Jeiba that harbor
Byty watchful amidst rivers
quite venerable Kangaba and Niani
Kirina soaked in fraternal blood
But may God in his infinite indulgence
forgive us (worries the imam
hearing amidst the squall
the long moaning of the faithful)
so many grisgris and carving and spells
hung on the prow to ward off uncertainty
At our final hour may He protect us
He who gives and who keeps at will [page 37]
Une autre voix module une complainte
qui regrette la douce terre de Mali
en or et en futaie si plantureuse
ses rivières charroyeuses de vie
le Joliba qui sépare les terroirs et les unit
ses villes de tata enceintes:
Dakajalan et Djériba qui recèlent
Byty qui veille au milieu des rivières
Kankaba et Niani les toutes vénérables
Kirina de sang fraternel abreuvée
Mais que Dieu dans son inifinie mansuétude
nous pardonne (et s’inquiète l’imam
en entendant parmi la bourrasque
les longs gémissement de ses fidèles)
tant de gris-gris de bois de sortilèges
suspendus à la proue pour conjurer l’incertitude
À l’heure de notre fin qu’il nous protège
Celui qui donne à volonté retient [page 36]
Kandé’s poem is also a peace poem, for, at the end, the warring Malinké and Guazabara arrive at a truce, but not before a long year of war:
The battle began in thirteen eleven
at high no lasting no less than a year
These bronze-hearted giants were at it
battering each other for more than a year
cutting and thrusting at one another… [page 109]
Le combat débuta en l’an mille trois cent onze
en plein midi et ne dura pas moins d’un an
Ils furent ces géants au cœur de bronze
plus d’une année à se meurtrir
à se frapper d’estoc et de taille [page 108]
Eventually, as the anthropologist Françoise Héritière would later lament of the use of women as war value exchange, one of the warriors offers his sister as a prize:
Therewith Mansa and Cacique draw near
—each other now well-versed in the other’s tongue—
they both agree to settle on a truce
I have a sister my Kafuma thrice-lovely:
take her for a wife says Mori she is yours
The cacique gives his word with no more fuss:
I know a fief to foster our progeny
you shall bring your men there and all your effects
Thus did Kalira the jaguar marry Kafuma the short
Thus was Africa wedded to America
before they even knew their names… [page 111]
Adonc Mansa et Cacique rapprochent leurs têtes
chacun rompu désormais au langage de l’autre—
et ensemble s’accordent à imposer leur trêve
J’ai une sœur ma Kafuma aux trois beautés:
prends-la pour femme dit Mori je te la donne
Le cacique sans autres façons engagea sa parole:
Je sais un fief où estorer notre descendance
vous y ferez loger vos gens et porter votre bagage
C’est ainsi que Kalira le jaguar maria Kafuma la brève
C’est ainsi que l’Afrique et l’Amérique s’épousèrent
avant même que d’avoir connu leurs noms [page 110]4.
I strongly encourage our readers to experience Danielle Legros Georges’ and Sylvie Kandé’s respective books, the first to dive into the universe of a perspicacious, free-thinking, liberated early 20th-century Franco-Haitian woman writer who challenged the confines of her time, the second to reimagine ancestral history or to enjoy the creative and critical power of an exemplary contemporary poet. They’re both great reads for the ages.
—Tontongi December 2022
Books by Danielle Legros Georges and Sylvie Kandé may be purchased at the following bookstores:
Grolier Poetry Book Shop
6 Plympton Street, Cambridge MA 02138
279 Harvard Street, Brookline, MA 02446
|1.||Danielle Legros Georges, Island Heart, English translation of Ida Faubert’s Cœur des îles (1939), Subpress Books, Boston 2021.|
|2.||Sylvie Kandé, The Neverending Quest for the Other Shore / La quête infinie de l’autre rive, Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, CT, 2022; English translation by Alexander Dickow.|
|3.||Pradel Pompilus, Manuel illustré d’histoire de la littérature haïtienne: «Le premier est inspiré par une ferveur amoureuse mélancolique et délicate. Le second par ces petits riens qu’une fine sensibilité féminine décèle : un regard, une couleur de cheveux, le vent qui gémit, un arbre dans la cour, etc.» […] Ida Faubert écrit sans recherche mais avec élégance. Jean Vigneaud a reconnu qu’il y a dans ses vers de la grâce, de la subtilité et de la mesure.” Éditions Henry Deschamps, Port-au-Prince, Haïti, 1961.|
|4.||Sylvie Kandé, The Neverending Quest for the Other Shore / La quête infinie de l’autre rive…|