Césaire was the Malcolm X of Martinique — but instead of getting shot, he was elected mayor of the capital city, Fort-de-France, and lived to be 94. In fact Césaire died while I was reading this book, on April 17, 2008. He was one of the founders of the négritude movement, which deeply influenced “Black Power;” also he was a mentor to Frantz Fanon. Césaire’s great political work was “Discours sur le colonialisme” [“Discourse on Colonialism”]. But mostly he was a poet. Cadastre was published in 1961; I have a first edition.
Like most Americans, I think of political poetry as nagging, repetitive sermons. Césaire was a revolutionary of diction as well as action. His writing is still radical, still digs canals in your interior cityscape. Here is my translation of the first few lines of “La loi est nue” (“The Law Is Naked”):
Winged berries, I marched on the roaring heart of excellent
(had I never kidnapped another woman?)
as a long cry and under my milk-gulp
as one soil escaping wounded, reptilian between the teeth of
in the backwaters