Jason Allen-Paisant: Reading Aimé Césaire for the Ecological Crisis

I heard a Black female poet make the remark recently: “People read ‘trees’, ‘rocks’, ‘minerals’, and so on in poetry written by African diaspora writers, and yet there is some deep-seated disinclination to ever think of them outside the prism of identity politics, despite their clear ecological concerns”.

As I listened to her remark, my mind went instantly to Aimé Césaire. In every one of the ways I’ve been engaging with Césaire — as translator, as critic, as (unworthy) companion of poetry —, I’ve been thinking about the relevance of his work in light of the current ecological crisis, which, as we know, is the conversation of the moment.

I’ve been realising that a great deal of Césaire’s poetry written after the Second World War was out of an association he made between imperialism and ecological terror. It’s something that’s been fairly understated in the way critics have read his work, but I can see it there and it’s really important.

In the animistically charged Solar Throat Slashed (Soleil cou coupé), for instance, Césaire seemed to see poetry as a way of reversing the logic of capitalism. His essay “Poetry and Knowledge” was also a critique of the capitalist logic (extraction, exploitation, domination of the environment).

Now we see where capitalism’s template of ‘progress’ has brought us. Yet, despite what seems obvious to us (from what’s unfolding in our planet’s ecosystems) it’s still hard for us to think of a relationship to our environment that’s not through the optics of human mastery. The loss of capitalist materialist culture is something that our hard-wired habits (in terms of consumption and ‘quality of life’) can’t stomach.

But a lot of Césaire’s poetry in the 1940’s was about thinking the natural environment from a radically different paradigm, one that interrogates capitalism, and in fact our whole Western way (centuries of it) of thinking who we are/who we are meant to be inside the natural world.

I think a lot of Césaire’s poems in Solar Throat Slashed come from a frustration with environmental ‘extractionism’, which he saw as a manifestation of the imperialist mindset.

A lot of Césaire’s poetry after the War (the second World War) involved arguing for a different sensibility to the planet, one that didn’t involve mastery and domination, but care, yearning, desire and closeness. It was thought to be a way of retrieving a way of existing that had been, if not ‘stolen’ from the African captive and their descendants during slavery, then at least minimised, obscured… It was seen as going back to a pre-colonial ontology. Reconnecting with the primitive, because the primitive, as Césaire argues in various essays (‘Discourse on African Art’, ‘Poetry & Knowledge’, ‘Discourse on Négritude’) is a positive value. He dispels, or tries to dispel, the negative connotations that the term has in a post-Enlightenment, post-19th century order of knowledge, showing the necessity of the primitive for an enhanced flourishing of our humanity. Vodou as an example of ‘animism’ was an important knowledge system for Césaire, who spent formative months in Haiti in 1944 at a pivotal stage of his career. Solar Throat Slashed is animisthically charged as Césaire everywhere in it endows the non-human world with spirit and with agency. Blood runs through the bark of trees, trees keep secrets that humans desire to find out. The poet’s speaker constantly changes into trees, plants, minerals and back into the human. The idea of metamorphosis that attributes subjectivity to all the elements of nature is something inspired by the Vodou knowledge system in which human being and nature are intersubjective. Therefore in the poems, the human subject is not dominant, masterful and fixed, but fluid and moving. The poems imagine all the things that the self becomes. Nothing stands on its own; everything is able to turn into something else, as in the following verses:

when the wave unrolls its bundle of lianas of every scent and casts all of them

at the necks of cross-eyed horses

when the cove displays its salty mane gadrooned with the rarest starch of

seaweed and fish (“Indistinct”, Solar Throat Slashed).

We move effortlessly from the sea to the forest and back again. The vegetal, the animal and the mineral are internal to each other. It is what I call the thought of ‘elseness’ at work. Every piece of nature is layered and inexhaustible; every element is more than itself:

the earth like a block of ice in urine breaks up

and from the innocent drift of its echo nourishes a beryl (“Delicacy of a Mommy”, Solar Throat Slashed).

 In the verses below (from Solar Throat Slashed), we readily observe the theme of metamorphosis:

 As for me should they grab my leg

I vomit up a forest of lianas

Should they hang me by my fingernails

I piss a camel bearing a painted bunting and vanish in a row

of fig trees that quite neatly encircle the intruder and strangle him in a

beautiful tropical balancing act

The weakness of many men is that they do not know how to become either

a stone or a tree

As for me I sometimes fit sulfurous wicks between my boa fingers for the sole

pleasure of bursting into a flame of new poinsettia leaves all evening long

the reds and greens trembling in the wind

like our dawn in my throat (“Preliminary Question”, Solar Throat Slashed).

In Césaire’s first two collections of poems, The Miraculous Weapons (Les armes miraculeuses) and Solar Throat Slashed (Soleil cou coupé), this dynamic appears repeatedly. It is no coincidence that these animistically charged collections (especially Solar Throat Slashed) were written within three years of his stay in Haiti and discovery of the Vodou philosophical system. In both collections, otherness within the self is truly experienced as a feature of selfhood. Césaire makes it an essential and enabling paradigm. In the relationship of the human mind and body to nature, the model of the self is strangeness and foreignness, and this self is articulated around a principle of reflexivity of human and animal/mineral/vegetal and vice versa.

 

            so that a mouthful of bells can cool down in her throat

bells that unravel into crows into skirts into drillers of isthmuses

so that my wave may be devoured in her wave and lead us back onto the

sand as drowned ones as the flesh of guavas torn into the blueprint of a

hand into beautiful seaweed into aerial seed into a bubble into recollection

into a precatory tree (“To Africa”, Solar Throat Slashed).

 So, among other things, Césaire’s poetry is asking us how thinking of the self differently (that is, outside of the Western capitalist paradigm) might be very much linked to the kind of attention and care for the planet that has always been necessary, but that is urgent right now.

Of course, there are other poets whose work chimes with Césaire in thinking about the connections between our Western conception of selfhood and our treatment of the environment. In my next post, I’ll be speaking about poets of colour working at those intersectional spaces (where discussions of the Anthropocene meet and intersect with issues of imperialism and race).

Keywords: Césaire, ecological crisis, poetry, capitalism, imperialism, environment, nature