from Solar Throat Slashed: Notes
on 4 poems by Aimé Césaire, translated from the French by Clayton Eshleman and A. James Arnold
For these notes, I have drawn upon Gregson Davis’s Non-Vicious Circle / Twenty Poems of Aimé Césaire (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1984); René Hénane’s Glossaire des termes rares dans l’oeuvre d’Aimé Césaire (Paris: Jean-Michel Place, 2004); Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith’s Aimé Césaire: The Collected Poetry (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1983); A. James Arnold’s Modernism & Negritude: The Poetry and Poetics of Aimé Césaire (Cambridge Mass: Harvard University Press, 1981), and other materials. I have also drawn upon information provided to us by Jacqueline Couti, a Martinican who is an assistant professor of French and Francophone Studies at the University of Kentucky, Lexington. When an arcane word can be found in Webster’s Third New International Dictionary I have not commented on it here.The collection’s title appears to come from the last line of Guillaume Apollinaire’s poem “Zone,” in his 1913 collection, Alcools. Here are the last six lines of the poem:
Tu marches vers Auteuil tu veux aller chez toi à pied
Dormir parmi tes fétiches d’Océanie et de Guinée
Ils sont des Christ d’une autre forme et d’une autre croyance
Ce sont les Christ inférieurs des obscures espérances
Soleil cou coupé
In Ron Padgett’s translation:
You walk toward Auteuil you want to go home on foot
To sleep among fetishes from Oceania and Guinea which put
Christ in another form with other inspirations
They are inferior Christs of dark aspirations
Goodbye and God keep you
Sun throat cut
Addressing the book’s title which recontextualizes Apollinaire’s final line, Gregson Davis writes: “Apollinaire’s dawn sun splashing its bloodred colors across the sky shares features of Césaire’s many images of violent death and resurrection. An earlier version of Apollinaire’s lines provides a further connection with Césaire’s themes by linking the sun to violence directed against the poor and outcast: ‘The sun is there it’s a sliced throat / As perhaps one day will suffer some of the poor who I have met / The sun frightens me, it spills its blood all over Paris.’ Whether or not Césaire knew this version, his commitment to the blacks of colonial Martinque would have led him to identify Apollinaire’s assassinated sun of the modern metropolis with oppressed classes and races.”
Césaire’s “Ode à la Guinée” (“Ode to Guinea”) can also be thought of as a response to Apollinaire’s lines, rejecting the judgment of the “inferior Christs” in an ode to this mythical African paradise.
It is also perhaps pertinent to point out here that a later poem in this collection, “Cheval,” (“Horse”), with its “entangled vipers of my torments,” and its repetitional emphases on blood, brings Apollinaire’s closure to bear on the myth in which Pegasus, vehicle of poetic inspiration, is released from Medusa’s neck as Perseus slices off her serpent-bristling head. One might also detect transformational traces of the Medusa in such lines of “Horse” as: “my blood in which from time to time a woman in solar perfection shoots out all her tuberous stems and vanishes in a tornado born on the far side of the world.” Lastly, Hénane informs us (pp. 45-46) that “cou coupé” is the name of a Senegalese finch (amadina fasciata), the cutthroat finch, its white-spotted gray plumage marked by a collarette of red feathers, making it appear to have a slashed throat. According to Hénane, such finches were to be found in Paris in the early years of the twentieth century as exotic caged birds. In 2003, Hénane writes us, he showed Césaire a drawing of the cutthroat finch and the poet told him that he had not known of its existence.
Concerning our translation of the book’s title: based on all of the above information, it is clear to us that “cou” should be rendered as “throat,” as the action would appear to be that of slashing a throat and releasing a gush of blood that is related to the brightness and force of the sun. While Padgett’s rendering of the Apollinaire line (“Sun throat cut”) is not inaccurate, in our opinion it feels stiff in English and lacks the sound play of the original, the five vowels making up “Soleil cou coupé.” As there is no way to match these sounds in English, we have proposed “Solar Throat Slashed,” with two open “o” vowels and a consonant repetition of r/r in the first two words, and of s/s in the first and third words.
When Césaire edited the 1948 Soleil cou coupé to construct the 1961 Cadastre, he eliminated 31 poems and cut out material, to varying degrees, in another 29, leaving only 12 poems untouched. He then added the edited and untouched poems, along with 2 new poems made up of fragments of eliminated poems, to the 10 poems of Corps perdu (Lost Body—which had been published in 1950 in a limited edition for bibliophiles with 32 engravings by Picasso), making up the 53 poems of Cadastre. In the notes to follow,I will provide information concerning which poems were eliminated, what material was cut from the edited poems, and which poems remained unchanged. Readers can compare the translations presented in this book with my and Annette Smith’s versions from Cadastre by referring to pages 162-265 in The Collected Poetry.
Solar Throat Slashed is Aimé Césaire’s most fulgurating collection of poetry. Animistically dense, charged with eroticism and blasphemy, and imbued with African and Vodun spirituality, this book takes the French surrealist adventure to new heights and depths. A Césaire poem is a crisscrossing intersection in which metaphoric traceries create historically-aware nexuses of thought and experience, jagged solidarity, apocalyptic surgery, and solar dynamite. Facing the locks of the void, Césaire proclaims:
“What have I to discard? Everything by god everything. I am stark naked. I have discarded everything. My genealogy. My widow. My companions. I await the boiling. I await the baptism of sperm. I await the wingbeat of the great seminal albatross supposed to make a new man of me. I await the immense tap, the vertiginous slap that shall make consecrate me as a knight of a plutonian order.”
The irregular punctuation and a few other possible typesetting oddities in the text deserve a little commentary. The tendency in the poems is to eliminate punctuation but there are enough exceptions to this procedure to make us wonder if Césaire himself read and approved the collection’s final proofs. Some stanzas end with a period, while others do not. And poems ending with a period often lack periods or any other punctuation at the end of interior stanzas. Some poems have no periods in them at any point. “To the Serpent” has eight interior periods, for example, but no final one. “Permit” has no interior punctuation for its first three stanzas but a period at the end. “Forfeiture” is the only poem in the collection with more or less conventional punctuation throughout. I say “more or less” because there are run-on sentences in the piece that conventionally would have carried commas or dashes. Since we know of no meaningful rationale for standardizing punctuation (or leaving it out completely) we have followed the presentation of the original edition. Our position on this matter is backed up by Daniel Maximin and Gilles Carpentier, the editors of the 1994 Aimé Césaire: La Poésie. In that volume they reproduce the erratic punctuation for all the poems in the 1948 Soleil cou coupé.
However, in four cases we have decided that printers’ errors, beyond simple misspellings, seem to have been involved and so we have made the following changes: In “Attack on Morals,” 2nd line, we have presented “time” with a lower case “t” since it appears that way at another point in this poem. In “Several Miles from the Surface” we have lined up the oddly indented 9th line flush left with the rest of the lines. We have done the same thing with the oddly indented penultimate line in “”Ex-Voto for a Shipwreck.” And in “From A Metamorphosis,” while “tsumami” is an acceptable spelling of the word in French, we have changed it in English to “tsunami.” Three of these four decisions are supported by Maximin and Carpentier;in the case of the word “time,” in “Attack on Morals,” they have capitalized it each time that it appears. In the 1948 text, there are a dozen or so instances in which it appears that printer errors resulting in misspellings have occurred. We have indicated these at the end of the notes on individual poems.
Lastly, we also regard the hyphen in Soleil cou-coupé on the title page of the original edition as a printer’s error. Elsewhere the title always appears without the hyphen.
Swamp: The first 5 line stanza was cut except for the beginning three-quarters of the opening line.
In line 10, “the victims of” was eliminated.
The stanza break between stanzas 3 and 4 was eliminated.
Blues: No changes.
The Spanish word “aguacero” means a brief, sudden shower or downpour.
In the 1961 edition, “of the Rain” was added to the title.
Commonplace: Lines 10-15 were cut, as was line 17.
Lines 20-50 have also been cut.
arain: an archaic word in English for “spider” chosen to match the archaic French word “araigne.”
Horse: “and sentiments” was cut from line 3.
Lines 10-22 were mainly cut and slightly reworked (see pp. 208-209 in The Collected Poetry).
From line 31 “of the furrow” was cut.