Saturday, March 12, 2011

Book 52, French Guiana: "Pigments - Névralgies" by Léon-Gontran Damas

Confession time: I didn't understand most of this book. I took French a long time ago, and while I can still read fiction, the surreal poetry of the Négritude movement is a little beyond me.

However, I had the hubris to go out and order a copy of this book via the French department of Kinokuniya bookstore, based on the premise that it's probably good for my brain to read other languages a little more often. Cost me $22.50 in SGD - not bad for an esoteric classic, hein?

And Pigments is actually okay - I used it as casual toilet reading, since the poems are short and a lot of it's about being a black and angry colonial intellectual in 1930s Paris. Loads of stuff about Antillean rhythms and "masques africaines" alongside mentions of Gauloises and the Le Monument aux Morts; civilisation and its discontents. Even some urgent pleas about what Herr Hitler's doing to les juifs en Allemagne, because he can tell that kind of politics don't look good.

Névraglies (trans. = neuralgias) is another story - longer poems, quite a few of them love/sex pieces, but far less political (even though it was published in 1966, a plenty political time as well), so it's harder to figure out the context of these pieces, or really what's going on, given my limited vocabulary. Less of that vivid, obvious imagery I liked so much in the previous section:

But oh, it's good to read. The delicious legato of the French language combined with Damas's magic rhythms: ostinatos of brevity and repetition, odd flourishes of concrete poetry as lines don't cross the page but tumble down it - and then those vivid, visceral images that I don't know how to process: flesh, blood, curtains - although flipping through the book again, there's an awful lot of pieces overloaded with abstract nouns instead. No wonder I'm so confused.

View Around the World in 80 Books in a larger map

And sleepy! Was attending the Singapore Biennale opening today, as well as the opening of Michael Corbidge's show Jus, plus teaching at NTU, then came home to behold the tsunami footage in Japan and helped my mother to rework her Blackberry message to the Tokyo branch of her company in perfect English - nothing compared to what some of you do for a living, but it tires me out.
I think I'll accept my French poetry in translation from now on.

Representative quote:


Ils me l'ont rendue
la vie
plus lourde et lasse

Mes aujourd'hui ont chacun sur mon jadis
de gros yeux qui roulent de rancœur
de honte

Les jours inexorablement
jamais n'ont cessé d'être
à la mémoire
de ce que fut
ma vie tronquée

Va encore
mon hébétude
du temps jadis
de coups de corde noueux
de corps calcinés
de chair morte
de tisons
de fer rouge
de bras brisés
sous le fouet qui se déchaîne
sous le fouet qui fait marcher la plantation
et s'abreuver de sang de mon sang de sang la sucrerie
et la bouffarde d commandeur crâner au ciel.

Next book: Augusto Boal's Theater of the Oppressed, from Brazil.

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