Sunday, July 10, 2011

Book 69, Madagascar: “24 Poems” by Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo

Unfortunately I can’t get my paws on the recent English translation of this guy’s poems, Translated from the Night. This bunch forms just a thin volume – more of an illustrated pamphlet, really – and was published by les Amis de Rabearivelo in Ibadan, 1962. (It’s only in the National Library’s reference section because of good ol’ Edwin Thumboo’s donation. That’s a good laureate!)

Rabearivelo’s historically important because he’s widely viewed as Africa’s first modern poet. This is why folks doing a reading project like this should pick his work instead of trashy, viciously reviewed novels like The Sapphire Sea.

But he’s also aesthetically important because he’s really a rather good poet. True, I’m reading the stuff in English rather than in French/Malagasy, but there’s a dreamlike grace and vibrancy to his images that you don’t see everywhere – complete beauty and ambivalence of feeling, yet clear strength.

Oh, and he’s clearly a nature poet. Barely a breath of the city in these pieces: some Christian/Muslim village life, a black glassmaker, an artist who plucks bamboo to shape it into zithers in town.

This is nature in a very European sense, though: not jungle but a sedate, stellar, almost astronomical view of lianas and birds and pomegranate bushes, kissed with passionate dispassion by the sun. (Astronomical is quite right; there’s a lot of talk of stars and moonbeams and the movement of the Earth: he calls the Southern Star the white bull, as the Arabs do.)

Some cool modernist paintings in this edition too, by M.E. Betts: they look like what Picasso might make with Chinese ink, only they’re black and white and from Africa, so maybe they’re something quite other.

Sorry, not much else to say. Teeny-tiny book!

View Around the World in 80 Books!!! in a larger map

Representative quote:


There you stand
erect and naked
you are a lime tree and remember;
but truly you are the child of this fertile shadow
that feeds on lunar milk;
slowly you take the shape of a pillar
on this low wall over which dreams of flowers drift
and the perfume of a relaxed summer.

To feel to believe that roots sprout at your feet
and move and twist themselves like thirsty snakes
towards some underground source
or that clench the sand
and make you part of it, you, living one,
unknown tree, unnamed tree
that develops fruit
which you must pluck yourself.

Your crown,
in your hair dishevelled by the wind,
conceals a nest of transcendant birds,
and when you will come to sleep in my bed,
and I will recognise you, my errant brother,
your touch, your breath, and the odour of your skin
will provoke the rustling of mysterious winds
even to the frontiers of sleep.

Next book: Michael Steane’s The Last Colony: An Experience of Reunion Island from Réunion.

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