Es un árbol diferente / Michaelle Ascencio

Is a Different Tree

I speak of a high condition. There is a high condition of poetry in the Caribbean that breathes in its history and geography, and expresses itself in the diverse tongues that live together in the region. The Caribbean, which takes its name from the Carib Indians, according to Walcott carries the mark of extermination in a land where we’re all foreign. The indigenous Caribs and Arawaks, to cite the largest groups, didn’t survive colonization and are today, on the islands, tutelary ghosts that appear furtively in myths, stories and poetry. Europeans and Africans and later on Asians (Indian, Lebanese and Chinese) populated the archipelago, but perhaps it was European colonization, under the 18th century slave system, up through the 19th century, which especially configure the islands, since none of them escaped having a plantation violently torn from its ground. The work of African slaves equalizes these islands, where a majority of the black and mulatto population speaks a Creole language.

The colonial legacy, primordially expressed in racism and exclusion, in the desperate presence of poverty and resignation, and in the continuous threat of American occupation, has filled the region with uncertainty and conflicts. French Antilles, English Antilles, Dutch Antilles are today named based more on the official languages spoken in their territories than on the domination whose ashes still float through the air.

The Creoles, native to the region, languages born during slavery so the slaves (coming from diverse regions of Africa with different languages and cultures) could understand the orders of masters and colonizers (who also came from different regions of France, England and Holland, and who likewise spoke different languages), in time became the language of all those who were born and lived on the islands. Diversity of languages, diversity of cultures, diversity of beliefs and lifestyles, the recently arrived, those arrived from outside, the strangers, will feel rootless, even after numerous generations, and perhaps it is the language itself, Creole, now considered a vernacular language, the one in charge of providing that feeling of belonging and being at home so necessary for remaining in a place. Because the Creole languages of the islands are fundamentally language-images that adhere to the landscapes and customs; their plasticity is the diamond, the essential tool used by poets and writers.

Various languages then: Creole and French, Creole and English, Papiamento and Dutch which contain different world visions, live together on the Caribbean islands. If the Creoles are spoken by all the inhabitants, that is not the case with the official, European languages, restricted to a minority of the population that has overcome illiteracy, and even though the French of the islands is not the French of the France, nor the English the one of England, but rather a version Antilled by the sea and history, the dividing, exclusive and excluding line drawn between Creoles and official languages, occasions a break between being and appearances and leads to cultural schizophrenia. How much time did the poets and writers of the island spend torturing themselves facing the dilemma of choice:

This obsessed heart that doesn’t fit
My language or the clothes I wear
Chafes within the grip of
Borrowed feelings, European ways.
Do you feel my pain,
This anguish like none other
From taming with the words of France
This heart that came to me from Senegal?

says the Haitian poet León Laleau, born in 1892, and later on Walcott will say:

I who am poisoned with the blood of both,
Where shall I turn, divided to the vein?
I who have cursed
The drunken officer of British rule, how choose
Between this Africa and the English tongue I love?
Betray them both, or give back what they give?
How can I face such slaughter and be cool?
How can I turn from Africa and live?

Once the adolescent phase was overcome, with its dilemmas about definition and choice, the poets, above all, became aware of the treasure they received from ancient generations. Two or three inherited languages to create a third, the poetic language, with which they would speak their verses. And it was during the 1930s and ’40s when the Negritude movement raised the Antillean blacks that this poetic language began to be heard, which would grant the Caribbean a high condition. I speak of a high condition of the poetry expressed in the language of Saint-John Perse, born on the island of Guadeloupe, of Aimé Césaire, born on the island of Martinique, and especially of Derek Walcott, born on the island of St. Lucia, whose expression gathers all the inheritances of the Caribbean to restore them in a new language, the English language Creolized, poeticized and made his own. But if Perse was chosen to eulogize, in an exuberant French, the natural landscape of the islands and to celebrate the childhood protected by women who were like goddesses; if Césaire was chosen to, imagine a slave ship entering the islands with all the blacks on their feet, in the most unusual French that had ever been written, Walcott, the renovator of the English language, one of the greatest poets in the English language, as he is described by contemporary poets, the writer of an Antillean Mediterranean Odyssey would say, with a shinning comprehension, how the sea tells the story of the Caribbean and of an Antillean exiled from his own land, stranded on its beaches.

Derek Walcott has devoted himself to the art of looking at the islands with his own eyes, with the eyes of a man who knows his history and no longer feels obligated to choose, trapped in the dualities of thought that are brought forth by nostalgia and utopia. Walcott’s word exists here and now, honestly engaged with the present: conciliatory, it rewrites the encounter of peoples and cultures, by means of the creation of a language that has loosed the threads that tied it to bad days, to the bad times of a plantation that once produced lime trees. There is nothing to celebrate, he tells us: once it was demonstrated that the black New World is worth just as much as its master, now we must insist on its differences:

like muttering shale,
exhaling trees refresh
memory with their smell:
bois canot, bois campeche,

hissing: What you wish
from us will never be,
your words is English,
is a different tree.

Especially in regards to his work in the theater, Walcott wanted to donate a language, to forge a language so that Antilleans might speak with their own voice and not repeat the masters’ tongue like parrots, to create a language that would free them from servitude and overcome mimicry, “(…) in the anguish that every noun will be freshly, resonantly named, because a new melodic inflection meant a new mode, there was no better beginning.” The essay “What the Twilight Says,” from the book of the same name, contains Walcott’s conception of that new language all the poets were awaiting. Because it has been a while now that Antillean novelists and poets, but above all Derek Walcott, know that the official languages of the islands, French and English and the Creoles are simply disguises of History, just as the desire to be white or the yearning to be black continue to be “trades”:

Listen, one kind of writer, generally the entertainer, says, “I will write in the language of the people however gross or incomprehensible”; another says, “Nobody else go’ understand this, you hear, so le’ me write English”; while the third is dedicated to purifying the language of the tribe, and it is he who is jumped on both sides for pretentiousness or playing white. He is the mulatto of style. The traitor. The assimilator. Yes. But one did not say to his Muse, “What kind of language is this that you’ve given me?”

The poet remakes the traversal of each one of the Caribbean languages to capture, as Bakhtin would say, the strangeness of one language in relation to another. And his bilingual condition, in Walcott’s case being a polyglot, places him in the position of looking at each language with the eyes of others and capturing that strangeness, to reach the serene conviction that they are all masks and none of their aspects is real or non-negotiable, providing no guarantee of authenticity, fidelity or even universality. The work of the poet in order to “feel the island” consists of reflecting its languages with multiple mirrors and creating, at the same time, the poetic language, in order to tell us a story in which the encounters and departures of all those languages are also part of the story, just as one can see in a fragment from his poem “The Light of the World”:

An old woman with a straw hat over her headkerchief
hobbled towards us with a basket; somewhere,
some distance off, was a heavier basket
that she couldn’t carry. She was in a panic.
She said to the driver: “Pas quittez moi à terre,
which is, in her patois: “Don’t leave me stranded,”
which is, in her history and that of her people:
“Don’t leave me on earth,” or, by a shift of stress:
“Don’t leave me the earth” [for an inheritance];
Pas quittez moi à terre, Heavenly transport,
Don’t leave me on earth, I’ve had enough of it.”
The bus filled in the dark with heavy shadows
that would not be left on earth; no, that would be left
on the earth, and would have to make out.
Abandonment was something they had grown used to.

{ Michaelle Ascencio, Papel Literario, El Nacional, 5 May 2007 }

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