literary culture

Édouard Glissant’s sovereign frenzy

There is a great risk in the translation of decolonial poetics: namely, of reducing this forging of novelty to a mere relationship of influence, or, at best, a subversion of the Occident. As the complexity of the global is poetically remade in the poets of the Global South, it is necessary they be disseminated in the very languages and spaces of the North that they would remake. In our texts and classrooms, we must allow ourselves to be remade, which means resisting the encroachment of the totalising Occident as it creeps back through translation to harvest what should be otherwise, novel, a sovereign forging that exceeds the monolithic poetics of mimesis.

Melissa Manolas, the translator of Édouard Glissant’s Collected Poems—and, in a similar moment of productive misrecognition, Betsy Wing, the translator of a number of the poet’s works including The Poetics of Relation—each emphasise the legacy and influence of Arthur Rimbaud on Glissant. This is not only because of the provocation ‘je suis nègre’ (I am Negro) that the latter makes in: Un saison en enfer. There is both a trace of Arthur Rimbaud’s provocations in Glissant and also one which the latter ‘forces’ into ‘relativity.’ Manolas dedicates a section of her introduction to the influence of Rimbaud (as well as to Mallarmé and to Caribbean poets). While I am indebted to many of the translations provided by these scholars, I want to hone in on the logic of Glissant’s idea of ‘forcing’ the Occident ‘into relativity’ through a certain play of difference that is obscured in a particular translation choice made by Wing.

In her translation of Poétique de la Relation, Wing renders a phrase of Glissant’s as strikingly consonant with the influential phrase taken to be central to Rimbaud’s poetics, where poetry becomes, typically in English, ‘the derangement of all the senses.’ This phrase, which translates the French ‘dérèglement de tous les sens,’ was coined in early 1871 in two letters—one to Rimbaud’s despised former teacher Georges Izambard on 13 May and the other several days later to his friend, Paul Demeny. In Poétique de la Relation, when Glissant speaks of the importance for Caribbean writers of the avoidance of a reception as ‘exotic appendices to the body of French, English, or Spanish literature,’ he turns to elaborate what his poetics of relation would introduce to stave off this supplementary logic of reception. He insists that the literatures of the Caribbean need to assert ‘with the force of a tradition that they enter suddenly, with the force of a tradition that they have forged themselves in the relation of cultures.’[1] The ‘motor of this obscure design’ will be, Glissant says, the ‘forcènement de la mémoire’ which ‘decides with the imaginary, our soul manner of taming time.’[2]

I leave the phrase ‘forcènement de la mémoire’ untranslated, because its active sense of an enfrenzied search after memory—the motor force of the poetics of relation and its forging of novelty in the relation of cultures—is, I admit, difficult to translate.

Absent altogether in most dictionaries, forcènement appears in the Oxford French dictionary under forcèner, its infinitive, meaning ‘furious’ in the sense we use about rhythm and ‘frenzied’ in the sense we mean about activity. This implies an active, even hyperactive, rhythmic excess of memory. Let us restore it to the context of the whole passage. Speaking of ‘historical marronage,’ Glissant states:

Mais à vrai dire, leur souci, le moteur et l’obscur dessein, c’est le forcènement de la mémoire, laquelle decide, avec l’imaginaire, de notre seule manière d’apprivoiser le temps.

But the truth is that their concern, its driving force and hidden design, is the enfrenziedness (forcènement) of memory, which determines, along with imagination, our only way to tame time.[3]

This is a highly forceful privileging of this trope of forcènement de la mémoire—as Glissant renders it the motor force for the very taming of time.

However, Wing’s clear evocation of Rimbaud in her translation (‘the derangement of memory’) warrants alteration. Forcènement is not the same as dérèglement, but also and further, the very topos of the passage in which Glissant speaks of his forcènement de la mémoire is recoded by an attempt to relate its logic to the influence of an Occidental poet. At precisely the moment when Glissant majestically invokes the mode of frenzied and active memory as relation, Glissant’s text enables a novel forging of new poetic ideas at the interstices between cultures. In doing so, he puts forwars his text as one that would not reduce to a mere ‘appendix’ of Rimbaud’s own making.

As Glissant reminds us:

contesting the Occident, the rest of the world takes the active relay and constitutes the powerful factor in one of the elements, not a predominant one, of a possible planetary civilization. In this way he accepts and integrates it. He forces it into relativity.

This, I have argued, is subtle different than either mere addendum to tradition, or indeed, to its subversion. What he has actively remembered, related, and remade, must be remembered, related, and remade anew, lest, in its translation it be reduced from a poetics of relation to a harvest of old times. If, then, in this key moment in Poetics of Relation, Glissant insists on memory, what are we to take away from this? In this paper, I use this moment of mistranslation in order to investigate the poetics and politics of memory in Glissant’s theoretical work. I will then turn to suggest that the role of memory involves a certain return to an imagination of Africa in Glissant’s poetry.

Yet memory has a particular doubleness for Glissant. […] Glissant’s Glory (Gloire)—the opening poem in his Seasons (Saisons) cycle presses upon the way thinking through. The full three lines that close the poem read:

        Et que ce leurre ne vous
        porte à la moisson d’un
        gui d’antan.

        And may this lure not carry
        You to the harvest of
old times.[4]

The reference to a harvest (moisson) of old times leads to a number of topoi in Glissant’s poetry, wherein an alternate sovereignty—turning back to confront Aime Cesaire’s pragmatic decision to accept the departmentalisation of Martinique a generation earlier—is inscribed, doubled, and left open. One such topos is developed in Glissant’s second collection of poems Black Salt (Sel Noire), in which ‘harvest’ (moisson, the same French word used in Gloire) is linked also to ‘plunder’ (butin).

For this plunder (butin) which you gleaned on the field of history
When they harvested their glory without glory oho

Oh you are Voice and their magnificence (superbe) will dry up.[5]

This interchangeability and indeed reversal of harvest leads from a possible recourse to Occidentalism practiced by the Caribbean poet to the very act of entrapment that produced the legacy of the middle passage. In what, then, would the ‘glory without glory’ of which Glissant writes consist? If this redoubled negation of glory can be read as an alternate sovereignty—regal, feminised, and produced through Glissant’s imagined African queen ‘Oho’—what might a poetics of relation do to poetic novelty, writ large in its political form as sovereignty? Glissant’s African femininity figures an alternative to Martinique’s reduction to a French state (department)

Through relation, Glissant argues, Caribbean writing is recognised as much more than a series of ‘exotic appendices to the body of French, English, or Spanish literature,’ each appearing as sovereign vestiges of a monolithic European tradition.[6] Glissant’s project substitutes for this poetics and politics of monolithic tradition a certain poetics of relation whose privileged exemplum, maroonage acts ‘with the force of a tradition [the maroons] forged themselves, in the relation of cultures.’[7] Glissant advocates, for this subject, advocating for ‘the forcènement of memory, which decides, with the imagination, our only manner of taming time.’[8] This active memory, whose intervention in the traces of varying traditions, reforges a certain novelty implying, I submit, a total reformulation of the poetics and a politics of postcolonial making in relation to either the privileging of Europe in world culture.

As Silas Kimedjio has argued, Glissant maintained an attempt to imagine a South-South relation between Martinique and Africa from Africa as figuration of decolonisation (rather than departmentalisation). For Glissant, the universal was opposed to the relation he embraced, which remained fundamentally contingent and situational. As Kimedjio puts it,

Glissant pursues a perspective of demystification and demythification of the emblematic loci of Afrocentric memory, the revelation of the slave routes that have been masked by the flamboyance of tourist sites allows us to see [Africa] in a different light.

As Kemedjo reports, Glissant has suggested he was inspired by ‘African names that henceforth give sound to their genealogy in the song of the world.’ As he remarks in Caribbean Discourse, ‘[t]oday the French Caribbean individual does not deny the African part of himself;  he does not have, in reaction, to go to the extreme of celebrating it exclusively. He must recognize it.’ But, at least in anglophone circles, Glissant’s memorialisation of Africa is less recognised in his poetry. Indeed, Glissant’s poetry is understudied more generally, even as a certain representation of the grandeur of Africa is also rendered throughout Glissant’s poetry.

An alternative vision of sovereignty figured as African femininity opens the early poem Glory with which I began this essay, before the warning that one must avoid the ‘lure’ of the ‘harvest of old times.’ This alternative sovereignty is given in the form of female rulers arising from an undisclosed nation—‘Queens of the new azure’—are compared to great mares, shaking off a bridle imposed on them. As this equine vision of another potential sovereignty shakes off its Occidental bit, Glissant reveals this fight to avoid taming as an operation on language and poetic influence: the poem’s narrator declares:

I saw you made glorious and sad the old

Both the figure of the African queen and the idea of her glory, resistant to an old, perhaps Western desire for control—of words, of feminised black political self-assertion—recur throughout Glissant’s subsequent poetic oeuvre.

The 1955 epic Les Héros—a section of Glissant’s new world poem Les Indes—progresses through the ironic undercutting of would-be colonising heroes (conquistadors and the like) to ultimately herald the coming of a feminine figure of language and sovereignty. As the accomplishments of Toussaint L’Ouverture and the violence of Dessalines are parsed, a prose segment announces the coming arrival of ‘the unalterable mother, infusing speech—a Woman who was seen rising up in the dawn.’[10] This figure becomes a spectral promise of the Indies themselves. Still associated with the motif of azure—the synechdoche of Gloire’s earlier queens—this figure proffers not concrete revolutionary action through the intoxicating force that the poet obliquely seeks in order to tell history; he follows her and ‘become[s] drunk’ until she departs, entering a forest—a space of nature from which feminine sovereignty can remain the force to come of a future cultural wholeness, if not with the agency of a living black woman. If Glissant’s exaltation of black sovereignty as feminine promises the ultimate poetic and political force that the poems seek, it does so nonetheless through a certain occultation of feminine power as active agency. Yet this figuration perhaps also remarks on a certain competition over a familiar figuration of land as feminine. This is as problematised in the (nonetheless revered)  figures of the Haitian revolution as it is in those earlier colonizing ‘heroes’, the conquistadors: ‘there is,’ Glissant reminds his reader, ‘more than one people who would drink of the azure / within her!’[11]

Numerous such allusions are made across Glissant’s oeuvre to an alternate sovereignty, a sovereignty to come—a sovereignty otherwise than simply male and western, invented through the play of poetry. Yet this figuration will be dramatised no more starkly than in the closing stanzas of the allegory of Carthage that forms a central section in 1960’s Sel Noire (Black Salt). I quote this long excerpt of Carthage’s section XI in its entirety:

        As if to a vanishing woman, one cries of salt, Scipio
        Cries wan toward your soul, while he jeers. Will you let
        This sad thing contemplate the deserts born of you, saying:
        How peaceful my repose on this bed of terrors;
        Then he tastes the salt, thinking of the games he will give.

        Will you always leave the intoxicated enormity of your cry,
        To die at the feet of a man drunk on another’s blood?
And you
        Will you give your body, this fire of your entrails
        Always, and the way of your barrenness, to
        One who in this weary game finds glory and desire?
        The sea conceals itself, flees. And its foam stays with me. [12]

Now we can trace glory’s emergence point and its problem. In the allegorisation of an ur-figure of the European colonization of Africa—the Roman general Scipio Africanus—one locates a desire for sovereignty (glory) signified through the domination of an African woman. One could also remark the clear resonance to Virgil’s own Carthaginian queen Dido—whose agency was similarly subjected to suicide in desire of an errant Mediterranean conqueror, reduced to a trope in the apparently predestined glory of Aeneas: founding an Empire. Glissant effaces Aeneas and productively so. But beyond this, one might also locate the openness Glissant gives to the glory of the feminine itself. The stanza is not a declarative, but a question: wondering at the openness of black sovereignty to its own agency and possession: of desire, of glory, of salt as metonym of (too often plundered) resources. In that text, the sea is given the final word, calling forth an open future in the relation between Africa and the new world. As the next and final stanza of Sel Noire closes, it also offers up, if not a triumph, to this feminised black sovereignty to come, at least an openness to its future emancipation:           

        The sea labors beneath the prow. A cry arisen. The
Woman Halée
        Dragged against the wind swears and bites and laughs at last.[13]

It is necessary to relate this figuration in Glissant’s poetry of the aforementioned incipient sovereignty—at once intensely political and given primarily in the poetic (as it arises in relation)—to the logic of poetic novelty given in Glissant’s own writings on poetics. One site to examine this figuration is in Glissant’s invocation of ‘glory without glory’ linked to ‘Oho’—at once a onomatopoeic cry of defiance and, the imagined proper name of feminine sovereignty. ‘Oho O woman’ as Sel Noire’s meditation on ‘Africa’ opens, is, at once, poetic resistance to the ‘plunder’ of conquering Occidental ‘knights,’ to the effect that: ‘Oh you are Voice, and their arrogance will dry up.’[14]

From the risk of translation within decolonial poetics, Glissant’s frenzy has carried us to sovereignty—that which departmentalisation foreclosed for his small island. As the complexity of the global is poetically remade in the poets of the Global South, it is necessary they be disseminated in the very languages and spaces of the North that they would remake. As the totalising Occident creeps back through translation to harvest what should be otherwise, novel, a sovereign forging that exceeds the monolithic poetics of mimesis will emerge.




[1] Glissant, Poetics of Relation. Hereafter to be cited as PR. Trans. Betsy Wing. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1997. Any alterations I make to the Wing translation, as I did in this case, refer to Poétique de la relation. Paris: Gallimard, 1990.

[2] Glissant, PR. Translation Altered.

[3] Glissant, PR. Translation Altered.

[4] Édouard Glissant, The Collected Poems of Édouard Glissant. Trans. Jeff Humphries and Melissa Manolas. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2005, 121. Hereafter to be cited as: CP. Many of my citations have been altered slightly from this the text of this English edition, in consultation with the French original: Glissant, Poèmes Complets. Paris: Gallimard, 1994.

[5] Glissant, CP.

[6] Glissant, PR.

[7] Glissant, PR. Translation modified.

[8] Glissant, PR.

[9] Glissant, CP.

[10] Glissant, CP.

[11] Glissant, CP.

[12] Glissant, CP. Translation modified.

[13] Glissant, CP. Translation modified.

[14] Glissant, CP.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Michael R Griffiths lives in Marrickville. He teaches decolonial literature at the University of Wollongong. In 2018, his first monograph The Distribution of Settlement was released by UWAP.

More by

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.