Jacques Roumain, Haiti, and the Familiar in Jesús Cos Causse’s Poetry
Jacques Roumain, Haiti, and the Familiar in Jesús Cos Causse’s Poetry
Parallel histories, the rhythmic orchestration of the islands, a sense of displacement, and the role of the poet all form part of Afro-Cuban poet Jesús Cos Causse’s thematic repertoire. Yet his interest in bringing to the fore the Caribbean macrocosm and in calling to other parts of the Caribbean does not preclude him from exploring the immediate world around him. On the contrary, Cos Causse’s vision of the Caribbean as a conceptual unity is informed by the ambiguity and obfuscation of the intimate. The poet’s native Santiago de Cuba allows him to both explore distant parts of the Caribbean and delve into the figurative and literal currents that flow through him. Santiago de Cuba’s history of receiving people from neighboring islands—namely, the influx of white slave owners and their slaves following Haiti’s fight for independence from France—nourishes Cos Causse’s coalescence of familial and geographic history. The collection of poetry Las islas y las luciérnagas (Islands and Fireflies; 1981) exposes Cos Causse’s indissoluble attachment to Haiti via the figure of Braulio Causse—his grandfather—and Haitian writer Jacques Roumain. While the former binds Cos Causse to a nostalgic approach to Haiti, the latter animates Cos Causse’s intellectual formation and conceptual approach in tackling the epic-like story of the Caribbean: from the violent dissemination of African peoples to multifaceted political struggles scattered throughout the archipelago.
“Leyenda familiar” (“Family Legend”) exemplifies the union of personal and regional history. The poem manifests a spectral presence. Cos Causse writes about “la infancia . . . del esclavo que se le escapa del cuerpo después del latigazo.” Historical baggage weighs heavily on the poet. The reader witnesses an unsettledness in which slavery and childhood both carry remnants of an ever elusive past. The poet’s grandfather goes away only to come back happier to have gone and brought back “luciérnagas de otra isla” (28).1 Fireflies, an image that appears throughout the collection of poetry, expand the charge of their imagery in the poem “Las islas y las luciérnagas.” The luciérnagas alternate their illumination, harnessing the synchronization and evoking the insular arrangement of the Caribbean. Cos Causse’s Caribbean islands manifest themselves as a call-and-response structure in which political movements take turn lighting up and echoing each other, giving the reader a display of historical repetition. “Alguien me llama,” Cos Causse writes, “y es cierto que mi sangre y mi isla fluyen” (29).2 The Cuban poet’s inter-Caribbean theoretical wanderings blur the shores so that the individual islands may be, if not interchangeable, then certainly the continuation of another’s narrative.
Cos Causse inserts a range of writers, artists, and historical characters from the francophone Caribbean throughout his works. In Las islas y las luciérnagas, he writes a poem inspired by Haitian Toussaint Louverture (“Leyenda y una espada para Toussaint Louverture”). In Confesiones del poeta (2006), Cos Causse avows before Saint-John Perse (“Confesiones a Saint-John Perse”), and thinks through with Aimé Césaire (“Reflexión con Aimé Césaire”). Cos Causse’s writing evokes those who have focused on and created within the ebb and flow of Caribbean limits, those who have written about its shores, who have fought for the land, for independence, and revolution. Of all the Caribbean nations Cos Causse evokes, Haiti stands unparalleled. In addition to Toussaint Louverture, Cos Causse dedicates poems to other Haitian figures throughout his works. Jacques Roumain stands conspicuous among Cos Causse’s pantheon. The third section of Las islas y las luciérnagas, titled “La tierra canta y tiene un rostro,” includes two epigraphs;3 the second one is a rendition of Roumain’s poem “Prélude” from Bois-d’ébène (1945):
¿reconoceré la rebelión en tus manos?
y que yo escuchaba en las Antillas
porque este canto negra
quien te enseñó negra este canto de inmensa pena
negra de las Islas negra de las plantaciones
esta desolada queja (54)4
The poetic voice asks itself whether it will be able to recognize revolt once it presents itself (“reconnaitrai-je la révolte de tes mains?”).5 The poem alludes to the great sorrow of the Caribbean islands and the need for action. In particular, the poetic voice mentions “ce chant.” It is through this chant that political revolt, sorrow, and historical grievances have been transmitted. More important, it is through the chant that the sorrow will be recognized and entreat those who hear it to take the necessary steps to aid in a time of trouble. In “La poesía como arma,” an article for the journal Gaceta del Caribe, Roumain voices his conviction that, as the title suggests, poetry is a weapon. Poetry is not, writes Roumain, “pura destilación idealista.” Rather, poetry is grounded on the language and concrete reality of each historical period; poetry serves as society’s “testimonio y elemento de análisis de esta sociedad.”6 As such, it is the poet’s responsibility not only to assume but also to exercise the full role of his vocation. Roumain underscores that the poet’s art should be similar to a pamphlet, that is, become a channel or a weapon of subversive might. For Roumain, writing as a vocation is lost if not used in the capacity that would allow man to exist fully. I proffer that Cos Causse’s poetics not only recognizes the need for action but also advances the cause by actualizing the general call before relaying the message.
The chant put forth by Cos Causse’s poetic voice has origins and a particular experience. In “La tierra canta y tiene un rostro,” he strives to give a global overview but also a pointedly marked history of the Caribbean experience. Cos Causse accentuates the loss of ancestral, African land and the complicity of the sea in dissolving ties all while maintaining confluence. He paints a picture of the spectrum of the deterritorialized, enslaved African—from the subdued slave to the rebellious maroon. Above all, the poem zeroes in on rising together in the name of rebellious struggle. Cos Causse’s interest in the universal reappears under the light of different dimensions and possibilities of being, prompting the reader to imagine an alternate course of history. Though all of the aforementioned elements are present in the poem, Cos Causse centers on not only revolution but also the force behind any one revolution: “Ahora quiero hablarte de la tierra que nos pertenece, nos une, nos sostiene, nos alimenta y nos anuncia que la vida existe.” He gives prominence to the binding force behind working together: the land itself. The land for Cos Causse, as for Roumain, fights back. It provides sustenance for the future yet holds the key to the past. The chant, that same chant, is repeated: “La sangre y la canción de los héroes y de los hombres de esta isla donde la tierra canta y tiene un rostro de esperanza” (67).7 It is the island itself that sings and cries.
The poem “Las islas y las luciérnagas” presents the reader with what can only be described as a revolt of the landscape. Cos Causse conveys that those responsible for the shipwreck of Caribbean colonialism, interventionism, and exploitation will pay their figurative debt (“Los culpables de este mapa de islas que naufragan pagarán sus deudas” ). The fireflies will witness and the heavens will be surprised by natural disasters that have devastated the Caribbean (“y las luciérnagas serán testigos y el cielo será sorprendido por un eclipse que tendrá la dimensión de un sismo misterioso” ). More important, the natural resources and commodities will become hostile: the cacao shell will turn into a knife, tobacco smoke into toxic gas, plantains into gunpowder, and the rum will set itself aflame (“y la cáscara de cacao será un cuchillo y el humo del tabaco un gas tóxico y el algodón tendrá espinas inesperadas y el plátano pólvora . . . y el ron saltará de la botella convertido en llamas” ). The struggle for independence and sovereignty will become a struggle fought from the very fruits of the land. I advance that Roumain’s poem “Sales nègres” (“Dirty Niggers”) provided Cos Causse with the imagery and force of a vengeful nature. Indeed, “Sales nègres” revolves around those who exploit not only Haiti but also the African diaspora throughout the Americas. Roumain’s poem confounds man and product:
nous n’acceptons plus
ça vous étonne
de dire: oui missié
en cirant vos bottes
oui mon pé
aux missionaires blancs
en récoltant pour vous
la canne à sucre
en bons nègres
en pauvres nègres
en sales nègres.8
Plantation stock and men are indexed the same way, seemingly equaling each other. As Cos Causse mirrors in his epic “Las islas y las luciérnagas,” the abuse will prove too much. Roumain writes that it will be too late to stop the “récolte de vengeance.”9 Plantations and factories are directly involved in the “vengeance harvest,” as instruments, stock, and the landscape itself will retaliate and join the vengeful ire of the Caribbean man.
The impulse to revolt and exact revenge on outstanding debts borders on the reverence for the inherited and familial. This is evidenced by the poem “Braulio Causse.” Cos Causse first presents Braulio Causse in the epigraph to Las luces y las luciérnagas:
A la memoria
de mi abuelo
cortador de caña,
cimarrón de nacimiento,
que va y a lo mejor anda
escondido todavía por ahí10
Cos Causse exemplifies the Caribbean experience by highlighting the plight of a Haitian man who himself is constituted by major markers in the Caribbean context (family, cane cutter, maroon, etc.). The poem that bears his purported grandfather’s name includes an epigraph taken from a statement made by Fidel Castro in which he addresses the arrival of Haitian immigrants who may have intended to arrive elsewhere yet ultimately ended up on Cuban shores in dozens and dozens of broken boats. Cos Causse entreats the reader to approach the poem keeping in mind displacement and drifting, this time in the context of inter-Caribbean wanderings. “Braulio Causse” is divided into two, thematically different sections. The first is framed with references to Haiti, acting as bookends to his grandfather’s at once personal and archetypal saga. The poem communicates deterritorialization and being lost at sea. Braulio Causse traveled alone and against the elements. Nature itself—and a violent nature at that (i.e., cyclones)—allowed itself to be read in order to, in turn, orient. Though the narrative of the poem focuses on the story of the eponymous figure, it recalls equally the experience of the Middle Passage. He who has been taken from his land of origin has suffered an ontological change. He has been estranged from himself. His very dreams—the most obscure part of his psyche—have been altered. Cos Causse takes the reader through a Caribbean excursion in which Braulio Causse has “various dangerous shipwrecks” that fill him in on how each island requires or inspires a new lie (“Contaba / que tuvo varios naufragios peligrosos / y que en cada isla decía una mentira” ). The first four stanzas begin with the single-word verse: “Contaba” (he used to relate or tell). This anaphora emphasizes the frequency and import of storytelling as well as echoes the ubiquitous story of slavery. Cos Causse passes through the prism of the universal and arrives to the singularity of the familial. Whereas the stanzas in the first section of the poem begin the same way, the last two change the structure, mirroring the content adjustment. The first part’s last stanza tells how one day Braulio Causse, mid-delirium, begins to relate amazing stories yet again. Not having returned to his “native Haiti,” the poet’s grandfather departs one final time. The second section of “Braulio Causse” contrasts with the juxtaposition of historical fact and mythical insinuations that extend to both widespread and individual experience. The poetic voice attempts to fill in the gaps of the departed ancestor. Braulio Causse carries the indelible marks of a maroon. The external signs include chain demarcations on the wrists (“marcas de cadenas en las manos” ). The invisible effects of slavery are much more pervasive. Cos Causse describes a character suspect of his surroundings, haunted by the violence of history. Ultimately, time catches up with Braulio Causse, who finally (or, rather, yet again) feels the weight of his life: “Era la antigua agonía de la jornada de trabajo junto / al trapiche, de sol a sol, bajo la lluvia y un latigazo / y otro y otro si se cansaba, como si hubiera sido un buey” (33).11 There is an omnipresence of fear and malaise that extends beyond individual marronage. Cos Causse discusses the details of his grandfather’s life, fully aware of the parallel stories throughout the Caribbean archipelago that can be traced back to Africa.
In the poem “El Quijote negro,” from the collection Concierto de jazz (1994), Cos Causse references Roumain’s “Prélude” in the form of an epigraph once more: “África, he guardado tu memoria, África. / Tú estás en mi como la espina está en la herida.”12 Cos Causse employs the figure of Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quijote and his escapades in order to accentuate the incomparable differences between imagined and lived adventures versus ancestral perils and uncertainties. The Cuban poet focuses on the indescribable yet omnipresent loss of those who were taken from their African homelands. He privileges the figure of the poet in his ability to recall, communicate, or invoke the experience of the Middle Passage. As such, Cos Causse associates Roumain once again to the traumatic event par excellence in the Caribbean. This association, of course, cannot exclude the significance of the loss of Africa itself. Consistent in his elaboration of Roumain’s theme of an ever harrowing and distant Africa, Cos Causse creates a poem that nods to the indissoluble, de facto tie to the ancestral land. Jacques Roumain, for Jesús Cos Causse, embodies the poet, the Haitian, the African—the familiar—within Cuba.
Erika V. Serrato is a doctoral candidate in French at Emory University. Her research focuses on intellectual and aesthetic exchanges between voices, texts, and figures from the francophone, Hispanic, and anglophone Caribbean. Her main questions concern what Edouard Glissant calls “l’Autre Amérique” (the other America), indigeneity, language, aesthetics, “l’entour,” and subjectivities.
1 “Fireflies from another island.”
2 “Somebody calls me and it’s true that my blood and my island flow.”
3 “The Earth Sings and Has a Face.” The first epigraph is an excerpt of a poem by Puerto Rican Luis Palés Matos, seconding the chant of freedom in the Caribbean: “Porque eres tú, mulata de los trópicos, / la libertad cantando en mis Antillas” (“Because it is you, mulata of the tropics / liberty singing in my Antilles”; 54).
4 “Will I recognize the revolt in your hands? / and which I used to hear in the Antilles / because this chant, negra / who taught you, negra, this song of immense sorrow / negra of the islands, negra of the plantations / this desolate cry.” My translation leaves the ambiguity of negra as both a “black woman” and a term of endearment. I also interpret canto (Roumain’s “chant”) as a chant, a song, and a cry.
5 Jacques Roumain, “Prélude,” in Bois-d’ébène (Port-au-Prince: Imprimerie Henri Deschamps, 1945), 3.
6 “Pure idealist distillation”; “testimony and element of analysis.” Jacques Roumain, “La poesía como arma,” Gaceta del Caribe 1 (1944): 15.
7 “Now I want to talk to you about the land that belongs to us, unites us, supports us, nourishes and announces to us that life exists”; “The blood and the song of this island’s heroes and men, where the land sings and has the face of hope.”
8 “We won’t take anymore / that surprises you / to say: yessuh / while polishing your boots / oui mon pé / to the white missionaries / yes, master / while harvesting your / sugar cane / coffee / cotton / peanuts / in Africa / in America / like good boys / poor negroes / dirty niggers”; Jacques Roumaine, “Sales nègres,” in Bois-d’ébène, 26–27. My translation is a variation of Jacques Roumain, When the Tom-Tom Beats: Selected Prose and Poetry, trans. Joanne Fungaroli and Ronald Sauer (Washington, DC: Azul, 1995), 84.
9 Roumain, “Sales nègres,” 33.
10 “To the memory / of my grandfather / Braulio Causse: / Haitian, / troubadour, / cane cutter, / maroon by birth, / what if he is / hidden still around here.”
11 “It was the ancient agony of a day’s work next / to the sugar mill, from sun to sun, under the rain and a whiplash / and another and another if he became tired, as if he were an ox.”
12 “Africa, I’ve kept your memory, Africa. / You are within me. As the splinter in a wound”; Jesús Cos Causse, “El Quijote negro,” in Concierto de jazz (Santiago de Cuba: Editorial Oriente, 1994), 73. Cos Causse references Roumain’s “Prélude”: “Afrique, j’ai gardé ta mémoire, Afrique / tu es en moi. / Comme l’écharde dans la blessure” (Bois-d’ébène, 21).