Academic journal article Chicago Review

The Complete Late Poetry of Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo

Academic journal article Chicago Review

The Complete Late Poetry of Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo

Article excerpt

Jean-Joseph Rabea rivelo, The Complete Late Poetry of Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo. Translated by Leonard Fox. Lampeter, Wales: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2010. 440pp. $129.95

Jean- Joseph Rabearivelo, Africa's first Modernist poet, was born in 1901 at the cusp of Madagascar's colonization by France, and ended his own life by cyanide in 1937, a decade before its first heaves into independence. His relationship to the artistic tradition of his colonizers was nonreciprocal, and he remained an unheard interlocutor with the French avant-garde for the first decade of his career. His poetic inspirations were passé- the same year Rabearivelo published his first collection of neo-Romantic verse in French, La coupe de cendres (The bowl of ashes, 1924), Andre Breton published the Surrealist Manifesto, and the Paris art world was toasting the poet members of its Cubist circles, Pierre Reverdy and Blaise Cendrars. Rabearivelo' s Madagascar-based publisher was French, but didn't have avant-garde sensibilities; its catalogue included titles on guano harvesting and local folk dress. And there was the inevitable issue of cultural difference. When Rabearivelo broke free of his Romantic influences with the important essay "Quelques poètes, enfants d'Orphée," Henri Michaux was visiting India and Southeast Asia and writing about his experiences as "a barbarian in Asia." The exchange with global French culture was at cross currents.

Rabearivelo's early reputation was never in doubt in his own country, however. As the editor of Malagasy poetry anthologies and renowned local literary journals 18 Latitude Sud and Capricorne, Rabearivelo was the de facto Madagascar laureate. He was an advocate as well as a poet: he spoke for himself and on behalf of an entire Malagasay tradition to his French counterparts. He translated his own writing in Malagasay and that of others into French, an important attempt to establish legitimacy in the language of his poetic influences and political colonizers. Such attempts were not uncommon, and always fraught with political implications. Frantz Fanon writes of the same problem faced by Caribbean natives in Black Skin, White MasL· (1952): "The Negro of the Antilles will be proportionately whiter. . .in direct ratio to his mastery of the French language. " Rabearivelo's poetry and criticism in French bears the imprint of this identity conflict, even on the level of its formal innovations. His final book, Vieilles chansons des pays d'Imerina (Old Songs from Interina Lands, 1939), adapts the traditional Malagasy verse form hainteny, an oral form that he had written about in critical articles and anthologies, into short lyric poems in French. Prosodically, the hainteny is organized into sets of distiche defined by metrical lengths of three or four accents and assonant clusters. Thematically it is a gnomic wisdom poetry that often takes the tone of a proverb. (See Leonard Fox's history of the form in Hainteny: The Traditional Poetry of Madagascar [Bucknell University Press, 1990].) Rabearivelo's adaptations stretch its structure by French prosody (where syllable count rather than accent matters), and also by his invocation of the traditional French chanson:

- Là à l'ouest, il ya a un arbre qui a de petites et jolies feuilles.

- Ce n'est pas l'arbre qui a de petites et jolies feuilles, mais c'est nous,

ici, qui avons un joli petit amour.

- There, to the west, is a tree that has little pretty leaves.

- It is not the tree that has little pretty leaves, but it is we, here, who

have a pretty little love.

This poem lacks the rhyme we associate with the mélodie lyrics of Gautier and du Masset, but it mirrors the rhetorical structure, with the turn at the end of the stanza built on a simple hendiadys figure to offer generalization from nuances of observation. The first line has "petites et jolies feuilles" (literally, "little and pretty leaves"), with adjectives split to emphasize, not a description of the size or shape of the leaves, but rather their exquisiteness. …

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