An Introduction to Caribbean Francophone Writing: Guadeloupe and Martinique

By Sam Haigh | Go to book overview

1
Seminal Praise: The Poetry of
Saint-John Perse
Mary Gallagher

The connection between the Caribbean and Saint-John Perse (the literary pseudonym of the Guadeloupean-born poet-diplomat, Alexis Leger 1887 1975) is highly complex. The situation would be entirely different if the poet's oeuvre had been limited to his first collection of poems, entitled Eloges. Published for the first time in volume form in 1911, these texts unambiguously celebrate the natural and cultural environment of the Caribbean. Written from a position of distance and loss, they also exalt memory, nostalgia and childhood more specifically, a colonial childhood that was privileged not just socially, but also sensually and imaginatively.

However, whereas Eloges is perhaps the highlight, it is neither the sum nor the essence of Saint-John Perse's oeuvre. Subsequently, his writing moved through three distinct phases: a transitional stage, coinciding with the poet/diplomat's sojourn in and return from China (Anabase, 1924, and La Gloire des rois, 1925); the poetry of exile, coinciding with a prolonged period (194057) of expatriation in the USA (Exil, 1944; Vents, 1946; Amers, 1956); and finally the works of old age, including Chronique (1959) and Oiseaux (1962), as well as the last poems, like Nocturne (1972) and Sécheresse (1974). Although its metaphysical and universalist orientation becomes ever more pronounced, the poetry of these three stages is, one could argue, no less marked by the poet's colonial origins than is Eloges; however, its principal inspiration is less Caribbean space than Caribbean history and, in particular, the history of white colonial migration to the ‘New World’. Indeed, in so far as it is marked throughout by an atavistic belief in the creative potential of the renewal born of ruptures such as those of exile or migration, all of Saint-John Perse's writing could be seen to spring from a problematic closely related to that of Creole identity. The (white) Creole condition emerged, after all, from the initiative of colonial emigration, even if vexed questions of race and of mixture lurk uneasily behind this problematic of displacement. All too often, the

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