Poetry Review: “Island Heart” — The Dance of Passion
By Jim Kates
These poems are of their own time and place — written in Haiti and France early in the twentieth century — yet they remain impressively fresh.
Every once in a while, we want to be reminded that poetry can be more than propaganda, autobiographical meandering, greeting-card uplift, or clever exercises in word-play. That it can be a craft employed — in the words of the marvelously prosaic Walter Cronkite — to alter and illuminate our lives. Poetry like this is often, paradoxically, out of step with the fashions of our times, as the poems of Ida Faubert, who lived from 1882 to 1969, most decidedly are. The second Poet Laureate of Boston, Danielle Legros Georges, has brought us this news that stays news in a translation of most of the poems in Faubert’s 1939 book, Cœur des îles, which here has been rendered into English as Island Heart. Whatever the original title’s ambiguities, in this book the island is Haiti, the heart is French.
We want the work of our writers nowadays to be imbued with their Identity. Faubert was born in Haiti and died in France. Her biculturalism may underlie her work, but it does not float on the surface. Too often, we think of Haiti only as a caricatured, an impoverished victim, the land internationally punished for more than two centuries for the effrontery og having achieved its own non-white Revolution. But that is a dangerous reduction of a far more complex reality. I know how pleasantly surprised I was just a few months ago to view an exhibit of Haitian Surrealist art, an invaluable reminder of how culturally woven the island’s culture is into the fabric of that mission civilisatrice the Metropolitan French once prided themselves on.
Faubert takes her place in that milieu. That these poems are also of their own time and place — written in Haiti and France early in the twentieth century — does not constrain them. They remain impressively fresh. Faubert is not represented in the late Norman Shapiro’s otherwise encyclopedic French Women Poets of Nine Centuries, even though he himself was one of the heralds of francophone Caribbean poetry in English translation. It can not be that she was not French enough for him, but perhaps too anti-Baudelairean, unrepresentative of the century she lived through.
In her introduction to Island Heart, Danielle Legros Georges ties Faubert’s poems back to earlier nineteenth-century French Romantic poetry, but she does not note that they derive even more deeply from a tradition that reaches back to the High Renaissance ardor of Louise Labé and, indeed, to the classical ancestry of Catullus and Sappho.
This is passion and form, with irony subordinated to the passion, and the passion expressed in the dance.
“Mindful of Faubert’s artistic sensibilities (at times even frustrated by them),” Legros Georges writes in her translator’s note, “I attempted to render her poems in as natural a free-verse and 21st-century U. S. English as possible.” She has made wise choices. In the quatrain above, she has replaced the density of the poet’s sounds “voir luire le jour” with repetitions and cadences of her own — “the day break,” “me trembling . . . must . . .” — that convey the urgency as well as the formality of the original. These may sound obvious or trivial to the casual reader, but they are the labor of a careful ear and pen.
“Here’s the room with closed doors,” Faubert writes (in a line Legros Georges used to introduce her own work in her 2016 book The Dear Remote Nearness of You)
De petits riens, de graves choses, there are all too many kinds of love for Faubert to speak of, passionate and devastating:
It’s in lines like these that I hear Catullus, the nakedness of sorrow set in in the framework of the open doorway.
This revelatory bilingual edition of Island Heart gives us the chance to listen to Faubert and Legros Georges speaking in turns. “Finally,” the translator concludes in her note, “I translated the 34 poems I felt were most striking or representative of her œuvre.” We can hope that that “finally” is not final.
J. Kates is a poet, feature journalist and reviewer, literary translator, and the president and co-director of Zephyr Press, a nonprofit press that focuses on contemporary works in translation from Russia, Eastern Europe, and Asia. His latest book is Paper-thin Skin (Zephyr Press), a translation of the Kazakhstani poet Aigerim Tazhi.