Figueroa on Kadish and Jenson, eds. (2015)
Kadish, Doris Y., and Deborah Jenson, eds. Poetry of Haitian Independence. Trans. Norman R. Shapiro. Foreword by Edwidge Danticat. New Haven: Yale UP, 2015. Pp. 360. ISBN: 978-0-300-19559-0
Víctor Figueroa, Wayne State University
Since the commemoration of the bicentenary of the Haitian Revolution in 2004, numerous books have been published highlighting the political and cultural impact of this foundational event in the Caribbean region and beyond. Poetry of the Haitian Independence makes a significant and unique contribution to this renewed interest in Haitian history by offering a generous sample of Haitian verse written between 1804 and 1850. These poems celebrate the figures, struggles, and achievements that led to the establishment of the only modern nation born of a successful slave revolt.
The collection is bilingual, with the original French and the English translation facing each other, which makes it a valuable tool for students of both Caribbean history and Haitian literature. The poems are framed by an introduction that places the works and their authors in their historical and literary contexts, and by a foreword by Haitian-American author Edwidge Danticat, which reminds us to what degree many of the issues addressed by these poets remain alive and important for us today. The numerous footnotes are excellent, as they point the reader to further contextual information, and to nuances and shades of meaning.
Although some of the authors, such as Juste Chanlatte and Coriolan Ardouin, were important figures in Haiti’s intellectual life during the first half of the nineteenth century, they are likely to be unknown even to scholars of Caribbean literature who do not specialize in Haiti. Some other authors in the collection remain anonymous to this day. Thus, one can appreciate the plethora of creativity that surrounded the birth of independent Haiti. The poems not only celebrate freedom and the epic struggles that achieved it (indeed, one of the selections is the first canto of an anonymous epic poem, L’Haïtiade, written in 1827–28); they also critically address issues of colonial domination and racial discrimination, deploying a deeply humanist rhetoric that often foreshadows the writings of figures like C. L. R. James or Aimé Césaire in the following century.
The poems display multiple forms, and not surprisingly, most of them reflect both the influence of French neoclassicism and the impact of Romantic poets such as Alphonse de Lamartine and Victor Hugo. However, since many of them were created for public performances during official events, one can also observe a fascinating mixture of written and oral influences; in fact, some of them were written to fit the melodies of famous popular songs. Occasionally, one may also identify allusions to elements from Vodou ceremonies. Moreover, at least one of the poets, Hérard-Dusmele, indicates in a footnote to an 1824 text that a section of his French poem constitutes a translation from the Creole. Hérard-Dusmele provides the original Creole in his footnote, thus offering an early example of the importance of Creole languages and the persistence of oral traditions in Caribbean literatures, elements which remain vital in the region to this day.
For the reader familiar with Haitian history of that period, some themes clearly stand out: for example, the persistent fear of French retaliations after independence, and the anxious desire for official recognition from France and other Western powers. More tragically, it is notable how many poems, while nominally celebrating freedom or the Haitian people and landscape, in fact take the form of panegyrics in honor of a supreme leader—whether Dessalines, Christophe, Pétion, or Boyer. These strong men were undoubtedly heroes of the independence wars, but they also became Haiti’s first autocratic leaders. The links between literature and state power are clearly apparent in this collection, with many poets taking the role of official eulogists of political rulers.
Shapiro’s English versions are fluid and musical. One has the impression of reading nineteenth-century Romantic poetry, without the poems feeling stilted or forced—no small feat. Unavoidably, in the process of creating rhymed poetry in English, nuances and connotations in the original are lost. Some of these may seem significant to readers interested in the specific context in which the poems were written. There is no absolutely right answer to these translation questions, particularly when dealing with texts important for literary and historical reasons. For the most part, these translations remain remarkably faithful to the spirit, if not always the letter, of the original texts.
In sum, Poetry of Haitian Independence is an extremely valuable collection for readers interested in French and Francophone poetry, Haitian and Caribbean history, and colonial and postcolonial studies. One hopes that it will open the door to other similar projects in the future.