Four “Overdue Poems About the Caribbean Sea” by René Depestre

Translator’s Note

René Depestre
© Oswaldo Salas D.R.

He’s an activist. An idealist. A wanderer. A poet. René Depestre, born with a passion for storytelling and poetry, and stoked by the fire of youth, published his first collection of poems at nineteen. Riding on the success of his book, he created a revolutionary literary journal that quickly got him imprisoned, then expelled, from Haiti.

This begins his sometimes purposeful, sometimes meandering travels: to Paris, where he fell in love with the surrealist poets and the Negritude movement, then on to Prague, Argentina, Chile, writing and publishing all the while. In his thirties, he returned to Haiti with hopes of building a stronger country alongside old childhood friend, François Duvalier (also known as “Papa Doc”). However, on witnessing Duvalier’s megalomania, Depestre refused to align with him, and of course immediately became an enemy of the state. He fled his homeland for Cuba, enchanted by the promises of equality and solidarity from his Communist friends, poet Nicolás Guillén and Che Guevara.

His revolutionary illusions slowly and painfully gave way to a wiser, sober (and perhaps a bit jaded), middle-aged writer. Ideal in theory, in practice, Communism in Cuba and elsewhere was sad and corrupt, to say the least, and according to Depestre, had no tolerance for artists and writers. It was during these years that Depestre experienced a personal revolution, as his hopes for a communist utopia disintegrated with the rise of Stalin, as well as with what he considered as Fidel Castro’s betrayal of their credo’s original ideals. Disillusionment turned into despair, citing “poetry could no longer breathe” under this deformed communist agenda. The influence of surrealism on Depestre’s work became an antidote against Marxist dogma and its stale, utilitarian language. Meanwhile, Haiti was dissolving into chaos, and he was far away and powerless. Everything he believed in and hoped for crumbled around him, and he was not afraid to say he was wrong about many things — mostly through vivid and introspective poems. He caused controversy and burned many bridges, including those previously forged with members of the Negritude movement. Being part of the movement was initially an “intermediate step on (his) way to full consciousness… a necessary experience in order to surpass it.” Yet he criticized the movement’s narrowness: “It’s a good thing, after all, to say we are black; but we can’t box ourselves into that category, because it’s a myth that deprives us of the power to be more than just the color of our skin.”[1] He prefers to identify himself as a “banyan-man,” claiming multiple roots and identities.

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  1. See “Haïti dans tous nos rêves,” interview in French with René Depestre by Ghila Sroka, Île en île, Lehman College, Sept 24, 1997.

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