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.

Anthologie Personelle

Anthologie personelle
BY René Depestre
(Actes Sud, 1993)

Hadriana dans tous mes rêves
BY René Depestre
(Gallimard, 1988)

The writing of his later life resurrects the Haiti he knew as a child — a dreamy Haiti, where there was beauty in every thing, place, and person. A place where Vaudou and Christianity cohabited harmoniously, suggesting that perhaps, had certain people and events not intervened, even Haiti’s poorest could have eventually prospered. It’s an early 20th century Haiti, to be exact, but a Haiti that we should get to know, in order to better understand the country today. His sensual, delicious novel, Hadriana dans tous mes rêves, is the epitome of this period in his writing, presenting us the sights, sounds, scents and tastes that made up Haiti from the thirties. The novel garnered several awards, reawakening a worldwide interest in his work, as well as inspiring deeper study of the diaspora of African and European rituals, religion and culture that found their way to the island.

The writing of his later life resurrects the Haiti he knew as a child — a dreamy Haiti, where there was beauty in every thing, place, and person.

René Depestre is considered as one of Haiti’s most important writers to date. Widely read and translated into several languages, he has been awarded several literary awards. And yet, we English-language readers have completely missed out. Very little of his work has been translated into English, and those texts quietly came and went. Perhaps it has to do with his Communist past, or perhaps because of his disavowal of the Negritude movement…

The poems featured here were especially selected by Depestre, as part of his personal anthology, literally named, Anthologie personelle. They appear in the first part of the book, which he alludes to as “Overdue Poems About the Caribbean Sea.”

Now eighty-two, Depestre has lived his later years in the south of France in relative peace. He continues to write, and most recently was featured in a successful and much-lauded biographic documentary, “Haiti in All My Dreams,” directed by Jean-Daniel Lafond.

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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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