A Suite of Po­ems trans­lated by John Kin­sella

New England Review - - Table of Contents - Au­guste La­caus­sade

(1815–1897) was born on the French In­dian Ocean pos­ses­sion of Bour­bon, later named Ile de la Réu­nion, which was a slave colony un­til 1848. The poet's mother, a freed slave, and his white fa­ther, a lawyer whose fam­ily was from Bour­deaux, were un­able to marry due to the is­land's ban on mixed mar­riage. Re­fused en­try into Royal Col­lege/ Bour­bon Col­lege be­cause of his il­le­git­i­macy, La­caus­sade was sent to school in Nantes, France, from 1827 through 1834, and later stud­ied medicine in Paris, drop­ping out in 1839 to fo­cus on writ­ing po­etry. La­caus­sade pub­lished his first vol­ume of po­ems in 1839, Les Salazi­ennes, named af­ter one of the is­land's moun­tains and ded­i­cated to Vic­tor Hugo, one of the most prom­i­nent young French authors. Poèmes et Paysages fol­lowed in 1852 and Les Épaves in 1861.

La­caus­sade also pur­sued a jour­nal­is­tic ca­reer, and joined the editorial board of Democratie paci­fique in 1846, be­came po­lit­i­cal ed­i­tor (in Brit­tany) of La Con­corde in 1848, and even­tu­ally, in 1859, di­rec­tor of Re­vue européenne. Ac­cord­ing to Mercer Cook, one of the few lit­er­ary schol­ars to write about La­caus­sade in English, “This jour­nal­is­tic ac­tiv­ity was char­ac­ter­ized chiefly by no­ble hu­man­i­tar­ian mo­tives. . . . he cam­paigned ar­dently for lib­erty: lib­erty for the masses and free­dom for the slaves.” How­ever, La­caus­sade seems to have grown more re­signed to the cir­cum­stances with time, stay­ing in France un­der Napoleon III and the Se­cond Em­pire, re­ceiv­ing ac­co­lades from the French Academy (though he was never made a mem­ber), and even­tu­ally set­tling into a sinecure work­ing for the Se­nate li­brary from 1872 un­til his death in 1897. Later in life La­caus­sade grew bit­ter that the big­otries of the time pre­vented his work from get­ting the recog­ni­tion it de­served, and he re­mained in the shadow of the other great Cre­ole French-lan­guage Re­u­nionese poet of the nine­teenth cen­tury, Le­conte de Lisle.

In fact, it was an in­ter­est in de Lisle that drew me to la Réu­nion, where I first spent a month in 2013 with my fam­ily. La Réu­nion is a place of syn­cretism and great cul­tural di­ver­sity; of Chris­tian­ity, Is­lam, Hin­duism, and a range of African spir­i­tu­al­i­ties; and of French and Cre­ole lan­guages and po­et­ries. So­cial un­ease and in­tense pride in be­long­ing are in­trin­si­cally tied in with phys­i­cal iso­la­tion in the In­dian Ocean, a vi­cious his­tory of slav­ery, and a sub­lime land­scape. A street and a few schools are named af­ter La­caus­sade, and he is known as one of the great lo­cal writ­ers who also influenced the lit­er­a­ture of the colo­nial power, France.

La­caus­sade is a ma­jor poet of place, of ab­sence as much as be­long­ing, of rem­i­nis­cence as much as en­gage­ment; in his po­etry about the is­land, there's both in­ti­macy and re­flec­tive dis­tance. And if there's nos­tal­gia in his con­fig­ur­ings of re­mem­bered ex­pe­ri­ence as if they were plein-air com­po­si­tions, there's none­the­less also a so­phis­ti­cated pol­i­tics un­der­pin­ning the ex­pres­sion and sen­si­bil­i­ties. La­caus­sade has cre­ated his own kind of “sub­lime.” I be­lieve these trans­la­tions ( and oth­ers I have done) mark one of the rare times Au­guste La­caus­sade has been trans­lated into English. The po­ems that fol­low were first pub­lished in Les Salazi­ennes, with the ex­cep­tion of “La Cas­cade Saint-suzanne,” which ap­peared Poèmes et Paysages.

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