A Suite of Poems translated by John Kinsella
(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.