Cadastre was formed from elements of two earlier poetic collections: forty of the seventy-two poems published in Soleil cou coupé (1948; Beheaded Sun, 1983) and all ten of the poems in Corps perdu (1950; Disembodied, 1983)—the latter of which were illustrated with thirty-two engravings by Pablo Picasso. Increasingly conscious of the leadership role he was taking in Caribbean politics, poet Aimé Césaire revised his texts thoroughly to make them more accessible. He shortened many poems, removed obscure words and free-associative imagery, eliminated obscenity, and reduced the prominence of elitist elements that presented the poet as a visionary prophet or as a sacrificial victim whose death would help redeem his people. He also added references to the black struggle for freedom, opportunity, and justice in Africa and the United States.
Césaire was born to a middle-class family in Basse-Pointe, a small coastal town near the volcano Mont Pelé (which had erupted in 1902, destroying the city of Saint-Pierre), in the French overseas territory of Martinique, an island at the eastern edge of the Caribbean Sea. He moved to the capital, Fort-de-France, in 1924. A brilliant student, Césaire was sent to the famous Lycée Louis-le-Grand in Paris in 1931 to prepare for admission to the elite teacher-training institution, l’École Normale Supérieure. In Paris, he befriended artist Pablo Picasso and many of the French Surrealist poets.
In 1934, Césaire and the French Guyanese poet Léon-Gontran Damas founded L’Étudiant noir (“the black student”), a newspaper that helped unite black people from France, Africa, North and South America, and the French island colonies in the international negritude movement. Along with Damas and Césaire, the third major leader of that movement was Léopold Senghor, who became a famous poet and served as the first president of the newly independent nation of Sénégal from 1961 until 1980. At the literary salon of sisters Paulette Nardal and Jane Nardal, Césaire, Damas, and Senghor met and were strongly influenced by the French-speaking poets of the Harlem Renaissance, notably Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, and Countee Cullen. The concluding chapter of McKay’s novel Banjo (1928) advocated restoring black people’s connections to their cultures of origin, thereby recovering a pride and self-respect crushed by centuries of slavery, prejudice, and white hatred.
Members of the negritude movement adopted one of two contrasting programs: either glorifying African precolonial history and values while accepting the benefits of assimilation to white European culture (a course favored by Senghor) or militantly denouncing white injustice and cruelty and insisting on black autonomy, equality, and civil rights within a white-dominated society (a course adopted by members of the Harlem Renaissance and by the Haitian Frantz Fanon). In the United States, black militancy split into separate tendencies that advocated either violent resistance (Malcolm X, before his trip to Africa) or peaceable advocacy and protest (Martin Luther King, Jr.).
A cadastre is an official, line-by-line record of the ownership of various pieces of land. For Césaire, a descendent of slaves displaced into the black diaspora, the title suggests the mental act of taking stock of one’s situation, to try to decide where one belongs. As is revealed by the gradual, fascinating development of Cadastre from two earlier poetic collections,...
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The very title of this book of poems will send readers to a French dictionary because cadastre is an obscure legal term that means a register of land possessions. The French word cadastre translates into English as the equally rare word “cadastre,” which can also be spelled “cadaster.” Once readers have understood the meaning of the title, they begin to realize that Césaire strives to evoke many different places that were important in his life.
He naturally mentions his native island of Martinique in the poem “Ton portrait” (“Your Portrait”), addressed to Martinique. He evokes not the title of “the flower island” that is designed to attract tourists but rather the 1902 cauchemar (nightmare), when the Mount Pelée volcano exploded and killed more than thirty thousand people in the former capital of Saint-Pierre, leaving only one survivor. Martiniquais are still traumatized by this volcanic explosion, and the area around Mount Pelée remains largely abandoned more than a century after this natural disaster. Each afternoon there is a report on Martinique television designed to assure Martiniquais that they do not have to evacuate their homeland within twenty-four hours. During his fifty-six years as the mayor of Fort-de-France, Césaire had to make sure that the city’s emergency services were always prepared for another explosion of this active volcano.
In another poem, “Ode à la Guinée” (“Ode to Guinea”), he evokes the West African country from which so many slaves were taken in chains to Martinique. Césaire “salutes” Guinea, whose screams of suffering still “strike” him. The horrors of slavery were so terrible that they can never disappear from Césaire’s understanding of the world. In a powerful poem, “Lynch” (“Lynching”), Césaire mentions this extreme crime of violence committed against African Americans by the Ku Klux Klan and other racists. In Cadastre, Césaire describes very powerfully the unity of suffering that tragically links blacks in Africa with blacks in the African diaspora.