Monday, 15 April 2019

When the Pipirite Sings: Selected Poems by Jean Métellus


When the Pipirite Sings: Selected Poems by Jean Métellus
First published in French as Au pipirite chantant in France in 1978. English language translation by Haun Saussy published by Northwestern University Press today, the 15th April 2019.

One of my 2019 New Release Challenge reads

How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


When the Pipirite Sings gathers poems by the noted Haitian poet, novelist, and neurologist Jean Metellus, who died in January 2014. Along with other signature works, this volume includes the first English translation of Metellus's visionary epic poem, "Au pipirite chantant" ("When the Pipirite Sings"), widely regarded as his masterpiece.

Translated by formidable comparative literature scholar Haun Saussy, When the Pipirite Sings expresses an acute historical consciousness and engages recurrent Haitian themes-the wrenching impact of colonialism and underdevelopment, the purposes of education, and the merging of spiritual and temporal power. And, as always with Metellus's poetry, the range of voices and points of view evokes other genres, including fiction and cinema. This eminently readable book has formal and thematic ties to Aime Cesaire's Notebook of a Return to My Native Land, central to the canon of French-language postcolonial writings.

In addition to many books of poetry, Metellus published novels, chiefly about the remembered Haiti of his youth, and plays about the conquest of the Caribbean. His nonfiction included reflections on Haitian history and politics, on the iconography of slave emancipation, and studies of aphasia and dyslexia.

I've been looking forward to reading When The Pipirite Sings for a while, especially because I love the beautiful cover art of this new Northwestern University Press edition. This first English translation of the important Haitian poet Jean Metellus is being published forty years after the original French work. I was surprised it has taken so long! Metellus lived in exile from Haiti from most of his adult life so his poetry is strongly infused with nostalgia and the expatriate's yearning for home - even though that remembered home no longer exists in the same state as it was left.

Most of this book is taken up with the epic When The Pipirite Sings which is named for a colloquial Haitian phrase for daybreak. The little pipirite is usually the first bird to sing in the dawn chorus. Through the poem, Metellus shows us a bewildering mix of Haitian scenes as people begin their days across the island. He blends present-day with slave history, and jumps swiftly from one person's moment to another. I imagined the multitude of voices as being like a pipirite chorus - I couldn't tell where one ended and another began. This did make it difficult for me to appreciate the whole poems and there were several times where I lost the thread for a page or more before I could recognise a specific reference or scene and re-join the work. The poem does begin with an introductory essay which I found useful for my understanding and scattered footnotes helped provide a glossary too. However I think the 'eminently readable' claim made in the synopsis is misleading! Perhaps poetry scholars would find Metellus less of a strain, but I struggled through most of the long poem, only really feeling myself comfortable and fully appreciative of Metellus' poetry when reading the few short poems included at the end of the book.


Search Lit Flits for more:
Books by Jean Metellus / Poetry / Books from Haiti

6 comments:

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    1. Yes, but not as accessible for me as I had hoped it would be

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  2. At least you gave an eminently readable poem a good try. I would need the introductory matter or I would never tackle a poem of this length, but it sounds like it was still an uphill climb. The fact that it is Haitian would have me willing since I'm not familiar with any of their literature.

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    1. Not being familiar with Haiti was a plus and a minus for me! I loved discovering elements of the culture and views of the island, but I struggled a lot with my understanding too.

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  3. It seems like this one was a bit of trickier read than expected, and because of that it impacted enjoyment a bit? I am glad that the work has been translated though, and that you were able to enjoy it somewhat regardless!

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    1. It's wonderful to have the opportunity to read works like this. I would probably never have heard of it without NetGalley :-)

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