Just finished reading the Selected Poems of Saint-John Perse (1887-1975). He was born in Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe, as Alexis Leger. His father, a lawyer, had lived in Guadeloupe since 1815. The family divided their time between the two family plantations, one for coffee, one for sugar. In 1897, with the election of the first native Guadeloupan president, Hégésippe Légitimus, the Legers returned to France. He was part of the Foreign Ministry, the government press corps, secretary of the French Embassy in Peking, and eventually became the general secretary of the Foreign Ministry. His anti-nazi stance before WW2 resulted in the Vichy government removing him from office and revoking his citizenship. He remained in the united states for many years, receiving the Nobel Prize in 1960.
His poems are somewhere between Whitman and Rimbaud; long, organic, heiratic sentences that sometimes create ecstatic/illuminated paragraphs and unfolding clauses:
“. . . New lands, out there, in their very lofty perfume of humus and foliage,
New lands, out there, under the lengthening of this world’s widest shadows,
All the land of trees, out there, on a background of black vines, like a Bible of shadow and freshness in the unrolling of this world’s most beautiful texts.”
” Stranger, on all the shores of the world, without audience or witness, life to the ear of the West a shell that has no memory:
Precarious guest on the outskirts of our cities, you shall not cross the threshold of Lloyd’s where your word has no currency and your gold no standard. . . .
‘I shall live in my name,’ was your answer to the questionnaire of the port authority. And at the money-changer’s you have nothing to show but that which is suspect,
Like those great iron coinages laid bare by lightning.”
” many things on the earth to hear and to see, living things among us!
celebrations of open air festivals for the name-day of great trees adn public rites in honor of a pond; consecration of black stones perfectly round, discovery of springs in dead places, dedication of cloths held up on poles, at the gates of the passes, and loud acclamations under the walls for the mutilation of adults in the sun, for the publication of the bride-sheets!
ha! all conditions of men in their ways and manners; eaters of insect, of water fruits; those who bear poultices, those who bear riches; the husbandman, and the young noble horsed; the healer with needles, and the salter […]
[this poem “Anabasis” goes on like this for quite a bit…the Whitman is thick here]
In the poem, “To celebrate a childhood”, there are revealing portraits of colonial life (probably obvious at this point is how imperialism infuses many of his poems, Perse even did a translation of Robinson Crusoe – so perhaps associating him with Whitman and Rimbaud doesn’t miss the thematic mark either – as they too are steeped in the ideology of imperialism):
“. . . . My nurse was a mestizo and smelled of the castorbean; always I noticed there were pearls of glistening sweat on her forehead, and around her eyes–and so warm, her mouth had the taste of rose-apples, in the river, before noon.”
“. . . And I never knew all Their voices, and I never knew all the women and all the men who served in our high
wooden house; but I shall still long remember
mute faces, the color of papayas and of boredom, that paused like burnt-out stars behind our chairs.”