Wednesday, 5 July 2017

The Sun Capsizes - Madagascan Poet Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo (1901-1937)

My last post focused on the sad life and premature death of Branwell Bronte, whose poetic skills are only now, two centuries after his birth, being brought to public attention, but another troubled poet, who like Branwell became addicted to drugs and died in his thirties, was Madagascan  Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo. Unlike Branwell, Rabearivelo, who died eighty years ago this year, was widely popular as a poet in his lifetime, and helped to pioneer a number of poetic schools of thought. 

The black glassmaker, writes Rabearivelo in Traduits de la Nuit (Translations From the Night), whose countless eyeballs none has ever seen ... that slave all clothed in pearls of glass / who is strong as Atlas / and who carries the seven skies on his head
Such is the folkloric essence of the poet's worldview, a mythical world dominated equally by the legends of his native Madagascar, and the imagery and surrealism of the great 19th Century French Symbolist poets.  In its depiction of the spirits of creation, or the planetary atmosphere, or simply the starry concave of the night sky, the piece might also be said to capture something of the tragic Rabearivolo himself:

... one would think that the vast river of clouds might carry him away.

The mythical world Rabearivelo creates, says the Encyclopaedia Britannica, is an intensely personal one dominated by visions of death, catastrophe, and alienation, mitigated only occasionally by hope of salvation or resurrection. Indeed, Rabearivolo's reading of the sky is of struggle and suffering:

And you are witness of his daily suffering
and of his endless task;
you watch his thunder-riddled agony
until the battlements of the East re-echo
the conches of the sea

Through the medium of sound, the muscular realities of the man-made world are united with the aquatic and mysterious, but in clashing and violent ways. There is something cyclical and symbiotic in the way he sees the world and its elements:

A thousand particles of glass
fall from his hands
but rebound towards his brow
shattered by the mountains 
where the winds are born.

Yet, in most of his poems, Rabearivolo presents an aspect of the natural world in some sort of conflict, or depicted as a series of losses and shifts.  At times, he feminizes the elements, and celebrates the mythical forces underpinning the beauty of rocks, stones, and the sea - an almost constant metaphor in the visions of this island poet:

whose eyes are prisms of sleep
and whose lids are heavy with dreams,
she whose feet are planted in the sea
and whose shiny hands appear
full of corals and blocks of shining salt.

She will put them in little heaps beside a misty gulf
and sell them to naked sailors
whose tongues have been cut out,
until the rain begins to fall.

Nature as self-creating, self-realising, benign deity is an image sharply offset by the stanza immediately succeeding the lines above:

Then she will disappear
and we shall only see
her hair spread by the wind
like a bunch of seaweed unravelling,
and perhaps some tasteless grains of salt.

The "perhaps" adds a dry, ironic twist to this bathetic rejoinder, but the image that stays panted in the mind is that of the goddess' hair spread by the wind, like unravelling seaweed, and in this respect the poet imbues something organic and beautiful into the world's bounties, with her human recipients like hungover revelers following a night of splendid ecstasies, now dimly recalled.  Elsewhere, the world's provisions are seen as miraculous and  fantastical, even invisibly so, as in his poem Cactus, from the 1934 collection Presques-Songes (Nearly Dreams):

 That multitude of moulded hands
holding out flowers to the azure sky
that multitude of fingerless hands
unshaken by the wind
they say that a hidden source
wells from their untainted palms
they say that this inner source
refreshes thousands of cattle
and numberless tribes, wandering tribes
in the frontiers of the South.

Further on, the cacti, still as green / as moonbeams glancing from the forest, are personified, as lepers sprouting flowers.  In an apparently unique setting, Rabearivelo casts the plants as the remnants of the hands of lepers buried beneath the sand, with Ressurectional overtones:

The blood of the earth, the sweat of the stone,
and the sperm of the wind,
which flow together in these palms
have melted their fingers
and replaced them with golden flowers.

 Leprosy has long been a common scourge in Madagascar, and Rabearivelo would have been well used to encountering those subjected to it.  Known for his attachment to social outsiders, attracted to poets whose work placed them on the margins of the literary world, Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo makes an obvious and sympathetic defender of lepers, and it is unsurprising that he should have emerged as one of the chief proponents of the Fantaisite poetic movement - a trend which emphasized the futility of life in melancholy language and style.  The writer's own life could easily be seen as a series of trials and disappointments, even from his earliest days.

Hailing from an impoverished family newly stripped of privileges due to French colonization, the only son of an unmarried mother, he grew up in the north of Madagascar and attended various schools and colleges - expelled from one for poor discipline and, revealingly, a refusal to submit to religious observance.  His early jobs ranged from errand boy and lace maker, to secretary and interpreter - demonstrating the versatility of his skills, and his capacity for languages: Rebearivelo, already fluent in French, taught himself English, Hebrew and Spanish all within his late teens.

Eventually, after a stint as a librarian, entering the world of proof-reading, the young Jean-Joseph appeared to have settled on a steady job, and his progress in life appeared solidified in 1926, when he married Mary Razafitrimo, the daughter of a local photographer, with whom he had five children.

Its taste will be sweeter,
because it was pregnant with desire
And with fearful love and scented blossoms -
Pregnant by the love sun.
(From Pomegranate) 

Rabearivelo's prose works were often historical in theme, but his poetry might be said to exist in a time frame and environment somewhere between the mythic and the poet's own subconscious with the images and associations sometimes intriguingly contradictory:

A purple star 
evolves in the depths of sky - 
what a flower of blood that blooms in the prairie of the night

and almost everywhere, the sky and sea are blended together:

Ebb of the oceanic light.
The octopi
blacken the sand
with their thick ink;
but countless little fish
which resemble shells of silver
unable to escape,
taken with nets
stiffened by dark seaweed 
that become lianas
and invade the cliffs of heaven.

Rabearivelo may have felt that he, like the seaweed struggling up to heaven, were somehow trying to wrongfully inhabit a happy state where he did not belong.  As his financial debts racked up, he seems to have grown more pessimistic, and when we look at the poetry of these difficult years, themes of darkness and regret appear with increasing frequency.  The moon is gnawed at by an invisible rat, its absence juxtaposed by the hungover presence of gamblers after a night of debauch:

Tomorrow morning
those who have drunk all night
and those who have abandoned their cards,
blinking at the moon
will stammer out:
"Whose is that sixpence
that rolls over the green table?"
"Ah! One of them will add,
our friend has lost everything
and killed himself!"

And all will snigger
and, staggering, will fall.
The moon will no longer be there:
the rat will have carried her into his hole.

Rabearivelo's problems may have introduced a darker strain into the style of his work, but he began to enjoy some degree of literary success, publishing a novel, writing Madagascar's first and only opera, several books of poems, and enjoying the company of other Malagasy writers.  Rabearivelo corresponded with a diverse range of international poets, amassed a large amount of books, and developed good relationships among senior French colonial officials, including Pierre Camo, founder of Madagascar's literary journal 18° Latitude Sud.  All of this helped to expedite his elevation to literary repute.


The confidence with which Rabeariveo was writing was emphasized by, as remarked by academic Arnaud Sabatier, the rediscovery and embrace of the sound and images of traditional Malagasy poetry, from which he had previously distanced himself or which he had subjected to the colonial language and culture.  Rabearivelo's poems of the early to mid 1930's are described by academic Claire Riffard as his strangest, evoking rural and commonplace images alongside unexpected dreamlike visions, superimposing the new and the forgotten.

As earlier suggested, Rabearivelo's chief influences, poetically, were French poets like Baudelaire, whose themes of dissolution, ennui and urban squalor might be traced in some of Rabearivelo's less ethereal poetry, and he was deeply drawn to the Surrealists.  Rabearivelo's translator, Robert Ziller of the University of Florida, has observed how With remarkable originality, he synthesized Europe's prevailing urban surrealism with his own comparatively bucolic surroundings.
For Ziller, Rabearivelo's work provides the wildly innovative imagery of modern realism, permeated with the essence of traditional oral poetry,  and unlike many other Surrealist-influenced modern poets, we never feel that we've been given a superfluous display of linguistic dexterity devoid of meaning. Here, we know, there is something of relevance being poetically manifested by a man isolated on an island, who wishes to communicate his thoughts to the rest of the world. His poems are often deceptively simple, uniquely surreal yet logical, both sensual and abstract — yet they always bear the distinction of being infused with undeniable sincerity.

Where are the songsters of the sun?
The glow is springing from their eye
dead with sleep 
within the springs of their lianas,
they revive their dreams
and their echoes
in this evanescence of fireflies,
which become a cohort of stars

And so we have, once more,  Rabearivelo's recurring image of lianas - an image deliciously rooted in his tropical environment, yet in its way as Universal as any metaphor in poetry.  Through the prism of the dreaming birds, the echoed dreams and the evanescent fireflies, we are given an insight into the mind of a man permanently searching and reaching for something beyond, something above. But also something that has attached its self to the strength and security of others, like Rabearivelo the distiller of native folklore and stories, Rabearivelo the assimilationist, Rabearivelo the loyal courtier, making friendly relations with Colonial authorities. To what extent these loyalties would be returned would be sore point for Rabearivelo in later life.

In the early days the Colonial powers highlighted Rabearivelo's role as an assimilated native writer as evidence of French policy and the benefits of Empire.  But, having been appointed to a clerical role with the Malagasy Academy, Rabearivelo fell behind with his taxes and was imprisoned for three days in 1937. Believing that his years of service to the government ought to have got him off the hook, Rabearivelo grew bitter, and took on an increasingly anti-Imperialist outlook.  Used to being snubbed by the high society on account of his unconventional views, he wrote of feeling "used" by the authorities, and interpreting his own struggle as a kind of microcosm of his country's predicament.

Rabearivelo's poetry of the late 1930's expresses a kind of Eden in reverse, a rolling back of light and creation into a dark, deathly sleep:

The hide of the black cow is stretched,
stretched but not  set out to dry,
stretched in the sevenfold shadow.

But who has killed the black cow,
dead without having lowed, dead without having roared,
dead without having once been chased
over that prairie flowered with stars?

And yet, his bovine depiction of the nocturnal firmament flows into the promise of rebirth:

She who calves in the far half of the sky.

Stretched is the hide
on the sounding-box of the wind 
sculptured by the spirits of sleep.

And the drum is ready
when the new-born calf ,
her horns crowned with spear grass
and grazes the grass of the hills.

It reverberates there 
and its incantations will become dreams
until the moment when the black cow lives again,
white and pink
before a river of light.

 All of the problems of Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo might seem trivial, when seen in the context of his greatest misfortune - the death of his daughter Voahangy, at at the age of 3, in 1932.  Preceding his financial downfall, and precipitating his decline into drug addiction, it is highly likely that this traumatic event was a catalyst for all that subsequently went wrong in Rabearivelo's life.  The death came to dominate his poetry and journals, and indeed his life - when his last daughter was born in 1936, he chose to name her Velomboahangy ("Voahangy Alive").

Though still holding down a job, Rabearivelo digressed into debts and opium addiction, and largely turned his back on marriage in favour of womanising.  Shunned by both the French authorities and his own Malagasy peers for his former willingness to embrace a Francophile lifestyle, he endured a period of restlessness and self doubt, contemplating death and pondering in his journal: "Perhaps one needs to die to be found sincere."

At the onset of this essay, I looked at one of Rabearivelo's poems about the sky, in which the trials of "the black glassmaker"  are compared to slavery.  It ends with the poet nihilistically observing how: pity him no more
and do not even remember that his sufferings begin again
each time the sun capsizes

Was Rabearivelo that black glassmaker, bowed down by years of relentlessly attempting to negotiate the struggle to survive within a system ultimately designed to trap him?

In May 1837, a beleaguered  Rabearivelo held out the hope of a leading part representing Madagascar at the 1937 Exposition in Paris - a duty he had been promised by the government.  It a promise which was revoked.  With his life and career in apparent disarray, Rabearivelo did not cut a figure to be admired by the authorities, and his dream of visiting the land of so many of his idolized poets, and meeting with his French contemporaries amid the bohemian quarters and concert halls of Paris, was cruelly scunnered. Then, on the 19th June, he was informed that his lack of official qualifications would bar him from his last remaining aim, of progressing to a high ranking governmental job.  This was the final straw for Rabearivelo.

On the morning of Tuesday, June the 22nd, 1937, the poet set about the completion of several of his unfinished works of poetry.  Then, according to his journal, at the precise time of 1.53 that afternoon, Rabearivelo, who was suffering, just as Branwell Bronte had, with tuberculosis, took four quinine tablets, and set about burning the first five volumes of his previous journals.  At 2.37, Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo swallowed ten grams of potassium cyanide, and died some time after 3 that afternoon, at the age of 36.

As in his troubled life, Rabearivelo's posthumous reputation has been subject to ebbs and flows - upheld by some as the Father of Madagascan Poetry, by others as an African literary hero.  Some have levered Rabearivelo to the role of a martyr of Empire, seeing the refusal of the colonial authorities to enable his visit to the Paris Exposition as a death knell dealt by colonial France; others deny this martyrdom with a nod to his, at least partly, assimilated status.  But undoubtedly, among poets and readers, the legacy has endured, and in 1960 the newly independent state of Madagascar pronounced Rabearivelo as the country's first National Poet.  A school has been named after him, as has a room in the National Library of Madagascar.  This is all a far cry from the deprivations of his childhood, the seemingly intractable poverty of his adult days, and the ignominy in which the poet died.  Like many famous poets, Rabearivelo will be taken on by different movements, his poetic output co-opted to suit the causes of the day, but as a body of work, the poetry of Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo stands as a testament to a truly unique, wonderful mind.  It is surely for this that he should chiefly, and with most profound appreciation, be remembered.

The secret hives are arranged
near the lianas of heaven,
among the luminous nests

 Gather nectar there, bees of my thoughts,
little bees winged with sound
within the pregnant cloud of silence;
laden yourself with resin
perfumed with stars and wind:
we will seal all the gaps
communicating with the tumult of life.

Laden yourself also with stellar pollen
for the prairies of the earth;
and tomorrow, when there will be wreathed
the wild roses of my poems