Though he's regarded as Africa's first modern poet, Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo remains quite obscure: He lived his entire life on Madagascar, then a pastoral French island colony, before his suicide in 1937, at age 36. Robert Ziller discovered Rabearivelo's surreal, incantatory verse nearly a half-century later; fascinated, he began to translate it from the French. This year, Ziller, a Pittsburgh-based artist and musician, self-published his new take on Translated from the Night (www.LascauxEditions.com). Ziller says it's the first complete translation of the free-verse book of 30 poems, first published in 1935.
What interested you about Rabearivelo?
It's just beautiful work. He just really floored me.
What was his historical significance?
To me he sort of synthesized an urban and rural consciousness and also contemporary Western surrealism within the confines of being in Madagascar, and worlds away from the European context.
It's said Baudelaire and the French symbolists were influences.
One thing that interested me in [Rabearivelo's] version of surrealism is that he always seemed to have a point to what he was saying. A lot of the surrealist poets, the Dada poets, you get the impression they're just having fun with words. But he was a man literally held captive on an island. [French authorities prohibited him from traveling.] He had written over 20 books, and only half of them were published in his lifetime. ... There's a sincerity there in wanting to communicate to the outside world.
You'd translated him before?
In my early 20s. I'd actually translated Translated from the Night and finished it in 1987, self-published it in time for the 50th anniversary of his passing. I [later] discovered that I had made a few errors in the text, and I ended up destroying all the copies that I had left.
How'd you learn French?
My grandparents came over from France when my mom was in grammar school; she couldn't speak English. I had French in high school, and it was enough to start me on using a French encyclopedia and verb-conjugation text. I can't say I have any expertise in French at all.
I was reading the forward to Clayton Eshleman's translation of Cesar Vallejo, and he said that he didn't know Spanish, and ... he was just advised to look up every single word and chop away at it. What really counts is how you put it into the new language. ... [Eshleman] won a National Book Award for his translation of Vallejo. That was kind of encouragement that I could give this a shot.
What challenges did Rabearivelo present?
As much as possible, I want to keep the rhythm and the sound of it, and the meaning. Finding a meaning, in quotes, in a surreal poet in another language can be a challenge. There were a few poems I wasn't quite sure I was really getting it. I would work at it for a bit and set it down for a couple months. Sometimes I could just be walking down the street and realize, "Oh, that's it. That's what he's going after there."
Some, like No. 13, are quite cryptic: "All the seasons are abolished / in these unexplored zones, / which occupy half the world ..."
Some of them you just have to leave what's mysterious in there. There is a mystery to a lot of his work. A lot of his poetry I'd be reluctant to say what I think a meaning is.
No. 24 suggests the autobiography of an unknown poet: "For what cut gems / confused with pebbles / covered by thick fog?"
I reference this poem as him being part of a community in a way: "[H]ere are the myriad torches / in search of what was lost / upon the earth ..."
Is Rabearivelo forgotten?
He's pretty obscure as far as poets go. A lot of African anthologies won't even include poets from Madagascar -- but most of the good ones do.
Is there more to come?
I'm almost done with another book of his, [Almost Dreams,] which I hope to have out in a few months. [It] has some really incredible poems -- even more work that hasn't [been translated].
The secret hives are aligned
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,
we will have celestial rose hips
and sidereal seeds.
-- Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo
- Found in translation: Robert Ziller was "floored" by the poems of Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo.