The Immortal Poetry of Madagascar’s Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo

Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo (JJR) is generally acknowledged as the greatest twentieth-century poet of Madagascar and the first modern poet of Africa. He was born in 1901 in an impoverished but noble family in the capital city, Antananarivo, to an unwed mother. His birth name was Joseph-Casimir Rabearivelo, which he changed later to Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo. He worked as an assistant librarian at a Social Club and later as a proofreader at a publication house in Antananarivo. He corresponded with a wide range of writers around the world, including André Gide, Paul Valéry, Jean Amrouche, Paul Claudel, and Valery Larbaud, and spent large sums to buy books and ship them to Madagascar.  JJR joined other Malagasy poets and writers to start a literary movement termed “Hitady ny Very” (“The Search for Lost Values”), to promote the traditional literary and oral arts of Madagascar such as Hainteny, Kabary and Ohabolana. He committed suicide in 1937. After Madagascar’s Independence in 1960, he was declared the national poet of Madagascar. A street and a high school are named after him in Antananarivo.

Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo

He published numerous poetry collections during his brief life (1901-1937), two novels and an opera. His major poetry collections are  La Coupe de Cendres (1924), Sylves (1927), Volumes (1928), Presque Songes (1931) , Traduit de la Nuit (1932) and Veilles Chansos des pays d’Imerina (published posthumously in 1967). The poems in Presque Songes | Almost Dreams and Traduit de la Nuit |Traslated from the Night were first written in Malagasy and then in French.

Living in Madagascar for close to three years now and drinking the beauty of the star-studded clear night sky of Antananarivo, I always thought that there should be lots of celestial objects in the poetry of Jean Joseph Rabearivelo, and to my pleasant surprise I found that many of his poems mention night, the moon, sky and star constellations, and dawn.  To me he comes strongly as a celestial poet with his eye in the sky, his head towards the heavens, yet his feet grounded on the soil of Madagascar. He is also an ecopoet.  His ecological sensibilities are visible in his very first poem ‘Reading’ in his poetry collection Almost Dreams

“Do not make noise, do not speak:

Eyes, heart, soul, dreams

will explore a forest…

Secret, perceptible forest :”

and in several poems such as the poem on a female spider from his poetry collection Translated from the Night.  Birds are present in many of his poems, so are the forests.

“Slowly,

like a limping cow

or like a mighty bull,

its four legs hamstrung,

a female spider emerges from the earth

and creeps upon the walls,

she suspends herself above the trees.

She casts her silk into the wind,

Weaves a web that reaches heaven

and spreads her net across the sky.”

When I went to deliver a lecture at the Malagasy Academy on 16th December 2021 on my collection of poems The Magic of Madagascar and the translation of 100 Great Indian Poems into Malagasy, the President of the Academy Pr. François Rajaoson told me that Jean Joseph Rabearivelo was inspired by the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore. Later I found that JJR does invoke Rabindranath Tagore along with Walt Whitman and French poet Francis Jammes in his poem no.15 of Translated from the Night. And to my greatest delight Tagore is invoked first, ahead of Whitman and Jammes—

“You delude yourself,

You who seem like a little bird

lost in the snowy forest that reaches

to the breast of Tagore,

and Whitman and Jammes,

who replace Christ at the head of your bed,…”

Here I present a selection of poems of Jean Joseph Rabearivelo from his poetry collections Presque Songes | Almost Dreams, Traduit de la Nuit |Translated from the Night and Veilles Chansos des pays d’Imerina |The Old Songs of Imerina—

From Presque Songes | Almost Islands

Reading

Do not make noise, do not speak:

Eyes, heart, soul, dreams

will explore a forest…

Secret, perceptible forest :

Forest.

Forest rustling with silence,

Forest where the bird to be trapped has escaped,

the bird to be trapped and made to sing

or made to weep

the place of its hatching.

Forest. Bird.

Sacred forest, bird hidden

In your hands.

Three Birds

The bird of iron, the bird of steel,

after lacerating the clouds of the morning

and wanting to peck at the stars

beyond the day,

descends as though regretful

into a man-made cave.

The bird of flesh, the bird of feathers,

That gouges a tunnel in the wind

to reach the moon it has seen in dream

among the branches,

falls together with the evening

in a labyrinth of leaves.

He who is incorporeal

charms the guardian of the skull

with his stammering song,

then opens his resonant wings

and goes to pacify space

never to return but once eternally.

Fruits

You may choose

among the fruits of the perfumed season;

but this is what I will show you:

two plump mangos

where you may suck the sun melted within.

Which will you take?

This one, as double and firm

as the breasts of a young girl,

and which is acid?

Or that one, pulpy and sweet as honey?

One will be only passionate delights,

but will have no offspring

and will be covered by the grass.

The other,

a spring gushing from the rock,

will refresh your throat

and then become a vault full of echoes in your courtyard,

and those who come after you will gather there fragments of the sun.

Zebu

Arched like the towns of Imerina

prominent on the hills,

or hewn from the living rock;

humped like the gables

sculpted by the moon on the earth,

look! The powerful bull—

scarlet like the colour of his blood.

He has drunk at the river banks,

He has grazed on cactus and lilac;

Look how he crouches before the manioc

still heavy with the scent of the earth,

and before the rice straw

smelling strongly of sun and shadow.

Evening has deepened everywhere,

there is no more horizon,

and the bull sees a desert extending

to the frontiers of night.

His horns are like a crescent

that rises.

Desert, desert,

desert before the powerful bull

that has gone astray with the evening

in the kingdom of silence,

what do you evoke in his somnolence?

Is it this kind that have no hump

And that are red like the dust

Scattered at their passing,

they, the masters of uninhabited lands?

Or his ancestors flattened by the peasants

And led to the town, adorned with ripe oranges,

To be slaughtered in honour of the King?

He leaps, he bellows,

He who will die without glory,

Then sleeps again, waiting

And he seems like a hump of the earth.

From Traduit de la Nuit | Translated from the Night

5.

You sleep, my darling:

you sleep in her arms, my youngest child.

I do not see your eyes, heavy with night,

which shine like beads of real gold

or like ripe grapes.

A gust of fine wind half opens our door,

Puffs up your thin dress

And ruffles your hair,

Then sweeps a paper from my table,

Which I chase to the threshold.

I lift my head,

And there in my hand is the poem just begun:

Your eyes blink in the sky,

And I call the poem: STARS.

15.

You delude yourself,

You who seem like a little bird

lost in the snowy forest that reaches

to the breast of Tagore,

and Whitman and Jammes,

who replace Christ at the head of your bed,

since it is not the great age of the world

nor that of the day, many thousands of years old,

which strokes its beard here, white

and thick as forgetfulness,

hope, and the mist of torrid mornings,

there, on all the mountaintops,

astrologer questioning the stars

and doing the same on earth.

It is its youth, my child,

its eternal youth:

transformed –

perhaps because of the song of those poets you cherish,

who create a religion for you

in that infinite silence

thronged with columns and rivers,

with the living and the dead—

it is no more than the shadow of all the past

and listens only to the present!

19.

One day there will be a young poet

who will fulfill your impossible wish

to have known your books,

rare as subterranean flowers,

your books written for a hundred friends,

But not for one, nor for a thousand.

On the headland of shadows where he will read you,

by the glimmering alone of his heart where yours will beat again,

he will not believe you to be

in the gentle surgings

that will always fill the sunless abysses,

nor in the sand, nor in the red earth,

nor under the crags devoured by the lichens,

rampant behind him

up to the land of the living

blind and deaf since Genesis.

He will lift his head

and be certain it is in the sky,

with the stars and the winds,

that your tomb has been raised.

23.

Slowly,

like a limping cow

or like a mighty bull,

its four legs hamstrung,

a female spider emerges from the earth

and creeps upon the walls,

she arduously suspends herself above the trees.

She casts her silk into the wind,

Weaves a web that reaches heaven

and spreads her net across the sky.

Where are the many-colored birds?

Where are the hymners of the sun?

The glimmers ascending from their sleep-deadened eyes

in their swings of vines

revive their dreams and their echoes

in that firefly evanescence

which becomes a throng of stars

to elude the arachnean snare

that will be rent by the horns of a bounding calf.

From Veilles Chansos des pays d’Imerina |The Old Songs of Imerina Lands which are his translations and adaptations from the Hainteny, traditional poetry of Madagascar

8.

That tree there, on the crest of dreams; its leaves are intertwined, its branches are joined, its twisted roots are not visible, and its fruits are fragrant with memory; I have been thinking of you, my Lasy, since we parted, long ago.

21.

Love, o my kin, has the perfume of the forest, like the lemon. And it is neither from coquetry nor from caprice that I say this to you, but because I want to possess you completely.

For more please read Complete Late Poetry of Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo: a facing-page translation from Malagasy and French into English/edited and translated by Leonard Fox; with an introduction bt Jaques Rabemanjara. ISBN -13: 978-0-7734-3750-0 The Edwin Mellen Press, 2010.

Leonard Fox is a well-known translator of Malagasy literature. His book of translations of Hainteny: the traditional poetry of Madagascar, is the largest corpus of work available in English language. He has also translated the complete late poetry of Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo, considered the greatest twentieth century Malagasy poet.  He taught linguistics and Sanskrit at New York University.

#MadagascarLitMonth is curated by guest editor, Abhay K.

Abhay K. is the author of nine poetry collections including The Magic of Madagascar (L’Harmattan Paris, 2021), The Alphabets of Latin America (Bloomsbury India, 2020), and the editor of The Book of Bihari Literature (Harper Collins, 2022), The Bloomsbury Anthology of Great Indian PoemsCAPITALS, New Brazilian Poems and The Bloomsbury Book of Great Indian Love Poems. His poems have appeared in over 100 literary magazines including Poetry Salzburg Review, Asia Literary Review among others. His ‘Earth Anthem’ has been translated into over 140 languages. He received SAARC Literary Award 2013 and was invited to record his poems at the Library of Congress, Washington DC in 2018.  His forthcoming book length poem is titled Monsoon. His translations of Kalidasa’s Meghaduta  (Bloomsbury India, 2021) and Ritusamhara  (Bloomsbury India, 2021) from Sanskrit, have won KLF Poetry Book of the Year Award 2020-21.

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