Creole Poetry from Haiti

This is the longest poem that I translated as part of a poetry project in 2005, as a student at Naropa University.

Despite not speaking the Creole language, I was inspired to explore the poetry of Haiti by my dear friend, Dominique, who is Haitian and also a writer. I first began reading Haitian poetry in an attempt to learn about the culture of a person whom I admire and care for, and ended up realizing how little I knew about the history of Haiti, despite my own country’s influence on its ups and downs. (There is a great article exploring this topic in today’s NY Times.)

I made a conscious choice to translate poetry originally written in Creole, rather than French, because Creole has long been the language of Haiti’s disempowered majority—less than 10% of the country can read and speak French, despite the fact that it was the country’s official language until 1961. For many writers in Haiti and in the Haitian diaspora, to write in Creole is a political statement, a conscious effort to include all Haitians, and not just an educated elite.

As I dug into the Creole language, word by word, I discovered for the first time that a language is actually a worldview.

Syntax and vocabulary are not only tools for communication, but for organizing and understanding the world that surrounds us. The moment that I really understood this was when I looked up the word “poverty” in my Creole-English dictionary and found that it was also the used to describe a “hollow tin can.” The power of this image is breathtaking, and one that belongs solely to Creole.

I decided to dig up these poems and share them online when I read an email from Dominique earlier this week. She wrote that amidst the heartbreak of seeing the country that she loves so much in devastation, and her worry for family members still living there, she has been focusing on the beauty of the country, its history and culture:

“The most beautiful sight I remember ever seeing was in Haiti. And people associate Haiti with ugly, but I see beauty in the complicated history. I see beauty in what I know of Haiti, not what people think they know or read.” I believe that it is important for us to send our appreciation to the people of Haiti, for their accomplishments and artistic vitality, as well as our aid at this difficult time. Let’s remember that it’s a country of life, and not just devestation.”

For more notes on the Creole language and Haitian poetry—as well as more poems—please read my recent blog for elephantjournal.com.

WONGOL POEM, by EMMANUEL EJEN

Pwezi Wongol
Pou Ayida

I.
Gendele m’rete
M’gade-ou Ayida
Loloj-mwen vire

Tet-ou gridap se vre
Men lannuit genle
Domi nan cheve-ou

Ayida o!
Soley galonnen
Nan tout plenn lakay
Timounn-yo manje grangou
Vant deboutonnen

Poban lannuit
Tonbe sou fey lavi
Lalin-nan tounen biva
Men nwase-a pews konpe!

Ayida o!
Kile jou-a va sevre?

Zonbi sige l’ale
Zetwal file tonbe
Zwazo leve chante
Nan veye kay Ayida

Zekle file pase
Zam rale tire
Zanset leve kanpe
Deblozay pete kay Ayida

I.

Sometimes I stop
I look at you Ayida
My head spins

Your hair may be kinky
but the night rests
in its tangles

Ayida o!
sunlight pours onto
each pity of our home
Children feasting on hunger
bellies unscrewed

Night fills a jar
collapses into life, paper thin
daydreams become blotters but
man, darkness is thick

Ayida o!
When will daylight attack?
Zombies struggle to die
Stars streak, fall
Birds wake, sing
Watch over the house, Ayida

Lightning shoots through
weapons drawn
Ancestors rise erect
Riots shake the house, Ayida

II.

Youn zetwal file tonbe
Fann fonten tet-mwen
Pakanpak
Youn loray gwonde tonbe
Nan mitan zantray-mwen
Tidife boule kale nan ke-m tou wouj

Ou met koupe-m
Rache-m jete-m
Ou met boule-m
Fe chabon ak mwen
Zwazo p’ap sispann
Fe nich nan rasin-mwen
Lespwa p’ap bouke
Fleri nan ke-m
Mwen se samba
Rasin-mwen pa gen tobout

II.

Star sharpens and falls
splits my forehead
temple to temple
Lightning burns
within my gut
Flames hatch in
my pounding heart
You can cut me off
uproot me, toss me away
You can burn me
into charcoal
Birds won’t quit
nesting in my roots
Hope doesn’t wither
but blossoms in me
I am a poet
my roots grow thick

III.

Le youn fledize blese
A dize tapan
Li mouri tetanus
Pa gen anyen nan sa

Le youn choublak senyen
San ko-l benyen ko-l
Wanganeges rele
Sa pa di anyen

Men le youn pye flanbwayan
Fe emoraji
Tout zwazo vole gage

Nan ekziltik y’al chante
Lot bo dlo y’al kriye
Lapenn sa k’rete deye

Van pote nouvel
Nouvel gaye
Zorey Ayida Konen
Li pa tande anyen

III.

When a ten o’clock flower is wounded
at ten o’clock sharp
It dies of tetanus
Nothing gained

When one hibiscus bleeds, its
body bathed in its own blood
hummingbirds cry out
but say nothing

Here, when one poinciania bush
hemorrhages, all the birds
scratch to leave the cockfight

In exile their singing fades
Across the water their weeping fades
Sorrow for those left behind

Wind brings and
scatters the news
Ayida’s ears ring
She hears nothing

IV.

Chak gout lannuit ki koule
Se youn tas kafe anme nan ke-nou
Nan je-nou lawouze koule
Detenn kouch poud
Nan machwa douvanjou

Malfini gagannen jou
Beke soley nan grenn je
Limye bite twa fwa
Anvan li trepase gran jounen

Tout kat libete-nou anba kod
Rev-nou mezire nan timamit
Silans-nou fele
Pasyans-nou kankannen sou nou

Men oumenm ki mezire node
Ki lonnen jipon-ou
Nan kat pwendino
Ki peze lanme nan balans-ou
Loray pete twa fwa nan patmen-ou

Le van kase kod
Ki mounn ki va koupe jaret-li
Le lanme souke jipon-l
Ki mounn ki va di-l san lizay
Le loray va bat kalinda-a
Ki mounn ki va leve danse

IV.

Each drop that sinks through the night
Is a cup of bitter coffee in our stomachs
Dew trickles from our eyes
streaks the gunpowder
that coats the jaws of dawn

Hawk strangles daylight
Pecks sunlight into pieces
Light flickers three times
Before the whole day dies

All four freedoms under arrest
Our dreams held in tin cans
Our silence breaks
Patience blisters among us

You watch for the storm
measuring out your hem
to the four directions
You weigh the ocean on scales
Thunder cracks three times in your palm

When wind breaks the law
Whose blade will gash its haunches?
When the ocean shakes its underskirt
Who will say it has no breeding?
When thunder comes beating the kalinda
Who will rise to dance?

Notes on “Wongol Poem”:
The Wongol is a form of poetry developed in Haiti during the 1960s.  Traditionally a poem of two to six lines, the wongol conveys a brief message expressing deep discontent against the status quo.  They were meant to inspire dissent towards the government.
The kalinda were the nocturnal dances performed before the Haitian Revolution, probably to conceal the outlawed practices of Voodun ceremonies.
The Zombie is a constant, reoccurring theme in Haitian literature and poetry.  Jean Zombi, aiding in the execution of all remaining French settlers after the Haitian Revolution, forced men to strip naked before having their stomachs slit open.  In Voodun, the zombie is a dead person resurrected through sacred ritual.  After being resurrected, the body has no will of its own, remaining under the control of whomever performed the ritual.  Figuratively, the zombie has come to represent an easily manipulated, apathetic person with little awareness of their surroundings.
In Rasin-mwen pa gen tobout, the last line of Part II, gen, which I have translated as ‘grow’, can also be translated as ‘earn’.  Tobout, ‘thick’ or ‘tough’, also means “prison cell”.  While one meaning of the line is “My roots grow thick”, Ejen is also saying, “My origins earn me a prison cell”.

About the Author
Emanyel Ejen (Emmanuel Eugene) – pseudonym Manno Ejen – was also forced to leave Haiti, but chose to return in 1986, after the end of the Duvalier regime.  Upon returning, he co-founded the weekly Creole newspaper Libete (Freedom) in Port-au-Prince, where he currently lives and serves on the newspaper’s editorial board.

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16 thoughts on “Creole Poetry from Haiti

  1. Hi Merete,
    I saw your translations in Elephant, which led me to your blog. I am doing a reading for Haiti this Friday as a fundraiser and would love to read a piece or two of your translations. Would that be okay?
    Thank you for your good work!
    Willow King

  2. Hi Willow,

    Of course, I’d be honored! The anthology “Open Gate” is also a good resource for Haitian poetry written in Creole.

    Good luck with the fundraiser!

    Merete

  3. Hey girl :-) I am researching some Haitian poetry for our children of the Living Love Foundation to read at a fundraiser for Haiti and found your translations. They’re dope! How wonderful for you to share them…I was like how am i going to find anything relevant and appropriately sweetly beautiful for the children to read. Thanks for your hard work, would love to chat on issues of sustainability. Our fundraiser is happening in Long Beach California on February 28, 2010. Not sure where you are, or if you have people here, but share info if the spirit moves you. Hope it’s okay to share these pieces. God Bless mama! Kelly Curry

  4. Pingback: Poems from Haiti. | elephant journal

  5. Mwen fèrenk sot tonbe pa aza konsa sou tradiksyon ou fè de pwezi Wongòl-mwen yo. Mwen vle remèsye-ou paske ou te panse ak tèks mwen-yo. Mwen apresye trvay ou ape fè emwen ankouraje-ou kontinye.
    Mwen ta renmen antre an kontak avè-ou. Souple ekri-mwen oubyen rele-mwen nan nimewo (438) 380-9080

    Ak lonè respè
    Manno

  6. Pingback: From pidgin to creole | QuickSilver

  7. How could I not have replied to this one yet? I was re-reading your process for translating and your interesting perspective on Haitian culture, and I am still amazed at how simply and elegantly you construct your writings. I hope you continue to translate more because your talent is really breathtaking.

  8. Pingback: Haitian Creole Poem Translated | At that time in Haiti

  9. these poems are wonderful. i spent wholeday within it .i searched all your websites ,awesome nodoubt. i want to translate these poems in my language (bengali) if you give me the permission. my thanks for all writer and all reader.

    • Thank you! Yes, of course you have permission to translate the poems into your language. (At least my permission.) I love the idea of the poems continuing to live and be translated into other languages, as well.

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