One of the most important contemporary poets of the Ivory Coast and Francophone Africa, Josué Guébo writes in language raucous, difficult, and outrageously beautiful about the colonialist powers that continue to infiltrate his country. As translator Todd Fredson explains in his preface to Guébo’s collection My country, tonight, the text responds to the military interventions by French and United Nations forces in the aftermath of the country’s disputed 2010 presidential election, which gave way to what is often called the second Ivorian civil war.
Guébo’s imagery of resistance is immediately apparent, and is especially poignant as it evokes the maternal—and maternal destruction: “Severed / The wedding / Scattered the confetti / Drained the milk / Crushed the breast.” Resonating on multiple levels beyond the denotative, these visceral moments can be read as commentary on the uncoupling of Françafrique, a model proposed for postcolonial relations. The idea of “nursing” is at once the nursing along of postcolonial economic development by (and for) the West (a project that new French president Emmanuel Macron has indicated he intends to continue), and, from an Ivorian perspective, the constant leaking out of resources to support First World economies.
Guébo is interested in questions of national identity: in particular, how such identity might be embroiled in confrontations with the neoliberal West and global capitalism (that constant leaking above). The collection’s anaphoric refrain of “my country” restores a sense of dignity and acts as a mantra against the physical violation of trampled boundaries. The history of colonialization of Guébo’s homeland has been ongoing as well as relentless: as Fredson notes, this confrontation is a “direct result of the country having never gotten the opportunity to negotiate a model of sovereignty that is appropriate to existing social structures.”
Guébo tracks the movement from subjection to insurrection as fueled by a variety of strong emotions—including hate—and shows the work of independence to be that of flouting all conventions, including those of “nature”:
On the very fire of hatred
And from the surreal trees
That reinvent themselves
Of evenings in servitude
Other nations or cities under siege are also mentioned, such as Prague (and the military conflict of the Prague Spring). A poète engagé, Guébo cries out in his work for “la liberté,” and not just for Ivorians, but all colonized and occupied countries and cities in the world.
Both a sustained lyric meditation and a call to arms, My country, tonight is a deeply embodied collection, and Fredson’s ear, pitch, and timing are unfailing. His familiarity with the country is itself of the body: from his time spent there as a Peace Corps volunteer and as a Fulbright scholar. Such embodiment is not necessarily peaceable, however. To borrow a biblical metaphor, Guébo has returned, not in the name of peace, but with a sword. The chimera of real presence is offset by words that convey a perpetually roiling atmosphere of political tension, if not outright violence.
The order is
In the façade of limestone
On the signs of
Elbows on the table
Our fiery torsos
At the peak of each candle
And where there are no bullets, there are bombs: “Two bombs / Somewhere / On a hospital / A classroom / A market of black bodies.” Irony and exhaustion are both omnipresent. We delight, the speaker says, in hearing ourselves say “these deadened words / Detention / Deportation / Let me chuckle at this leprosy.” “Deadened words” have not so much gone out of currency as they have lost their significance amid the omnipresence of violence. To laugh at the “leprosy” of such words suggests a steeling against the ubiquity of devastation. The “chuckle” also indicates a sophisticated sense of irony, itself a weapon or at least a shield, suggesting both a traumatized consciousness as well as a degree of dissociation perhaps necessary for survival.
In staccato, punctuated, often one-word lines, Guébo speaks to colonial forces that ask the subjugated to sing. His condemnation of his country’s freedom having been “Gripped by vertigo,” and “Loaned out by subordination” is fierce. He writes, “L’Ivoire fortifies its health / Under the dabbed-up drivel / Of gimp tacticians.” Again, language itself comes under scrutiny, that spoken by the dispossessed and by the middlemen and colonizers themselves.
T. S. Eliot wrote that there are some things about which we can say nothing and before which we dare not keep silent. Guébo, here, errs on the side of utterance, condemning those who fall too easily into lockstep with empire, as well as the forces that threaten to annihilate the independence of a people or nation.
The shade of earth
Against the shameless mouths
Of those innate servants
Against the cactus
Of traitorous embraces
Here and elsewhere, he differentiates between the different actors at play, seemingly more critical of those who capitulate to power than he is of the colonializing forces themselves. Autonomy, for him, is a state of mind that begins with repossessing one’s powers of articulation; first, through mimesis. It culminates in the decision to fight for ever-expanding political freedoms.
Speaking of the “duty of refusal” and the “resolute / Imperative / Of a fire-proof speech,” Guébo narrates the exigencies of poverty and the pride of belonging with pathos and precision. He warms of the dangers of compromising one’s integrity or being reduced to ventriloquism or parasitism—“A cretin / Fastened / On the thigh / Of his lineage.” The subject who “wields his master’s whip” is referred to as the “Pimp-procurer / Assistant to slave round-ups,” a mendacious force that blocks awakenings and is intent on subjugations and strangulations. Again and again Guébo acknowledges the layered strata of enforced rule.
Fredson is a poet and a translator, and his renderings into English of Gúebo’s language are thrilling. He preserves and occasionally recasts the rhythm and syntax of the original, at times creating a rhythmic structure or rhyme in English that was only a ghostly presence in the French. He attends not only to subtle nuances of the French language, but also its idiomatic usages in this particular context of post-colonial Ivorian French. Guébo strips words to their roots, revealing the twin flames of sign and signifier. Fredson shadowboxes along with him, illuminating this motion while providing an extra measure of torsion and muscle at the level of the line as he teases out additional resonances and ironies and arranges new stanzaic patterns. The result is equal parts testimony and reinvention, in the spirit of the original’s stance against the merely imitative: “The little song rots / In mimicry.”
According to Ken Chen, “Language is not an aesthetic object that sits outside of time, but a tool of indexing and imperial bureaucracy.” What might a poetics of resistance look like for a poet who has not, like so many, fled his native land? By March 2011, there were more than 45,000 internally displaced people in the west of Ivory Coast, up to 300,000 in Abidjan, and more than 70,000 refugees in Liberia, with hundreds dead and a conservative estimate of a million displaced since the violence began. Instead, he has remained there to fight for justice, speak truth to power, and repossess the powers not only of signification but meaning-making and cultural identity.
Perhaps that poetics of resistance looks something like this:
And we hold
In time’s fire
From this day on
Our own symbols of history