A Poet’s Legacy: René Noyau’s “Earth on Fire,” Translated from French by Gérard Noyau and Peter Pegnall

By Preea Leelah

Ma Vie est un poème avec des rythmes d’or. / Un sanglot, une larme est sa seule harmonie ; /une hésitation, une mélancolie lui font un triste son de cloches ou de cor.

Ma Vie est un poème à peine commencé ! […] Ma vie est un poème avec des rimes d’or […]

Ma Vie est un poème – inconcevable encore – […] /Ma Vie est un poème encore inachevé.

(Premier poème 2)

My Life is a poem with golden rhythms. / A sob, a tear is its sole harmony; / a hesitation, a melancholy/ give it it’s sad sound of bells or horn.

My Life is a poem scarcely started!  […] / My Life is a poem with golden rhymes […]/

My Life is a poem – still beyond conception – […] My Life is a poem still unfinished  

 (First poem 3)

First poem/Premier poème opens this bilingual edition of selected works by Mauritian poet René Noyau (1911/12-1984) with verses that seem to capture the symbiotic relationship between the poetic expression and the meaning of life itself.  Through an extended metaphor Noyau establishes the mimetic resemblance between life and poetry. What is evident in Earth on fire and other poems is that for Noyau, any subject matter, any of his life experiences can find its rightful rhythmic expression shaped in a poetic form. In the foreword, poet Peter Pegnall describes René Noyau as a writer who “cannot be pigeonholed in any particular style or subject matter, moving from the earthly to the ethereal often in the same poems” (xii). An extremely eclectic writer, it is with fascinating ease that Noyau’s lyrics explore his intimate experiences with love and relationships, his visions on freedom and identity as well as his political thoughts, giving us but a glimpse of the joy, struggle, and hope of a Mauritian poet writing during colonial times.

Earth on fire and other poems provides the reader with an excellent and succinct overview of the wide variety of themes covered by Noyau, thanks to a powerful selection of poems divided into the following categories: First steps; In and out of love; Through a glass darkly; Unyoke: Surrealism; Unyoke African poems; and finally, Prayers. As such, this bilingual edition is an excellent way of introducing this francophone writer to a wider public, making his work more accessible to a broad audience, and hopefully in the process, providing Noyau with the credit and recognition that he deserves but did not always receive. Furthermore, this edition provides insightful details about Noyau’s biography, helping us better contextualize his thoughts within the events and political turmoil of his lifetime.

This is especially relevant for poems under the headings Unyoke: Surrealism, and Unyoke African poems, which explore the concept of African identity during colonial times. In some of these poems, Noyau uses surrealism, a literary technique often associated with the négritude movement and, of course, most notably Aimé Césaire who wanted to break away from traditional and classical French rules in literature. In that respect we also learn, for instance, of Noyau’s meeting with former president of Senegal, Leopold Sédhar Senghor whose contribution to négritude, along with Césaire, is undeniable and has most likely been an influence in Noyau’s writings. Yet, it is maybe worth noting as well that because Noyau does not benefit from the same recognition as these other writers, not much information is available on him. Thus, some of the claims that the editors make in passing about Noyau’s influence, for instance, “as a pioneer of personal and literary freedom in the march to an independent Mauritius” (xii) need to be better substantiated.

In terms of the English translation, Gérard Noyau admits in the Translator’s Note” that he has not been as adventurous with words as his father, especially with the use of neologism (87). Nonetheless, as someone discovering René Noyau for the first time, I found it just as appealing reading the original French version as I did the English translation. The tonality and the rhythm may at times be different in each version (as can often be the case with the translation of poetry) but each version has its own specificity and provides the reader with a spontaneous connection to the poet’s work. A bilingual reader will most certainly gain from reading both versions; still, discovering Noyau in either language is equally captivating. As a native French speaker, it was initially curiosity that led me to read the English version, wondering how the translators would tackle a seemingly difficult-to-translate verse. While I enjoyed the poems in the original French, some gained a new comprehension, or became more intriguing as I read the English version.

In other instances, certain connotations may have changed from one version to another. One such example is the poem A travers les mensonges du songe / Across the lies of dreams (17-19), which tells about an unfinished love story, an agonizing relationship where the poet longs for a meeting with a former lover. One would note that the word “songe” is translated as “dream” in English although the most common translation for “dream” is “rêve”; “songe” is a more literary term. Moreover, “songe” often has a biblical connotation (Le songe de Jacob), especially when in the “singular” as is the case in the French version of the poem, as opposed to the English translation of “dreams” in the plural. As such, to the French reader, the word “songe” situates the poem in a different context than the English version does. Similarly, the translation of the last two verses of this poem were quite unexpected:

L’amour est un espace/ trop blanc pour notre race/ chargée du poids trop lourd des mensonges humains. (18)

Love is a region/ too pale for our race/ so heavily laden with human lies. (19)

In the original French version, the word “blanc” (“white”) could be connected with “race,” since they are both present in the same verse; leading to a racial undertone as a possible interpretation. This is not present in the choice of the word “pale” in English. Translating “espace” by “region” can also be intriguing at some level.  

In the Foreword, Peter Pegnall notes Ecorces as his favorite poem while he advises the reader to “Drink deep from [Noyau’s] words and select your own special pieces” (xiii). I personally found myself drawn to A travers les nuages et le temps/ Across clouds and time (26-27) where the peacefulness of nature is juxtaposed, within the same stanza, with violence of emotions and images:

 je retrouve et caresse un grand oiseau sauvage/ déplumé, roidi, lavé par toutes les vagues millénaires,/ asséché par les millions d’éclairs qui transpercent l’espace (26)

I find and stroke a big wild bird/ featherless, stiff, washed by all the ageless waves, / dried by the many shafts of lighting which pierce space (27)

Another poem that truly fascinated me was Nature morte/ Still life (38-39). Much like a painting, as the title suggests, it is a short and yet vivid immortalization of “all the simplicity of a woman sitting/ cleaning rice” (“toute une simplicité de femme assise/ triant du riz”). This poem captures a scene which would be all too familiar to many Mauritians readers, and likely still part of the landscape in certain regions of the island to this day. 

Finally, a note on the last part of the book: Briser les chaînes: poèmes africains / Unyoke: African poems. The poem Sega Freedom (64-69) in this section is probably the most powerful assertion of the poet’s ancestral roots. With it, Noyau embraces African culture and tradition at a time of colonial power and general dismissiveness of Africa, but also of ethnic divisiveness within Mauritius itself. Indeed, the poem is a fight for freedom while also upholding the concept of an African identity, which still remains undervalued and often discriminated against in the country. To that end, Sega Freedom seems almost avant-gardist, bringing forward ideas that are still presently very much relevant and important to achieve equality and promote anti-racism in Mauritius. The word sega refers to a musical genre present in some islands of the Indian Ocean. While its exact origin is unknown, there are suggestions that it may have Afro-Malagasy roots. In Mauritius it started as a form of expression among the enslaved population of African descent. The anthropologist Rosabelle Boswell suggests in her book Le malaise Créole, that there may be a link between sega and famadihana, a death ritual practiced in Madagascar (30).[1]

In Mauritius sega is not linked to any death ceremonies, but it is interesting to note that in the first stanza, Noyau seems to be referencing this very ritual: “No we do not have totems/ we do not turn the bones of our dead.” The editor’s note explains this verse as referencing “Famadihana, known as the turning of bones, is a traditional funerary rite in Madagascar” (65). As such the poem links sega to one of its possible origins in Madagascar. The use of the subject pronoun “we” englobes the creole population of Mauritius who, like the poet, are of African descent. The repetition of several negations throughout the poem ingenuously shows the essence of African heritage in Mauritius and its very tangible presence in the sonic landscape of the sega. This is of extreme importance for Mauritius, an insular island off the coast of Madagascar, consisting mainly of a population of South Asian and African descent who have lost much of their culture through the forced displacement of their ancestors during slavery and the colonization period, and who strive to maintain their ethnic heritage. In the end, the poem is an ode to music and its ability to transcend hardship and to unify. It is through sega that African ancestral heritage still prevails:

Nous n’avons plus que le sega pour nous tenir/ dans cet exil/ terre entre mers/ Nous n’avons plus que le sega pour nous unir (66)

We now only have the sega to hold us/in this exile/land between seas/we now only have the sega to unite us (67)

Earth on fire and other poems is a compelling gateway into Noyau’s work and Mauritian literature. It allows the reader to be immersed in the poet’s world through a selection of poems on a variety of personal and political themes. Written during a period when Mauritius was still under British occupation, Noyau’s lyrics are captivating and powerful, allowing us to travel through time and to follow his life journey along with him.

Noyau, René. Earth on fire and other poems. Two Rivers Press, 2021.

Preea Leelah is a lecturer in the Department of French and Italian at Oberlin College where she teaches all levels of French language and literature courses. She specializes in 18th-century French literature and Francophone Studies, with teaching and research interests in race and gender, French colonial societies, women and crime in Francophone history, and technology in second language acquisition. Her research has been published in the French Review and New Perspectives on the Eighteenth-Century. She is currently working on a chapter essay on new pedagogical approaches to teaching languages through collaboration with academic museums. 

[1] Boswell, Rosabelle. Le malaise créole: ethnic identity in Mauritius. Berghahn Books, 2006.

One comment

  1. What a wonderful review. In a short space, Preea Leelah teaches us so much about Mauritius and Noyau. I remain curious about what it is for a son to translate his deceased father’s poetry what sense of respect or unsureness might cause him to not be as “adventurous” linguistically as his father? But that question should be answered in an interview with Gérard Noyau, one that I hope Dr. Leelah considers writing!

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