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Review: The Parley Tree, ed. Patrick Williamson

The parley tree (arbre a palabres), also known as the baobab tree, can live over a thousand years and has survived atrocities spanning lifetimes, as on Goree island, off Dakar in Senegal, a major landmark in the history of slavery: the final African stop for slaves bound for the Americas. One of the recent additions to Arc Publications's bilingual translation anthology series takes its name from this emblematic tree.

Editor and translator Patrick Williamson presents a linguistic map of diverse poetries in French, unconfined by geographical and political borders. This anthology showcases established poets from Algeria, Cameroon, Chad, Congo Brazzaville, Democratic Republic of Congo, Djibouti, Ivory Coast, Lebanon, Mauritius, Morocco, Senegal and Tunisia. These contemporary poets are rooted in the French language but are haunted by 'open wounds' from the colonial aftermath, and united and divided through their complex relationship with the language of the oppressor, and the language of liberty and exile.

Through this they have developed a lingua franca poetry, coexisting uneasily at times alongside the many mother tongues and national languages, including Arabic, Fula, Bambara, Berber, Wolof and Mauritian Creole as in the work of Khal Torabully, whose long discursive poem, Hold full of stars, Coolitude, ends in a telling question:

Coolitude: because I am Creole through my rigging, Indian
by my mast, European by the yard, Mauritian through quest and
French through exile. I will only be elsewhere in my self
because my native land exists only as I imagine...

Is that why poetry is my real mother tongue?

This is an example of the complex identity emerging through the language, a shared history of displacement that is both common and hidden. Hence the term coolitude, coined by Torabully, to signify the ownership of a mosaic identity, stemming back to the derogatory term used for indentured labourers: coolie.

In his preface the poet Tahar Bekri comments that:

Such a project is aimed primarily at doing away with the divisions and distinctions between countries of the same continent [...) the poets themselves have long wished to be associated with common threads and to escape artificial and suspect pigeon-holing, which has long been imposed by fairly reductive historical literary division.

Much of the commonality in imagery found within the poetry is rooted within the language of landscape. Poetry reclaiming and restoring the elemental features of colonised lands, ravaged by wars. The recurring image through many of the poets' work is of the baobab or parley tree, which signifies a traditional meeting place for communities to converse and tell stories, creating dialogue that ranges from complaint to reconciliation. The opening of Senegal-born Amadou Lamine Sail's Whitman-like long poem My Country is not a dead country sees this place in shadow:

My country is not a nocturnal baobab
blackened grass a cold flower
anemic fruit a land on its knees
My country is not a road cut off
a pot-holed surfaced a muddy sky
my country is not the pressing need of vultures

Born in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Tanella Boni is one of the three featured women poets, alongside Amina Said (Tunisia) and Venus Khoury-Ghata (Lebanon). They are well suited to tackling the larger themes of war and the legacy of slavery as witnessed by the baobab trees in Tanella Boni's delicate and powerful four-poem sequence 'Goree Baobab Island':

perhaps happiness is so far away
invisible among the tamarind leaves
when my hand brushes the fruit
to share them with spirits laughing at man's
cruelty to man
perhaps the hope in my eyes drags
the future in clouds of dust where I seek
sparks and the dignity of condemned souls

This poem is an example of the way in which The Parley Tree offers a blend of lyricism, anger, humility and intellect, through a rich tapestry of inherited influences and styles that infuses the text of the poems. These translations offer English speakers the flavour of distinct voices moving through the French language, which lends itself to being shaped in a variety of forms, ranging between the longer lines, sequences and shorter lyrics that explore philosophical moments of being.

Saradha Soobrayen is a freelance poetry editor and coach, and is a trustee of Modern Poetry in Translation.