Haiti 1, Danielle Legros Georges

Translator’s Note: Jean-Claude Martineau is a poet of the underdog. Throughout a long career as a writer (as well as songwriter, composer, activist, and statesperson), Martineau has made visible the experiences of Haitians who fight on Haitian soil and in its diaspora to uphold their right to self-determination and human dignity—often against great odds, and in defiance of great powers. These combatants are the descendants of the Africans and allies who waged the thirteen-year anticolonial, anti-slavery war that created the Haitian nation and the world’s first Black republic in 1804. Martineau and many scholars of Haiti maintain that the struggle for independence has yet to be fully achieved.

The unpopular leaders of today’s Haitian state remain in power with the backing of a coalition that includes the United States government and the United Nations, entities that have supported Haitian managers often at odds with the interests of the Haitian people. Conditions in Haiti are dire, with fuel shortages, internal displacements, kidnappings, high unemployment, inflation, an intense gang presence funded by Haitian oligarchs, and Martineau notes, “the apparent indifference of the authorities in front of the crisis.” Current Haitian leaders, moreover, have called for a foreign military intervention to help them hold their grip on power.

Jean-Claude Martineau is a poet of the Haitian people, which is to say the Haitian majority, who continue to engage in the historic quest for civic inclusion in the life of the nation. Across his work, Martineau has engaged and shed light on members of that majority, and the effects of centuries-old, often undeclared campaigns against Haitian sovereignty, democracy, and families. We see the ten-year-old orphan who fends for himself while dreaming of attending school in the poem “Diver.” We identify with the narrator’s concern for this child. In “Viva El Toro,” we sympathize with the bull in a bullring who finally sees his true enemy is not the matador’s dazzling cape, but the matador himself. In “I’ll Roll Along,” we walk the night in the Haitian countryside with the cow herder who teaches us a lesson of perseverance and collaboration.

Martineau writes in the language of the Haitian people: Haitian/Kreyòl, in addition to French. His Kreyòl-language literary texts are accessible in ways French texts may not be—and make them a response to the challenges of print literacy and access to formal education so many strive for. His texts are sung, read on the radio, performed as plays, and recited by heart by Haitian schoolchildren. He has created several anthems of Haitian liberation included “Ayiti Demen (Lè la libéré Ayiti va bel)” written in 1978 against the backdrop of the almost thirty-year Duvalier dictatorship.

These poems, originally published in 1982, (Flè Dizè: Powèm, Chante; Marika Romain, New York) remind us of how much the struggle continues for Haiti, and how relevant Jean-Claude Martineau’s work remains in 2022 and as we move forward.


Standing on the top of the pier
In a pair of old underwear
All of ten years, no more
Waiting for the tourist boats
Little diver

When the boats dock
He’s already headed out
And if they’re not too cheap
They’ll toss a few coins
Into the blue for him to find
It isn’t every day he eats
But he’s not begging
And won’t go steal in the market

Diver, Diver
If you catch cold easily
This is no job for you
Diver, if you can’t hold
Your breath too long
This is no job for you
If sharks give you pause
This is no job for you
Diver, Diver
If whites scare you too
This is no job for you

He’s got no father, no mother
He’s never been a kid, born grown
Life is a train rushing at high speed
Him, he’s running to see about the express

He would like to play tag
Tell stories under the moon
Play marbles in the shade of a mango tree
Like kids his age
But he has responsibilities

He has to feed himself
With the money he earns
And when night comes
He lies down but doesn’t sleep
Dreaming with eyes open

Seeing himself walk by
School uniform neat
Off to learn his ABCs

Diver, Diver
If you catch cold easily
This is no job for you
Diver, if you can’t hold
Your breath too long
This is no job for you
If sharks give you pause
This is no job for you
Diver, Diver
If whites scare you too
This is no job for you

Haiti 2, Danielle Legros Georges

Viva El Toro

Poets have so long sung
Of the duel of man and bull
That I one day found myself
In a Mexican arena

In a crowd that roared
And buoyed the toréro
But I, with tear-stained eyes,
Whispered Viva El Toro

The afternoon stood aflame
In sun and such raw passion
That the bull sprang from the sand
Temper barely contained
Having nothing but his courage
And his humble right to live
He threw himself forward
Poor bull

The toréador stood waiting
Draped in light and blood
His cape of red whirring
A floating shield
That scattered the bull’s ire
And sent it charging in the wind

It’s then I understood
That I too was a bull
Whose fight is waged
On another stage

Dazed by bias, by truths
Half understood
How many times had I fallen
To a bogus foe

Head bowed horns front
The beast forced the wind
Blind in his own blindness
How he tread in his own blood
Finding the cape at times
That escaped his lunge somehow
What surprise, the poor bull

Then in his heavy head
An idea took shape
The cape that flew in the wind
Was merely a tool
The last gaze of his eyes
Veiled in dust and blood
Took in the matador

And the fight itself transformed
In the eyes of the crowd
The bull turned his charge
Toward his true foe
And the muletta fell upon on the sand
And the red cape fell upon the sand
Viva El Toro!

Haiti 3,
Danielle Legros Georges

I’ll Roll Along

Night’s as bright as the day
Sun’s giving light to the moon
Fog’s gentle like cotton
Rising in the air
Every so often the night bird
Chirrups, chirrups, and stares

Time’s long past the evening stroll
On the main road what you hear’s
A row of cows shuffling, a whistle,
A whip cracking, the low singing
I’ll roll along, I’ll roll along, I’ll get there

Folks in the lakou rush in
Fast to close their doors
Could be night creatures
Could be ghosts
They don’t know, would you know
It’s the herder going by

From Okay on the road to Amko
Driving three cows skinny as jerky
Past streambed, crossing hill
Past grassland, crossing gulley
Waiting nights, waiting days
If the Momans River floods
Crossing thieves trying to take
What’s not even his from him
I’ll roll along, I’ll roll along, I’ll get there

The herder shows us how to walk
How not to kill your hope at the roadblock
How not to lose sight of our intentions.
My shoulder’s here, you’ll lend yours
Say it, help me see, I’ll help you
Find the road, the way to go
We’ll roll along, we’ll roll along, we’ll get there

Jean-Claude Martineau (Author) / Danielle Legros Georges (Translator)

Jean-Claude is a poet, storyteller, songwriter, composer, activist, and former statesperson. He has published a large body of work under the pen name Koralen.

Danielle’s most recent book is Island Heart, translations of the poems of 20th-century Haitian-French poet Ida Faubert (Subpress Books, 2021). Her awards include fellowships from the American Antiquarian Society, the Massachusetts Cultural Council, MASS MoCA, the PEN/Heim Translation Fund, and the Black Metropolis Research Consortium. She is the former Poet Laureate of Boston; a professor of creative writing at Lesley University; and creative editor of sx salon, a digital forum for explorations of Caribbean literature.

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