Vetiver

By Joël Des Rosiers
Translated by Hugh Hazelton

Vetiver
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Joël Des Rosiers is an acclaimed Haitian-born francophone writer whose work has been nominated for the Governor General's Award and whose life reads like a novel — he is a psychiatrist, an award-winning poet and a political activist on the international stage. His poetry ... Read more


Overview

Joël Des Rosiers is an acclaimed Haitian-born francophone writer whose work has been nominated for the Governor General's Award and whose life reads like a novel — he is a psychiatrist, an award-winning poet and a political activist on the international stage. His poetry collection Vetiver, which won the 1999 Grand Prix du livre de Montréal and the 2000 Grand Prix du Festival international de la poésie de Trois Rivières, is now published for the first time in English.Vetiver, a grass also known as cuscus, was brought from the Indies to Haiti. There it has taken root and flourished, becoming all-pervasive. The heavy aroma of the grass permeates everything. In Vetiver, the grass is a powerful, mythical symbol for Joël Des Rosiers, representing the root of lyrical possibility.An homage to his native land, Des Rosiers' narrative poem evokes all of the wild opulence of the Caribbean world and plumbs the depths of memory in language that is rich and multihued, full of tangible flavours. It is a hymn to the power of the word, the book and the voice, guided by the heritage of ancestors and the sensual proximity of people and things.Des Rosiers revisits themes from his three previous collections here: nostalgia, the search for roots and identity, the pain of memory, and the exploration of real and imagined spaces. Rooted in mystery and sacrifice, these narrative poems are shaped by extreme tensions that blend, in a strange way, with a seemingly clinical erudition where the melancholy of the flesh offers itself up as a substitution for mourning, religious ceremony and sensuality.

Excerpt

"Cayenne"she spoke with a certain absence in her gesturessaying she wanted a dedicationand that she’d been spying on me long before I arrived in Cayennebecause she’d found out the names of the writers who’d been invitedand had copied my photographas well as the uselessly flattering biographical notethat she got off an Internet siteand that photograph she said the one in whichI wore a bow tie that looked like it had been tied by handhad inspired her to write letters that she addressed to mebut could never bring herself to sendbecause her thoughts had gotten away from her and in her opinionit was horribleto write only for oneself and not send off the lettersto their recipient and so risk leaving them without even an echoƒshe said she’d goneto the first book fair ever held in Cayenneto meet me in personunlike all those people who press forwardwithout looking or lingeraround the booksalone or with their familiesenthusiastic or indifferent silent or garrulousat times without any other reason than simply to be seen thereshe cameherselffor a specific reasonto ask me to dedicate a bookto herƒbecause I was she said according to the biographical notesshe’d attentively read both a doctor and a writerand my double professionconferred on me in her eyes an exquisite understanding of peoplein other words a knowledge of painbecause I looked at them with one eye on their lifeand the other on their deathand adding literature to medicine forced meto give people back the insidious giftI had received of their sufferingshe said that by delving into that space beyond their bodies andtheir souls I revealed to others and especially to hermy immense desire to heal and that this understanding of otherspresupposed a fascination with misfortunethat she had no trouble understanding andthat was enough for her to trust meƒshe said that was the main reason she’d spoken to meand for the sake of which she asked me to be truthfulthat is to write just for heron a card with a reproduction of a painting by Matissewhich she’d specifically brought with her and now placed upon the tablenext to the pile of books a sort of portraita dedication that would show her truth light and shadowshe said which I was most certainly capable of drawing out from herfrom the first time I set eyes on herfrom our very first encounter an immemorialnameless thing that would set her apart from the people around herand that I shouldn’t avoid her requestand that although she was for me a kind of strangerthis shouldn’t provide me with any excuses becausewhen you really thought about itwhat she was asking me for didn’t have to be that personalƒeven though she hadn’t yet read a single one of my booksshe said that my voice which she’d heard on Radio France Internationalduring the program on visiting writershad crept into her mind strangely enough not so muchfor what it actually contained as for the language that carried it alongand more important than the features of my facewhich she had already perfectly memorizedin order to recognize meshe had observed the liberated way I moved on televisionmy origins gave me away she said as I strolled throughPlace des Palmistes but what she’d appreciated most of all wasthe mixture of intelligence and humour in the comments I madeon the architecture of creole houses adorned with wrought-iron balconieswhen the afternoon light made them seem unrealshe said she’d told herself now here’s a writer who finallydoesn’t take himself too seriouslyƒshe said she had only been in Cayenne for a short timethat she had lived before in the 16th arrondissement in Parisand that she’d come to French Guiana just for a changeperhaps out of nonconformity or because she was boredand most probably for some reason still unknown to hershe said that even supposing I had wanted toI couldn’t have avoided her requestI was neither a real writer nor a true doctoror else if I’d risked embarking on both professionswhich seemed so opposed to one another it was because she saidI felt free enough of any double associationsufficiently carried along by my double vocationto answer this kind of question and because she calculatedon observing my photo that behind a sad smileI was trying to hide a kind of melancholythat was concealed in my eyesƒshe said that on account of my destinyI led a double lifethe risks of which I should acceptincluding that of granting her wishand that a true writer (which wasn’t necessarily what I was)had the capacity to sound out soulsto be able to feel like others the excessive love that threatensthe devastation of feelings that don’t by rights belong to itand that it’s from this abilitythat the writer draws the sense of his existenceand what’s more she said if I were a true physicianI wouldn’t have the slightest chance of escaping her wishbecause she could be ill she could be in painshe could be in distress even without knowing itand her desire despite the unusualness of the situationcould correspond perfectly to a symptoma sign even if she wouldn’t dream of expressing it that wayof the upheaval of timeand of her way of living triggered by my presenceshe said she’d never felt such desire for a dedication

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