Two Songs of Place and Displacement

Conakry, Guinea, 2013.

Conakry, Guinea, 2013.


The 20th-century term DP, for displaced person, with its old overtones of slave labor, death camps, and forced migration, has expanded in meaning to include many forms of displacement. The condition, too, has expanded—in the 21st century, are more living people “displaced” than not?

A range of displacement, from genocide and exile all the way to economic migration and tourism, is suggested by Elsewhere, a fascinating book created by Eliot Weinberger for the Poetry Foundation in 2014: an anthology of 14 modern poems dealing with an unfamiliar setting, with examples including Federico García Lorca’s nightmare of New York, a Japanese poet visiting Paris, a Nicaraguan poet imagining Norway.

On that theme, here are two poems in English translation, one from Elsewhere and one much older. In quite different ways, both poems confront culture in relation to time. In both, the ancestral past is at once remote and immediate: lost, yet also enduring all around us, and inside us.

Any attempt at translation, knowingly or not, good or bad, must engage a braided web of remoteness and closeness. A translated poem can become a work of art in the new language, as it somehow incorporates that tangle of differences and similarities among languages and their histories.

First, here is a translation by Langston Hughes, from the Haitian French of his friend the poet and revolutionary Jacques Roumain:


It’s the long road to Guinea
death takes you down.
Here are the boughs, the trees, the forest.
Listen to the sound of the wind in its long hair
of eternal night.

It’s the long road to Guinea
where your fathers await you without impatience.
Along the way, they talk.
They wait.
This is the hour when the streams rattle
like beads of bone.

It’s the long road to Guinea.
No bright welcome will be made for you
in the dark land of dark men:

Under a smoky sky pierced by the cry of birds
around the eye of the river
the eyelashes of the trees open on decaying light.
There, there awaits you beside the water a quiet village,
and the hut of your fathers, and the hard ancestral stone
where your head will rest at last.


Weinberger, in his note on Hughes’ translation, observes “a neglected story in the history of international modernism.” That is: “the network of poets that once existed across the African diaspora from the 1920s to the early 1970s, embracing such movements as Negritude and Black Nationalism, publishing and translating each other’s work in magazines in Africa, the U.S. and the Caribbean.” In her book Race, American Literature, and Transnational Modernisms, Anita Patterson describes Hughes’ friendship with Roumain, his protest at Roumain’s political imprisonment, and Roumain’s relation to many European and American modernists.

Hughes artfully conveys a layered urgency, the effort to imagine Africa as a kind of translation from the post-slavery experience of Haiti. The landscape is animated—“the wind in its long hair of eternal night,” “the eye of the river,” “the eyelashes of the trees”—and dreamy, rather than daylit. The road is long and mysterious, the ancestors are patient, emphasizing that the imaginative work of finding home is difficult, a pilgrimage that ends in “the hard ancestral stone.”

An interesting contrast, also involving ancient stone, is a poem written in Latin long after Latin was a spoken language. Even the 16th-century Italian poet’s pen name, Janus Vitalis Panormitanus, is a kind of translation of his actual name, Giovan Francesco Vitale, with the appended “of Palermo” relevant to the subject of place and displacement. In his poem, a stranger in Rome asks directions to Rome, unaware that he already is in Rome. The poem has been translated by Ezra Pound and Robert Lowell, but the version I love is by J.V. Cunningham:



You that a stranger in mid-Rome seek Rome
And can find nothing in mid-Rome of Rome,
Behold this mass of walls, these abrupt rocks,
Where the vast theatre lies overwhelmed.
Here, here is Rome! Look how the very corpse
Of greatness still imperiously breathes threats!
The world she conquered, strove herself to conquer,
Conquered that nothing be unconquered by her.
Now conqueror Rome’s interred in conquered Rome,
And the same Rome conquered and conqueror.
Still Tiber stays, witness of Roman fame,
Still Tiber flows on swift waves to the sea.
Learn hence what Fortune can: the unmoved falls,
And the ever-moving will remain forever.


As Hughes does with Roumain, Cunningham finds an idiom that has conviction: the authority not just of speech, but of speech coming from a specific, particular voice and place. For Cunningham, the voice of classical aplomb: a 20th-century, Irish-American, working class scholar rendering the severe lyric voice of a 16th-century Italian humanist.

Partly lost in translation, and partly recalled by the fact of translation, are the European imperialist overtones and undertones of Roumain composing his poem “Guinea” in French. Similarly lost and recalled are the Imperial meanings and undercurrents of Vitale (or Panormitanus) composing “Rome” in Latin.

“Now conqueror Rome’s interred in conquered Rome” is a line to remember. It conveys the immensity of time along with its presence. I would say the same about “the long road to Guinea/ where your fathers await you without impatience,” “at the hour when the streams rattle/ like beads of bone.” There’s an exhilaration in these poems, with the costly instrument of French, English, Latin, turned toward the unexpected joy of arrival.


25 thoughts on “Two Songs of Place and Displacement

  1. A few thoughts…Water as the ever-present transient, water as the persistent element–both poems include this thought so eloquently, even as both draw the contrast with stone: the hard ancestral stone in “Guinea”, the abrupt rocks of “Rome.” Your comment on other translations of “Rome” led me to look them up. J.V. Cunningham’s Rome seems more defiantly present–“the very corpse / of greatness still imperiously breathes threats!”–than the Rome evoked by both Pound and Lowell, which seems more battered and decayed, “worn” and “ruined”). I like the way Cunningham deals with the aphoristic ring of the repeated “Rome” and “conquered/conqueror”: the rock-hard words are battling for dominance even as they topple into the grave (the “victrix, victaque” of the original, I think–my Latin is sketchy!).

    The hard-won consolation of a dream-like return to ancestral land, in death, makes “Guinea” such a haunting poem, to me. The quietness of the poem, the patience of the ancestors as they await the “you”–the poem seems both an attempt to soothe and reassure and to restore with dignity what’s been wrenched away from the displaced “you.” Underneath it lies, perhaps, that sense of death as a “calling home” or “coming home” (which also seems to cast life itself as a kind of exile). Death as both return and final escape from imposed exile vs. Conqueror death…so much to think on here!

    • Kateri, your insight about water/rock in each poem, the two rivers, is an example of something I hadn’t noticed consciously or thought about, though I believe I felt it when I decided to link the two poems. And yes, one thing I like about Cunningham is the expressive consonant-music: the way “conquered/conqueror,” as you say, makes a contrast with “Still Tiber flows” and “Still Tiber stays.” The “eye of the river.”
      What you say about death as a calling-home, life as a “kind of exile” makes me think of the four poets involved here, the multiple cultures, homes, alienations, exiles, returns that flow through them– they at rest, we readers still journeying.

  2. Who doesn’t want to return home, even when that home is more archetype than familial.
    Some months ago I got a phone call from my younger brother. We all know he’s crazy but he won’t accept help. He told me to plan in a few years that he and I are going to Whakapappa, which as we talked on the phone I googled and discovered is a place in the center of Northern New Zealand, a sort of Maori tribal homeland and also a ski resort.
    As we talked I realized, he didn’t want to complain about his ex and divorce, or that the bank has been foreclosing on his house for like 5 years now. He just wanted to talk to his bro, like we did when we were kids.
    Afterwards I outlined a poem, about us returning to our home, where we grew up. This post of yours has motivated me to give it a revise later today.
    One doesn’t have to be a Latinate renaissance Italian, or an American Negro looking back on that exodus.
    Who doesn’t want to return home, even when that home is more archetype than familial?

    • Thanks for this different perspective, fargleman. And it’s always good to hear that art inspires art.
      In response to Jim Powell (under “Older Comments” below), Nicole Burdick and I have an exchange about the loss involved in going home. Returning to home, for Gertrude Stein in Oakland, Jim Powell in Santa Clara County, me on the Jersey Shore, involves the pain of the “there”-quality being gone. Technically, you are in that place but it is not home: a de facto exile.
      In these translated poems, I am moved the overlap and space between the specific or familiar and the archetypal or general.

      • Thank you Robert. In a sense we are mostly displaced people. Who today live in the town they grew up in? Facebook is all about staying in touch with old friends from school, family, even though we haven’t been back.
        I appreciate these poems for their imagery and style, Others have complimented them better than I can.
        And too the understanding of going home, But for these two authors, where they write of is not where they grew up. These places are a Valhalla. Vitale’s Rome never existed, except as 1500 year old Lore. Nor is he displaced, except by time. For Roumain, there is a case for displacement yet he does not dream of going to a real place. His Guinea has no snakes, no Houtous, no Ebola. The place he describes reminds me more of a stage set for O’Neill’s ‘Emperor Jones,’ than somewhere real.
        And the same for my crazy brother. For us, the place was called Pound Ridge, in NY. We are not Maori. Excepting that, reading these poems has helped me understand that others too have planned a trip to their own tribal, ethnic respective Whakapappa’s. More than simply ‘going home,’ perhaps a Kaddish for the loss of oneself.
        Oh, and Robert please call me Ken. That fargleman is an alternate ID I use when first signing up on new things, like WordPress. One never knows where personal info goes. I thought I’d changed it.

  3. I enjoyed both poems. The first in its mingled bitterness/nostalgia recalled Ovid’s Tristia. For the interest of admirer’s of Giovan’s poem, I enclose an even better (I think) French adaptation by Joachim du Bellay, written during the 1550’s during the moody passage in Rome that brought forth the sonnets of his Antiqutes de Rome. (One of my favorites is his satirical handling of the election of a pope!)

    Nouveau venu, qui cherches Rome en Rome
    Et rien de Rome en Rome n’aperçois,
    Ces vieux palais, ces vieux arcs que tu vois
    Et ces vieux murs, c’est ce que Rome on nomme.

    Vois quel orgueil, quelle ruine et comme
    Celle qui mit le monde sous ses lois
    Pour dompter tout, se dompta quelquefois
    Et devint proie au temps, qui tout consomme.

    Rome de Rome est le seul monument,
    Et Rome Rome a vaincu seulement.
    Le Tibre seul, qui vers la mer s’enfuit,

    Reste de Rome. O mondaine inconstance !
    Ce qui est ferme est par le temps détruit
    Et ce qui fuit, au temps fait résistance.

  4. Thank you, Robert, as always. Inspired by your remarks, I recently reread Hughes’s beautiful translation of Jacques Roumain’s novel, _Masters of the Dew_.

Post a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s