March 20, 2013
Jean Méttellus [Haiti/lives France]
Born in 1937 in Jacmel, Haiti (the home town of many poets, including René Depestre, his senior by eleven years), Jean Méttellus has been a resident of France since 1959.
After graduating from the state-run lycée of Jacmel, he was appointed mathematics theater there at the age of 20. He taught for two years, joined the nascent and struggling National Secondary School Teachers’ Union—becoming its Jacmel spokesman—but soon after left Haiti, as he notes, “on account of what I felt was a climate of insecurity.” The teachers’ union, as critic Huan Saussy observes, “was not particularly dear to the heart of Papa Doc (François Duvalier, Haiti’s long-term dictator, first called to the presidency by election in 1957).
Méttellus first thought to go to Spain, not yet a democracy, but affordable, but in Paris he ran into friends who persuaded him to stay and study for the French medical entrance exams.
As the poet writes, “So I came here and stayed on in Paris accident. …The generosity of friends kept me alive. As a former teacher, I received some checks from the Haitian government during my first year of medical school…. I had a single suit of clothes I wore year round. But I passed the entrance exam even under those very difficult conditions.”
A job in the library of the Swiss Foundation of the University of Paris enabled him to spend whatever time he had left from his medical studies reading, Lorca, René Char, Louis Aragon, Tristan Tzara, André Breton, and other poets, as well as Balzac, “one of my favorite novelists.”
After two or three years of medical training, he began to write poems “just like that. And before I knew it I couldn’t stop. So I wrote a lot, quite a lot. And when I showed [Maruice] Nadeau what I had done up to then, he said: ‘Fine, I’ll publish you.’” The early poems appeared in Les Lettres Nouvelles, the review edited by Nadueau, as well as in publications such as Présence Africaine, Les Temps Modernes, and Europe Intégral. Simultaneously the author took his degree and was working in a Paris hospital as a neurologist. As with the American poet, William Carlos Williams, Méttellus has seen his live as one of living two parallel lives: “[Medicine] doesn’t enter into the poetry.” Yet, Métellus did research the pathology of language, leading to a dissertation presented for his doctorate in linguistics at the Sorbonne in 1975. “I don’t think I would have gone to linguistics if I weren’t already in neurology. It’s because we know a little about the structures of language in the brain that I wanted to do some linguistics, in order to try to compare what we neurologists know about the brain and what linguistics, for its part, helps us the understand…. But between those disciplines and my writing career, no connection.”
Métellus’ first literary works reached publication for in Au Pipirite chantant of 1978 (When the Pipirite Sings), one of the most formidable of first poetry collections, “a mountain of poems,” as the poet suggests, representing a vivid recreation of Haiti as perhaps only expatriates can see it.
Since that, Métellus has written numerous books about Haiti, its history, its failures, and his love for the country. He has written numerous novels, including Jacmel au crepuscule, La famille Vortex, Une eua-forte, L’année Dessalines, La parole prisonnière, and Los cacos, among anothers, most published by the august publishing house Gallimard. He has also published the dramas, Anacaona and Columb, as well as several books of essays. His poetry consists of seven volumes since his first publication, including Hommes de plein vent (1981), Voyance (1985), Le dieux pèlerins (1997), Voix négres, voix rebelles, 2000), La Peau (2006), and Éléments (2008). In 2011 Janus published reprinted Hommes de plein vent with hommes de plein ciel. Huan Saussy has translated his When the Pipirite Sings: Selected Poems into English.
—Douglas Messerli, based on material by Huan Saussy
BOOKS OF POETRY
Au Pipirite chantant (Paris: Les Lettres Nouvelles, 1978); Hommes de plein vent (Paris: Agence de co-opération culturelle et technique / Editions Silex, 1981; revised second edition, Ivry-au-Stein: Editions Nouvelles du Sud, 1992); Voyance (Paris: Hatier, 1985); Les dieux pèlerins (Ivry sur Seine: Editions Nouvelles du Sud, 1997); Voix négres, voix rebelles (Plantin: Le Temps de Cerises, 2000); La Peau (Parais: Seghers, 2006); Éléments (Paris: Janus, 2008); Hommes de plein vent, hommes de plein ciel (Paris: Janus, 2011)
ENGLISH LANGUAGE TRANSLATIONS
When the Pipirite Sings: Selected Poems, trans. with an Introduction by Huan Saussy (in manuscript)
No reprieve for the man steeped in the word
For life rolls and howls
Crazier than death’s embrace
More fevered than the eyelashes of the sun
Life might come tomorrow vaulting into my hut
To chase away the pain caked on my skin
Light up my shipwrecked cot
Make me forget my cradle of rain
And all the rippling banks of my nights
And all the rheumy sweep of glances
But the earth, the earth, the earth I worked yesterday
The earth still stuck to my face
The dirt I plowed
Went off with the last downpour
Carrying songs and seed into the sea
And now not even a caterpillar would willingly live under my feet
The fields’ teeth have chewed at my patience
And my breath is as fragile as a flower
—Translated from the French by Huan Saussy
(from Au Pipitrite chantant, 1978)
English language translation copyright ©2013 by Huan Saussy. Reprinted from When the Pipirite Songs: Selected Poems (in man uscript).