obscure poets: jean-joseph rabéarivelo

by Kristen McHenry

Jean-Joseph Rabéarivelo lived his short and tumultuous life on the island of Madagascar during the time of French colonial rule. He was born in the capital Antananarivo (Tananarive) in 1901 to a mother who had once been a Malagasy aristocrat but who lost her property and fell into poverty after French colonization.

Rabéarivelo attended mainly French Catholic schools, until being expelled at the age of 13. After a brief stint in public school, he dropped out entirely and worked at various odd jobs, all the while reading voraciously and teaching himself everything he could about poetry. He eventually found low-paying work as a proofreader at the printing house Imprimerie de l’Imerina, a position he retained until his death in 1937.

During Rabéarivelo’s lifetime, the French placed heavy restrictions on writing in Malagasy (the native language of Madagascar), and all texts written in French by the Malagasy people were automatically classified as French literature. Rabéarivelo acted as a sort of dual ambassador for French literature as well as traditional Malagasy literature. He was heavily influenced by both the French Surrealists and the pagan/folkloric traditions of the native Malagasy.

He wrote in French and Malagasy, and was as deeply invested in preserving Malagasy literature and language as he was in expanding on the work of the French Surrealists. Rabéarivelo translated several works of Malagasy into French. He encouraged French-language texts by Malagasy writers to be recognized as Malagasy literature.

In part because of his commitment to both languages and traditions, Rabéarivelo was held in suspicion and banned from traveling by the French government, yet he was never fully embraced by his native Malagasy. He resisted definition and continued to pursue his poetic vision while confined to a life of relative poverty on the island.

He started a literary journal called Capricorne, contributed articles and critical essays to numerous publications, mastered the Spanish language, and translated many poems. Over the course of his lifetime, seven volumes of his poetry were published. His accomplishments were accompanied by agonizing personal difficulties, including drug addiction, depression and physical illness. He married in his early 20s. He and his wife had five children, including a daughter who died at age 3.

In spite of his personal anguish, Rabéarivelo’s poems reflect an ethereal, mythic universe and a deep connection to the natural world. In the poem “You There,” Rabéarivelo speaks of a mysterious symbiotic connection to the earth, birth and growth:

You there
standing naked!
You are mud and remember it –
actually you’re the child of this parturient dark
who feeds on the milkstuff of the moon,
then slowly grows into a trunk
above this low wall the dreams of flowers crawl over
and the smell of summer at a lull.

To feel, believe, that roots push from your feet
and slide and turn like thirsty snakes
down to an underground spring
or clutch the sand,
and marry you to it so soon — you, alive
tree, unknown, unidentified tree
swelling with fruit you’ll have to pick yourself.

His poem “The Three Birds” also reflects an affinity for the spiritual reflected in the natural world:

The Three Birds

The bird of iron, the bird of steel
who slashed the morning clouds
and tried to gouge the stars
out beyond the day
is hiding as if ashamed
in an unreal cave.

The bird of flesh, the bird of feathers
who tunnels through the wind
to reach a moon he saw in a dream
hanging in the branches
falls in tandem with the night
into a maze of brambles.

But the bird that has no body
enchants the warden of the mind
with his stammering aria,
then opens his echoing wings
and rushes away to pacify all space
and only returns immortal.

Rabéarivelo’s unusual use of language is present in this translation of a traditional Malagasy poem, “Lamba.” An excerpt of that poem reads:

Few trees bloom without leaves,
Few flowers bloom without perfume
and few fruits mature
without pulp you have the foliage,
you have the perfume,
you have the pulp of the old tree
that is my race in lamba.

Your name rhymes well with legs
in this long that I chose
to protect my name of the forgetting,
in this language which speaks to the soul
while ours murmurs to the heart.

Your name rhymes well with legs
with the legs which cover
your transparent sharpness:
But you, you rhyme well with several other things in my thought.

Your appearance rhymes with rocks, in Imerina.
When there is feast and that the crowd goes on terraces:
With the strips of peaceful egrets
which come to arise on the forests of rushes
as soon as the sun capsizes.

Petri Liukkon, at Books and Writers, says of Rabéarivelo: “By replacing the reality of a colonized civilization with his own images, he created a new isolated world, full of melancholy and bitter-sweet beauty.”

In spite of his quiet rebellion against French control, Rabéarivelo’s lifelong dream was to live and write in France. An opportunity arose for him to represent the colony through a special French program, but it was denied when a group of basket-weavers were selected instead. Grief-stricken by the death of his daughter and feeling that he lost his last only chance to realize his ambitions, Rabéarivelo committed suicide by poisoning at the age of 37. Some reports claim that he recorded his dying moments in his journal.

Unfortunately it was very challenging to find a wide selection of Rabéarivelo’s work online. But don’t despair! Rabearivelo’s book Translated From The Night is available through the publisher Lascaux Editions, with English translations by Robert Zillar.

Note: Translations of “You There” and “Three Birds” by Kelli Boyles.

kristen mchenryKristen McHenry works on poetry by night and health outreach by day. She created and facilitates the Poet’s Cafe, a weekly poetry workshop for homeless teens. She shares poetry and her thoughts on writing at The Good Typist.

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5 comments to obscure poets: jean-joseph rabéarivelo

  • Another great column, Kristen! I’m sure I never would have heard of Rabearivelo had you not written about him.

    Kristen McHenry replied:

    Thanks, Nathan! I enjoyed putting it together. It was great to learn more about Rabearivelo’s life, not to mention the absolutely fascinating history of Madagascar.

  • MadelineD

    Thank you for introducing me to this poet. I will seek him out. The work you present in your post is gorgeous.

    Kristen McHenry replied:

    Madeline, I’m glad you enjoyed it. I thought his work was beautiful, too. I have not ordered his book “Translations from the Night” yet (well, actually, I thought I had, but Amazon sent me the wrong book, in French–no translations!), but I have it on my wish list and will order it soon.

  • Fascinating man and poet. Gorgeous words. Thanks for writing this column, Kristen. I come back to it over and over.

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