Four Poems from “Cargo Hold of Stars: Coolitude” by Khal Torabully, translated from the French by Nancy Naomi Carlson

Still Life
Still Life with Flowers, Alexander Chubar

Translator’s note

This selection of four translations of poems by Khal Torabully, from Mauritius, come from the forthcoming translation of his seminal work, Cargo Hold of Stars: Coolitude (Seagull Books, 2021), translated by Nancy Naomi Carlson. This book gives voice to the millions of indentured workers from the turn of the century who were forced to endure horrendous conditions during transoceanic voyages from China, India, and elsewhere to Mauritius, and again, while working in the sugar cane fields in the colonies. Torabully has taken the derogatory term “coolie” and coined the term “coolitude,” in much the same way Aimé Césaire coined the term “negritude,” imbuing it with honor and pride. Wordplay, sound patterns, and neologisms underscore the violence of his themes.

[Our foremasts don’t measure]

Our foremasts don’t measure
the gaps between stars.
Sometimes our holds seem to grasp
the intimate immensity
bridging our skies and our eyes.

Nos mâts de misaine ne mesurent pas
les distances entre les étoiles.
Quelquefois nos cales semblent comprendre
l’immensité intime
entre nos cieux et nos yeux.


[O woman]
for Chantal  Metzger

O woman, the crossing is darkness
softness of a warm star
scorched in a nearby sky.

The hand doesn’t plan
for every small pore of passage:
that’s how water and storm
lie down in delight and lighten the sky.

à Chantal  Metzger

O femme, le voyage est ombre
douceur d’étoile chaude
au proche ciel brûlée.

La main ne prémédite pas
à chaque petit pore de passage :
c’est ainsi que l’eau et l’orage
s’allongent et allègent le ciel.


[I aim to blame blood]

I aim to blame blood.
Why didn’t you free me from sulfur?
On Île de la Passe*
my element traces
erases
my journey by sea.
For
at last I’ll be able to dream
of a trial in the past tense.
O paille en queue
take heaving seas
and make coolies.

I aim
to remake blood.
O paille en queue
take back the depths
give back the flesh.

*Translator’s Note: Île de (la) Passe is a small Mauritian island captured by the British, from the French in 1810. The paille en queue is a beautiful bird from the Indian Ocean, and is featured in a Mauritian nursery rhyme: “Quand il pleuvait, paille en queue prends la pluie et donne soleil.” (“When it rains, paille en queue takes the rain and makes sun stay.)

Je prétends condamner le sang
Pourquoi ne m’avez-vous délivré du soufre ?
A l’île de Passe
mon élément trace
efface
mon passage
Car
Je saurai enfin rêver
d’un procès au passé
O paille en queue
prends roulis
et donne coolie.

Je prétends
refaire les sangs.
O paille en queue
reprends la mer
redonne la chair.


[Om]

Om
but the sea swoons
with delight in holy purity
but sand breaks the stone
that covers my face

who will perform my ablution
before the dirty waves?

Om

mais la mer jouit
de pureté divine
mais le sable casse la pierre
dont mon visage est couvert

qui fera mon ablution
devant les vagues sales?

✶✶✶✶

Khal-Torabully photo 2017Khal Torabully is an award-winning Mauritian poet, essayist, film director, and semiologist who has authored some twenty-five books, including over a thousand poems. Originally a Dutch colony, Mauritius passed into the hands of the French, then the British, before finally becoming independent in 1968. Half a million Indian indentured workers passed through the Aapravasi Ghat (immigration depot) in Port Louis in the years between 1849-1923, with many staying to work in the sugar cane fields as a cheap source of labor after slavery was abolished in 1834, and others being shipped off to former colonies around the globe. Khal has reenvisioned and reimagined the term “coolie,” transforming it into a proud cultural identity.

Nancy_mid-hair, piano.3Nancy Naomi Carlson is a poet, translator, essayist, and editor, and has authored ten titles (six translated). An Infusion of Violets (Seagull 2019) was named a “New & Noteworthy” title by The New York Times. A recipient of two translation grants from the NEA, she was a finalist for the Best Translated Book Award and the CLMP Firecracker Poetry Award. Her work has appeared in such journals as APR, The Georgia Review, The Paris Review, and Poetry. An associate editor for Tupelo Press, she holds two doctorates (one in foreign language methodology) and has been decorated with the rank of Chevalier in the Order of the French Academic Palms. She is a professor of graduate counseling at Walden University.

Chubar (1)Alexander Chubar holds a BFA from Hunter College and a MFA from the Pratt Institute. His work has previously been published in Gone Lawn, Gemini Magazine, Subprimal Poetry Art/Music, The Tishman Review, Storm Cellar, and several other publications.