blackbirdonline journalFall 2016  Vol. 15 No. 2
an online journal of literature and the arts
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The Most Dangerous Crossing:
Reconstituting Nationality in Josué Guébo’s Songe à Lampedusa

Josué Guébo’s Songe à Lampedusa garnered international attention when the book won the 2014 Tchicaya U Tam'si Prize for African Poetry, an award for an innovative poetic work by an African writer. Named after Congolese writer Tchicaya U Tam'si (1931–1988), the award is often considered the continent’s most prestigious poetry prize. Guébo’s collection of serial poems takes as its theme the 2013 shipwreck that killed 366 Africans attempting to secretly migrate to Europe, a tragedy that initiated the Italian government’s response to the crossings. The poems combine elements of mythology and history in order to traverse the Mediterranean, not only as a literal space, but also as a space of expectation, anxiety, hope, and anguish for migrants. The poems excerpted here in Blackbird open the collection. I’ve translated the title as Think of Lampedusa, and would like immediately to add my reservations about that choice, or, anyway, to nuance the translation, as there are meanings for songe that will not otherwise cross into English.

Songe, while it can mean “think,” implies a certain kind of thinking. “Consider” would have been a viable alternative. Reading W.S. Merwin’s translations of Jean Follain’s poems in Transparence of the World, I see Merwin translating the adjectival form of songer, songeuse, as “pensive”—sa toux songeuse, his pensive cough. Songer has this introspective quality, a dose of longing. Songe is the imperative form of songer, but Guébo has chosen the familiar imperative, (tu) songe, rather than the formal imperative, (vous) songez. He implores a singular “you,” rather than a plural and more abstract “you,” to think. Guébo imparts a quality of intimacy, of direct address, through this choice. “Dream” could also have worked as a translation, or “imagine.” But not enough action is felt, not enough forward movement is connoted in “dream” or “imagine”—that’s not the way those words resonate in American English, for me, anyway. Around the topic of immigration in the U.S. context, “dream” is attached to a narrative of futurity, a kind of reverie—too stagnant, too hypothetical. “Dream” is not concrete enough to include the material conditions that demand an immediate decision: do something. Travel country to country to country. Admittedly, this choice, “think” instead of “dream,” may just betray my own pessimism about the contrast between the American Dream broadcast to the world and the reality of the U.S.’s structural inequality, in which access to that dream—the promise of safety and upward mobility—is austerely managed.

So, “think.” Think of Lampedusa. Lampedusa is the southernmost island in Italy, seventy miles away from Tunisia. The crossing from North Africa to this island and other Mediterranean way stations has become the most dangerous migrant route in the world. It has become so at a time when, according to former United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres, we are “witnessing a paradigm change, an unchecked slide into an era in which the scale of global forced displacement as well as the response required is now clearly dwarfing anything seen before.” As concerned as he is with the specific maritime disaster that killed 366 Africans, Guébo is also interested in what is producing such epic displacement—and let “epic,” here, maintain its literary connotations. Guébo reaches into antiquity, refocusing the story of Ulysses, for instance, to consider the long history of narratives and bodies trafficked across the Mediterranean Sea. What did it—and what does it—connect and separate? Whose sea is it? Mare Nostrum was the Roman name for the sea—“Our Sea” in Latin—and was the name chosen for the sea rescue operation that the Italian government initiated.

Guébo attends to what gets left behind. What motivates a person to become part of what Guébo calls a “seasonal suicide epidemic”? He looks forward, too: “the wave would also know the happiness of the survivors / their wait in the alpine summit of Lukmanier Pass / They are the shivering stockage of a land that fears / the fears of this other  . . . ” The book is not elegy—or, not only. Guébo thinks through notions of departure versus flight from calamity. This is not a poem of escape or exile, but an inquiry into expanded belonging. What one leaves is often also what one is trying to get back to. Suspended between sky and sea, surrounded by horizon, a too-easily polarized or polarizing world becomes visible. Northern versus southern hemisphere, G8 versus non-imperial nations. The migrants of Guébo’s vision drift in-between; they are joined beyond nationality.

Think of Lampedusa is a long poem full of leaps and returns, and one way to read it might be in tandem with édouard Glissant’s notion of errantry from his Poetics of Relation. Errantry “is not a resolute act of rejection or an uncontrolled impulse of abandonment.” Within this concept, Glissant’s description of “circular nomadism” particularly befits Guébo’s portrayal of these transitioning Africans, or harragas, a term Guébo also uses. Harraga is an Arabic word that means “the burners” or “those who burn” and refers to the North Africans who burn their immigration papers if they face capture. “Circular nomadism” describes journeys made not out of aggression or daring, a movement that Glissant contrasts with “arrowlike nomadism.” Arrowlike nomadism is a conquesting enterprise—it is the colonial mission. And through this directive the concept of culture creates itself out of opposition; the Other is barbarian, savage. But with circular nomadism, encountering an Other serves to demonstrate distinction, a multiplicity of differences that creates a union without imposing any universal identity or totalizing subject position or citizenship. For Guébo, as for Glissant, particularities are constituted in conjunction with a circulating universality.

Guébo’s Mediterranean is a site of exchange between Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. The sea has, in historic terms, only recently been policed by a European Union. Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt assert in Empire that “circulating is the first ethical act of a counterimperial ontology.” And perhaps this conceit, too, is helpful in considering the dynamics of this space and its implications for the diasporic lives marked by myriad racial and cultural distinctions.

Is it tone deaf for a translator to apply such aspirational political perspectives to the voices of the drowning, dead, imperiled, and displaced? Guébo’s text intends such agency. The roving consciousness of his speaker speaks from amongst these voices:

. . . from the infatuated hive of this chapter
I desire to say “I love you”
but each word lists on
the scale of my rupturing heart
I would be joined then
in the watertight silence
because honestly
since the day before my dear
I am no longer of flesh . . .

This is not the international media, not a nongovernmental organization’s report. This is an African poet witnessing around him the lives of those who decide to try to leave Africa, and who hears from those who have found stability on the far shores, and from those who have made bridges for themselves by which they can come and go with relative security. But what a terrifying risk to achieve this right of mobility—to depart, rather than to take flight.  

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