Sunday, June 09, 2024

At the brink of dawn, the morne

 At the brink of dawn, the morne, forgotten, forgetful of blowing up.

- Aimé Césaire, Notebook of a Return to My Native Land 

Near the start of Césaire's long poem about Martinique there are five passages beginning 'at the brink of dawn, the morne.' To an English reader it sounds like a reference to morning, but he is actually talking about a West Indian landscape feature. The Bloodaxe translation by Mireille Rosello and Annie Pritchard includes a glossary and this is their explanation:

morne: In the West Indies, the word 'mornes' designates hills of volcanic origins. Metropolitan French people would not be familiar with the term. Symbolically, the 'morne' is linked with marooning because runaway slaves usually tried to hide there. Sometimes groups of maroons managed to establish more permanent settlements. In Caribbean literature, a paradigm exists opposing the plain, cane fields, submissiveness and the 'morne,' marooning, revolt and the woods.

I have never travelled in the West Indies but a quick google will show up 'mornes' in various islands aside from Martinique (where le Morne-Vert, le Morne-Rouge and Gros-Morne are the names of three Communes). There is Morne Fortune on Saint Lucia, Morne-à-l'Eau on Guadeloupe and various Dominican volcanoes with names like Morne aux Diables and Morne Plat Pays. Travellers to Martinique like Paul Gauguin and Lafcadio Hearn encountered mornes. A University of Plymouth blog post describes a visit to Morne d'Orange in pursuit of the vantage point from where Gauguin painted Martinique Landscape, now in the National Gallery of Scotland. A Telegraph article mentions Morne Lacroix in this context and quotes a curator who says it was painted from Habitation Beauregard - anyway, it's a bit confusing, but safe to say a morne is undoubtedly involved somewhere!


Paul Gauguin, Martinique Landscape, 1887


Lafcadio Hearn's Two Years in the French West Indies includes another definition of mornes: they 'usually have those beautiful and curious forms which bespeak volcanic origin even to the unscientific observer: they are most often pyramidal or conoid up to a certain height; but have summits either rounded or truncated;—their sides, green with the richest vegetation, rise from valley-levels and coast-lines with remarkable abruptness, and are apt to be curiously ribbed or wrinkled.' Search for 'mornes' in his text and you'll find numerous descriptions of landscape. I'll quote just one here, on the mornes of Martinique (ths could literally be described as purple prose):

Day wanes. The further western altitudes shift their pearline gray to deep blue where the sky is yellowing up behind them; and in the darkening hollows of nearer mornes strange shadows gather with the changing of the light—dead indigoes, fuliginous purples, rubifications as of scoriae,—ancient volcanic colors momentarily resurrected by the illusive haze of evening. And the fallow of the canes takes a faint warm ruddy tinge. On certain far high slopes, as the sun lowers, they look like thin golden hairs against the glow,—blond down upon the skin of the living hills. 

This is not how mornes appear in Notebook of a Return to My Native Land. Césaire's island is a 'sick paradise' (Mireille Rosello), with colonial diseases, rural poverty and a long history of slavery. Hearn describes a beautiful sunset view; here is Césaire's morne at the brink of dawn...

At the brink of dawn, the morne squatting in front of a boulimia a craving for thunderstorms and mills, slowly vomiting its human exhaustion, the morne alone and its spilt blood, the morne with its bandages of shade, the morne with its rivulets of fear, the morne with its great hands of wind.


Mike C. said...

Lafdacio Hearn? Brother of the more famous Lafcadio? (sorry)


Plinius said...

Thanks Mike! Yes he was named after the Greek island of Lefkada and then it was spelled differently in English. I got it right last time I mentioned him - here.