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Michel Ducasse : Poetry everywhere

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This is a voice which carries well beyond the island of his birth to share with us the here and the elsewhere. To feed this dialogue, the poet has translated some of the world’s great poems into Creole. 

“The words took me by the hand,” says Michel Ducasse in memory of Louis Aragon. “I was only six when my mother, a great crossword fan, would constantly ask me to look words up in our big Larousse dictionary. Feverishly, I would turn the pages, eagerly looking at the three letters at the top of each page, searching for the treasure. That huge book held the whole world.”

It was also his mother who passed on her passion for French songs. He discovered Brassens, Léo Ferré, Cabrel. “I was 15 when I discovered Jacques Brel’s album Les Marquises. Such emotion as I heard the horizontal rain (la pluie traversière), so typical of the islands. Ever since then, I have written poetry.”

 

Languages of the heart

 

 

In Mauritius, although the official language is English, “the languages of the heart” are French and Creole. “They are not merely mother tongues: they mothered me,” he smiles.

The other living source is the island itself and his childhood in Goodlands, in the north of the country, where his parents opened a chemists’ in 1965. At that time, it was only a village surrounded by fields of cane. A large part of the population, mainly Hindu, worked for the Saint-Antoine sugar factory. “I went to the state school and that is where I learnt to respect others and their differences – cultural, social, and religious. The Goodlands school taught me the Mauritius that I love, multi-level and diverse, tolerant and human.”

As a young man at the Royal College in Port Louis, he fell in love with the English romantic poets, Keats, Shelley, Blake, and with Shakespeare’s plays. From 18 to 26, he went to France to study literature in Nancy, and discovered the committed works of René Char, Louis Aragon, Eugène Guillevic and more.

 

Speaking worlds

For more than forty years now, words, languages, and rhythms weave in and out in an exquisite yet discreet work. Michel Ducasse takes his time. There’s no hurry. A great walker, he contemplates the inner landscape as he wanders along. He was 39 when he published his first collection, alphabet. Others followed with the same patient fervour. In 2017, he composed Enn bouke bwa tanbour: a “bouquet” of poems by his “travelling companions” – from Charles Baudelaire to Emily Dickinson, John Keats and Tagore – which he translated and transposed into Creole, the island’s mother tongue.

Thus, for the first time, Rimbaud’s Le Dormeur du val returns as “Afale dan verdir”; Prévert’s Les Enfants qui s’aiment as “Zanfan lamour”; Victor Hugo’s “bouquet de houx vert” becomes a bouquet of tambourissa – from the name of the Mauritian endemic plant.

“Translation is not just imitation. I keep closely to the form and meaning, but I also add my own personal touch. It means recreating, reinventing, and sometimes transposing the meaning. This collection came from my desire to share with my people the words of the great poets who made me what I am today, and thus to break down the borders of the imagination.”

 

Kreol, vital and alive

“To write in Creole, Michel Ducasse continues, is to invite people to discover a different, more fraternal imaginative world. The language of slaves evolved from French and several African and Madagascan languages, in answer to the urgent need to communicate to survive. Long despised, it conceals something fundamentally vital. It continues to evolve with each successive migration, adding words from ancestral languages like Hindi, Tamil and Urdu. Alive, forever.”

To widen the field of vision, the poet has invited his old friends, the graphic designer Patrice Offman and the painter Ennri Kums. Thus the “bouke” of words has grown richer with the addition of Creole images and friezes, thick pastel drawings, dark and deep. Inspired and inspiring, Enn bouke bwa tanbour is an eminently fraternal act.

 

 

By Fanny Riva
Photograph Karl Ahnee