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Underneath a Paperweight: A personal reflection on Léon Laleau’s Paris poems

2014 Number 3 - The Singing of the Scythe

Laleau has given me an unexpected insight into how I relate to my father and even my own identity. The ache of a maturing black man lurks in every corner of life, in family, in friendship and in his relationships with women.

I had not come across the poetry of Léon Laleau before reading John Gallas’ translations of his Paris poems, and yet I was immediately struck by the familiarity of voice I felt in the poems. He is documented as a writer, poet, politician and diplomat; however, his work in literature seems to be regarded as secondary to his work in diplomacy. It is his signature on the 1934 treaty that would end America’s nineteenyear occupation of Haiti.

In the simple snapshot of timelines, there is a real gap between us. Laleau died almost exactly a full year before I was born, so there is no overlap between the years of his life and mine. Searching for clues about him also proved limited, at least, from English-language sources. In a letter written to John Gallas by his grandson Pierre Laleau, Léon Laleau is warmly regarded. He is equally remembered for his humour and accomplishments as he is for keeping a small photograph of a beautiful woman underneath a paperweight – not a photograph of Pierre’s grandmother.

From these scraps of information, I found or created the source of my uncanny sense of familiarity. Léon Laleau’s life still retains an air of mystery, even to the closest members of his family – a Haitian family, probably as full of secrets as mine. Seeing Laleau’s photo made me hunt for a portrait of my grandfather and his children. The sense of an unanswered, family mystery is a feeling I strongly associate with my grandfather’s picture. Although the time periods and social classes aren’t an exact match, both photographs are close enough in era.

The historical period of Laleau’s birth – between the 1890s and the First World War – is when the earliest Chinese families left crumbling dynasties to begin commerce in places like Brazil or Jamaica. Like my grandfather, a small number of émigrés ended up in Haiti and decided to stay there. As the First World War intensified, the American military class that was occupying Haiti was re-assigned and many of the prominent districts of Port-Au-Prince were soon re-inhabited by a growing middle class that included Chinese entrepreneurs, workers and gamblers, many of whom had already intermarried and begun to raise families. My own family was a product of this movement. My father is not actually in this family photo as he is not legitimately a part of the family, but as far as I could remember, he prized the photograph, spoke animatedly about his half-brothers and sisters, although we never saw them.

Before he migrated to the Americas, one of my father’s half-brothers helped him legally change his surname to Pun, which would finally allow him to be recognised as his father’s son. The change would also bring him a lifetime of ambiguity concerning his ethnic origin, an ambiguity that he welcomed heartily. With an American passport, hard-to-place facial features and an unusual surname, he felt freed from identity. Whilst growing up, my father took a strong line against his children learning French and we spoke Creole only to our elders who couldn’t speak English. To this day, my father still has a witty comment prepared in order to circumvent questions about where he is from. Compared to my mother, he appeared closed to Haitian culture and seemed apathetic to any news about Haiti. As a child I found his elusiveness upsetting, shamefully secretive, and deeply mysterious.

Stories like my father’s, are not unusual in the Caribbean. One legacy of slavery and colonialism has been the intensification of racial preoccupations. It was not unusual to visit the houses of my relatives to find the adults taking an interest in the degree my complexion and hair texture showed my hybridity. Although the physiognomical attitudes of Laleau’s poems can be difficult to engage with, the concerns are very real. The off-the-cuff, tragi-comic lines such as in ‘Jazz’, where each of the players are tagged by their origins or jeers such as ‘the big half-caste with a hairy nose’ are dogged reminders that nationality and racial attributes, namely hair and skin are given undue importance.

What interests me in these poems is how, in a few words, the troubling biological inheritances of race as well as inherited social privileges (or prejudices) of nationality are shown as complex and deeply affecting. It is this aspect of Laleau’s poems that gave me some insight and a new sensitivity about my father’s attitudes to identity. As a member of Haiti’s established upper class, a live connection with France was Laleau’s birthright, and yet, he was almost freakishly, much darker than all his siblings. Closer perhaps to the Haitian peasant class than the mixed-race, upper class, of which he considered himself a part. Such insecurities underpin these poems, and also undermine his apparent chauvinism, revealing a very vulnerable and relatable human voice. And whilst the sexual politics of the poems might raise eyebrows, I have reserved judgment, as the work is rich and interesting for what it tells us about this period and the context in which it was written.

In his poem ‘Anti-lines’, Laleau opens with ‘Tropical summer has roasted | my face | which I touch on your blouse-flower | Dorothy...’

and this moment of self-reflection also addresses an emotional thread that runs throughout the work: the charade of how we carry ourselves off as a united entity, in the face and body of lovers, and also, though differently, in the societies we need (sometimes desperately) to physically accept us. Somehow, Laleau manages to be economical and yet enormously revealing, both intentionally uncomplicated and sophisticated. Unlike his contemporaries such as Langston Hughes or Aimé Césaire, these poems keep a certain distance from moralising on the racial politics of the time. Instead, his human experience, voice and personality shine through.

Laleau is already spending his political energy as a diplomat and the sensibility of diplomacy is to understand ‘the other’ to some degree – flirting between complicity and empathy is perhaps a manoeuvre diplomats know very well. But more important than race or politics is how they manage to dance…

            We’re the sleekest pair on the dancefloor. 
            The jazz trombone brays like a carhorn.

These Paris poems although immersed in the boozy thrills, music and dance of the early Rag and Jazz period show a simultaneous dulling of the spirit, the ‘two-faced kisses’ and ‘soul-cocooning hour of muffled pain’ that his poem ‘Discipline’ explains as the fate of every old blackman.

Laleau has given me an unexpected insight into how I relate to my father and even my own identity. The ache of a maturing black man lurks in every corner of life, in family, in friendship and in his relationships with women. ‘Who cares if roses, mimosas don’t last two evenings?’ is effortless and tragic and the reader is stricken with the real of sense of the party and its apathy.

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