When discussing Malagasy poetry, one name always comes up: Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo. Born in 1901, Rabearivelo is Madagascar’s most famous 20th century poet. His poetry is the product of a difficult life living under French colonial rule.
Feeling that his talents were being stifled and underappreciated in Madagascar, Rabearivelo long sought to study in France – where most of his favorite literature originated. He was denied the opportunity to study abroad and was so distraught that he took his own life before he was even 40 years old.
Despite his hard life, Rabearivelo’s poetry reveals almost a mystical connection between man and nature and a strong link to his Malagasy roots.
The following are a excerpts from two of Rabearivelo’s poems
when the flanks of the city were made as green
as moonbeams glancing through the forests,
when still they cooled the hillsides of Iarive
crouched like bulls after food,
upon these rocks, too steep for goats,
they drew apart to guard their springs.
Lepers in finery of flowers.
All the stars are melted together
in the crucible of time,
then cooled in the sea
and turned into a many-faceted stone-block.
A dying lapidist, the Night,
setting to work with all her heart
and all her grief to see her mills
like ashes in the wind,
cuts with what living care the prism.
(Rabearivelo excerpts courtesy of Dan Reboussin, Africana Collection, George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida)
Traditional Poetry and Oral Tales
Author and researcher Leonard Fox recently won a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts to support the translation of three of Rabearivelo’s works including “Almost Dreams” (1934), “Old Songs from Imerina Lands” (1939), and “Translated from the Night” (1935).
Fox previously translated traditional Malagasy poetry and oral tales in a book entitled “Hainteny: The Traditional Poetry of Madagascar.” In it, the link between the Malagasy people and their land is evident. There is a sense that their surroundings not only provide nourishment for the body, but fulfillment for the soul as well.
The following are excerpts from “Hainteny: The Traditional Poetry of Madagascar”:
Izaho vary ary hianao rano
an-tsaha tsy mifandao, an-tanana tsy misaraka
fa isak'izay mihaona
fitia vaovao ihany
I am the rice and you are the water:
they do not forsake each other in the country,
they do not part in the town
but each time they meet, there is truly new love
Tsy mba nahita izay fingadongadonan'ny volana aho
Tsy mba nahita izay fikatrokatrohan'ny masoandro
taro-daingo anie aho ka taro-daingo
alaina tsy azo, avela mora foana
Izany zavatra alaina tsy azo
avela mora foana izany
ka zavatra tsy aritra indrindra
I did not perceive the resounding tread of the moon,
I did not perceive the booming gallop of the sun.
I am a young laingo shoot and a young laingo shoot,
a young laingo shoot in a rocky cleft.
Attainment is impossible,
abandonment is very easy.
That which is impossible to attain,
but very easy to abandon,
is that which is most desirable.
Iza ry zoky iry avy atsimo?
be vositra be tsimiranga
ary ny tanany roa feno vola
ho anao ho ahy koa
ka raha tsy omeny?
raha tsy manome izy
fa fatra-pamolapolaka antsika
dia tsy mba manana antsika
hiverina any amin'ny anaran'ineny isika
sy ny lambantsika
fa tsingala miavona isika sy ny saina
ka izy irery no tsy tia
dia mitoto koba isika hatavy
fa ny dada tsy mba lany
izay tia samy ray avokoa
Elder brother, who is that coming from the south?
Our father, the Handsome-one-who-speaks-indistinctly
he has many oxen, many long-horned cattle,
and his hands are full of silver
for you and for me.
And if he does not give us any?
If he does not give us any,
but cuts us off in earnest,
then we will have nothing,
but we will turn back and return to our mother,
together with our lambas,
for we are proud, like the tsingala,
and our spirits are proud.
And if he is the only one who does not love,
we will grow fat pounding our own rice flour,
for there is no lack of fathers:
all those who love us are fathers.
(Leonard Fox’s “Hainteny” excerpts courtesy of Associated University Presses)