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  • Writer's pictureMichael Laxer

Across the turnpikes of tongues...

A poem in honour of Lenin's birth by Haitian poet Jean-Fernand Brierre

Written by Haitian poet Jean-Fernand Brierre this poem was first published in the USSR and excerpts of it were translated into English in 1970 for a Soviet publication in honour of the centenary of Lenin's birth. Brierre at the time of its writing was in exile from Haiti due to the Duvalier dictatorship and was living in Senegal.

Today is the anniversary of Lenin's birth.

Across the turnpikes of tongues...

On the threshold of April,

that red-letter month,

I write to you. Lenin,

From a white town—

While the east wind, the land-wind,

the harmattan,

Powders it with red-earth dust—

I write to you from a white town

That looks dusky to me, like Algiers,

Like a ripe black-hued grape

Growing by the walls of Roman Tipasa

I address you informally

As a child his father.

I write across the turnpikes of tongues,

Across the sand-drifts of time,

Scattered with cries of searing pain,

Boulders of dumb silence,

Layers of vanished empires.

I write from the soil of Africa...

How often the navel of ancient memory

Has been wrested from her soil!...

How often have the heavy links

Of the anchor chain

Of my far-flung exile snapped!...

Yet the bloody wound in my heart does not heal,

In my heart quartered by the agony of separation

From my native land.

I write on death's grey threshold,

But writing to you

I grow young again.

I want you to recognise me

By the guttural speech of the rising tide,

By the accent of the tocsin

In which Spartacus spoke of the people's afflictions

Above the silent crowd of tribes of many tongues.

My skin is any colour you like. Blue.


On the palette of the peoples of the Earth

The colour of my skin is applied

With a sharp rough dab.

On the transparent canvas of the new-born day,

Of which no one would ever say

Its explosion was white,

Is embroidered the colour of my skin

Mixed with the colours of the dawn.

The colour of my skin is the union of the honey of day

And the gall of night,

The velvet of tropical twilight,

The silken lapping of shadows.

My skin is any colour you like.

I have not cast it off or hung it up

On the peg of time,

For it was patiently spun by the sun and the night

And has woven into it forever

The Negro thread.

My skin is not a frontier but simply a sign

Not a dungeon but a notch made to aid the memory,

A secret etching engraved from within

With the stainless scalpel of pride.

Lenin, you moulded your warm name

From the clay and swelling waters of the river Lena.

You bought your cap and jacket at the same little shop

Where the workers bought their clothes.

Your words, so easily intelligible, with the stature of the working man,

Raise you on a pedestal.

From whose imperishable height


In all tongues you address


Your sweeping gesture cuts through the air

Like Pugachev's axe,

Like the torch of the Paris Commune.

Your black tie is like a token of mourning

For your own brother sent to the gallows.

Your loved books from childhood.

You were to solve

The equation of the age.

The designs of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels

You translated to the scale of Russia,

That mighty pyramid that towers

Amid the planetary chaos.

In the years of exile and banishment,

In the libraries of Paris and London

You read a great number of books

And on their covers fell the scarlet sheen

Of approaching October.

Sober, lucid fighter,

You took your place at the head of the visions and dreams

Nurtured for centuries

In the deathly cold of abject want.

Your shelter in summer Razliv

Contained the vast range

Of your bold, daring thoughts,

And the haystack lost amid the fields

Like a boat at sea on a dark night

Headed for the lighthouse of the future.

And that very same night,

Bathed in crystal light,

The palace facades on the Neva embankment

Sunk relentlessly into the mire

Of the doomed past.

I regard your brow, Lenin,

Your face is calm. I see not the cold sweat,

I see not the blood-stained shirt

Of the attentat.

The marble visage is serene...

No, I only know you alive!

And I raise my hand in greeting,

My hand that thirsts for hard work

And would be content to simply grasp the machete

On the sugar cane plantations

Of free Cuba, a stone's throw away

From my long-suffering isle...

I write to you, Lenin,

From Senegal, from a new country celebrating twice five-years

Of Independence,

Celebrating in the framework of ancient hopes.

I write to the throbbing of tom-toms,

Whose rhythm warms our advance

Towards justice

And full freedom.

Lenin, you're alive.

I hear your voice in the deeds of the Soviet peoples.

Your voice is like lightning.

Lightning knows not decay.

Up the stairway that leads to the future,

Up the great spiral

You go, leading people

In your wake.

And the road along which Yuri Gagarin first strode into space

Was shown, Lenin, by you.



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