Poet, champion of Algerian independence, gay rights activist time. Jean Sénac was born near Oran in 1926 and died, victim of an unknown assassin, martyr to an unknown cause, in 1975. He published his first poem at the age of sixteen, and soon became involved in both french and Algerian literary communities. In 1950 he met Rene Char (whom he would come to consider his “master”) and Albert Camus, like him a pied noir, who called Sénac “mi hijo.” Returning to Algeria, he founded a literary political Journal and entered into contact with leading Algerian nationalists. In 1954 he broke with Camus over the issue of Algerian nationalism, even as his 135 first book-length collection, published in Paris, established him as a major voice among French-speaking Arab writers.
Under Ben Bella he was appointed to the Ministry of Education and made General Secretary of the Union of Algerian Writers. But Sénac who was neither Muslim nor truly an Arab, who wrote in the language of the French oppressors and counted many friends among them, and who openly avowed his homosexuality, quickly came to he seen as a political liability for the ultra-Islamic regime. He resigned from the Union; his readings on Radio Algeria were banned; and though he continued to meet and encourage many young poets, he was denied any kind of official recognition.
On September 4, 1973, the press reported that Sénac had been found stabbed in his apartment. The official explanation was “murder during a robbery.” But the alleged “murderer” (a friend of Sénac’s) was soon acquitted, and many feel to this day that Jean Sénac was assassinated by a political entity which, in the final account, had found him too free for its rigid notions of independence.
The following poems are from a posthumous collection, Dèrisions et vertige (1967-1972), published in 1983 by Actes Sud publishers, Aries.
KT from Oran
And here I am wondering about a simple hesitation in your ankles,
an unruly lock, a cracked note.
I explore your landscapes—estranged bride,
not yet nubile and already a wheel of flame.
I wonder while, heel on my
shoulder, you take leave of fire.
About you I know only
the weight of a little ink in a bookseller’s stall
and the rumbling of
keg-laden trucks on a ramp.
(Curved wood and the dregs of
childhood you lead me to.
Oh, to know nothing.
— I’ll call your name when your thighs
in hurried strokes weigh blue on the poem
you dredge from my body.)
I’ll call your name.
Approach of negation.
From thought rip the froth of tigresses.
Cull words from their own dung.
Don’t close your eyes when your twin thrusts
his tongue in up to the letter A.
A deluge can surge
when you expected just a nursery rhyme;
amid the watercress
a fifth season can take the sky by storm.
-Pointe-Pescade, 24126 April 1967.
First you saw the sun
with its five fingers,
all the blue of the sea
and the pleasure of tents. You saw
dazzling idleness (sleep and joy),
the leisure of words, and confidence.
the thistle —but on such a vast horizon!
And never death
in these sheets:
just a youthful body,
the nib of a pen.
You saw combat, denial,
but never in this wound the rolling of dunes,
God like a discarded crumb, man
in his undertakings, always set against his excrement.
“you saw the song,
But oh, solitude,
they didn’t see
your steely sea urchin
caught within my lines.
—Algiers, 6 May 1970.
Ode to Cernuda
Cursed be the language I speak.
Cursed my country and cursed my people.
Cursed be the moment when, marked by the marginal stone,
I emerged here. Cursed be
The source of all my glory and all my strength.
Toward that dark and slender torso,
Dazzled without erasure.
The space of desire;
Toward those solemn, vulnerable thighs
(If they ever build me an arch,
Let it be this one!);
Toward those lips ruined by the word,
Saved by a kiss, ’
The space of desire:
The poem dares to risk.
Their harangues and the charred fat of their laughter
Strike the enflamed marble —nothing burns them;
Their vulgarity is fireproof.
(Stupidity is also a phoenix; we didn’t know that.)
But we advance toward the primary form
(“. . . When the obvious sea
Under the irrefutable midday sun
Suspended my body
In the abdication of man before his god , . .”),
Always at the keenest point of mane and storm.
Toward the peril of the word. Annihilated, the image
Swirls and recomposes our universe. Breathable.
Our lungs become the Book. The breath of adolescents writes.
Nevermore than in these pupils does our rebel face admit
Its realm and its confusion. Pupils, planet, my exile.
My flying saucer, my island, my transmutation.
It would be so easy . . . Once the wall is cleared, the glairs
Track us down and resume their viscous days.
The repressive sentence: families, religions, laws.
Once more they make the sun into a metal sea urchin
To scrape across our lips—until they draw urine.
Cursed be my language, wetnurse of discord.
Cursed be my country that kisses only to spew out its pus.
But not the poem —May it remain forever
On that naked adolescent, the sea!
Like the other in Medina
We Bee, and yet each unmuddied step leads us back
To our people.
And cursed he who refuses his dream!
Yet from him arises —despite his whips —
This truth that matches me with the world,
These fresh bodies, pute and beautiful.
From him these surges that are light and reconciliation;
From his sand the naked agave that I favor among all plants.
And the sign of calcination.
And yet for me he is neither fatherland nor poem.
Out of that rocky ground, the scorpion’s refuge.
I will advance.
So different from you, so close.
Opaque older brother, mercury, dew on the thistle.
No mirror ever reflected more deeply
And the laurel’s fierce ordeals.
But oh Cernuda, in these cracks, these pockets, that from stars to desertion . . .
-Tipasa, 25 September 1970
*In French “le Ceme”
Talisman for Patrick
The chariot of Afou is my cusp.
Everything is there, waiting to be understood.
Precious trashbins, baskets of storms.
My wound, you are the smile of moons and teeth.
Another caress; the arabesques move.
Under my tongue your muscles compose springtime.
Caress. Tomorrow invents my past.
From memory to the place of glory
your hand bellows.
And they were dunes. Between our jaws,
tempests and bearings. They were
the paths of sabres, the cutting
fishbones of pain. And nude dancers,
divans on which to expire. And
phoenixes, in handfuls, too.
Some dates, a spring, the heart,
like a paim tree in nubile hands,
is always a metronome of joy,
We knew they would come:
mane of fire, loins of bronze,
hands of milk, the museum-piece eye dreaming,
the conquerors of this space between two nods.
We knew. Bled, we would not die.
They came! say my future years.
Covered in jasmine, wings. Volcanoes
of honey, molten marble. Columns.
They came! Erections and voyages, feasts.
It was they who placed on our lips,
with the saliva and semen, the word
Reconciliation. Key to the World.
Throats of beasts were no longer cut,
nor men’s. Rituals and pacts
were sealed in Essential Water.
Flint for necklaces.
I love you; there were no more defeats.
For each day a tunic in exchange.
I remember my future.
—Algiers, S December 1971.
Ode to Black America
for Marc Baudon
Free Man smokes. He blows his smoke in my mouth. The tenements explode.
A black child laughs, his fine wooly hair smoothed by no mildew.
We are not white-black. I am beautiful because I am black. I am beautiful because 1 am white. We are beautiful.
Blood is the color of Jericho roses, of dreams
Dreamed by the immigrant on his wretched straw mat (Slave traders, bosses, you will pay!), the color
Of dawn on the beaches of Chenua and California —
Blood when it blossoms on the skin, not when it spurts under your cudgels
(You will pay!), the joy of Jericho roses.
Free Man speaks. Between his hands a fantastic geography rises.
The pig-siren sinks into bones. Bur
Free Man speaks. His lungs block the pollution of America.
Blacks and whites breathe. We try to breathe. We dare, we begin.
Call for air. Free Man speaks.
Free Man gazes. Between his spear and his rifle. On this rattan that is Africa, Free Man
Gazes. His thighs embrace us. Free Man gets Hard. For freedom, for our Daily bread. Free Man
Fixes his gaze on the black, the woman, the homosexual,
the drug-addict, the white, green, blue. Free Man Fixes man’s destiny in his iris.
Leads it to peaks of fire. Under the cobblestones Lies the beach. Thank you, comrades! Free Man
Smokes. And Ho and Mao and Che and Palestine And Crazy Horse
And November and May, the zodiac
Of self-determination and E=mc² the
Goodness of Einstein and Char and Fanon And Artaud and
Angela who holds the thread of the Minotaur
And Genet on every chest and every mane of every freedom
And Ginsberg and Voznesensky and Ted Joans and Retamar and Opillen and Hikmet and Patrick MacAvoy and Sonia Sanchez and Depestre and Bias de Otero and Darwich and KhairEddine and Adonis and Cernuda and Whitman and
The electric tom-tom the song the percussion the whole
Song of Reason and of the Poem and
Madness with its soft lips of buttered bread on the hearts of Archie Shepp’s children
In the coals between his three fingers
Bear witness and
Each of us in this witness
Recognizes his own dignity and his pleasure.
The horror of man fangs bared. Free Man,
Whom I name for everyone, who is named for everyone:
The kids, the crushed, the ragged, the militants, the whole
Free Man smokes. Into my mouth he tosses
His future. The shanty towns explode.
And the great green raft of America in tears shakes its
Free Man smokes. His fist points to the wharf.
And the great raft of America in tears, drifting in the Oriental night, fascinated, wild, rebels, falls to pieces. Free Man
Sings. On his lyric thighs
The poem is no longer a sob.
—Algiers, 22 November 1970/22 February 1972.
translated from the French
by Mark Polizzotti