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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Sylvain tackles ‘Love’ and ‘Loss’ during ‘Night of Haitian Poetry’

Published: January 28, 2011
Section: Arts, Etc.

As part of an evening celebrating Haitian poetry, Brown University Professor Patrick Sylvain used his strong and vibrant poems to voice the pain, the strength and the love that have been prevalent themes among the Haitian people.

The night was one of the efforts of Professor Jane Hale (FRE) to incorporate more of Haitian culture into the Brandeis community as well as part of the Haiti Initiative, which was launched after the devastating earthquake on Jan. 12, 2010 to help improve the lives of the people of Haiti. Sylvain read the works of several Haitian poets, as well his own, launching a discussion with Brandeis students about the present state of Haiti and its potential for positive change.

Sylvain performed a few poems from his book titled “Love, Lust and Loss,” a powerful and personal collection of works. His collection resulted from a challenge issued by Paul Laraque, a fellow poet who edited the first bilingual collection of Haitian Creole poetry, “Open Gate.” Sylvain said that Laraque argued that “a lot of poetry written in Haitian is very political, I would like a book about the personal.” Sylvain definitely succeeded. The poems Sylvain read from the collection were poignant (one about his first encounter with his wife was particularly beautiful) and painful.

One of the most memorable and heart-wrenching of Sylvain’s pieces dealt with his grief over his father’s death. The poem is an exploration of how poetry can help ease tremendous pain, a theme that pervaded the evening’s discussion. He described poetry and prose as “molasses to sooth life’s bitter taste.” During the discussion that followed his readings, he explained how writing helps people “bear witness” to traumatic experiences. He said, “Pain is something we must confront.”

Sylvain’s poems weren’t all somber, however, some incorporated his love of jazz music—some even arguably traversed the line between poetry and music, creating an entertaining and interesting performance. Later that evening, he explained how music is a necessary part of his writing process. “Language is music … I’m a jazz head. I have to listen to music when I write … it gets you into a zone where you have to reflect.”

While most of Sylvain’s poetry dealt with personal themes, he also dealt with the political. His “Stanzas for a Silent Executive” was a criticism of the Haitian government’s 19 days of silence following the earthquake. The poem used apocalyptic imagery of a city “canvassed by dust” with “topsy-turned streets… and cutting-edge poverty” to illustrate a country that needed to hear words of guidance, something from their leaders. He read, “I know you are not a wordsmith, but your tongue must be baffled by your mouth’s silence.”

Throughout the discussion after his reading, Sylvain broached controversial subjects, which gave his poems about pain and love greater meaning. On the present state of Haiti, Sylvain was blunt, “Haiti is tough,” he said, “I’m not going to romanticize about that.” He indicated that there was a certain level of civility that was missing in Haiti, largely due to an almost absent government. However, he stated that Haitians continual resilience was due to the fact that “Haitians are a loving people. They love life.” Sylvain suggested that positive change for Haiti would come from the youth, who do not operate under an agenda and have “energy and vision.”

Another enriching part of the discussion was Sylvain’s comparisons of Haitian culture to American culture. He compared America’s pragmatic individualism to Haiti’s emphasis on the collective. “If an American wins the lottery, that’s his money. He doesn’t have to give it away. He can, but he isn’t under an obligation.” In contrast, in his example he explained how in Haiti he would have to give the money to a large community of relatives.

“A Night of Haitian Poetry” provided the Brandeis community with a peek into the different and vibrant culture of Haiti through the powerful voice of Patrick Sylvain.