Friday, May 2, 2014

THE MASTER OF CAJUN AND CREOLE POETRY

An important figure, dressed in black turtle neck sweater and black slacks who often stands in the background of my poetry readings is that of the "Dean of Poetry in Louisiana"—Darrell Bourque. Darrell, a cherished friend and former poet laureate of Louisiana, was recently named Louisiana Writer of the Year by the State Library of Louisiana and will be honored at the Louisiana Book Festival this fall. Most of us who enjoy his friendship know that he's a strong supporter of the literary arts, of both young and old poets and writers.

Sunday, Darrell was among those gathered for the book signing of Porch Posts at Belmont Plantation in New Iberia, Louisiana, and I knew exactly where he stood, his poet's ear alert to the essays Janet Faulk-Gonzales and I had written and were reading to a gathering of approximately fifty people. Afterward, I wished that I had asked Darrell to read one of his newest poems from a fascinating collection entitled if you abandon me, comment je vas faire: An Amédé Ardoin Songbook. The chapbook includes fourteen unrhymed sonnets about the early Louisiana Creole musician, Amédé Ardoin, who composed and sang songs in Louisiana Creole French and whose music inspired Darrell to write if you abandon me for the Louisiana Series of Cajun and Creole Poetry. This series was founded to highlight work created by exceptional poets of Franco-American descent, which includes Darrell's important contribution.

Amédé Ardoin, a once-popular Louisiana Creole singer and accordionist, was a tragic figure in the Acadian music world. Ardoin, one of the first musicians to record Cajun music, was the victim of a racial attack in which he was beaten on a night some time between 1939-1940 after a performance at a house dance near Eunice, Louisiana. The legendary story is that white men who were present at the house dance became angry during his performance because a white woman handed him her handkerchief to wipe the sweat from his face. After he had finished playing and started walking home, he was run over by a Model A Ford, presumably driven by the irate white men. His vocal chords were damaged, and he lost his mind and his ability to perform as a musician. He was committed to the mental institution at Pineville, Louisiana and died there in 1942.

Darrell was inspired by the recurring refrain of fear of abandonment or accusation that Ardoin is being abandoned in his songs. He explains that "the first part of the title is a play on his own words in the songs and the second part of the title is a version of another phrase, this time taken directly from one of the songs. The title is both in English and in French because that bi-lingual element remains an important part of Cajun and Creole culture in south Louisiana."

While Darrell was composing the fourteen unrhymed sonnets in if you abandon me, he shared many of them with me through e-mails, describing them as "nonce sonnets," a name for the 14-line poem in which he used the same line/stanza form that he usually used for his sonnet writing: quatrain, tercet, tercet, quatrain, but the units were unrhymed. The last poem in the book is written in French and was a rhymed quatrain and a rhymed couplet that he called a "found poem," containing lines from Ardoin's songs.

I loved the sonnet entitled "Ivy Lejeune Listens to Amédé," the last three lines cogently expressing the passion of early Louisiana Creole musicians: [Field work]..."was not for me either. Like him I couldn't see/anything but the songs. I walked like he walked./I carried my accordion in a sack to play. I caught/rides. Songs living in me said everything I knew."

Each sonnet in this wonderful book is a tribute to early Louisiana Creole musicians who are being rescued from obscurity by contemporary Louisiana poets and musicians. if you abandon me is a small score of perfectly formed notes—notes that are clear, precise, and dazzling with the poet's passion for his native Louisiana Creole music. Darrell Bourque's voice is Amédé's voice come alive again.


Note: Darrell says that a portion of the proceeds from if you abandon me will be donated to a public commemorative that will honor Ardoin's contribution to Cajun and Creole culture. The book is also available from:
J. Bruce Fuller
Yellow Flag Press
224 Melody Dr.
Lafayette, LA 70503
337-529-2761

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