Tuesday, April 2, 2013


Eternal flame at Acadian Memorial, St. Martinville, LA
After Easter Vigil on Sunday, we met for lunch with the Sisters at St. Mary’s Convent, Sewanee, and I sat across from a woman who had once enjoyed the joie de vivre of Cajun country. The conversation about the Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival and her adventures in gastronomy made me a bit homesick for New Iberia, my other home.
This winter when I sojourned in Acadiana for my half-year stay, I engaged in a whirlwind of lunches, dinners, poetry readings, and visits with old friends. I also investigated more fully my own roots in Acadiana through research and tours of places like the Acadian Memorial in St. Martinville, Louisiana where I found my Vincent ancestor’s name on the Wall of Names. The Vincents were among the first families to follow Beau Soleil, Joseph Broussard, during the Grand Derangement from Nova Scotia to Cajun country. Although these exiled people endured many hardships, I discovered that the colonial population, beginning in 1699 when Iberville and Bienville explored and formed the colony of Louisiana, had also struggled to settle the Louisiana colony, enduring fights over land and other resources with Indians, surviving floods and hurricanes, and striving to establish profitable agriculture.
Later, under Spanish rule, the Spanish expanded the Louisiana population with citizens from Quebec, Switzerland, the Caribbean, Alsace-Lorraine, Normandy, etc. These people became known as Creoles. In the late 1700’s Acadian refugees were sent to bayou country and intermingled with Creoles and Native Americans, African and Caribbean slaves, British, Germans and Italians. Two of my New Iberia friends are descendants of Lebanese and Syrian families who were members of early migrations to Louisiana and who added to the wonderful cultural mix of this unique part of the world.
During one of those migrations in the late 19th century, my great-grandfather, Samuel Marquart, who was of German descent, joined the German population in Lake Arthur, Louisiana, and my grandfather, E. L. Marquart, married an Acadian woman, Leila Vincent, a descendant of the Vincents who came down from Port Royal, Nova Scotia.
My father, Harold Marquart, learned to speak Parisian French, but he wasn’t allowed to speak the Cajun French my grandmother knew because she had been brought up under the Louisiana laws that were passed to mandate “English only” public schools – laws that resulted in a weakening of the culture in south Louisiana. According to Christophe Landry, author of “Francophone Louisiana, More Than Cajun,” (Louisiana Cultural Vistas, Summer 2010), “between 1920-1960, usage of French or Creole was forbidden in virtually all aspects of life in south Louisiana…often students violating the language restriction were required to write ‘I will not speak French on the school grounds’ one hundred times!” Today, through the efforts of CODOFIl (Council for the Development of French in Louisiana) and other state organizations launched to preserve an endangered language, Cajun French is alive and well.
My friend Darrell Bourque, former Poet Laureate of Louisiana, speaks and writes in Cajun French, and on several occasions I have read alongside him at poetry readings. On both occasions, he read verses of poems in which he had used French. Following one of those occasions I lamented about my French deficiencies in a poem that I included in my book, Alchemy, which I include below:
It is good to read poems with you,
the ultimate poet leading the ultimate life;
I like that our ancestors have common roots
that were entwined in boats
rocking on the wave of exile,
their coming disturbing a halcyon world,
wilderness and deliverance in one place.

By right of poetry
we became friends in a friendlier world.
I am looking at your face,
one that has known lost battles
and lately won even more;
it is a face more French than the French,
the sharp incline of your nose
framed by gray curls,
reading words that sound to me
like “pwis and jer, may jahmay,
der swashay, dit swa, dit swa.”

Your wife looks up at you
crooning those soft inflections,
mating with your eyes again;
knowing she does not have to remember
the romance of first years,
every day it is reflected
in your voice and eyes.

I am sorry that part of my ancestry
cannot match yours,
the speaking of an ancient language
aroused my Scots mother’s disdain,
eclipsed my father’s perorations
  in Parisian French,
  in Cajun French,
doubling the language he never passed to me,
or I would be able to parley with you,
tell you in like patois
your poetry is elegant and delivers us,
immerses me in occasions of shared ancestry
where we recite anthems,
chants of the Grand Derangement,
come upon this place
of tangled vines and brown water, singing
it is good to be a poet with you,
it is good to be a poet with you,
it is good to be a poet
  in this new world.

I have tried to redeem my Cajun background (which my grandmother Vincent actually tried to “disappear”) by writing middle-grade and young adult novels based in New Iberia and other communities in south Louisiana: Martin’s Quest, Martin Finds His Totem, Kajun Kween, Flood on the Rio Teche, and a forthcoming middle-grade/young adult novel, Martin and the Last Tribe. The last title should be published by the end of April. Meanwhile, on my next stay in Louisiana, I hope to learn how to “parlez vous” so the “tatailles” (monster cockroaches) won’t get me because my Grandmother Vincent denied her roots!