February 9, 2021
From Barricade Journal

Bilingual poet and scholar Patrick Sylvain’s book-length collection of English/Haitian Creole poems — Unfinished Dreams / Rèv San Bout — from which the following sequence is drawn “investigates the unrealized personal and sociopolitical aspirations of Haitians, both at home and in the diaspora,” writes Sylvain. The motivating figure that limns and permeates these poetic reflections is the “unfinished.” Through it, Sylvain elaborates a range of historical, political, social, ecological, and formal poetic claims and wagers. The Haitian Revolution (1791–1804) — an impertinent attack on global capital for which, Sylvain explains, the Haitian people continue to be punished — haunts this work, as a paradigmatic forbearer of all that remains to be done. Utilizing a wide array of formal constraints and poetic conceits gleaned from a variety of literary and cultural traditions, Sylvain is writing against enforced and encrusted ideas of prestige and class that obstinately attach to Haitian Creole as a language of aesthetic and intellectual production.  

The following poems are interspersed with excerpts from Sylvain’s essay “Bilingual Existence and the Portals of Translation.” Listen to Sylvain reading his poems in both languages on the barricade/ramparts SoundCloud.

More selected poems from Unfinished Dreams / Rèv San Bout will appear in Barricade’s forthcoming Summer 2021 issue, where Sylvain will discuss his poetic engagement with historical and contemporary Haitian life.


“In making poetry, or any kind of art, we’re translating into a medium—in this case language—the contents of our consciousness, wherever they may come from, let alone the huge underground beneath consciousness.”
—Adrienne Rich, Arts of the Possible

Translating is ultimately an act of creation. In translating my own work, I double create, a sort of twins of the creative imagination, similitude but distinction, the way twins are. Additionally, in this process of double creation through translation, I try not to efface one self in order to give voice to another self.  The self is a unit, that unit is simply multi-vocal.  In translating myself, I try to keep my voice, intentions, and aesthetic values intact while being aware of the linguistic cadences of my vehicle language. The advantage of being fully bilingual and literate is that I can consciously enter into my mind and observe the creative processes within a given language as I migrate into another language. Translating, or writing bilingually becomes dialectical because language is the vehicle of consciousness.

Dream 5

At the end of
A long & narrow road over-
Looking Port-au-Prince
Bay, I stood planted, clutching
A shining silver cutlass.


Rèv 5

Nan finisman yon
Wout long epi etwat ki
Bay sou Pòtoprens,
M’ kanpe doubout ak yon
Manchèt klere byen file.

My creative worlds are constantly interfacing, and in that process I do not feel a sense of cultural or literary deprivation since I am able to constantly tap into a multitude of voices (Haitian, French, English, and a limited Spanish); however, given the economic supremacy of English, I have to produce in English in order to engage with a larger world. The economic supremacy of English has nothing to do with the ideology of any given country, the United States or Great Britain; it has to do with facilities, means of communication, and the vast institutions that are engaged in the production of language through the arts and academia. Nevertheless, to speak again with Adrienne Rich, “I can’t emphasize enough how my poetry has been stretched, enlarged, strengthened, fortified, by non-Anglo-American poetries I have read, tangled with, tried to hear speak in their original syllables, over the years.”[1]

Dream 6

My gaze remained glued
To thousands of war horses
Mounted by men dressed
In red, propelled from the sea
Extinguishing tongues of flames.


Rèv 6

Nawè m’ fikse
Sou milye chwal lagè moun
Ki veste anwouj
Sele, sòti nan lanmè
Pou tenyen gwo lang flanbo.

The maneuver of a creative, multilingual, multicultural mind is manifold.  It is constantly interactive, constantly tapping into diverse images, smells, sounds, thoughts that are historically and socially shaped, and incessantly negotiating realms of being in relation to culture and senses of identity. Learning to migrate subjects, phrasings, cadences, and idioms from one language to another while remaining internal to the creative pulse of the language of production. There are times when my creative existence feels like it exists in a place of cultural and linguistic predicament. Being multilingual and writing bilingually helps me to be aware of the weight of language as it functions in its own cultural dimension and the history that is embedded in the words, sentences that I use in a particular language.

Writing bilingually brings up the issue of aesthetic value as well, in the sense of maintaining, creating, transferring the sense of splendor inherent in the target language, or the vehicle language. The aesthetic value comes into play when translating from a language whose linguistic economy is extremely expansive to one that maybe limited within a particular subject; therefore, when one is faced with a disparity of word “wealth,” one must be extremely daring and imaginative in testing the linguistic field while establishing a relation of words to that of the imagination.  Thus, a conscientious effort must be made on behalf of the language that has a smaller economy of words to push its capacity, not forcing it to be artificial, but tapping into its reservoir for pockets of possibilities. Writing bilingually also removes ethnocentric biases that tend to debase the operational internal intelligence found in lesser known languages, and especially those with a smaller linguistic economy.

Dream 7

Rattle tailed cobras
Hissed messages in ancient
Languages. Young hands
Like-orchids showering towns
To subdue Lucifer’s wrath.


Rèv 7

Klikètman kobra
Ke vèt te pran sifle an
Daki. Jenès men
Floral zazi lavil pou
Dousi kòlè Lisifè.

Translation, to me, is a socio-cultural system of understanding and transference of knowledge that goes beyond the economic power of the literary capitals of the world. In the final analysis, I concur with Casanova, that translation, like criticism, is a process of establishing more than aesthetic value.[2] As a person who writes with the awareness of the social, the weight of history, and from a clearly marked position, any conscious effort at producing an aesthetically solid and nourishing literary piece of writing has been much more acute given the prejudices against the Haitian language. My conscious effort at producing a higher art, or pushing towards an elevation of quality of content in the Haitian language, is not only a commitment of self to the discovery of voices and elements of surprise, but it is fundamentally a quest at establishing a rich value for the Haitian language in the literary context.

Writing in a very different poetic and social environment can disallow all or any literary genetic connections, not only in style, tone, but also in formal disposition. In a sense, I’m writing in a hybrid world of placement and displacement that is informing my overall aesthetic sensibility and vitality. My compass: well-written and socially engaged texts that seek to explore the limit of language and imagination.

Dream 8

I bent down and chopped
Weeds around my heavy feet,
An older woman
With stained teeth pointed to the
Newly revitalized sun.


Rèv 8

Mwen bese koupe
Move zèb bò pye m’, pwa-
Senkant, yon granmoun
Dan kalili lonje dwèt
Li sou yon solèy gengenn.

[1] Adrienne Rich, The Arts of the Possible (New York: WW Norton & Co., 2010), 134.

[2] Pascale Casanova, The World Republic of Letters, trans. Malcolm DeBevoise (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004 [1999]), 23.

Source: Barricadejournal.org