Shabdaguchha: Logo1 Shabdaguchha: Logo1

Six Cajun Poets

Beverly Matherne

Who Are the Cajuns?

The French arrived in Canada as early as 1604. Some of their descendants are Acadians, for they settled in today’s Nova Scotia, known then as “L’Acadie,” from the Mi’kmaq words “La Cadie,” meaning “The Land of Plenty.”

The Acadians, though largely a fisher people, started farming in Nova Scotia, in Beau Bassin and Grand Pré, in 1671.For one hundred and fifty years, they were prosperous and lived peacefully. Having borrowed from their Mi’kmaq neighbors over the years, they no longer considered themselves French. Even their language had changed, now containing many Mi’kmaq words. As a result, when the French and Indian War between France and England broke out in 1754, the Acadians considered the newly arriving French as foreigners, did not take sides in the battle, and were caught in the crossfire between the two powers as each struggled to dominate the colonization of Canada.

To the English, however, the Acadians were a military threat. They were numerous, and they did, after all, speak a kind of French. The English feared their ultimate alliance with France. In addition, one hundred and fifty Acadian mercenaries had, in fact, sided with the French in the Battle of Fort Beauséjour in 1755. After the French won this key conflict, the English required all Acadians, the mainstream still neutral, to swear allegiance to the Crown. When they refused, they were brutally exiled, in a tragic series of events known as Le Grand Dérangement. Most Acadians who tried to escape were brutally massacred.

As Louisiana historian Carl Brasseaux once wrote, the Acadians were “scattered to the wind,” exiled to the Eastern Seaboard of the American colonies (Georgia, the Carolinas, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts); to way stations such as Martinique and today’s Haiti; to coastal cities in Europe, such as Belle-Île Island in France and Liverpool in England; and as far south as the Faulkland Islands. English authorities herded them onto inadequate ships, many of which sank, and separated men from women and children. In short, England hoped to dissolve the Acadians as a people, thus enacting an early example of ethnic cleansing in North America.

From 1764-1785, after many years of wandering, forced labor, and near starvation, some 3,000 Acadians, their numbers greatly diminished, eventually found their way to Louisiana, a French colony. There, they intermarried variously with Native Americans and Americans of African, French, German, Spanish, Irish, Scots, Lebanese, and English descent. Their descendants are today’s Cajuns.

Musicians, artists, and historians have long celebrated Cajun culture, but the world knows less about the region’s poets. This number of Shabdaguchha brings together the work of six Cajun poets who have won regional, national, and international recognition. They offer a vibrant literature distinguished by folk traditions, strong family ties, amorous passion, love of narrative, and a solid sense of place.

These Cajun poets deserve to take their place among the diverse voices that make up the world’s literature.


Darrell Bourque


Early in the morning all the men
of the grand courir line up
behind our leader, dressed in passion's
red. In cone and cape, looking like
a lost marauder of another time,
he takes us through the countryside
where we dismount at every house,
raising clouds of dust. Beating out
the tune. It is all triangle ring
and squeeze box strain. Sometimes,
even early in the day, we take our
brothers in our arms as we sing and
dance, forgetting we wear masks.
We get caught up in the act. We are
fire and air. We will not remember
until tomorrow our separateness,
and that we are also earth.


The children say it is mostly young
Blacks here who are still caught by
her. When she rides them,
they become all victim, without
voice to call for help, without legs
to flee. And most, they say,
still struggle to free the right hand
to loose her hold with the holy sign
as she screams and clutches them
tighter still. Even Aaron,
who boasts he likes her and waits
for her, who says he'd never sleep
with scissors or sharpened knives
under his matress, who says he'd
never ring the floor around his bed
with newspapers – the poor old girl
spending the whole night reading
on the floor like that and wanting
him so – even Aaron, who boasts
to the others he joins her
in the ravishing and in the morning
licks like homemade ice cream
the white mark her sex makes
around his mouth, even Aaron, says
she leaves him, too, alone,
in darknesses that never fade
completely in the light of day.


There is something about dropping a line into the unseen.
Fishing we usually call it here. A mother fishes for clues
to her children’s secretive lives in the piles of clothes
they relinquish to her for laundering. Another mother
occupies herself with other thoughts―too risky this
fishing. She might catch much more than she knows
what to do with. A boy fishes for the signals that keep
promising to add up to something. Another takes ends
of strings, all too willing to be the fish in these scenes.
He will let an Ariadne pull him out of the maze. Easy
work. He has only to respond to tug and taut in string.
Some fishermen don’t know the first thing about waters
they fish in. Some girls fish with their eyes, use other 
body parts when eyes don’t work. The really bold cast 
into the openness of heart, mind even. Some girls, boys 
learn to fish in the wine market, others in pots on stoves.
My father-in-law liked the idea of having me in a boat
for whole afternoons. On the way out to les Fordoches
he pointed out the water moccasins sunning themselves 
in the Spanish moss clusters overhead, thick black coils 
in delicate gray nests. He pointed them out on fallen trees
lying in the coffee-colored shallows at the front of his boat,
and the small alligators too sleeping in the mud flats near
the banks on either side. I saw to it that he liked the idea
only once. My mother sees fishing as the making of things. 
Her table is full. The platters are steaming. Her children 
are happy. My father and I filet our catches of sheephead,
redfish and speckled trout. We gut foot tubs of sac-a-lait,
bream. Fishing for my mother is an ichthyophagous dream.
But old women fishing from bridges fish mostly just for fish. 

Charles deGravelles


What makes a keeper? Regular shape
(this smooth oval with its lunar translucence
will ride home in the dark of my pocket)
or irregular (the angle of this dark one’s
bend gives itself generously into hand
for hours of thoughtless caressing).
Often it’s the glint that gets
attention: we bend or squat, turn it slowly
in the flowing beam
that’s found its way through trees
all the way down to this muttering 
meandering rock-bottom stream
before we throw it clattering back
as the eye already roves among its brothers.
Design (tight, parallel waves of agate)
or texture (pale scars of an old warrior).
We must come to such a place in judgment
but how, after all, do we judge?
Something outside speaks,
something inside answers and so 
we know (as we are known by)
what we throw away and what we keep.

In the beginning
God’s face loomed upon the water
wearing its discriminating look:
you be nighttime, you day.
Out of a confusion of green
each suddenly appeared at the sound
of its name: cypress, sycamore, sweet gum, oak...
All God’s creatures up and lined
before the two-legged tongue-wagger
at his God-appointed task:
“uhh, bison; uhh, boa…”
A slide down the vortex of seasons,
the dial turning till the tumbler falls
and the heavy door slowly opens: autumn,
Eneise and I are shrimping Timbalier Bay.
As the engine idles, we drag the heavy trawl
across the unseen floor. The boat dips
with extraordinary weight.
From under blanket, nightmares netted
drip and squint in the blinding sun,
unimaginable monsters spill into the trough,
whipping, kicking and clicking like castanets.
Like shooting fish in a barrel,
we knock them down with their own names
and wonder how we feel about it.
Is this pity? Pride? Hunger? Glee?
In a drugstore, a child at the counter
licks and considers: so this is fudge walnut!
   So this is eight years old!
Could this, it occurred to me once,
as I strained against my father’s hand
to have again at my brother, be rage?


There was no other choice
so it stormed. Rain drove
its nails into the mulch.
The wind slapped and beat
things down. It happened
as it had to. And what seems
   disorder now—
limbs and branches strewn,
a cypress freshly riven
and bleeding, sudden pools
where mosquitoes are already
breeding—this is really
   the perfect order.
Each leaf torn from tree
found the spot only it
could inhabit, placed as carefully
by a maniacal wind
as by a hand. Mere chance
is impossible without
possibilities. Here there are
none. The egret standing
in the shallow bog decides
nothing―not its silent
whiteness, not its delicate
neck like the letter “s,”
not its sudden strike:
the dark water torn
with furious quickness,
a sparkling fish whipping 
in its beak. And the fish 
and fox and bullfrog also, never 
a chance to be what they’re
not except in death which
we are all so carefully

Clarisse Dugas

(à la manière de Marie de France)

When we drank the herbal wine,
we didn’t realize the danger.
Haunted by shame and guilt, we fled
to the woods for a while.
There you trimmed branches and vines,
while I wove my hair tendrils into your shirt.
Birds sang words that only lovers knew.
Time flew.
The I returned to the city, to duty,
and you went to a strange land,
married the one with white hands
whose name was the same as mine.
But dreams interfered, you later told me.
Dreams of hazel and woodbine.


We called her Tante Amenthe.
We never knew who he was
or why she married him
and by the time I knew her
she had lost her hair,
wore a red wig, always askew
as though she had no time
for such things.
He died, leaving her a farm
with animals in the middle of town.
She took care of them
wearing muddy oversized boots,
carrying a stick to prod them along.
There was a parrot in the dining room
whose one line was, “Where’s Joe?”
She had no children.
In her coffin, she wore the red wig
and we wondered if the boots 
were in there too.


The chapel, brightly lit with its mosiac
Christ above the altar, is cheerful.
Flowers everywhere.
As Mass begins, voices behind iron
grillwork sing, Veni, Creator, amori mi,
reminding me of the not so flawless
chanting of our childhood,
when you, ripped seams on a white blouse,
hunched over notes at the organ,
while I tapped my foot, pulled tones 
from a stretched throat.
As the service ends, I follow the group
to a reception room, where you stand
behind the squares, thinner, face
almost transparent in black habit
to the floor, wearing a garland 
of large roses you have grown:
yellow, pink, red.
When it is my turn to say Hi,
your eyes widen, mouth rounds in an Oh!
breaks into a smile, and our fingers
touch briefly the bars.

Joe LeCoeur


They say I change men into roosters 
with charms from the bayou 
in exchange for an instant. 
I say change and change alone 
is constant. And I told them, 
told them, told them to hold back.
They say I walk the quarters 
in search of my victims.
I say all I want is to wallow 
all night long in rhythm 
forever with each one
a time.


The fiddlers used to bow down to Jolie.
Now it is her sister who makes the cock crow
and singers dribble baby talk.
Eyes dilated with envie, 
Jolie trembles in the mirror at l’œil mauvais.
The eye leads her to the Vieux Carré, 
to The Shadowway Shop on Bourbon. 
The Shadow is an artist with the needle.
Jolie’s lips the canvas for what feels 
like fire ants stinging ink. Her mirrored 
mouth eating yellow butterflies. 
Coiling round her pretty chin 
a cobra swallows a thorny stem 
winding greenly up her jawline 
to the black rose on one cheek. 
On the other a fighting cockhead 
flourishes red-orange feathers 
at a lizard crawling up her little nose, 
its tail a delicate curl of blue 
around one swollen nostril.
Jolie’s eyes smile now sans envie
even while the needle sparks a nerve—
she’ll be the one to bind the singer’s tongue 
and spin the fiddler’s head around 
when she steps out 
with her sister.


You fill up dawn’s first vision 
your naked back a giantsize closeup 
blocking out the room the light the world 
the north and south poles your wings 
shoulders folded back 
in an elbow stretch of feathers 
and I am lost in a beak-spur-wattle smell 
too sharp to be covered up with soap 
or washed away with water from the tap 
while somewhere under the bed the floor the equator 
a big gray hen with bloodshot eyes is calling you.
I watch fast now to catch your blur—
it circles the bed filling the room 
barefeet slapping earth to drumbeat 
soundwaves bouncing wall to wall 
your eyes arcing lodestone current 
so tall your comb scrapes the ceiling 
so big you fill up my horizons 
so fast you are gone 
and I wake up alone 
my skin struggling not to feather.

Beverly Matherne


As though we’d rehearsed it...
our hands on the hairline of your forehead, 
the tips of your shoulders,
your shins, ankles, the tops of your feet...
With one ceremonial push,
we launched you out the window,
through the fog in the swamp,
under the hidden moon.
We urged you on, did not oppose
the drift, as your breaths became
labored and fewer then stopped.
We let go of you, 
the way a small boy floats a paper boat
in his back yard coulee, 
the space between the boat and him widening.


When I was a child
in Louisiane,
   Mémère told me
              if I was rude,
le ‘Tit Christ would weep.
	   But if I was really wicked,
		à grands bras
		        à grandes mains
		                à grands doigts
would hold me in her gaunt grasp,
pin my head on her lap,
and scratch my eyes out.
I never put such limits on Madame though,
for I still see her long nails,
           like so many pitchforks, grating me
forehead, breast, to toe,
ripping my heart out on the way,
and it looking like a big boulette
with spaghetti dangling from it.
           When I had the fear of Madame
                 in my soul, I always knew
                     how dreadful it must have been
                 for le ‘Tit Christ when He became a man,
with those thorns and spikes
drawing His blood.
And it had to be something worse than
the claw of Madame Grands-Doigts
          that pierced His side.


When snow covers the streets, 
             the meadows,
and the night is still,
I hear the blues cryin’
            all the way to spring.
Yeah, hear the blues cryin’
            all the way to spring.

When I might just about
            dig a hole in the snow
and bury myself alive,
            snow pounding over my body,

I imagine the blues on my breast,
            with the brush of your tongue.
Yeah, feel the blues, 
            with the brush of your tongue.

You know, it takes me off the freeway,
            the blues does,
shoots me high, past the stars,
            to them planets,

circlin’ ever so slow. Oh yeah! 
            You know, 
I’m that Egytian goddess, my naked body
            stretched across the sky.
[Stanza break]

[Stanza break]
And you, you that god flat on your back,
            callin’, callin’,
but I don’t come down yet.
            No, I don’t come down yet.

And then one day, like clockwork,
            our hands touch,
and we burn through that snow.  We are
            roots, running water, narcissus,
black night, stars, planets, in one.

Our solo builds up and when it ends,
            quiets down.
Um hmm, when it ends, it just quiets down.
            Yeah, you know it
                         quiets down.
                   Um hmm, yeah!

Sheryl St. Germain


I want to take the word back into my body, back
from the northern restaurants with their neon signs
announcing it like a whore.  I want it to be private again,
I want to sink back into the swamps that are nothing
like these clean restaurants, the swamps
with their mud and jaws and eyes that float
below the surface, the mud and jaws and eyes 
of food or death.  I want to see my father's father's 
hands again, scarred with a life of netting and trapping,
thick gunk of bayou under his fingernails,
staining his cuticles, I want to remember the pride he took
gutting and cleaning what he caught; his were nothing
like the soft hands and clipped fingernails that serve us
in these restaurants cemented in land, the restaurants nothing
like the houses we lived and died in, anchored in water,
trembling with every wind and flood.

And what my father's mother knew: 
how to make alligator tail sweet, how to cut up
muscled squirrel or rabbit, or wild duck,
cook it till it was tender, spice it and mix it all up
with rice that soaked up the spice and the game so that
it all filled your mouth, thick and sticky, tasting
like blood and cayenne.  And when I see the signs
on the restaurants, Cajun food served here,
it's like a fish knife ripping my belly, and when I see
them all eating the white meat of fat chickens
and market cuts of steak or fish someone else
has caught cooked cajun style, I feel it
again, the word's been stolen, like me,


Les parfums, les couleurs et les sons se répondent.
			—Charles Baudelaire

I walk, almost lost on a tiny Black Mountain trail 
of a French summer, in this land ofOc, 
land of another way to say yes,
land of Cathars and chestnuts,
cassoulet and canard, land of grapes
and wines that could pull me away

from the path at any moment, bloody land 
of many wars, land of many dead, land of 
abandoned graves, land of ancestors,
some of whom neither wrote nor read nor spoke
my tongue.  And yet, something stops me here. 
I, who am not religious, I who wish for faith
but fail in it, I who trust logic above all
though find no healing there, am struck
by the whispering of something in the land itself—
some sound of these cypress trees thousands of years old,
these ghostly paths and crumbling stone fences, 

the perfume of this mountain air calling out, 
almost familiar, a voice of sound and color and smell—
come, it says, soeur,cousine, filles de l’Amérique, 
bienvenue chez nous, welcome home. 
What else could I say to such a voice?  
I’m coming, I say. Oui, I say, Oc, I say, yes.


how to speak of it 
this thing that doesn’t rhyme
or pulse in iambs or move in predictable ways
like lines 
or sentences

how to find the syntax
of this thing
that rides the tides
and moves with the tides and under the tides 
and through the tides
and has an underbelly so deep and wide
even our most powerful lights
cannot illuminate its full body

	this is our soul shadow,
that darkness we cannot own
the form we cannot name

and I can only write about it at night 
when my own shadow wakes me, when I can feel
night covering every pore and hair follicle, entering eyes
and ears, entering me like Zeus, a night I don’t want
on me or in me, and I dream of giving birth
 to a rusty blob of a child who slithers out of me,
out and out and won’t stop slithering, growing and darkening, 
spreading and pulsing between my legs
darkening into the world . . . .

Shabdaguchha, an International Bilingual Poetry Journal, edited by Hassanal Abdullah