Two victims of the Bangladesh Garment Factory Collapse – April 2013
Photo Credit: NY Daily News
In my Poetry Corner November 2013, I feature the poem “Approaching Le Repentir II: Plantation of Grief” by Guyana-born poet Mark McWatt. This poem is the second of four poems about the torment and legacy of Pierre Louis De Saffon (1724-1784), from Mark McWatt’s poetry collection, The Journey to Le Repentir, published by Peepal Tree Press in 2009.
In “Approaching Le Repentir I: Pierre Louis De Saffon,” we learn that the Frenchman had sought asylum in the heat and sweat and stink of Demerara where he was doomed to a life all but sorrow, penitence and shame for accidentally killing his brother in a duel (over a woman).
As expressed in “Part II: Plantation of Grief,” no penance was enough for killing his brother. In spite of his wealth and status as a result of his success as a sugar plantation owner, De Saffon suffered a sorrow without relief. In naming his plantations, La Penitence and Le Repentir, he tried to channel (his) lifelong guilt and grief.
The poet in “Part III: Atonement” voiced De Saffon’s hope that the names would live on in a future city as monuments of his atonement: the sincerity of my penance.
As a final act of atonement, described in “Part IV: Hetta,” De Saffon instructed…
that his fortune be used to educate white orphan
(or half-orphan) girls of this purgatorial place…
Henrietta Wilhelmina Cendrecourt, the poet’s paternal grandmother—a poor, white girl who had lost her father—was numbered among the beneficiaries of De Saffon’s will (learn more).
What impressed me about De Saffon’s affliction is the dichotomy of our nature as humans. To the outside world, the Frenchman was a successful plantation owner to be respected and adulated. In his inner being, he remained tormented by loss and remorse. No penance, no achievement could make up for his crime of fratricide.
It’s this crime that inspired my Haiku poem, “Penance.” What about our own crimes of fratricide in our pursuit for greater profits and cheap consumer goods?
In 1782, after seizing the Colony of Demerara, established by the Dutch in 1745, the French built their capital, La Nouvelle Ville, at the mouth of the Demerara River. The Dutch captured the city in 1784 and renamed it Stabroek. When the British took control of Demerara in 1812, they renamed the city, Georgetown, in honor of King George III.
In a strange twist of fate, De Saffon’s Plantation Le Repentir became a part of Georgetown’s largest cemetery, named Le Repentir Cemetery. Saffon Street in Charlestown, built on the front lands where he was buried, is a reminder of his legacy. La Penitence forms the southern border of the cemetery.
In “Approaching Le Repentir,” we approach our final resting place. It’s a journey we must all take. Try as we may, we cannot escape the consequences of our decisions and our actions along the way. When remorse resides in our innermost being, our wealth and power cannot restore our peace of mind. Only forgiveness can do that. Only love heals.