Review of Lamothe-Cadillac by Clint Bruce
Matherne, Beverly. Lamothe-Cadillac: sa jeunesse en France (Suite de poèmes en prose en français et en anglais) / Lamothe-Cadillac: His Early Life in France (Written in linked prose poems in French and English). Shreveport, LA: Tintamarre, 2009. ISBN 978-0-9820558-2-3. Pp. 120. $13.50.
In 2001, amidst of wave of landmark anniversaries of the French presence in the Western Hemisphere, Louisiana-born poet Beverly Matherne traveled to southwestern France to conduct field research coinciding with the tercentennial of the founding of Detroit by Antoine Laumet de la Mothe, sieur de Cadillac. Matherne’s interest in the life of this adventurer and colonial official led to this bilingual collection of prose poems. Under the apparent simplicity of a biographical portrait lies, in crisp, polished vignettes, the psychosocial germ of the French colonial project in North America. Matherne’s writings have often borne witness to the rawness of childhood experience, drawing powerfully from her own memories of growing up in a rural Cajun community near New Orleans. A resident of nothern Michigan, where she teaches creative writing, Matherne would seem to signal a departure with Lamothe-Cadillac, other than geographic affiliation and her commitment to American Francophonie. However, as in earlier works, the problem of memory, both personal and cultural, haunts Matherne’s poetic imagination. Popular recollection typically resurrects figures from colonial history as either intrepid explorers or ruthless glory-seekers. The career of Lamothe-Cadillac embodies both myths. Born Antoine Laumet in 1658 to a Gascon bourgeois family, he clearly sought opportunity in New France. From trapper and trader in Acadie, he became fort commander at Michillimakinac, established Fort Détroit, and eventually served as governor of Louisiana. In a less flattering light, Lamothe-Cadillac was criticized for his dealings with indigenous peoples, imprisoned for illegal trafficking in 1704, and removed from his position in Louisiana because of personal conflicts.
The forty prose poems comprising Lamothe-Cadillac delve into a period less fettered by historical record. Each text, presented in French and English on facing pages, depicts a scene from the protagonist’s youth. These episodes cover his birth and boyhood in the village of Saint-Nicolas, schooling, family activities, religious celebrations, coming-of-age passions, and the beginnings of his military career before his journey to Acadie. Matherne’s recreation of seventeenth-century French life recalls the sumptuous precision of Baroque realism. This versimilitude reflects her research in France, be it through descriptions of food, clothing (as in Antoine’s admiration of a noble’s “feutre à larges bords garnis de plumes d’autruche et ses talons hauts à bouts carrées, ornés de nœuds,” (42), or architecture (at the Church of Les Jacobins in Toulouse, “Il s’étonne de la hauteur des doubles colonnes qui supportent des voûtes sur croisées d’ogives, des chapiteaux ornés de fleurs et de lianes,” (92). In addition to portrayals of activities and customs, Matherne breathes life into this material décor partly by infusing it with Gascon oral tradition, including lexical borrowing (explained in a glossary) and entire folktales. An inevitable question when reading Lamothe-Cadillac is, “Why so much detail?” Beyond effects of visual mimesis, the myriad enumerations and chiseled imagery stand as intrinsic to the book’s internal logic as biography. Antoine is a spirited, ambitious youth who chafes under the strictures of his society—especially as a bourgeois. Even further than the desire to “se libérer du régime du Roi Soleil” (80), Matherne’s descriptive intricacy makes clear that Antoine’s world is pre-fabricated: every stone has been set, every meal prepared, every story told, every gesture foreseen. The New World allows him to project his fantasies onto an open horizon. The consequences of colonial megalomania are undeniable. Here, the seed is still innocent, rooted in basic personal urges. This historical irony imbues Lamothe-Cadillac with added complexity and, in the classroom, could open a space for discussion about representations of individual subjectivity against the larger currents of hegemonic world-views.