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A Haitian Creole “Poem for Children with Trouble Sleeping”

The young Haitian poet Jean D’Amérique once told an interviewer at the Institut Français that he “started to write because I was, and am, angry with the world we live in. So I think I write in the hope of transforming it.” His “Poem for Children with Trouble Sleeping,” recently published with an author reading and across two languages in the magazine Words Without Borders, demonstrates how fruitful that combination of anger and hope can be.

A deceptively simple lullaby, the poem encompasses a complex mixture of emotions, making it an excellent piece to analyze as well as a potential model text. The repeated lines “Sleep little child, / little child, go to sleep” (“dodo /
dodo ti pitit
”) precede apocalyptically horrifying imagery and bitterly funny commentary:

The State’s an engineer,
it needs blood
to pour the concrete
of death

Sleep little child,
little child, go to sleep
don’t beat yourself up
that’s why the cops have jobs

Although the mood is dark, there is something bracing—and rousing—in the poem’s stark honesty. The poem seems implicitly to be urging readers to act, not to despair.

Meet the Author and Translator
Left: Poet Jean D’Amérique, Photo © Edouard Caupeil. Right: Translator Nathan H. Dize.

Inspired by rap music and personally invested in fostering young poets, Jean D’Amérique is a potentially powerful role model. Students can get to know him in a 2021 interview with the Institut Français. Aspiring poets might even be interested in attending Transe Poétique, the international poetry festival D’Amérique runs in Haiti.

Students interested in the possibility of becoming professional translators may connect with Nathan H. Dize’s interview in Imaginaries, in which he discusses his hope that the work might “help others cope, heal, and maybe comprehend the moments these poets capture.”

Contextualizing the Poem

Because it embodies a particular mood, this poem probably shouldn’t be the only work from Haiti on your class reading list. We suggest that you contextualize it with resources that give a sense of daily life in Haiti, such as the photo essay “Haiti Beyond the Headlines,” which appeared in the Columbia Journal and was also made into a five-minute video montage.

Other writing from Haiti that students might read alongside the poem includes Évelyne Trouillot’s short story “Detour,” discussed in this blog post, or perhaps a Haitian American YA novel like Behind the Mountains by Edwidge Danticat or Dear Haiti, Love Alaine by Maika and Maritza Moulite.

Other resources can shed light on the poet’s perspective and specific references in the poem:

  • D’Amérique’s powerful thoughts on “What it Means to Be Haitian Now” after the 2021 assassination of Haitian president Jovenel Moïse: “Concretely, I cannot manage to write a text, a poem, without the lexicon of guns, blood, and dead bodies.” (The essay is translated from French by Nathan H. Dize, who also translated this poem.)
  • A Human Rights Watch report on police brutality in Haiti from 2021, when this poem was first published. (Of course, police brutality is hardly unique to Haiti; students might also look at the New York Times’s archive on police brutality in the US.)
  • Myriam J. A. Chancy’s essay for NPR, which offers a critical look at often-problematic depictions of Haiti and Haitian history. Or, listen to “What’s Happening in Haiti?,” a report from NPR’s 1A on the issues Haiti is currently facing*** .

An equally important kind of context is the author’s original-language reading of the poem, available below and on the poem’s page in the magazine Words Without Borders.

 
 

A reading can give us a sense of how an author intends us to understand a work, and for D’Amérique in particular, the oral element of poetry is key:

I think that the written word fuels the spoken word, and vice versa. During my childhood, games were often filled with songs, words, rhythm. With our voice, it’s as if we are giving words a new suit of armor, a new and more corporeal power. I wouldn’t say that I only write in order to be read aloud, but I think that performance always brings a different dimension. When I write, I imagine the voice that will accompany the text and this helps me to find a kind of inner music in the words, a way of composing sentences, which chimes with this music. (Institut Français)

Whether or not they know Haitian Creole, students will be able to tune into the emotions in the poem, especially if they listen to it more than once.

Responding to the Poem

After they have read the poem and listened to the author reading, students might share their initial responses and connections:

  • What are the emotions you hear in the poem?
  • Do those emotions resonate with any of your own experiences or thoughts?
  • Could some parts of the poem apply to other parts of the world besides Haiti?

More analytical questions might include:

  • Who are the “children” being addressed in the poem?
  • Why do you think the poem’s speaker is telling the “children” these frightening things?

A discussion of the poem’s translation could enrich an English, world language, or social studies classroom. Students might look at the translator’s rendering of Creole phrases in English: for example, “Sleep little child, / little child, go to sleep,” an attempt to render some of the rhythmic quality of the original:

dodo
dodo ti pitit

Students in a social studies classroom might research the history and cultural meaning of Haitian Creole in particular and Creole languages in general, using such resources as the first seven minutes of the video “Haitian Voices: Haitian Creole,” which establishes some of the language’s history; the quick, informative webpage “Cool Facts About Haitian Creole“; and Articles 3 and 5 of the 2011 “Charter on Language Policy and Language Rights in the Creole-Speaking Caribbean(PDF, page 6),* which have resonances with the Declaration of Independence, as starting points.**

The poems below provide additional illustrations of the richness of Creole-language writing: the first is from the Caribbean; the second, from South Africa.

(Watch the video on YouTube.)

As a culminating assignment, students might write their own poems of anger and hope. The poems might focus on a place, a group, a school, or a community that seems to be going in the wrong direction. As a challenge, students can try using the lullaby form in their poems.


*Haiti has not yet adopted the charter; students might research the reasons why and write persuasive essays arguing for or against adoption. Advanced students might take on the entire charter, reading it in its entirety and delving into how it came to be written.

**The Charter and video are recommended in the chapter “Creating Interdisciplinary Knowledge about Haiti’s Creole Language,” by Don E. Walicek, within Teaching Haiti, edited by Cécile Accilien and Valérie K. Orlando (University Press of Florida, 2021).

***The situation in Haiti worsened in early 2024, with gang violence rapidly rising before and after the prime minister’s resignation and guns from the US flooding the country. In a March 27 BBC article, one man comments: “This is a nightmare, a horrible dream. I would
like Haitians to wake up and work to have a better country.”

By Nadia Kalman, with research and additional writing by Maggie Vlietstra.