In Libeté (Annotation of Poem), poet Lysz Flo presents interiority with electric energy and tender intimacy. The poem puts us inside the speaker’s mind as she prepares plantains, thoughts wandering. Libeté is a play in three acts masquerading as a stream of consciousness poem. As the poet unspools her themes, the importance of performance and play takes centerstage as a means to exploring the matter at hand: liberty. Freedom. Liberation. But not just any liberation, Libeté.
Lysz Flo is an AfroLatinx poet, healer, and educator. With roots in both Haiti and Puerto Rico, she writes in English, Spanish, French, and Hatian Creole or Kreyol. The first thing to notice about this poem is the title: Libeté (liberty or freedom in Kreyol). Why start here? Lysz Flo is an AfroLatinx poet, healer, educator and polyglot. With roots in both Haiti and Puerto Rico, she writes in English, Spanish, French, and Hatian Creole or Kreyol. However, why choose Kreyol? Why not English? Why not Spanish, or even French (all languages spoken both in Haiti and by the poet)?
Before Columbus reached the western hemisphere in the 13th Century, Caribbean islands were inhabited by the Taino-Arawak people. It’s a beautiful land, and before long the French followed the Spaniards and began to colonize. At the hands of these two colonial powers, millions of enslaved Africans were brought to the island as well, to work coffee and sugar cane fields. Hispaniola, as Columbus christened it, was notorious for the brutal treatment of enslaved Africans. Uprisings, revolts, and escapes to freedom inland and in the mountains became routine as the Europeans kept right on importing enslaved Africans to keep up their rate of exports. Africans who escaped formed free cities inland and in the mountainous regions, sharing a community with the Taino-Arawak who had fled before them. By the 17th century, the ratio of Africans to Europeans in Haiti is estimated to have been 9 to 1. When the Haitian Revolution was over, most Europeans had either died or fled the island, repatriating to Europe.This brought the ratio of African to Europeans on the island of Haiti to 16:1 (the highest concentration of African:European in the Western Hemisphere at the time). There are many dialects of Creole spoken in the new world as a result of colonialism, but scholars generally agree that Haitian Creole, or Kreyol, retains the greatest amount of influence from West African languages. Perhaps this is why the poet chose to start there.
In the opening lines of both the first and last stanza, Flo uses the word “libete”–but the former utilizes American standardized spelling (no accent) and the latter, Flo uses the Kreyol accent, libeté. From the start of the poem to it’s end, the speaker is going through a rooting: coming closer to the bone of the matter until they have no choice but to cry out, with the full throat of their culture, for liberation. From here one might wonder what changes are happening between the opening and the end of the poem that help explain this shift?
Sometimes I call myself bourgeois
As if it’s something my dad
would be proud of
Displaying how well assimilation has fractured me
As if being less country
more city is a celebration
In this verse, Flo lays the groundwork for the realization and shift experienced by the speaker experiences in the poem. Haiti’s history is well documented and truly complex. The primer above is meant to account only for the linguistic profile of Kreyol; it is not a full retelling of the island’s history or politics, but it does help contextualize this verse. She writes: “As if being less country / more city is a celebration”. Many of us understand the opposite is historically true: being more country and less city was a means of survival, preservation, and celebration for those who escaped slavery and conscription in Haiti. Being away from the cities, which were centered around plantations, meant being more free. Being away from cities also meant not associating as much or at all with the European colonizers. Being away from cities, or being more country, meant working with and for the advancement of Black society and community with Indigenous neighbors.
This verse questions how association with the bourgeois oppressor class came to have a celebrated status while connection to one’s cultural history is less valued. Assimilation is named plainly, and it is the key to understanding the shift captured in this poem. The speaker’s understanding of libeté, or freedom, is what will shift in the course of this piece. From the opening (libete), defined in terms of American proximity and distance from the islands, to the closing (libeté), which redefines what liberation can look like, we see the speaker turn away from the fractures of assimilation and toward the healing of cultural roots. The next verse affirms this conclusion as it moves away from the personal cultural experience of Haitian identity toward the larger political landscape of the island (“colonization cosplaying as independent territory” and the “excavation of resources in the slapping of parentheses and debt”).
Flo does something enjoyably clever in the next stanza. The entire poem is left aligned, but as the speaker breaks the fourth wall and talks directly to the reader, the verse is centered. Flo leverages white space to create a literal island out of the speaker’s realization. The narrative shift is brilliantly and visually highlighted through her constructed line breaks. The spatial utilization calls to mind the geography of Haiti itself (see the illustration below).
Following the centered verse, we see the first and only italicized text in the poem. This too, is of note. The poem explores various threads that make up Afro Caribbean identity (particularly the intersection of Afro Caribbean identity as an artist), and the italics are a part of that conversation. Whether or not to italicize non-English words in multilingual poetry is a topic with as many takes as there are writers. Ask six poets what they think about italicizing “foreign” words and you’ll get twelve opinions, minimum.
Flo herself has spoken extensively on the topic for literary organizations like The National Latinx Writers Gathering, O Miami Poetry Festival, and the Smithsonian Museum. A general rule of thumb championed by some editors is to consider the audience first, and italicize second. What then, does it mean to italicize English in a poem that is replete with French, Kreyol, and even Spanish? Depending on the font, italicized text can appear almost prostrate, and calls to mind the bending and amicable servility assimilation demands of the occupied. How are we meant to parse their erect spines in contrast to these wilted English characters on the page? The meat of what Flo italicized certainly echos this observation:
I wrote this poem
as if my ancestors didn’t scream
at me to do it Hiding all traces of my magical lineage for conformity
as if that makes it more palatable
Libeté deploys language that builds toward reflection: awakening, LEVE, false-security-filled-slumber, cosplay; that reflection comes to a head in the third act of the poem. The speaker begins Libeté believing themselves to be free or liberated (refer to the poem’s opening which established that freedom is like being “isolated” and “floating between” the islands and America – tethered to neither). However, through reflection the speaker realizes they are perhaps not as free as they thought, and the disparity between those two states is addressed in the third act.
Up to this point, Flo has utilized a call and response pattern: a statement from first person stance followed by reflection in the first two acts of the poem. The speaker screams libete in the opening line, then reflects on ancestry. The speaker calls themselves bourgeois, then reflects on internalized colonialism and assimilation. The speaker stops to write this poem, and reflects on where the boundary is between self and history. How does one become disconnected from their roots and learn to accept the “more palatable” fractured versions of their culture as their own? Through a two part approach, Flo resolves this conflict by initially having the speaker acknowledge the realities associated with their identity as it lives in the real world. The resolution is then completed by re-affirming the speaker’s connection to culture. This is made clear in the closing, which mirrors the opening only now with the correct Kreyol spelling of liberty.
Understanding that the writer of this poem speaks and writes in three languages emphasizes that word choice here is deliberate. The use of “fitting” as the speaker approaches their conclusion, sparked curiosity for me as I read this. You can read more about that in the annotation. In the penultimate stanza, the speaker discusses when they feel the “spirits in me rise,” and associates that feeling with the carousel of violence against Black people televised for entertainment or sport, designed air “on loop, / until I cannot recognize the humanity in myself.”
Contrast that with the opening verse:
Looking at these two verses gives up the shape of the shift the speaker experiences: they come to understand that their conception of freedom is coming at too high a price. America, and the ease it might provide in assimilation, is a “false-security-filled-slumber.” This slumber turns brutality against Black people into 24 hour content, demands history be kept off the tongue, and insists that being free means being fractured. There is a shift in what the speaker, and we as readers, should demand of an entity that claims to offer us freedom: freedom to what and from what and at what cost? Flo’s concluding sentence that brings it all together: liberation is more than hollow survival. How much of what one perceives as freedom is actually the promised absence of brutality or fear of brutality? And when that promise is broken over and over again, what other choice do we have but to scream for liberation, and question how we define the term?
When I selected Libete for a Brown Study, Haiti was in the news because a group of Christian Missionaries had been abducted. Just prior to that, the nation’s president Jovenel Moïse was assassinated. Growing up in South Florida, Haiti was often in the news, and the subtext of such coverage was always the danger of a wave of migration from the island. The subtext hasn’t always remained subtextual, and media bias in coverage of Hatiain immigration has been well established. In this poem Lysz Flo so astutely captures the many threads that make up Caribbean identity without sacrificing the constant negotiation that is a part of being a hyphenate-American. Identity isn’t static and if Libete teaches us anything, it is that we must constantly reassess our standing and be sure we are who we think we are.
I have a close working relationship with Lysz Flo, we’re both founding members of The Estuary Collective and we workshop together frequently around the topics of multilingual poetry and navigating diaspora on the page.This poem was published by The Hellebore, in the issue RED VELVET.
Q & A:
You’re a trilingual poet, you made the choice to start with Creole, can you share why? Why Libeté?
Freedom is woven into my upbringing and perception. Learning my Haitian history and as the first free Black Republic freedom is what I think of first and other languages couldn’t encompass my need and desire for freedom especially in the US. Libeté sounds like El Grito de Lares to me, the scream and rituals around Bwa Kayiman — the only way I can see, hear, and feel freedom and resistance in my bones especially during the consistent genocide of Black people across the world and disrespectfully obvious in the US with no justice. I think I was looking for a blueprint to envision a today or tomorrow where Black folx are free to exist and thrive.
In Libeté, there’s a strong current of both family history and shared history. How did you find the balance between including enough of these threads in the piece without losing the poetics?
I am both composed of both. Being born in the US of Haitian and Puerto Rican parents it’s me existing as all of my hyphenated identities on page. This is what it feels like to be me every day.
You’re a performer, and in your stage presence there’s lots of gesturing and physicality—how did you translate that to the page in this dynamic poem?
I think when speaking my truth it’s holistic in nature. When I write I see it play out as a movie. I visualize as each word comes out. This poem is an intimate moment in time of me literally leaving the kitchen to write this poem down.
As you were drafting, were there any lines you loved that did not make it into the final draft?
isn’t it fitting?
—-that diaspora first meant Jews dispersing from their homes to survive
I don’t know if I loved the line, but this line didn’t make it into the published version. It was a point. I have mostly learned about the Holocaust and genocide through the Jewish lens; I find irony in that diaspora mostly refers to Black and Brown communities when discussed today, but not to the genocide and struggle that is continuously ongoing.
What were you reading when you wrote this poem? What were you reading when you edited this poem?
Imagine this piece in conversation with non-literary pieces of art (i.e.: sculptures, music, paintings, etc). Can you tell me a little about who is in the conversation?
I think of seeing Toussaint L’ouverture in the African American History Museum in DC. I think of the oral history from my father as a child and the Haitian paintings & wooden sculptures in my home. I also think I was watching Lovecraft Country around that time.
If you were to trace the lineage of this poem backward two generations, what four other pieces of literature would be in that family tree?