Almas Cativas: Captive Souls

I share my birthday with Roberto Augusto Henriques de Mesquita, a symbolist poet born on June 19, 1871, in Santa Cruz on Flores.  Mesquita rarely left his home island, preferring the solitude and isolation of the landscape to the busier life on the larger islands. He lived quietly, worked as a government clerk, and married a woman he did not love. His work was published in small periodicals and newspapers but his manuscript, Almas Cativas, wasn’t published until 1931, eight years after his death. His talent went unrecognized until 1939, when the respected Azorean novelist Vitorino Nemesio published an article about Mesquita and his writing in Journal de Portugal. Since then hundreds of articles have been written about Roberto de Mesquita, his body of work and his contribution to Azorean literature. His pessimistic view of life and the insistence on a past that suggests only misfortune and decay are common themes in his poems but one can sense how much this Florentine poet was captivated by the mysterious and otherworldly beauty of his beloved island.

Tarde Sonhadora

Expira a tarde; o mar entorpecido
Tem um canto monótono que embala,
Um como que nostálgico gemido
Que do Ausente, do Além me fala…

Desmaia o horizonte elanguescido,
Com frouxos tons de pérola e de opala,
Neste esvair de luz que doce exala
Um mágico amavio indefinido…

E eu sinto errar na tarde de veludo
Uma alma que medita, esparsa em tudo,
Um ser espiritual que não descubro.

É um ser feminil, num sonho imerso,
Que como vago aroma, anda disperse
Neste tarde meiguissíma de Outobro…


Dreamy Afternoon

The afternoon expires: the benumbed sea
Sings a monotonous song that lulls,
A song which talks to me, like moaning
Nostalgia, of Absence, of the Beyond.

The weakened horizon faints
With feeble tones of pearl and opal,
In this swooning of light that sweetly
Exhales an indefinite magic potion.

And I sense on this velvet afternoon a wandering
Soul that meditates, sparse in everything,
A spiritual being I cannot discover.

It’s an effeminate being immersed in dream,
That, like a vaporous aroma, wafts through
This mildest afternoon in October.

Fernando Pessoa: A Multiplicity Of Voices

Today is the feast day of Saint Anthony, the patron saint of Lisbon. It’s also the anniversary of Fernando Pessoa’s birth, an appropriate birthday for the half-Azorean poet considered to be Lisbon’s quintessential writer.  Through nearly 80 literary alter egos, Pessoa created an elaborate imaginative space that continues to resonate with people a century later.  In today’s guest post, Mirna Queiroz, a Brazilian writer and Pessoa aficianado, imagines Pessoa’s life through his daily activities, his heteronyms and his poetry.


REALITY, COME BACK TOMORROW

Lisbon, November 26, 1935. Pessoa heads for home at the end of his workday at the import-export office. Under his arm he carries, as always, a leather briefcase. Before going up to his apartment on Coelho da Rocha Street, he stops off at Trindade’s Bar, just around the corner. This is routine. His friend sells him goods on credit. He goes up to the counter and says:

“2, 8 and 6.”

Trindade brings him a box of matches, a pack of cigarettes and a small glass of brandy. There is complicity in his eyes. The matches cost 20 cents, the cigarettes 80, and the brandy 60. So Pessoa simplifies his request: 2, 8, and 6. Trindade is used to it. The poet lights a cigarette and drinks the brandy in one gulp. He takes an empty black bottle out of his briefcase and hands it to Trindade who, discreetly, returns it filled up. With his little black bottle safely put away, Pessoa departs. He staggers out of the bar, reciting:

Drunk, it grows white
As if by the sand
In the market streets,
Of the empty market,
In the dark of night
Of shadows half-shown.
The moon becomes white
In the streets of the market
Deserted, unknown… (1)


MY SOUL SHATTERED LIKE AN EMPTY VASE

In his room, he spends the entire night bent over his desk. His figure blends in with the books, papers and tiny pencils that no one but him would be able to handle. The ashtray is full of cigarette ends. He writes, compulsively, to his young friend Casais Monteiro:

“…Ever since I was a child, I have had the tendency to create a fictitious world around me, to surround myself with friends and acquaintances who never existed. ( I don’t know, of course, if they didn’t really exist or if it is me who doesn’t exist. On such matters, as in all others, one shouldn’t be dogmatic.) Ever since I became aware of the thing that I call self, I can remember with mental precision, the figures, the movements, the character and the history of several fictitious people who were, to me, as visible and mine as those things which we, perhaps abusively, call real life. This tendency, which exists since I realized that I was a self, has always been with me, modifying slightly the kind of music it uses to bewitch me but never altering its manner of bewitching.” (2)

His writing is going at full speed when Pessoa begins to receive unexpected visitors: Caeiro, Reis, Campos and Soares. They have plans and they want to show them to the great poet. They arrive one at a time. It is dawn and now they are all together. They are surprised by a deeply moved poet, still holding the sheets of paper in his hand. “Had he received bad news?” they ask, showing concern. The poet tries to change the subject. He becomes confused, lost in his own words, something that had never happened before. But then, he had never received visitors at such a late hour, especially without a previous appointment. This must be an act of “The Great Architect of the Universe,” he thinks. So be it; let destiny take its course… Then, by fits and starts, he explains:

“I put off telling the truth as long as I could. Now, it’s time to take off the mask.”

His listeners are uneasy. Those who are sitting stand up, those who are standing either sit down or begin pacing the floor. Pessoa’s evasive speech is interrupted by moans and groans:

“I was just writing a letter to a friend in which I confided everything that I now feel I must tell you.”

He takes a deep breath and blurts out:

“You don’t exist.”

There’s general commotion among those present.
“That’s it. You people are nothing but characters that I have created. When I die, I’ll take you with me.”

“This can only be insanity. Sheer madness,” says an offended Álvaro de Campos.

“I’ll tell you how it all happened. ‘One day, it was March 8, 1914, when I had finally decided to give it all up, I went up to a high desk, took a sheet of paper and began to write, standing up as I usually do whenever I can. I wrote thirty-odd poems in one go, in a kind of trance whose nature I cannot define. It was the greatest day of my life and I’ll never have another one like it. I started with the title, O Guardador de Rebanhos ( The Keeper of Sheep). What followed was the appearance of someone in me, to whom I immediately gave the name of Alberto Caeiro. …So much so, that upon finishing those thirty-odd poems, I immediately took another piece of paper and wrote, also in one go, the six poems that make up A Chuva Oblíqua (Oblique Rain), by Fernando Pessoa. Once Alberto Caeiro’s presence materialized, I, instinctively and subconsciously, set out to find him some disciples. I yanked a latent Ricardo Reis out of his false paganism, discovered his name, and adjusted him to himself, because, at this stage, I could already see him. And, suddenly, arising from sources directly opposed to those of Ricardo Reis, a new individual burst impetuously into my mind. In one fell swoop, at the typewriter, without interruption or correction, there emerged the Ode Triunfal (Triumphal Ode) by Alvaro Campos – both, the Ode and the author, already carrying the name they have now.’” (2)

“You mean to say that all this time we’ve been nothing but lies?” asks Ricardo Reis.

Bernardo Soares replies:

Poets are fakers
and their faking is so real
that they even fake the pain,
the pain that they really feel. (3)

“That’s really the key,” explains Pessoa.

“I don’t accept that. Let my creator die in peace, but I’m going to continue quite alive, making poetry as always,” cries Álvaro Campos, in defiance.

“Well, now! So the creature turns against its own creator. I should have suspected as much,” deplores Pessoa. “And what about you, Caeiro?”

I like everything that’s real
and everything that’s right;
And I like it because it would be so,
whether or not I liked it.
And so, if I die now, I die a happy man,
Because everything is real and everything is right.(4)

Álvaro Campos remarks: “I don’t understand your complacency. Can’t you see that Pessoa took advantage of us and, particularly, of you? He was compelled to overcome his decadent lyric subjectivity and he defeated it in such a sudden and aggressive fashion that he had no alternative but to give a name to the critic who did it. And that’s where you come in, to save him. (5)

Caeiro can’t hide his displeasure. And so, Pessoa explains:

“I wrote the eighth poem of Guardador de Rebanhos (The Keeper of Sheep), with misgivings and repugnance, following your childish and antispiritualist blasphemies. To each character that I was able to experience within me, I gave an expressive nature and turned him into an author, with books, ideas, emotions, and art, none of which I, the real author, possess, except for having been the medium through whom they were written by the figures that I, myself, created.

“You didn’t have the right to do that,” Campos insists.

Pessoa continues:

“To deny me the right to do that would be the same as denying Shakespeare the right to give expression to Lady Macbeth’s soul. And if that’s true for fictitious characters in a drama, it is equally true for characters not in a drama, since it applies because they are fictitious and not because they are in a drama. There’s no need to explain something which, by its nature, is simple and intuitively understandable. It happens, however, that human stupidity is great while human kindness is not worthy of note.

Ricardo Reis, who had remained silent throughout the explanation, asks:

“Why, then, did you invent us? What’s the origin of it all?”

Patiently, Pessoa tries to explain it to him:

“It’s the deep characteristics of hysteria that exist in me. I don’t know if I am simply hysterical, or if I am, to put it more adequately, hysterical neurasthenic. Whatever the case, your mental origins are in my organic and constant tendency to depersonalize and to simulate. If I were a woman – in women hysterical phenomena manifest themselves through seizures and things like that – each poem by Álvaro Campos, the most hysterical within me, would cause a commotion in the neighborhood. But I am a man and in men hysteria becomes, mostly, a matter of the mind; thus, everything ends up in silence and poetry…” (2)

The answer is not convincing; it pleases no one. Gone is the time when he was eloquent. Now nobody listens. Pessoa feels distressed. Silence is all around him; he feels the incomprehension, the hurt and even the contempt of his other “selves.” He turns for one final plea. He is left alone with his truth.


I AM GOING TO EXIST

When he thinks about going to bed, it’s already a new day. Someone knocks at the door. It’s Mr. Manacés, the barber. Pessoa hardly says “good-morning” to him. The phlegm in his throat hampers his speech. His trousers slipping down his legs, he points to the little black bottle. Manacés understands the signal. He goes down to Trindade’s bar to fill it up, even before he sharpened his razor blade. Now shaved, the poet leaves for the office. He finishes some translations; has lunch at Martinho da Arcada and, before returning to work, he goes into a tavern, reluctantly. He thinks of his doctor who had forbidden him to drink. Then he asks himself.

Should I drink something or should I commit suicide?
No; I am going to exist. Dammit! I am going to exist.
To ex-ist
To ex-ist
Give me something to drink, for I am not thirsty! (6)

The night of November 27 to 28. Pessoa lies shrunken in bed, his hands pressing his abdomen to relieve liver colics. He moans, he is in pain. In the morning of the 28th, Pessoa is taken to S. Luis dos Franceses Hospital. The pain increases, he has difficulty breathing. The poet agonizes. He begs for an end to such suffering and is given a pain reliever. Under the effect of the drug, he reflects upon his life, which now threatens to leave him.


OH, TO RELIVE THE SORROW

June 13, 1888. Celebration of Saint Anthony’s Day, the Patron Saint of the city. 15:20h. The streets of Lisbon are crowded because of a religious procession. At 4 Largo São Carlos, the excitement is even greater. Maria Magdalena Pinheiro Nogueira, a native of the Azores, is drenched in sweat. Her fingers press hard and squeeze a pillow; the pangs of childbirth. Joaquim de Seabra Pessoa, her husband, is listening to music in back of the house. Outside, there is a priest saying mass. In the bedroom, a baby cries. Fernando António Nogueira Pessoa is born. The sun is in Gemini. “He will be a child blessed with the gifts of sensibility and humanism,” ventures one of his aunts.

At the age of six, Fernando loses his father, a civil servant in the Ministry of Justice and music critic for the daily Diário de Notícias. Soon thereafter, his brother Jorge, just a bit over six months old, dies. Loneliness becomes a part of Pessoa’s everyday life at a very tender age. He invents a friend: a certain Chevallier de Pas, through whom he writes letters from him, Pessoa, to himself.

He moves to Durban, at the age of seven. His mother had married, by proxy, commander João Miguel Rosa, Portuguese consul in the British colony of Natal, in South Africa. Five children are born to the couple. It’s a new family for Pessoa. He’ll live in Durban until the age of 17. In 1896, he is admitted to West Street, where he studies English and makes his first Holy Communion. In English schools he learns principles of trade and commerce. He stands out as one of the better students. In 1904, he finishes his Intermediate Examination in the arts. He is awarded the Queen Victoria Prize in English Stylistics as part of the admission tests for Cabo Universidade. He writes poetry and prose, always in English. He reads Milton, Byron, Shelley, Tennyson and Poe. He is familiar with Pope and his school of thought.

1905. Pessoa decides to move back to Lisbon to take a university course on literature. He leaves Durban on a German ship, the “Herzog.” He’ll be staying with his grandmother Dionisia. The Portuguese language reveals itself as “foreign,” with the added characteristic of seeming “strange,” even though he understands it perfectly. In other words, to his ears the Portuguese language is not yet worn out by daily use, bom dia (good morning), boa tarde (good afternoon), como está (how are you?), passou bem? (how have you been?) e a mãezinha está melhor? (is your Mom feeling better?) está melhorzinha, muito obrigado (she feels a bit better, thank you)! The language is a block of marble that makes one feel like sculpting it, to make literature. He discovers Cesário Verde and Baudelaire.

1907. He drops out of the course. His grandmother dies. He takes his inheritance and sets up a printing shop: Ibis-Tipográfica Editora-Oficinas a Vapor. It hardly begins to operate and closes down. Frustration.

I failed at everything.
Considering that I had no goals,
perhaps everything was nothing.
I dodged the training I was given
by slipping through the window
in the back of the house…(7)

The poet earns his living as a translator of business letters and, later, as foreign correspondent. Monotony. He gets away from the office whenever he can. He just grabs his hat and says: “I’m going to Abel’s.”

His boss finds out that “Abel’s” is nothing more than a warehouse belonging to the Abel Pereira da Fonseca winery, where Pessoa goes for a few shots of brandy. He is caught “red-handed.” The boss doesn’t mind because Pessoa “aways comes back in better shape to work.” It’s a part-time job. The rest of the time he devotes to literature: Camões, António Vieira, Antero de Quental and the symbolists. He begins to write verses in Portuguese. The Portuguese Renaissance, a nostalgic movement headed by Teixeira de Pascoaes, makes its appearance. In the city of Oporto, the group founds a literary magazine called Águia. Pessoa becomes a collaborator. He publishes a series of articles, among them “The New Portuguese Poetry Sociologically Considered.”

He also becomes a critic for the weekly magazine Teatro. He makes friends with Mário de Sá-Carneiro, Luís de Montalvor, Armando Cortes-Rodrigues, Raul Leal, António Ferro, Alfredo Guisado and the painter Almada Negreiros. He never misses the literary gatherings held at Café Chiado, Montanha, A Brasileira, Os Irmãos Unidos. Together with this group, Pessoa founds Orpheu, an avant-garde magazine in tune with the new European movements: futurism, orphism, cubism…(8) This publication reveals names such as Santa-Rita Pintor and Ângelo Lima, a marginal poet who was committed to an asylum. Orpheu doesn’t reach its third issue. Two issues were enough to outrage literary conservatives.

Tired of transcendental mysticism, Pessoa feels rewarded. He writes to a friend: In none of my circle of acquaintances do I find an attitude toward life that agrees with my inner sensibility, with my aspirations, with everything that makes up the fundamental and essential nature of my inner spiritual being. I do find, of course, those who are in agreement with literary activities which are only a part of the fringes of my sincerity. And that’s enough for me. As a result, everything that is literary frivolousness, trivial art, is gradually sounding more and more hollow and repugnant to my sensibility, which is increasingly deeper, and to my greater awareness of the terrible and religious mission that every man of genius receives from God, together with his genius.


THE OTHER POETS

1914. Pessoa meets Alberto Caeiro, a “pale blond, blue-eyed” man. (5) He was born in Lisbon, 1888, but now lives in Ribatejo. He has no profession. His education is limited. He views the world from an old aunt’s estate. A simple, bucolic man, he writes O Guardador de Rebanhos (The keeper of Sheep), O Pastor Amoroso (The Loving Shepherd) and part of Poemas Inconjuntos (Disconnected Poems). In a letter to a friend, Pessoa reveals: Forgive me for the absurdity of this phrase: My master had become present in me.

…I don’t believe in God because I have never seen him.
If he wanted me to believe in him,
Undoubtedly he would come to speak to me
And he would come through my door
Saying to me: Here I am! (9)

Pessoa breathes and perspires poetry; he draws in the other poets. He meets Álvaro de Campos, the avant-garde author of Ode Triunfal (Triumphal Ode), Ode Marítima (Maritime Ode) and Ultimatum. He is tall, has straight hair, parted on one side, and wears a monocle. (2)

He was born in Tavira in 1890. He had finished high school in Portugal and then moved to Glasgow, in Scotland, where he graduated as a mechanical and naval engineer. He had written Opiário, an ironical poem about opium and exoticism, a piece of literary decadence. In Lisbon, he had dedicated himself to literature and to modernist polemics. He had also written articles for some newspapers on current political affairs. As far as Pessoa was concerned, Álvaro was only a blasé, indolent symbolist, a cultured and bored bourgeois. Campos is also a disciple of Caeiro, but contrary to Caeiro’s serenity, he chooses the ethics of dynamism and violence.(8)

Oh, the savagery of this savagery! To hell
with every life like ours, this is not
what life is about!
Here I am, an engineer, forced to be practical,
sensitive to everything,
Here I am, motionless, in relation to you,
even when I walk;
Even when I act, I am inert;
when I’m in command, I am weak;
Immutable, broken, a dissenter, a coward before
your Glory,
Before your great dynamics,
strident, hot and soaked in blood! (10)

June, 1914. Another poet makes his appearance in the life of Pessoa, who had become aware of his existence two years before. He is Ricardo Reis, average height, although frail he didn’t appear to be as frail as, in truth, he was, with a vaguely brown complexion. (2) This physician from Oporto, a defender of the monarchy, is one year older than Pessoa and spends some time in exile in Brazil after the proclamation of the Republic. A traditional thinker, a conservative, he uses classicism as a point of departure to approach the subject of human restlessness, to question the meaning of the Universe. (8) He writes intensely: eleven odes in one month.

And so, Lydia, by the fireplace, as if we were,
with the Gods of home, right there in eternity,
Like people who confection clothes
As we once did
In that disquiet that rest
Brings to our lives when we think
Of what we once were.
And outside, there is only night. (11)

Pessoa devotes himself entirely to his new friends. His close relationship with such distinguished poets brings more color to his colorless daily life. One other writer will be added to this group of artists. In one of these low-priced restaurants,…the poet meets a man, who looks to be around 30, somewhat tall, whose back becomes quite hunched when he sits. They begin to greet each other and soon they become friends. Soares gives the poet his Livro do Desassossego (The Book of Disquiet), a collection of writings, not easily classified, with characteristics of autobiographical fragments, confessions, psychological introspection, descriptions of landscapes, reflections, and free verses. (8)

Pessoa has a falling-out with Campos. At the center of their quarrel is Ophélia Queiroz, a young lady Pessoa had met at the office of the Félix Valadas & Freitas company. She is twenty years old and, immediately, she awakens in the poet an interest in her. The relationship between them is shaken when they begin to date regularly. They walk hand in hand, they exchange letters and short messages. But she feels hostility coming from Fernando’s friend. Campos is afraid that Pessoa will abandon his poetry because of Ophélia. Perhaps influenced by this appeal, Pessoa decides to terminate the romance.


A MYSTERY

1916. Mário de Sá-Carneiro commits suicide in Paris. Pessoa is shocked. In a letter to his Aunt Anica he says that, despite the distance, his friend’s death is deeply felt. Distress. He begins to look for answers in the occult. “I believe in the existence of worlds which are superior to ours, in the existence of inhabitants of such worlds, and in the existence of several degrees of spiritualities,” he admits. He becomes interested in secret societies such as the Rosicrucian Order, the Freemasons, the Knights Templar. He studies spiritism, sorcery and the cabala and translates many books of the Theosophical and Esoteric Collection. Under the influence of occultism, he writes O Último Sortilégio (The Last Sortilege) and Além-Deus (Beyond God). He becomes especially interested in astrology and begins to study and practice it. He even considers establishing himself in Lisbon as a licensed astrologer. Caeiro receives an astrological chart made by the poet.

Pessoa’s poetry begins to arouse the interest of the critics. The Times and The Glasgow Herald have articles covering the two booklets of poems in English which he had published in 1918. He now writes for the most important literary magazines in Portugal. In Contemporânea he publishes O Banqueiro Anarquista (The Anarchist Banker), Mar Português (The Portuguese Sea), O Menino da Sua Mãe (Mommy’s Little Boy), Lisbon Revisited

In 1928, he becomes involved in politics. In Interregno, a political publication of the Núcleo de Acção Nacional (Center for National Action), he publishes an apology for Salazar’s dictatorship. A blunder. Pessoa does not agree with the despotism and ultranationalism of the existing regime. Later, he writes three texts satirizing the Estado Novo (The New Order). One of them is addressed to the leader of the movement:

António de Oliveira Salazar
A sequence of three names, quite regular…
António is António
Oliveira is a tree.
Salazar is just a last name.
By themselves, they’re not hard to take.
What doesn’t make sense
Is the sense that they all make. (12)

In that same year, Pessoa goes into advertising. Coca-Cola has just entered the Portuguese market and the poet is charged with the task of creating a slogan for the product: “First, you find it strange; then you can’t change.” The product sells like hotcakes, but later the authorities prohibit its sale in Portugal. The very slogan, argue the authorities, recognizes the harmful effects of the soft drink.

In the years that follow, Pessoa plunges into the study of astrology. He exchanges correspondence with the world-famous British occultist Aleister Crowley, known throughout the world. Crowley goes to Lisbon to meet Pessoa and then vanishes mysteriously. Pessoa collaborates with the police to solve what is being described as a crime. Pessoa writes to a friend about this hubbub: “Crowley, who took up residence in Germany after committing suicide, wrote me a few days ago asking for my translation, or rather, the publication of the translation.” Pessoa is referring to the sorcerer’s poem “Hymn to Pan,” which is published in 1931.

1934. Pessoa publishes Mensagem (Message), a poem about the history of Portugal. Esoteric and mystical. It will be the only book of poems in Portuguese published in his lifetime. He wins the Second Category Prize awarded by the Secretariado de Propaganda Nacional (National Department of Propaganda).


TOO LATE FOR THE REUNION

November 30, 1935. Edgy, tossing and turning in bed, Pessoa is burning with fever.

I am nothing
I shall never be anything
I cannot wish to be anything.
Aside from that, I hold within me
all the dreams of the world.
Today, I’m defeated, as if I’d learned the truth.
Today, I am lucid, as if I were about to die. (7)

The chaplain tries to calm him down. He insists on calling out the names of Caeiro, Reis, Campos and Soares. As if they heard the summons of their creator, the poets head for the hospital. Pessoa is in the throes of death. He tugs at the bedsheet, his body shrinks. “Give me my glasses, my glasses,” he asks. He readies himself for a last glance at his creation. They haven’t arrived yet. But he can feel that they are coming. Oh, yes, they are coming.

Caeiro, Reis, Campos and Soares rush into the room. But they are too late, the poet is dead. There remain only a few notes scribbled on a piece of paper:

I made of myself something beyond my knowledge,
And what I could make of myself I failed to do.
The domino costume that I wore was all wrong.
They immediately took me for someone I was not
and I didn’t deny it, and I was lost. When I tried
to take off the mask,
It was stuck to my face.
When I took it off and looked in the mirror,
I had grown old,
I was drunk, and I didn’t know how to put on
the costume that I had not taken off.
I threw the mask away and slept
in the dressing room
As a dog tolerated by the management
because he’s harmless.
And I’m going to write this story to prove
that I’m sublime. (7)

*************************

(1) Pierrot Bêbado(Drunken Pierrot), F.P. – (2) Carta a Casais Monteiro (Letter to Casais Monteiro)(01-13-1935) – (3) Livro do Desassossego, (The Book of Disquiet) B.S. – (4) Poemas Inconjuntos (Disconnected Poems), A.Caeiro – (5) João Gaspar Simões, biographer. – (6) Bicarbonato de Soda (Bicarbonate of Soda), F.P. – (7) Tabacaria (The Tobacco Shop), A.Campos.-(8) Maria José de Lencastre, biographer – (9) O Guardador de Rebanhos (The Keeper of Sheep), A.Caeiro. – (10) Ode Marítima (Maritime Ode), A.Campos, carta de F.P. a Casais Monteiro – (11) Lydia, R.Reis – (12) António de Oliveira Salazar, F.P.

The Spirit of the Portuguese in 1102 Stanzas

Tomb of Camoes

On June 10, 1580, at the age of 56, Luís Vaz de Camões died, shunned by the nation he loved and penniless despite the acclaimed publication of his epic poem, Os Lusíadas, just a few years earlier. His death, on the eve of his country’s annexation to Spain, marked the end of a fated period in Portugal’s cultural history.

A monk, sitting by his side during his last hours, looked upon him with pity. “How miserable a thing,” he writes, “to see so great a genius so ill rewarded! I saw him die in a hospital at Lisbon, without possessing a shroud to cover his remains, after having borne arms victoriously in India, and having sailed 5500 leagues: — a warning for those who weary themselves by studying night and day without profit, as the spider who spins his web to catch flies.”

It’s true that Camões did not reap the rewards of his talent during his lifetime but his masterpiece survived four centuries and is studied by Portuguese schoolchildren to this day. His long lyric poem, consisting of 1102 stanzas, is considered to be one of the most important works in Portuguese literature. More than any other writer, Camões extolled the spirit of the Portuguese nation in this fantastical interpretation of Portugal’s epic history and maritime exploration during the middle ages. His descriptions of Vasco da Gama’s mythic adventure toward unknown lands and the musicality of the Portuguese language form the basis of Os Lusíadas but underlying the heroic narrative there sounds a note of heartbreak and regret. Camões conveyed that profound sense of psychological and social anguish which dominates Portuguese culture to this day — but he also captured the passion and beauty of his nation like none other.

According to poet and politician Manuel Alegre, in order to understand the origin of their cultural identity the Portuguese people must listen to Camões’s voice, Camões’s expressions of saudade captured so beautifully in stanzas ‘that rise to sublimity, touch the heart by their pathos, or charm it by descriptive beauties’. “There wasn’t anyone superior to Camões,” says Alegre. “The language we speak and write today is the language that Camões founded and wrote.”

Camões was buried in a borrowed shroud in the church of St. Anna in Lisbon, but his tomb was destroyed by the famous earthquake of 1755. Three hundred years after his death, what were assumed to be his remains were entombed in the magestic Jerónimos Monastery in Belem. It is fitting that he should be laid to rest across the aisle from the tomb of Vasco da Gama, the hero of his epic poem. Fitting, too, that Camões is entombed on the site of the very chapel he mentions in stanza 87.  But we can not help but be reminded of the anguish and circumstances of the poet’s last months of life as we read his description of Vasco de Gama’s farewell to Lisbon:

In this my tottering old age, now
Doomed to end in grief and pain,
Why do you leave me wretched and indigent?

Today, millions of people of Portuguese descent will celebrate Portugal National Day or Dia de Camões as it is known in Portugal. The Portuguese are currently experiencing a sense of anxiety and uncertainty about their future but I believe the adventurous spirit of the people — embodied so beautifully in Os Lusíadas — will help them overcome their country’s current economic hardships.

Canto IV: 86-93

Having done everything practical
To make ready for so long a voyage,
We prepared our souls to meet death
Which is always on a sailor’s horizon.
To God on high who alone sustains
The heavens with his beloved presence,
We asked His favour that He should endorse
Our every enterprise and steer our course.

The holy chapel from which we parted
Is built there on the very beach,
And takes its name, Belem, from the town
Where God was given to the world as flesh.
O King, I tell you, when I reflect
On how I parted from that shore,
Tormented by so many doubts and fears,
Even now it is hard to restrain my tears.

That day, a vast throng from the city
(As friends, as family, others
only to watch), crowded the shore,
Their faces anxious and dismayed
Looking on, as in the holy company
Of a thousand zealous monks
With heartfelt intercessions on our lips
We marched in solemn file towards the ships.

The people considered us already lost
On so long and uncertain of a journey,
The women with piteous wailing
The men with agonizing sighs;
Mothers, sweethearts, and sisters, made
Fretful by their love, heightened
The desolation and the arctic fear
We should not return for many a long year.

One such was saying: “O my dear son,
My only comfort and sweet support
In this my tottering old age, now
Doomed to end in grief and pain,
Why do you leave me wretched and indigent?
Why do you travel so far away,
To be lost at sea as your memorial,
And bloated fish as your only burial?”

Or one bareheaded: “O dearest husband,
But for whose love I could not exist,
Why do you risk on the angry seas
That which belongs to me, not you?
Why, for so dubious a voyage, do you
Forget our sweet affection?
Is our passion, our happiness so frail
As to scatter in the wind swelling the sail?”

As these piteous, loving speeches
Poured from gentle, human hearts,
The old and the children took them up
In the different manner of their years.
The nearest mountains echoed them,
As if stirred by nearest sympathy,
While tears as many as the grains of sand
Rained without ceasing on the white strand.

As for us, we dared not lit our faces
To our mothers and our wives, fearing
To be harrowed, or discouraged
From the enterprise so firmly begun,
And I decided we should all embark
Without the customary farewells,
For, though they may be love’s proper course,
They make the pain of separation worse.

(English translation by Landeg-White)

Portuguese-North American Literature 101

book-review

In recent months, I’ve been reading academic books, journals and articles relating to the birth and development of Portuguese-North American writing in an effort to educate myself. I call it Portuguese-North American Literature 101 because so much of what I’ve come across has led me to writers and books I knew little about, for example, João de Melo and his incredible novel, My World is Not of This Kingdom. I also began bookmarking interesting online articles and clipping magazine pieces relating to Portuguese-North American writers and the burgeoning literary community.

It occurred to me that others may be interested and perhaps inspired to read some of these pieces so I began contacting writers with the idea of compiling a few essays and interviews in a simple pdf file as a free download. All of the pieces, save for my interview with poet Millicent Borges Accardi, have been previously published and are republished with permission from the writers. This simple pdf “booklet” is my small contribution towards encouraging other “late-blooming Lusophiles” to learn more about the rich cultural background–and future!–of Portuguese North-American literature. Thank you to Oona Patrick, Richard Simas, Frank Gaspar, Millicent Borges Accardi, Darrell Kastin and Onésimo Teotónio Almeida for allowing me to reprint your interviews, articles and essays.

Download: Portuguese-North American Writing

Losing your Mother Tongue

1024px-MafraPalace-Library

“My homeland is the Portuguese language,” said Pessoa.

So what happens when you lose your language?

Like many first-generation Portuguese Canadians, I grew up speaking Portuguese at home but my fluency had eroded by the time I entered junior high school.  My father, anxious to see his children assimilate and succeed, encouraged my siblings and me to use English at home even though he and my mother nearly always spoke to us in Portuguese.  As a teenager, Portuguese represented “the old country” and my parents’ old-fashioned ideas so I was eager to leave the language —and my heavy accent—behind me in an effort to fit in with my classmates. It would be decades before I would begin to feel the loss of my mother tongue.

As a child of Azorean immigrants, it was my parents’ language more than anything else that connected me to their homeland—and to my heritage.  It was the language of my first words: mãe, pae, leite, vaca, bicho, Cala a boca!… It was the language of food, lullabies and superstitions whispered in the night. More than anything else, the language takes me back to a time in my childhood when our large extended family was a tight unit of outsiders struggling together to fit into a new life, a new homeland. Portuguese was the language I was raised in, disciplined in, loved in.

I see how my mother, with her limited grasp of the English language, lacks the words to communicate with her grandchildren and how even I simplify and edit much of what I share with her because there is a limit to what she can understand in English—and a limit to what I can convey in Portuguese. I cringe at the sound of my own accent and more often than not, revert to English rather than continue to slaughter the language.

In the following poem, Portuguese writer Jorge de Sena (English translation by George Monteiro) eloquently captures the grief and bitterness of immigrants who find themselves unable to communicate with their children through a shared language.


Notions about Linguistics

I listen to my children talk English.
Not the smallest alone but the older
Ones too, and they to the young ones.
Born elsewhere, they grew up
With Portuguese in their
Ears. But it’s English they speak,
They who will not be merely Americans;
Melted, they continue to melt in
Seas not their own. Tell me about
Poetry’s mystery, a tongue’s traditions,
A race of people, all that is inexpressible
Save in the untranslatable essence
Of a people. Bastards. Languages
Last centuries and will survive even when
Hidden within other tongues, but they
Die every day in the stammer of those who
Inherit them. So immortal are they that
A half dozen years suffice to suppress them
In mouths dissolving into new shapes,
Impressed by another people, a
Different culture. So metaphysical
Are languages, so untranslatable, that they
Melt thus, not unto the highest of heavens, but
In the quotidian crap of another tongue.

I wonder if most immigrants carry this burden of existential angst about the loss of their language and how this loss created a communication barrier between them and their children.  However much our parents may have encouraged us to speak English in order to assimilate, I think they were saddened by the repercussions of introducing a new language into the family home.  Losing one’s mother tongue is often the first step—the largest step—towards moving away from one’s ethnicity towards a new identity and culture.

I’m interested in hearing about your experiences with navigating the Portuguese-English divide in your family. Have you lost—or reclaimed—your mother tongue?

Translation: A Complex Universe of Music

 

NO PEGO DO MAR
Na ilha parada
O menino-do-mar
Que sou e hei sido,
E vela molhada
Num ar de resdoma,
Envolto e pesado:
–Não passa de si!…
Persiste quem é
O menino-de-mar
Que tenho de ser,
A nuvem não pode
Ao vento que sopra:
–Desfaz-se é perdida
A vida fundada
no mar retraido
de um sonho incontido!
E o menino-do-mar
Que sempre eu serei
Ficou-se passado
E há-de morrer
Pelo dom de saber
Que a rua sem onde
Não força ou deslinda
O firme poder
De ser sem querer.
~João Afonso
IN THE DEPTHS OF THE SEA
On the motionless island
The child-of-the-sea
That I am and have been,
Like a wet sail,
Wrapped and heavy,
In the air of a bell jar
–Never to be other in itself.
He stays as he is,
The child-of-the-sea
That I have to be,
The cloud that cannot take
The wind that blows
–It dissolves and is lost,
A life rooted
In the withdrawn sea
Of an incontinent dream.
And the child-of-the-sea
I shall always be
Was left behind
And must die
From the gift of knowing
That the road nowhere
Neither compels nor clarifies
The stern power of being
Without wanting to be.

“No Pego do Mar,” along with its English translation, is taken from The Sea Within published by Gávea-Brown in 1983. The book is a collection of poems by Azorean writers (some of whom live in the States) translated into English. It’s interesting to read the originals in Portuguese and compare them side-by-side with the translations by George Monteiro, a renowned scholar and professor at Brown University. I’ve been working on my own poetry translation skills and am finding The Sea Within to be a terrific teaching guide as I’m able to compare the original with Monteiro’s translation.

I’m not as fluent in the language as I’d like to be despite it having been my only languge until elementary school but I have a pretty good comprehension of written Portuguese.  At last year’s Disquiet International Literary program in Lisbon I was privileged to participate in a translation workshop series with the noted professor and translator, Margarida Vale de Gato, a respected poet in her own right.

One of the things Margarida taught us was that a competent translator had to recreate the stylistic sensibility of the poem while honouring the meaning and intent of the poet. No easy feat as the best translations involve a form of lexical choreography — a substitution of slightly different lyrics without disturbing the melody, or meaning, of the song and where the translator’s voice is only a hum-in-the-ear and not an entirely new or different tune. A good translator substitutes words according to both sound and nuance. It is in translation where having a good ear dovetails with instinct. As most writers are aware, vowels and consonants, words and sentences, have a complex universe of music all their own.

In addition, language is inextricably connected to cultural identity, geography, history and even religion, so a weak translation results in a distinct loss when it comes to conveying the “cultural psyche” of the author. Saramago’s translator, Margaret Jull Costa, understood this. In speaking of her work, Jull Costa has said, “Translation is always a balancing act between faithfulness to letter and faithfulness to spirit. You have to understand what the author means not only at the level of denotation, but also of connotation. You have to be aware of the sound of words and their register, as well as the rhythm and sound of the sentence in the translated version, so that the finished product is as cogent, fluent and convincing in the new language as it is in the original.”

Saramago himself stressed the important cross-cultural role of translators. “Writers create a national literature,” he said, “but it is translators who create international literature.”

Please share your thoughts in the comments.

A Profile of the Azorean

old books

I received a number of enquiries about A Profile of the Azorean, a slender book published in 1980 which I quoted from in this post–which so far, is the most popular post on my blog with just over 300 views.  I came across a pdf version of the booklet on the website of the Canadian Centre for Azorean Research and Studies (CCARS) and contacted Onésimo T. Almeida, the author of the publication, to request permission to post the pdf on my site.

Almeida was surprised I had a copy of the actual book in my hands, a copy he had autographed and sent to  Janet Ladner over thirty years ago. Ladner was a popular Vancouver philanthropist who went back to school after raising her family, becoming fluent in Portuguese and a specialist in Portuguese royal history. I met her son, Peter Ladner, a city councillor, at a literary function and he happened to mention that he had just donated several boxes of his mother’s Portuguese book collection to the offices of Lusitania, a Portuguese-Canadian newspaper based in Vancouver.  The Lusitania office also served as a small library and contained about 500 Portuguese-related books and periodicals, many of them in English. When Lusitania editor Terry Costa decided to pull up roots and head back home to Toronto a year ago I purchased some of the books from the library. It was pure serendipity that Janet Ladner’s autographed copy of A Profile of the Azorean ended up in my hands.

Almeida graciously agreed to let me post A Profile of the Azorean on my blog provided I include the disclaimer he wrote for the CCARS. Here’s the disclaimer:

“I was asked permission to have this paper (A Profile of the Azorean) included in this website. I hesitated for good reasons. This is a paper written in the late 1970s almost as a guideline for workshops I gave to teachers in New England and California dealing with Azorean immigrant students in bilingual programs. It aimed at addressing some common questions from those who were trying to understand the cultural background of the students. Even though I tried not to generalize, some generalizations were unavoidable.

In any event, much has changed in the Azores since the 1974 revolution that took shook up Portugal. The islands have opened up to the world, and people who return there, after decades in Canada or the United States, often can hardly believe how much life conditions have improved, how modernized the infrastructures are. This is not to say that the culture has changed radically, but simply to underline the fact that this paper now can only serve as background for part of the story – to help understanding, in rough strokes, how the Azores came to be what they were in the 1970’s.

In the last decades, the history of the Azores has been studied in depth and there are many publications in the fields of sociology, anthropology, economics as well as other social sciences with a wealth of information on the many facets of Azorean history, life and culture. Unfortunately very few of them are available in English and that is why I bowed to the persistent request of letting an outdated piece such as this be included here.”

Download: A Profile of the Azorean