For my bonus post this year, wrapping up this Poetry Month featuring poets of the Azores and its Diaspora, I want to share one of my translations of the great 20th Century Azorean poet Vitorino Nemésio. (This translation appears in the current issue of Gávea-Brown: A Bilingual Journal of Portuguese-North American Letters and Studies, along with four others.)

Vitorino Nemésio statue on Terceira Island, the Azores islands, Portugal.
Photo by Manuel de Sousa, Creative Commons License

A poet, essayist, and public intellectual, Nemésio was born on Terceira Island in 1901 and is best known for his novel Mau tempo no canal (1945), which was translated into English by Francisco Cota Fagundes and published as Stormy Isles: An Azorean Tale.

In 1932, the quincentennial year of Gonçalo Velho Cabral’s “discovery” of the Azores, Nemésio coined the term “açorianidade,” which he would explore in two important essays, and which would become the subject of much debate over the years. There are those who see the term as somewhat limiting: describing as it does a specific, fixed set of qualities of the island condition—insularity, for example—that belies a greater dynamism in the spirit of the islanders.

Nevertheless, I think its usefulness as a term is somewhat expanded when we look at what Nemésio himself said about it, reflecting the entirety of his term rather than one dimension of it. Instead of limiting it as a descriptor to what it’s like to be born on the islands, Nemésio asserted that it was appropriate, too, for those who emigrated from the islands, as well as those who later returned. (And, by extension, as I said in a recent interview, I like to think he intended it to continue through or beyond the generations.) 

The term, wrote Antonio Machado Pires in his essay, “The Azorean Man and Azoreanity,” “not only expresses the quality and soul of being Azorean, inside or outside (mainly outside?) of the Azores, but the set of constraints of archipelagic living: its geography (which ‘is worth as much as history’), its volcanism, its economic limitations, but also its own capacity as a traditional ‘economy’ of subsistence, its manifestations of culture and popular religiosity, their idiosyncrasy, their speaking, everything that contributes to verify identity.”

As a “warm-up exercise” for translating Nemésio’s travel diary, Corsário das Ilhas (1956), for which I am currently under contract with Tagus Press of UMass Dartmouth (with financial support from Brown University), I started with some of his poems. And I hope to continue with more, because Nemésio is worthy of a larger audience here.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief tour of some of the poetry of the Azores and its Diaspora.

Here is Vitorino Nemésio’s “A Árvore do Silêncio” and my translation, “The Tree of Silence”:


A ÁRVORE DO SILÊNCIO

Se a nossa voz crescesse, onde era a árvore?

Em que pontas, a corola do silêncio?

Coração já cansado, és a raiz:

Uma ave te passe a outro país.

Coisas de terra são palavra.

Semeia o que calou.

Não faz sentido quem lavra

Se o não colhe do que amou.

Assim, sílaba e folha, porque não

Num só ramo levá-las

com a graça e o redondo de uma mão?

(Tu não te calas? Tu não te calas?!)

—Vitorino Nemésio de Canto de Véspera (1966)

_____________

THE TREE OF SILENCE

If our voice grew, where was the tree?

To what ends, the corolla of silence?

Heart already tired, you are the root:

a bird passes you en route to another country.

Earthly things are word.

Sow what is silent.

It doesn’t matter who plows,

if you don’t reap what you loved.

So, why not take them,

syllable and leaf, in a single bunch

with the graceful roundness of one hand?

(Don’t you keep quiet? Don’t you keep quiet?!)

—translated from the Portuguese by Scott Edward Anderson

from Gávea-Brown—A Bilingual Journal of Portuguese-North American Letters and Studies, vol. 43. Brown University, 2021

Continuing to explore the poets and poetry of the Azores and its Diaspora, this week I’m featuring a poem by the late Adelaide Freitas, a wonderful Azorean poet, novelist, and essayist deserving of more attention.

Freitas was born 20 April 1949 in Achadinha, on the northeastern coast of São Miguel Island. She attended school in Ponta Delgada before moving with her family to the United States, where she attended New Bedford High School in Massachusetts. In 1972, she graduated with a BA in Portuguese from the Southeastern Massachusetts University (now UMass Dartmouth) and went on to earn a master’s degree in Comparative Literature from the City University of New York and a PhD in American Literature from the University of Azores. She lived in Ponta Delgada with her husband, Vamberto Freitas, and was a professor of American Literature and Culture at the University of the Azores.

Smiling in the Darkness by Adelaide Freitas

In 2018, Adelaide Freitas was honored by the Legislative Assembly of the Autonomous Region of the Azores with the Insígnia Autonómica de Reconhecimento (Commendation of Recognition), just a few weeks before she passed away after a long battle with Alzheimer’s.

“Adelaide Freitas had gone silent years ago through the devastation of illness,” wrote one of her translators, Emanuel Melo, on his blog. “Her husband, Vamberto Freitas, himself a man of letters and important literary critic in the Portuguese diaspora, with enduring love and faithfulness kept her by his side, even writing about her, but above all loving her with steadfastness. In one of his blog posts he wrote how in the middle of a sleepless night, with her resting in the next room, he would take her books from the shelf and read her words to himself when he could no longer her the voice of his beloved wife.”

Her novel, Smiling in the Darkness, is an intimate portrait of what life was like on the Azores during the latter half of the 20th Century, and follows a young woman who struggles with the absence of her emigrant parents—who left her behind when they went to America—and her desire to explore the world beyond her island home. It was recently published in a translation by Katherine Baker, Emanuel Melo, and others. You can order a copy (and you should) from Tagus Press here: Smiling in the Darkness.

Here is her poem, “No bojo do teu corpo” in its original Portuguese and my English translation:

“No bojo do teu corpo”
 

No bojo do teu copo

olho translúcido o teu corpo

Vibra a alegria da tua emoção

e em mim se dilui a sua gota



Ballet agita o copo

treme a boca da garrafa

A mão abafa o vidro morno

cala-se enterrada a ternura dos lábios



A folha verde voa etérea

pousa no líquido desfeito

Dela nasce uma flor

e o mundo nela se espelha



branca a luz se intersecta

refrecta o whisky beijado

Guardanapo assim molhado

refresca a tua fronte



Gentil ela se inclina

no Outro se confunde

No tchim-tchim da efusão

treme bojo do teu corpo







“In the bulge of your body”



In the bulge of your glass

I see your translucent body

Vibrating with the joy of your emotion

and your drop dissolves in me


Ballet stirs the glass

the mouth of the bottle is trembling

The hand stifles the tepid glass

the tenderness of the lips is buried, remains silent



The green leaf flies ethereal

lands in the dissolved liquid

From it a flower is born

and the world is mirrored in it

                                                    

white light intersects

refracting the whisky kiss

Such a wet napkin

refreshing your brow



Gently she leans

into the Other, gets confused

In the Tchim-tchim![1] of effusion

the bulge of your body trembles



—Adelaide Freitas (translated by Scott Edward Anderson)

[1] Tchim-tchim! is an expression like Cheers! An onomatopoeic phrase that connotes the clinking of glasses. I decided not to translate it here, although I could have gone with “cling-cling!” or something similar.  

 

Detail of José do Canto (1820-1898) statue,
Jardim Botânico José do Canto, Ponta Delgada, Azores. Photo by SEA

I first encountered Logan Duarte through Christopher Larkosh’s “Writing the Moment Lusodiasporic” event last June. A two-day event sponsored by the College of Arts and Sciences and the UMass Dartmouth Department of Portuguese, it brought together Luso-North American writers from throughout Canada and the U.S.

The event was originally supposed to be held in April at the Casa da Saudade Library in New Bedford, but due to the pandemic, it was moved to Zoom in June. The event featured a combination of presentations by writers and cultural agents like Irene Marques, Humberto da Silva, and Emanuel Melo, along with a generative writing workshop led by Carlo Matos.

(Larkosh, who tragically died this past December, served as Logan’s professor and adviser at UMass Dartmouth, and I’d like to dedicate this post to his memory.)

I next saw Logan when we both read for Diniz Borges’ Filaments of the Atlantic Heritage symposium in March 2021. I was impressed with Logan’s poetry, enthusiasm, and scholarship.

One of the poems Logan read during that session was “My Statue,” which he described to me as, “an act of homage towards a man who is the lifeblood of my açorianidade, and a testament to those who have gone before; those whose presence grows stronger in physical absence and gives us the confidence to smile in the rain.” 

Logan is an Azorean Portuguese American writer currently based in Taunton, Massachusetts. His family came from São Miguel Island in the 1960s, which makes him first generation American; although he sometimes jokingly refers to himself as “0.5 generation,” having called Lisbon, Portugal, his home for part of his life.

His writing centers around cultural identity in the Luso-American diaspora and has been a runner-up for the Disquiet International Literary Program’s Luso-American Fellowship (2019) and featured in the Legacy section of the Tribuna Portuguesa (2020). He has a forthcoming set of poems in the upcoming issue of Gávea-Brown, a bilingual journal of Portuguese American letters and studies published by Brown University.

Logan is expected to graduate with a master’s in teaching from UMass Dartmouth in 2021, from which he also received his BA in Portuguese. He also studied at Universidade Católica Portuguesa and Universidade de Lisboa and has taught Portuguese at Milford and Taunton high schools and at Escola Oficial Portuguesa. He will be a graduate Teaching Fellow at UMass Dartmouth beginning his second masters in Portuguese Studies in the upcoming academic year.

Here is Logan Duarte’s “My Statue”

My Statue 

Rain pelts the cobblestone calçada. A utopia turns to a warzone. 

Tourists scatter…I walk 

Knowing all too well the dangerous potential of a slick calçada.  

Some of them slip. Now they know. 

Walking, thinking, unperturbed by the hail of crossfire in which I am caught, I lift my head to see a statue. 

I stop, my eyes examining its unique character. 

It stands firm; the quintessence of gallantry; completely untouched by the bombardment letting loose on the city. 

All else assumes a deep gray despondence, battered by the bombs that fall from the clouds. The streets are barren; a wasteland. 

But the statue stands unscathed. 

Only light shines on this singular obra-prima perfectly guarded in a safe corner of the universe. 

A man stands chiseled out of the finest marble. 

His eyes look directly at me…no one else. 

Below him, a plaque: 

“Ocean-crosser, storm-braver, fearless warrior”. 

Who could it be? 

A hero to the people? A national figure? The sacred one-eyed man? 

No. This is no ordinary statue. This one is only mine. 

I continue walking, still thinking. I still see a statue… 

My statue…my avô. 

The corners of my mouth raise nearly to my ears at the sight of my statue, and the rain clears. Tourists emerge from their hideaways; some still rubbing their bruises. 

Their selfies one shade darker now, 

But my statue remains unscathed. 

It guides me through the warzone—a beacon amidst brume. 

So that when others run, and sometimes slip, 

I walk and think of my statue who in life sacrificed so much 

So that I may not fear the rain. 

And that I may turn my warzone into utopia.

—Logan Duarte

(This poem, used with permission of the author, originally appeared in Tribuna Portuguesa, in a slightly different version.)

There’s a particular light one experiences on the islands of the Azores. A combination of atmospheric and environmental factors contributes to creating this light, including aspect of the sun, the way the sun’s rays cut through the ubiquitous cloud-cover and pervasive sea mist, the reflection off the surrounding sea and refraction through a sometimes-oppressive humidity that lingers, at various times of the day and the season.

Elaine Ávila’s FADO, published by Talonbooks.

It also depends upon the perspective of the individual—how they are feeling, what they are longing for, who they are becoming. You know it when you see it—almost I want to say, you feel it. And the variety and diversity of the light on the islands is remarkable: just as no two people can see things the same way, the way we experience island light will be as various as our very nature.

Luz insular,” Elaine Ávila calls it in her poem, “Grandma’s Embroidery,” describing it as “a light so/ particular, it floats,/ promising miracles,/ as if only somewhere else/ will relieve/ a thousand deprivations.” And in this sense, it has a double meaning: island light and an interiority of light, a light from within, a light that “should tell the truth,/ like Grandma’s embroidery.”

Better known as a playwright, Elaine Ávila is an American-born Canadian of Azorean descent, the granddaughter of one of the first photographers from Ribeiras on the island of Pico, who emigrated to America.

Ávila told me in an email that she first experienced this island light in her grandfather’s photographs. “They had this blurry light, looking like the ‘holy spirit,’ floating through the photos,” she wrote. “I assumed it was because his brownie camera leaked light, but when I took pictures in the Azores, I noticed that light shows up in contemporary photographs and in the sky when you are there.”

Her Azorean grandmother, also from Ribeiras, trained as a tailor and milliner. On her mother’s side, her heritage is mostly a mystery, a product of the hidden history of women who surrendered children for adoption in the days before Roe vs. Wade.

Ávila’s father was a mathematician who worked for NASA and her mother is a painter. This caldo of cultures and intriguing, enigmatic history makes for a rich broth from which Ávila draws in her poetry.

Her plays, which have a decidedly biographical and historical predilection, prompted the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks to describe Ávila as “a wonderful writer, tremendously gifted, reliable and innovative.”

Her latest play, FADO: The Saddest Music in the World, is a musical following a young Portuguese Canadian woman “on a multicultural journey back to Lisbon’s meandering back alleys and lively cafés, winding through fados of resistance, emigrant fados, queer fados, in the hope of reclaiming her heritage and retrieving her own true song.” It has just been published by Talonbooks in Canada.      

Here is Elaine Ávila’s poem, “Grandma’s Embroidery”:

Grandma’s Embroidery

In full bloom

Grandma’s blue hydrangea

tumbles through space

shining, alone, overturned,

while Grandpa’s boat 

beckons, with sails of gold

unfurling on a white-blue sea.

She’s done it, broken the patterns

made something original

found American threads so brilliant

she can capture Azorean light.

In the Azores, we call it

“luz insular,” a light so

particular, it floats,

promising miracles,

as if only somewhere else

will relieve

a thousand deprivations.

Luz insular should tell the truth,

like Grandma’s embroidery.

If you leave

you may discover yourself

tumbling, overturned

out of proportion, alone

yet, able,

stitch by stitch,

to make Azorean light

dance.

—Elaine Ávila, used by permission of the author

One of the pleasures of reconnecting with my ancestral and familial roots on the Azores is learning about the community of writers, artists, and musicians who are active on the islands and in the Azorean diaspora.

Cascata do Salto do Cabrito, Ribeira Grande, Açores.
Photo by SEA

This year for my National Poetry Month posts I’m going to focus on the poetry of the Azores and its diaspora. In part, because I don’t know when I’ll get back to the islands, and in part because there is, both on the islands and around the diasporic world, an incredible diversity of poets working today.

Indeed, it is part of a renaissance of Azorean creativity. For example, on São Miguel over the course of a week in the summer, there were many cultural activities—from outdoor concerts in the Largo do Colégio to stilt-walking pop-up street theater performances, from book launches at one of the several bookshops to readings at the Public Library.

Add the other islands into the mix—from events and festivals organized by Terry Costa’s MiratecArts organization on Pico to the Maia Folk Festival on Santa Maria island and the “Festas da Praia” on Terceira—there’s an incredible cultural revolution happening on the Azores.

Just how extensive was this revolution (or my own revelation of it anyway) really hit home—literally—during the pandemic year of 2020: it seemed like every night there was an opportunity to participate in some Zoom event from the Azores or the diaspora, whether it was the Arquipélago de Escritores conference, the Colóquios da Lusofonia run by Chrys Chrystello, or events put on by the Portuguese Beyond Borders Institute at Fresno State University.

There were book launches, readings, and video interviews from bookstore-publishers like Letras Lavadas, Livraria SolMar, and Companhia das Ilhas, as well as musical performances by Sara Cruz, Cristovam, and others. (To be honest, this doesn’t even scratch the surface of what’s happening on the islands—there’s more going on there than in Brooklyn!)

One of the contemporary poets whose work that has come to my attention through all of this over the past year is Ângela de Almeida.

Born in Horta, on the island of Faial, Almeida studied in Lisbon, earning a PhD in Portuguese Literature by defending a thesis on the symbolism of the island and Pentecostalism in the work of one of the Azores’s most renowned literary figures, the poet and essayist Natália Correia. Her poetry collections include Sobre o Rosto (1989), Manifesto (2005), A Oriente (2006), as well as the poetic narrative, O Baile das Luas (1993), which critic David Mourao-Ferreira called “a small masterpiece.”

The poem of hers I’ve chosen, “comecemos o dia a oriente junto às ravinas,” comes from her book, Caligrafia dos pássaros (The Calligraphy of Birds), which she published in 2018; the poem is dedicated to Ricardo Reis, one of the heteronyms of the great Portuguese poet, Fernando Pessoa.

Ricardo Reis has “a very particular poetry and philosophy with which I identify myself very much,” Almeida told me. “He is against suffering and I am always.”

Indeed, Reis is a modern epicurean who urges us to seize the day and peacefully accept fate. “Wise is the one who does not seek,” he wrote. “The seeker will find in all things the abyss, and doubt in himself.”

Here is Ângela de Almeida’s poem in its original Portuguese and in my translation:

comecemos o dia a oriente junto às ravinas

com as mãos envoltas em anéis de água

e olhemos o azul e acetinado manto

e fiquemos ausentes e livres

e suspensos

e com as mãos envoltas em anéis de água

abracemo-nos simplesmente

e continuemos a olhar o azul e acetinado manto

como se o tempo fosse este momento

assim liso e pasmado

e afinal não nos abracemos, mas olhemos

simplesmente os fios de água na pele

deste dia diferente e fiquemos assim

contemplativos e ausentes

enquanto a água corre e não morre

–a Ricardo Reis

#

let us start the day in the east by the ravines

with our hands enfolded in rings of water

and look at the blue satin blanket

and let us stay absorbed and free

and suspended

and with our hands enfolded in rings of water

let us simply embrace each other

and continue to look at the blue satin blanket

as if time were this moment

so smooth and astonished

and in the end, let’s not embrace, but simply

look at the trickle of water on the skin

of this different day and stay like this

contemplative and absorbed

while the water flows and never dies

–to Ricardo Reis

Poem reprinted by permission of Ângela de Almeida. Translation by Scott Edward Anderson

My Year in Writing: 2020

November 18, 2020

2020 has been a difficult year in many respects: a global pandemic, over 1.3 million deaths worldwide and climbing, and, here in the U.S., a destabilizing and despicable government response to the pandemic and to escalating racial tensions, as well as a contentious presidential election that threatened the country’s 244-year experiment in democracy.

In short, it’s been tough to find moments to celebrate and, when we do celebrate, it is too often alone, distanced from others, or “together” on Zoom. One response to this “unprecedented” year (may we strike that word from future dictionaries) was to feel paralyzed. And, truth be told, I felt exactly that–paralyzed–for the first few weeks of the pandemic’s surfacing in the U.S.

Shortly, however, I felt that response was not worthy to the challenges–and it didn’t make things better or even make me feel better, as the sirens blared and the death toll rose. Another response was to turn to work, which in my case meant writing. It felt like a choice between surviving and going mad.

Now is generally the time of year—between my birthday and year’s end—when I take stock of my writing life over the past twelve months. This year, I was curious to see how I did. So, here goes:

  • Received an award for FALLING UP from Letras Lavadas, in conjunction with PEN Açores, and a Nautilus Award for DWELLING. FALLING UP also received notices from Book Authority for Best New Memoir and Best New Family Books.
  • Finished a complete draft of my Work-in-Progress, a research-driven memoir I’m calling THE OTHERS IN ME: A Journey to Discover Ancestry, Identity, and Lost Heritage, and submitted proposal to Tagus Press.
  • A chapter from THE OTHERS IN ME, “Steerage,” about my great-grandparents’s journeys from the Azores to America, appeared in VIAGENS, a volume of literary journeys by some of the best Azorean writers writing today (and then there’s my piece), published by Letras Lavadas.
  • Finished a long poem, “Azorean Suite,” a section of which appeared in Gávea-Brown: A Bilingual Journal last year, in my original English and in a Portuguese translation by Azorean poet, José Francisco Costa; then I translated the entire poem into Portuguese with Eduardo Bettencourt Pinto, for bilingual book publication as AZOREAN SUITE/SUITE AÇORIANA by Letras Lavadas in Fall 2020.
  • Facebook Live with Vamberto Freitas, Katherine Vaz, Eduardo Bettencourt Pinto, and Onésimo Almeida held on 6 Nov and interview in Portuguese-American Journal with Carolina Matos published on the 5th marked the official launch of AZOREAN SUITE/SUITE AÇORIANA. (Watch it here: Launch event)
  • Essay, “My Pessoa,” along with translations of two Pessoa poems (including the complete “Tabaccaria,” which I completed this Spring), and three of my own poems with Portuguese themes, will appear in Pessoa Plural in December.
  • My foreword to David Swartz’s English translation of Nuno Júdice’s novella, THE RELIGIOUS MANTLE, published in August by New Meridian Arts.
  • Contracted to translate Vitorino Nemésio’s CORSÁRIO DAS ILHAS into English for first time, which Tagus Press will publish as part of their Bellis Azorica Series. Started translation and got through and initial draft of the first 10 chapters.
  • Translated four poems from DWELLING into Portuguese for a special edition of Colóquio/Letras journal, which Nuno Júdice edits for the Gulbenkian Foundation, on Literratura e ecologia, and to which he asked me to submit.
  • Translated five poems of Vitorino Nemésio, submitted to Gavéa-Brown Journal.
  • Participated in Dani Shapiro’s writing retreat at Kripalu (in person, just before the pandemic hit!), participated in “Lusodaisporac” Writing Workshop in June organized by Christopher Larkosh at UMass Dartmouth, took Diniz Borges’s Azorean History and Culture course from Fresno State University (distance), continued my Portuguese language studies, and will participate in Suzanne Roberts’s Travel Writing seminar at end of November. [UPDATE: Participated in Arquipélago de Escritores event in December.]

And finally updated my website, scottedwardanderson.com, which was long overdue…

…despite everything, not a bad writing year!

[UPDATE: Signed a contract with Shanti Arts for a new collection, WINE-DARK SEA: NEW & SELECTED POEMS & TRANSLATIONS]

A little bit of heaven on Earth.
Photo by SEA.

If you’ve been following my blog for the past few years, you know that I’ve been on a journey of rediscovery—rediscovery of my Azorean Portuguese roots and heritage.

I’ve now been back to the island archipelago of my ancestors three times since my first return in 2018.

That first visit was under the auspices of a writing retreat offered by DISQUIET International, an organization that tries to link and foster relationships between Luso-American and Portuguese writers.

This journey has turned out to be more than just a heritage tour, for I’ve made many friends and discovered family I didn’t know I had there. And because I worked in nature conservation for so many years, I couldn’t help falling in love with the islands and their beauty and majesty, but also their fragility.

My own poetry and non-fiction have long been about a few essential themes: a longing for home and an appreciation and concern for the natural world. In the Azores, I’ve come to find a beautiful combination of both.

In addition to that longing (the Portuguese have a word for it, saudade, which I’ve defined elsewhere as a longing for lost things) is the feeling that I’ve found a home there, which I hope to fully realize in the not too distant future.

And my concern for the natural world there—in the face of future impacts of climate change on small island communities like the Azores—as well as the last remaining endemic species, is also deepening my relationship to the islands.

I’ve been exploring my love affair with the Azores in two works-in-progress (although, frankly, it’s showing up in just about everything I write these days): a research-driven memoir of my ancestry and heritage on the islands and a long poem that explores some of the same territory.

Recently, Gávea-Brown, a bilingual journal of Portuguese-American language and studies from Brown University, published an excerpt from my poem, which I’ve been calling “Azorean Suite,” in the original English and in a translation by the Azorean American poet José Francisco Costa.

It’s been an amazing journey thus far and I hope to return to the islands as soon as possible. Meanwhile, here is a section from my “Azorean Suite.”

From “Azorean Suite”

“Is the island a cloud or is the cloud and island?” ~Nemésio

The sea surrounds, is ever-present

            endless, the sea surrounds

                        and sea sounds swirl and sway

humid torpor of temperament

            fog enshrouds

                        clouds caught on peaks

wrapping the mountain

            a helmet of white, gray, ash

                        the ever-present volcanoes

threat of fire and destruction

            threat of sea-wind and wave

                        thread of saudade woven

into the fabric of all life

            on the islands—

                        saudades for the land

enshrouds the land

            enshrouds the islanders

                        surrounded by sea.

                        #

São Miguel, island of my ancestors

            who settled here in the original waves

                        1450s or earlier, as far as I can tell,

from the Alentejo, they came,

            encouraged or escaping

                        I know not—

São Miguel, the green island,

            jewel in the bracelet of archipelago,

                        formed by two volcanoes

reaching for each other

            a chain of eruptions enclosing

                        the space between them

populated, like that chain, scattered

            by wind and sea, until 1906,

                        when my great-grandparents left

for America—scattered across the sea.

                        #

My return, over a century later,

            fills me with mixed emotions—

                        have I come “home” or simply returned

to reclaim a lost heritage

            something denied to me

                        by my grandfather’s willingness

to forget the past, to relinquish

            the “saudades de terra”

                        so much a part of the Azorean character—

the phrase can mean “longing for the land”

            or “I miss the earth”

                        which seems so necessary now

with the threat of climate change

            added to the island condition—

                        sea-surge from hurricane Lorenzo overflowing

onto the low-lying streets at sea’s edge

            saltwater burning the wine grapes

                        flooding the edge of the villages

how high will the sea rise in the next century

            how will the islanders survive

                        what becomes of saudades de terra

when the land is swallowed by sea?

and here is José Francisco Costa’s translation into Portuguese:

Excerto de Suite Açoriana

 “A ilha é a nuvem ou a nuvem a ilha?” ~Nemésio   

O mar é um cerco, é contínua presença

            infinita, o mar é um cerco      

                        e os sons do mar rodopiam e arrastam-se

húmido torpor do ser

            nevoeiro mortalha

                        nuvens presas nos cimos

envolvendo a montanha

            um capacete de branca, parda, cinza

                        a inescapável presença dos vulcões

ameaça de fogo e destruição

            ameaça de vento e vaga de mar

                        fio de saudade urdido

no tecido da vida inteira

            nas ilhas –

                        saudades da terra

mortalha da terra

            mortalha de ilhéus

                        por mar cercados.

                        #

São Miguel, ilha dos meus antepassados

            que aqui fizeram morada nas ondas originais

                        1450 ou antes, tanto quanto sei,

do Alentejo, vieram,

             incentivados ou fugidos

                        Eu não sei—

São Miguel, a ilha verde,

            jóia no bracelete do arquipélago

                        nascida de dois vulcões

no encalce um do outro

            corrente de erupções estreitando

                        o espaço entre eles

povoado, como a tal corrente, espalhado

            por vento e mar, até 1906, 

                        quando os meus bisavós partiram

no encalce da América – espalhados em toda a largura do mar.

                        #

O meu regresso, mais de um século depois,

            enche-me de um contraste de emoções –  

                        terei regressado a “casa” ou só voltei

para reclamar uma herança perdida

            algo que me foi negado

                        pela vontade de meu avô

de esquecer o passado, renunciar

            às “saudades de terra”

                        parte tão importante do ser Açoriano —

a frase tanto significa “estar ansioso pela terra”

            como “a terra faz-me falta”

                        o que hoje parece ser tão necessário

com a ameaça das alterações climáticas

            a somar à condição de ser ilha —

                   gigantescas marés provocadas pelo furacão Lorenzo inundando

as ruas baixas à beira do mar

            água salgada queimando as vinhas

                        cobrindo os limites das freguesias

até onde subirá o mar no próximo século

            como irão sobreviver os ilhéus

                        o que resta de saudades de terra

quando a terra é engolida pelo mar?

—Scott Edward Anderson (translation into Portuguese by José Francisco Costa)

This excerpt, from a long poem-in-progress, originally appeared in Gávea-Brown—A Bilingual Journal of Portuguese-American Letters and Studies

(I want to thank Onésimo Teotónio Almeida and Jennifer Currier for publishing my poem, and José Francisco Costa for his translation.)

Poet Serena Fox has been an attending physician in the Intensive Care Units of the Mount Sinai Beth Israel Hospital in NYC for the past 10 years. She works night shifts exclusively.

Since the increase in volume and acuity of respiratory failure related to COVID 19 this past month, the ICU beds have been increased 4-5 times usual, and she reports, they we are usually running full. 

Fox worked in a major trauma unit in Washington, DC, until 2007, and launched her career in medicine in the emergency room of New York City’s Bellevue Hospital during the height of the HIV AIDS epidemic. Fox’s experiences there formed the background of poems in her book, Night Shift (Turning Point Books, 2009).

Her poems seem relevant to our historical moment and, with a lot of conversation about the need for ventilators, one poem from her book seems to strike a chord. “All That Separates” is a phrase that is usually associated with the Bible, as in “your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God (Isaiah 59:1-2). In some cases, a ventilator is all that separates a patient from their god.

However, the initial reliance on ventilators to treat patients with Covid-19 has been challenged or at least reconsidered, as moving quickly to ventilation may complicate already existing conditions, further compromising a patient’s health.

And, apparently, intubation and mechanical ventilation may lead to pneumonia because of the invasive nature of their application. A recent study at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago found a promising alternative whereby patients are placed face down on their beds and treated with heated, humidified oxygen for up to sixteen hours.  

Here is Serena Fox’s poem, “All That Separates”:

What about respirators?

I can paralyze you with

an index finger, as effortlessly

as I brush your eyelashes,

making sure you’re down.

I set breaths per minute,

by pressing digits in a square.

Another plunge of my finger

slides you beyond consciousness

and memory. I hope sedation

lets you dream, gloriously

and elusively, beyond pain,

so we can turn you, change

the dressings, where your sternum

is no longer intact. A few

millimeters, all that separates

us, phalanx from pectoral flap,

you from me. A thickness worth

pause. More so, if a finger can

change outcome with the number of

your breath.

—Serena Fox from Night Shift (Turning Point Books, 2009) Used by permission of the author.

Natalie Eilbert.
Photo by Mark Koranda

Recently, a public figure—I won’t name any names—asked why we couldn’t just treat the Covid-19 coronavirus with antibiotics, complaining: “the germ (sic) has gotten so brilliant that the antibiotic can’t keep up with it.”

Now, it’s possible this person— despite his self-proclaimed high-IQ—skipped Biology in high school, for it is in that class that most people learn that antibiotics target bacteria, not viruses.

It’s in this class that students also learn the difference between bacteria and viruses. Bacteria are single-celled organisms, essentially living things that can thrive in a variety of environments. Viruses, on the other hand, require a living host, such as a people, plants, or animals to survive.

With that Biology lesson out of the way, this week’s poem is “Bacterium” by Natalie Eilbert. Eilbert, the author of the remarkable Indictus (Noemi Press, 2018), as well as Swan Feast (Bloof Books, 2015), teaches at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

She is working on her third poetry collection, “Mediastinum,” and is also studying to become a science journalist. (I note her reference to Ideonella sakaiensis, the bacterium which secretes an enzyme that breaks down plastic, specifically PET (polyethylene terephthalate), in lines 11-12.)

“Bacterium” is a captivating poem, which I first came across in Poetry Magazine. What initially struck me about this poem is its form that I couldn’t quite put my finger on—it has elements of both the pantoum and the villanelle, with its repetition of lines, rhymes, and slant rhymes.

So, I asked the poet and she wrote that the poem is written in “a very loose palindromic form inspired by Natasha Trethewey’s poem, ‘Myth,’ which is, in my mind, a perfect poem that has haunted me since 2007.” In Eilbert’s version, she established “a stable of sentences and then reverse(d) their order.”

And then there is her almost playful exploration of etymology, which helps get at the true meaning of words, such as “graft,” “grifter,” and “to graft,” and, perhaps more importantly, “mother” and “mentor.”

I also love the way Eilbert uses verbs in this poem, often morphing them into their gerund form. “I am very, very conscious of how verbs operate in my poems,” Eilbert wrote to me. “I am fascinated by critiques of writing that point to prioritizing active over passive voice. Sometimes we need the passive voice. It is how I encountered so much of the nurturing in my life.”

For example, Eilbert thinks about the difference between “My mother braids my hair” and “My hair was braided,” saying, “The second one breaks my heart; the first is not an accurate narrative for the neglected child. Mothers and mentors have always been complicated in my life. I wanted to create something of the simulacrum of nurturing but one that is absent of love.”

Here is Natalie Eilbert’s “Bacterium,”
   

In the last segment, I tried sufficiency. They moved

my femur and a single woman braiding her hair fell

from me. I tried to warn you, this desert editorializes.

A scorpion lifts its tail, braids more active than braiding,

it hisses. I, of all people, get it. In the mornings we wake

to the kind of life we want until we turn our heads east.

The night fills without us but I warned you, I was full

already. A banana inside me blasted open a door,

my thoughts at the threshold of such a door blank. Love

transacts, a figure in the distance crowded with window.

An enzyme eats plastic, but which kind? Synthetic polymer

or the ways you tried to keep me? This is the last segment.

My mother

draws a circle around time and this is an intercourse. My mentor

draws a circle around time and this is an intercourse. I shake

out of bed. Humans continue the first line of their suicide letter.

An enzyme invents us, we invent enzymes. The plastic we make,

we must eat it. Draw a circle around time. We designed us

in simple utterances. The political term graft means political

corruption. The grifter never had an I. In the burn unit, they

place tilapia skins over human scar tissue, the killed form on top

of afflicted form, also a graft. Also a graft of afflicted form,

the killed form on top, they place tilapia skins over human scar

tissue. In the burn unit, I never had a grifter, corruption

means political, graft the political term. In simple utterances

we designed us. Time draws a circle, we must eat it. We make

the plastic, enzymes invent we, us invents an enzyme to continue

the first line of a suicide letter. Out of bed I shake with intercourse.

Time draws a circle around my mentor. Time draws a circle around

my mother.

This is the last segment. The ways you tried to keep me? Synthetic

polymer, but which kind? An enzyme eats plastic, crowded window,

a figure in the distance transacts love. At the threshold of such

a blank door, my thoughts open a door. A banana blasted inside me.

Already I was full but I warned you, the night fills without us.

We turn our heads until we want the kind of life in the mornings

we wake to. I get, of all people, it. It hisses. A scorpion, more active

than braiding, braids its tail, lifts the editorialized desert. You tried

to warn me from me. Her hair fell braiding a single woman. My femur

was moved. They tried sufficiency in the last segment.

Source: Poetry (May 2019)

You can read more about Natalie Eilbert on her website: natalie-eilbert.com and you can order her books there or through the links above.


Aria Aber
Photograph by Nadine Aber

“Afghan-American relations are really complicated and intense,” the poet Aria Aber said in an interview with Poetry magazine’s editorial staff. “The fact that, politically, there is still so much history and still so many things that are going on that we don’t know about, just seems very fertile to me creatively.”

Born and raised in Germany to Afghan refugee parents, Aber writes in English, her third language, and her debut collection, Hard Damage, won the Prairie Schooner Award and was published last year by the University of Nebraska Press.

I want to share Aber’s poem, “The Mother of All Balms,” in part because I love the play on words and sounds and slant rhymes she deploys in an otherwise somber poem, which reminds me a bit of how Elizabeth Bishop used similar strategies in a number of her poems on serious subjects.

“The Mother of All Balms” is, of course, a play on the name of the US-made weapon of mass destruction that was dubbed the “Mother of All Bombs,” and which was dropped over the Nangarhar Province of her parents’ native homeland, Afghanistan, in April 2017.

“English being my third language, I often mishear or mispronounce things,” Aber told Poetry, where the poem originally appeared. “And I am very interested in how that source of humiliation can also be a source of creativity.”

Meditating on the proximity of sound in which “bomb” and “balm” reside, Aber was reminded that in many religions and spiritual traditions “creation” and “destruction” often derive from the same source.

“But the balm is not necessarily something that creates,” says Aber. “It only restores and preserves something that is already there but broken.”

Here is Aria Aber’s “The Mother of All Balms”

Morning she comes, mother of all balms.

Only the news reporter says it wrong:

but aren’t you strung: little ping

and doesn’t memory embalm

                           your most-hurt city:

those yellow creeks                                of your rickety holm

where your mater: your salve:

left all her selves behind

so she could surrender to a lifetime

of Septembering: what she members most:

yellow grapes and celeries

and visiting her father’s glove

a balm, to be by absence so enclaved:

your mender

a follower, devoted

to what she cannot see. O air miles,

how can it be real?

How uncertain you should

be             if it existed, if there are no photos left

of her playing

on her childhood lawn—

burned are all the documents, or eaten—

this ink,

like memory,

an ancient unguent,

enshrining what cannot be held

of what went missing—the dog, her hat of hay,

one brother.                              She was in prism,

your mother says—and that’s how you will write her,

atoning her, just in fluorite a figurine caught

to fracture                                  her stolen years,

                                                        her brother,

all her once-upon-a-chimes.

Source: Poetry (September 2019)

Here is Aria Aber reading her poem, “The Mother of All Balms”

You can learn more about Aria Aber on her website: ariaaber.com.