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The iconic 18th Century Portas da Cidade (City Gates) in Ponta Delgada, São Miguel. (Photo by Scott Edward Anderson)

Some of you know that I’ve been on a journey the past few years to uncover and explore my familial roots on the island of São Miguel in the Azores, the nine-island archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean between Portugal and the United States.

Last summer, I had a residency on the island with Disquiet International, named for the enigmatic book of prose written by the great Portuguese poet, Fernando Pessoa. The residency in Ponta Delgada took place only 3.7 km from the freguesia (municipal parish) where two of my maternal great-grandparents emigrated in 1906.

Through Disquiet, I was also introduced to poet Lara Gularte, herself of Azorean American ancestry. Her relatives were from Faial, Pico, and Flores, three more of the nine islands in the Azores. Gularte was born in California and grew up in what was then an area of fruit farms known as the Santa Clara Valley (now more famously known as Silicon Valley).

Last month, Lara graciously invited me to read in the series she runs in the Sierra Foothills east of Sacramento, near where she now lives. Along with her husband, Brian—and some good local wine—we spent a wonderful evening discussing our Azorean heritage, poetry, and the dilemma of being generations removed from the places of our origins.

Gularte, who worked for many years as a public servant, finally traveled back to the Azores in 2008—the first of her family to return in four generations. “Before I explored these islands, they were only an abstraction,” Lara told the Portuguese American Journal in June 2018. “I had seen photos and post cards, but nothing prepared me for the natural beauty and complexity of the landscape.”

Her first collection, Kissing the Bee, was published by The Bitter Oleander Press in 2018. Many of the poems in her book speak to what she found on the Azores and the deepening connection which that brought about with her family roots in California’s fertile central valley.

“I was a resident poet at Footpaths to Creativity Center and Artist/Writer Residency on Flores Island in the Azores where this poem was written,” Lara says. “Flores is the island from where my grandfather was born before he emigrated as a young boy to the U.S. He was a stowaway on a ship and disembarked in New Bedford, Mass. He then worked in the cranberry bogs for a few years before traveling to California where he met my grandmother.”

Here is Lara Gularte’s poem, “Flores Island”:

 

FLORES ISLAND

The place at the beginning       

 

A whale rises up in her mind

turning her thoughts gray.

 

In port, the ferry of return.

She searches for her grandfather

to discover the shape of his emigration

and finds the plank’s gone, rotted.

At the mercy of rough water and high winds,

he rowed, sinews pulling his dory,

pulling his bones to breaking.

 

She scans the distance,

says his name out loud, Antonio Henriques,

waits to hear a voice, see a face.

She searches for all the prisoners

of thick mists, others who look like her,

whose foreign tongues speak music to her soul.

 

Beyond the wake of a rogue wave,

currents and tides ride

on the back of a gray whale.

 

She sees through the vapor

boats whose nets gather the sky and let go.

Fog falls,

bearing dazed souls back to their home place.

She falls with them.

 

—Lara Gularte, from Kissing the Bee (The Bitter Oleander Press, 2018). Used by permission of the author.

 

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The author’s Portuguese grandfather, Ed Perry.

My Portuguese grandfather was part of a generation of immigrants who wanted to be completely American.

On that path, he became the first Portuguese member of the Metacomet Country Club in Providence, Rhode Island, and was later two-term president of the club.

He served as secretary of the Rhode Island Golf Association, overseeing thirty years of Rhode Island Championship events.  He was chiefly responsible for the establishment of the Northeast Amateur Tournament.

He married into a family that had been in America since 1637, the Burgesses of Sandwich, MA, and made a successful career as a celebrity underwriter for New England Life Insurance Company.

In his striving to assimilate, however, much of what was Portuguese about him was kept under wraps.  He embraced America as a nation rather than hyphenation.  I favored my mother’s side; my father’s side was Scotch-Irish.  I looked more “Portagee” than most of my family. Too often this fact manifested itself in jokes not worth repeating here.

Throughout my childhood, there was little mention of the great Portuguese achievers: the explorers (Henry the Navigator, Magellan, De Gama), painters (Nuno Goncalves, Josefa de Obidos, Viera da Silva, Paula Rego), or writers (Camoes, Pessoa, Saramago).  Even if I knew of them, I never thought of them as Portuguese.

Only much later did I understand how rich my heritage was.  My grandfather seemed to take pride when, shortly before his death, I pursued him about the family history from his side of the Atlantic.  He came from the Azores, the tiny archipelago in the middle of the ocean, which is still a place of myth and magic to me.  He called me “amigo – one of us.”

In the search for my “lost” heritage, I discovered the poetry of Fernando Pessoa, Portugal’s great poet of the 20th Century.  Pessoa, like his hero Walt Whitman, “contained multitudes.”  Only in Pessoa’s case, this was quite literally true.  Pessoa took on what he called “heteronyms”: pseudonyms that were more than noms de plume.  For each persona, Pessoa created a unique personality, creative style, and body of work.

The most successful of Pessoa’s heteronyms was the shepherd-poet, Alberto Caeiro. Caeiro, like Robert Burns and John Clare before him, was a genius plucked straight from the fields.  Whereas Burns and Clare were truly of the fields, Alberto Caeiro sprung from the field of Pessoa’s imagination.  Pessoa wrote the poems of Alberto Caeiro from the top of his dresser in a Lisbon apartment.

In many ways, Caeiro in Pessoa’s invention is a pure nature poet.  Perhaps only poet Gary Snyder achieves greater reconciliation with nature in his work.  One of my favorite Pessoa-Caeiro poems is “Só a Natureza é Divina” (Only Nature is divine…) Here it is in the original Portuguese and in my translation:

Só a natureza é divina, e ela não é divina…Se falo dela como de um ente
É que para falar dela preciso usar da linguagem dos homens
Que dá personalidade às cousas,
E impõe nome às cousas.

Mas as cousas não têm nome nem personalidade:
Existem, e o céu é grande a terra larga,
E o nosso coração do tamanho de um punho fechado…

Bendito seja eu por tudo quanto sei.
Gozo tudo isso como quem sabe que há o sol.

*

Only Nature is divine, and she is not divine…

If I speak of her as of an entity

It is for to speak of her it is necessary to use the language of men,

Which gives personality to things,

And imposes names on things.

But things have neither name nor personality:

They exist, just as the sky is big and the land is wide,

And our hearts are the size of a closed fist…

I am blessed by everything as far as I know.

I enjoy everything as one who knows the sun is always there.

–Fernando Pessoa (writing as Alberto Caeiro) translated from the Portuguese by Scott Edward Anderson