I wake up to the sound of clattering dishes coming through the open window of the room where I’m staying, the hostel’s kitchen crew getting ready for the morning rush of hungry travelers, some in for a night or two, many, like myself, part of the Disquiet program and staying for 2 weeks. The motors of morning—birds, blowers, a shower running, the air conditioner’s hum, a church bell tracking time—all familiar by now, even the filtered light that manages to slide between buildings to begin the day.
What I’ve had the most difficulty becoming familiar with is the Portuguese language, one by sound frequently compared to Russian. Having studied Spanish many years, I expected to find a familiar latinate I’ve encountered in Italian and French, languages I can roughly navigate via phrasebook, careful listening, and the kindness of native speakers. However, Portugal’s early global dominance allowed the language to develop with exotic influence from Moors, Africa, Brazil, China, Japan. Vowels bend and disappear, r’s hover somewhere between palate and throat, and the unpredictable s slides and unexpectedly shifts to my best-phonetic-attempt-while-sipping-beer-at a street café might be pronounced “zgh.” (maybe “shz?”). But, I’ve managed the basics, ordering coffee and pasteis de nata, Lisbon’s national, irresistible pastry.
But back to sounds. Besides leading a workshop, I’m here to discover as much as I can about one of Portugal’s voices, its literature, especially its poetry. Can you quickly name a famous Portuguese poet besides Fernando Pessoa? I would like to introduce you to another national treasure, the revered poet, Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen….simply called Sophia. Yes, Portugal is a country which embraces poetry and poets. Read more about Sophia here, including more poems. Here’s one I’m fond of.
Banished from sin and the sacred
Now they inhabit the humble intimacy
Of daily life. They are
The leaky faucet the late bus
The soup that boils over
The lost pen the vacuum that doesn’t vacuum
The taxi that doesn’t come the mislaid receipt
Shoving pushing waiting
Without shouting or staring
Without bristly serpent hair
With the meticulous hands of the day-to-day
They undo us
They’re the peculiar wonder of the modern world
Faceless and maskless
Nameless and breathless
The thousand-headed hydras of efficiency gone haywire
They no longer pursue desecrators and parricides
They prefer innocent victims
Who did nothing to provoke them
Thanks to them the day loses its smooth expanses
Its juice of ripe fruits
Its fragrance of flowers
Its high-sea passion
And time is transformed
Into toil and the rush
I have been saddened to discover that much of Portuguese literature remains untranslated, and I will continue to introduce you to a few more poets that I discover over the next days.
Okay? A bit more music to go out on. The sounds of fado, another national treasure, the music of Lisbon played in streets and cafés as well as on professional stages. Here is Ana Moura, a popular performer.
Tonight, I’ll attend a tribute another poet who has had exposure in the US, including a recent tribute held in NYC at Poet’s House, Alberto de Lacerda. Wait for it….