27 September 2014

Selected Poems of Corsino Fortes

Selected Poems of Corsino Fortes, translated from Portuguese by Daniel Hahn and Sean O'Brien (Archipelago Books, 2014)

"All of parting is power in death / And all return is a child learning to spell", wrote the Cape Verdean poet Corsino Fortes (b. 1933) in a selection of poems made available in English this year. These lines ended the poem "Emigrant" from his first collection of poems Pão & Fonema (Bread & Phoneme, 1974). The emigrant's homecoming and leavetaking were equated with learning her native language. The emigrant's own return perfected her learning through mastery of the language.

Go and plant
           in dead Amilcar's mouth
This fistful of watercress
And spread from goal to goal
           A fresh phonetics
And with the commas of the street
     and syllables from door to door
You will sweep away before the night
The roads that go
           as far as the night-schools
For all departure means a growing alphabet
     for all return is a nation's language

Language was the life-force that kept the emigrant moored in the world, her loyal companion and the educational standard by which she measured her adventures. The reference to Amílcar Cabral, the assassinated Guinea-Bissauan nationalist leader, made this poem a part of nationalist contemplation.

The two collaborating translators, Daniel Hahn and Sean O'Brien, evoked an English that must have wrestled with the poet's non-standard Portuguese. It seemed to be a methodical process: Hahn prepared a literal translation from which O'Brien crafted a final version. [For a glimpse into the delicate balancing act that the two translators follow in their rendering of Fortes's poems, see (or listen to) their version of and their illuminating notes to "Postcards from the High Seas".]

Fortes used Cape Verdean Creole in writing about African islands milieu. It was an organic language whose remnants in English was evident from powerful imagery, as in "Gate of the Sun", where African children are like the very islands they hail from.


From the straw hills
                     whose doors are the sun
Children descend
                      naked and thin
                                 like guitars
ribs showing under the strings
All of them
           the first-born
                      of the one belly
And daughters
           of the same volcano And of the same guitar
           Of the same rock and the same cry



The child does not
Always breathe
                     its lung was
                                 torn from the map

And thus
           like the islands themselves
At sunset
They are fed
                     on phonemes
Each child
Is a diphthong of milk
                     with blood in its vowels

[Nem sempre
A criança respira
                     um pulmão
                                 roto de mapas

E assim
           como as ilhas
Ao pôr do Sol
Se alimentam
                     de fonemas
Cada criança
É ditongo de leite
                     com sangue nas vogais]

The "diphthong of milk" denoted a dual or hybrid language or consciousness or race that marked each child's identity. Fortes was asserting his linguistic heritage using images that recognize the power to express one's cultural, dialectical spirit. The influence of geography ["its lung was / torn from the map"] in the makeup of a child was significant but did not make a complete breathing being. "The child" was once again invoked, for every citizen was a child of circumstances: the sum total of a child's life experience in an island was not only the island but her linguistic relations and transactions.

Fortes was a proponent of indigenous culture. His education abroad and occupation as diplomat probably made him an observer of cultures and a champion of his own chaotic tradition. As he declared in "Act of Culture"—a poem  from Árvore & Tambor (Tree & Drum)—culture and expression are intimately linked (by chaos, if you will). The "drum on a tree" was in fact the poetic image from which this chaos was mapped out.

Act of Culture

How the sound swells in the fruit: the drum
                                                    Is on the tree
And opposed to erosion: the politics of seduction


'If the destiny of man is ceaseless labour'


The word love has no mouth to its river

Culture! is entirely
Old chaos given dynamic expression

"Dynamic expression" was what Fortes was able to convey in his singular poems. "Old chaos" was visualized in the above poem itself where the swelling sound of the drum-like fruit, an auditory sensation, shared space with the "politics of seduction", a Sisyphus figure ["ceaseless labour"], and love that lacks a river mouth. This melange of seemingly surreal but actually organically delicate touches was a characteristic of the poet's output.

His description of the works of the artist Tchalé Figueira, in "Three Canvases for Tchalé Figueira", was not now surprising, considering the vibrant poetic strokes of the lines. Fortes painted his own canvas, as the conjuring of vowels from words, of letters or diphthongs, show:

The landscape was throwing stones at children
As ... if nature were
           A weapon to be aimed
And the children were stoning life itself
As! If the 'lh' of 'ilha'
           Were the wound left
Between the coin of the body and the price of the soul


If Tchale is caught
                     Between jazz and painting
The children flow away
           over the 'L' of Landscape and the 'A' of the plain
And onwards
           Down the luminous highway of the salt-beds
To offer the faces that come to their doorways
                                the calm that comes after the storm

In Selected Poems of Corsino Fortes, the reader was given a well distilled, well calibrated version of an African/Cape Verdean/Portuguese poetic sensibility. "Between jazz and painting", the poems had this transporting sense of language and of place.

Book copy received from NetGalley. 


  1. I read his poetry months ago and didn't go gaga over it; it had some good parts, but there was something missing in it to make me really engage with it. It seems you were more successful.

  2. I saw your review, Miguel, intrigued by your response, the ones you excerpted are great. I suppose I like the beautiful strangeness of the selection, it's like I'm getting a glimpse of a place I would never visit. I would also be very interested in reading the whole Cape Verde trilogy, if only to compare with another nationalist epic I just read: The Trilogy of Saint Lazarus by Cirilo F. Bautista.