The child that laughs in the street,
The song one hears by chance,
The absurd picture, the naked statue,
Kindness without any limit –
All this exceeds the logic
Imposed on things by reason,
And it all has something of love,
Even if this love can’t speak.
—Fernando Pessoa, 4 October 1934
A nice thing about settling in for a few days in one location is the chance to poke around at leisure in the neighborhood, which for us was The Chiado in Lisbon. I hadn’t connected all the dots beforehand, so a sense of serendipity accompanied our realization that the Café A Brasileira—a well-known Fernando Pessoa haunt—was nearby.
I’m intrigued by public statues and monuments, and stumbling across statues of a country’s literati is an especial treat. Café A Brasileira has a famous one of Fernando Pessoa seated outside the café, with an empty chair beckoning nearby. So, yes, I had to do the tourist thing of being photographed with him, nothwithstanding that it would likely have been the last thing he’d wanted—and the last thing I would have presumed to do—if he’d been there “live.”
More enigmatic was the nearby statue of António Ribeiro, “O Poeta Chiado,” to which no one paid the slightest attention. Turns out he was a poet, too, a contemporary of 16th C poet Luís Vaz de Camões, who is “[g]enerally regarded as the greatest poet of the Portuguese language, at least until Fernando Pessoa came along.” [cite] Camões is most famous for Portugal’s great national epic, Os Lusíadas, which is “in certain respects modeled after the Aeneid and taking Vasco da Gama’s voyage to India as its immediate theme.” [same cite]
About Ribeiro, in contrast, I found no works at all and little in English about the man, though Pessoa does give us this:
On left stands the monument to Poeta Chiado (i.e., the Poet Chiado), the name popularly given to a sixteenth century friar, Antonio do Espirito Santo, who abandoned his habit to become a sort of embodiment of the rollicking spirit of the times and to develop into the favourite popular poet; his extant poems show considerable merit. This statue is due to the sculptor Costa Motta (the elder); it was erected by order of the Town Council and unveiled on the 18th December 1925.
With the unreliable aid of Google translate, I learned that Camões mentioned Chiado in a work of poetry (“num dos versos do Auto de El Rei Seleuco”)—though I have no idea what the reference, which is here (p. 18), means. Even more intriguing was the note that, in 1925, when the statue was erected, intellectuals at the time objected to its position, situated amongst Portugal’s literary greats (Fernando Pessoa, Eça de Queiróz, and Camões). (“Está situada entre as estátuas de nomes grandiosos da literatura portuguesa (Fernando Pessoa, Eça de Queiróz e Camões), num largo rodeado de igrejas, teatros e livrarias, facto que levou alguns intelectuais da época a oporem-se veementemente à localização escolhida.”)
Enticed to go yet further down the Google rabbit hole, I was rewarded with this:
[From Black Africans in Renaissance Europe, K. J. P. Lowe, Chapter 16, pp. 345-347, “Black Africans vs. Jews: religious and racial tension in a Portuguese saint’s play,” T. F. Earle]
In another delightful bit of serendipity, we discovered that Anneli, whom we’d met while in Tallinn a couple years back, was staying in Estoril with her friend Liisa at precisely the time we were in Lisbon. We met up one day at the Museu Nacional de Arte Contemporânea do Chiado. As these things go, the Museu, where I’d hope to find a cache of late 19th-20th C Portuguese art, was under renovation, so no art was on display, but they did point us to a place nearby that housed a temporary exhibit, “Narrative of a collection – Portuguese Art in the Collection of the Secretary of State for Culture (1960-1990).”
We repaired from the Museu to Cantinho do Avillez, where we had a truly memorable lunch. (I’m not the most knowledgeable about these sorts of things, but José Avillez seems to be a sort of Danny Meyer of Lisbon cuisine.) After lunch, we poked around in various shops and stopped in at Bertrand’s (claimed to be the world’s oldest bookstore) and a fado-specialist store. At the close of our time together, we stopped for pastéis de nata and other treats at a pastelería to which Liisa guided us after I sent us in the wrong direction. We still haven’t got over our good fortune in meeting up with them: it’s a wonderful thing to make friendships around the world, enriching in so many ways.
In the course of exploring our neighborhood, we ran across a statue of Pessoa that we didn’t even know existed. It stands in front of the building where, on the 4th floor, Pessoa was born and gives new meaning to the phrase “head in a book.” These days, it’s within spitting distance of a Godiva chocolate shop and Belcanto, a 2-star Michelin restaurant that is the foremost jewel in the Avillez crown.
I wonder what Pessoa would have thought.
Credits: Sources for the quotations are linked in the text. The photographs, as always unless otherwise indicated, are mine.
Love this post :)
Thank you, Susan
Hi Susan – such a good resource … you’ve given us plenty to think about .. and if I ever get to Lisbon – I’ll be back to re-read this post and the links …
So pleased you’re having a good time and meeting up with friends from your Estonia trip … cheers Hilary
Hilary: We did have a great time, and writing up these posts (we returned several days ago) is a wonderful vacation extender.
A couple of language notes. Pessoa is Portuguese for ‘person’.
I wasn’t familiar with the poet nicknamed Chiado, but I looked up the verb chiar (of which chiado would be the past participle), and found it to be an imitative word translated as ‘twitter, tweet, warble, peep, cheep, chirp, chirrup, grind, shriek, grate, beep, crunch, squeak, screech, creak, screak, skreak, whine.’
Steve: So pleased that you, the consummate “language guy” weighed in, for am I ever traveling in the dark. I do recall, now that you’ve reminded me, that “pessoa” means person, and how apt for Pessoa. “Chiar” is perfect for O Poeta Chiado, from the bit I’ve gleaned, as he was (again relying on the notorious Google translate) “an accomplished mimic of voices and gestures of known figures of that time, always together with their habits.” (Here’s the full sentence in its unadulterated state: “Durante a sua vida gozou de grande popularidade não só por ser poeta mas também por ser um exímio improvisador e imitador das vozes e de gestos de figuras conhecidas dessa época,sempre junto aos seus hábitos.”)
I meant to add that while Camões is known for the Portuguese national epic that you mentioned, he also wrote some excellent sonnets in the tradition of Petrarch. The most famous one—said to be the most famous poem in Portuguese literature—begins with the words that serve as a de facto title, “Alma minha gentil.” I found an interesting article about the poem that includes a slew of translations into English:
There’s supposed to be one in there by Pessoa, but Google’s book preview omits the pages on which that translation must have appeared.
Steve: That link is a gold mine. I noticed from some brief explorations that Camões was well-regarded for his sonnets, but I hadn’t yet learned anything more, so I thank you particularly for that. It’s always interesting to see how variable translations are, and these are certainly a prime example. I’m reminded by this of Caroline Bergvall’s poem Via, in which she puts together, using the alphabet as her organizing principle, 48 translations of the first three lines of the first Canto of Dante’s Inferno. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/56211
I’ve been reading the introductory material in Mickle’s late 19th C translation of the Lusiads (to read his commentary from the perspective of those times is fascinating) and was struck by his comment that “only a poet can translate a poet,” something so many other fine translators, including Anne Carson, have noted, too. It does seem right to me, but I wonder what you might think?
What fun that “Via” is. It reminds me of the parlor game “Telephone,” even if there’s only one player at a time.
I don’t know what I think about a translator of a poet having to be a poet. Perhaps another poet would make for the best translator, but maybe all it takes is someone with a good knowledge of and feel for the target language.
I’ve found a couple of treatments of “Alma minha gentil” online that might interest you. One is an animation with minimal musical accompaniment, and the other is as a full-on fado.
Wonderful, Steve! Thank you so much.
…or, ‘bookhead’. Maybe Pessoa is using it to avert his gaze from Godiva naked on her horse. That sounds like a fun part of Lisbon – don’t think we made it. In fact now I think about it we ended up in some new postmodernist shopping mall on the top of a hill – why on earth? We’d be more clued up now.
Here in Tallinn again – amazing how quiet the old town is out of season, with only the blackbirds for company at nightfall. Anneli will be back from Israel at the end of the week so we should coincide.
David: Too funny, the thought of averting his gaze, and in fact, given the bit I know of Pessoa, it may well have been his response. The Chiado is probably better off-season, as is Tallinn, for crowds do gather here and there. We were in Lisbon during spring break, and I am here to tell you, in the evening, as we headed home, there were throngs of students in the streets. But all can be avoided quite easily, and there is so much of true value–and of course, to be in the company of such blithe spirits as Anneli and Liisa was an unparalleled bonus. I have seen, from Anneli’s post on FB, that you are now both in Tallinn–so wish we could be there with you. We’ve eaten in that vegan restaurant, so that’s a serendipitous point of connection. We were quite taken with it. Tallinn out of season seems just the right thing.
Thank you for introducing me to Pessoa (and taking me on a trip abroad, not something I do a lot). The second poem of his I read (the one you quote was the first) hit me between the eyes:
Where There Are Roses
We Plant Doubt
Where there are roses we plant doubt.
Most of the meaning we glean is our own,
And forever not knowing, we ponder.
Foreign to us, capacious nature
Unrolls fields, open flowers, ripens
Fruits, and death arrives.
I’ll only be right, if anyone is right,
When death at last confounds my mind
And I no longer see,
For we cannot find and should not find
The remote and profound explanation
For why it is we live.
sackerson: Wow, that’s a beauty of a poem. Pessoa is quite new to me, as well. I’ve barely begun, thought what I’ve discovered so far is tantalizing and makes me yearn for more. We, too, don’t get many opportunities to go abroad, and this makes any trip we take all the more precious. Now at home, we look for ways to extend the pleasure. Poetry, literature–oh, and Portuguese wine–have made for pleasurable opportunities. So very pleased you found something here to enjoy!
I’ve been fascinated by Pessoa for several years because of his literary personas, or, as he called them, his heteronyms. One I remember was Ricardo Reis, a physician who composed odes. Pessoa even considered work published under his own name to be that of an “orthonym” — another literary persona. He considered each of the heteronyms a full person, complete with a personal style, political views, and so on. I can’t help but wonder if the significance of that empty chair included in the sculpture isn’t a nod to those personas he created: any one of them might stop by for a conversation.
Actually, Pessoa and my grandmother have something in common: just as he has something in common with a junk dealer in the midwest and my adolescent self. I’ve been working on a post describing that connection. I’ll hurry it up, now that I know you’re interested in Pessoa.
I enjoyed Steve’s comment about Chiado, too. I couldn’t help thinking that tweets on Twitter more often than not sound like a “shriek, grate, beep, crunch, squeak, screech, creak, screak, skreak, [or] whine.’
As for the interesting question of whether a poet is the best translator of poetry, I’m undecided. Clearly, a person can have a marvelous feel for language without using it within strictly poetic forms. For some reason, “immersion” comes to mind as a necessity: both in the languages, and to the cultures involved. A good example is Cavafy. Do the academic, more “accurate” translations carry the day for English readers, or Durrell’s empathetic renderings? In the end, I suppose the answer is to know and consider both, but there’s no question that, for me, Durrell does the better job.
This is quite an interesting post, Susan, and a wonderful nudge to carry on with my own tiny bit of homage to Pessoa.
shoreacres: I’m inclined toward what (I think) you and Steve are suggesting about poets and translation: the key is sensitivity to language, not to poetry alone. As for this, “Pessoa and my grandmother have something in common: just as he has something in common with a junk dealer in the midwest and my adolescent self,” don’t feel the need to hurry up, by all means. The joy of all this is following the trail of connecting threads, wherever they may lead.