The central objects and images of Cabo Verde poet Corsino Fortes are deceptively simple: sun, moon, sea, stone, bread, drums, guitars, blood, palm, fist, thumb, and mouth, along with the colors red, yellow, and green, appear time and again throughout the book. At times this poetry collection even takes on the quality of a series of postcards, stanzas that lay out the details of daily life in the archipelago of the ten islands that lay off the West African coast, as if perhaps the poet were attempting to seduce us to his tourist-dependent land through a series of pleasant travelogues:
The disturbance of the crows on the cliff
In the mouth of the village
On the fat wind that smells of ham
of fresh bread
At the seaside we stand our ribbed boats up
Before the public promise of the sea
And on the shore we navigate
With fewer hands
With fewer feet
And short of protein
The people the sunset the bread in between
(“Barefoot on the Bread of Morning”)
Yet even it this seemingly picture post-card paradise, the author betrays some of the central problems with his homeland. The “fewer hands” and “feet” suggests the vast diaspora that has occurred to the islands over the last centuries. So many people have left the islands that today the country contains fewer citizens (about 525,000 individuals) than those who now live elsewhere: about 500,000 Cape Verdeans live in the United States alone, and large populations have moved to Portugal, Angola, Senegal, the Netherlands, France, Spain, Luxembourg, Norway, Finland, and even Argentina. Indeed one of the poet’s most touching poems, “Postcards from the High Seas,” discusses precisely this grand diaspora:
Crioula, you will tell the guitar
Of the night, and the dawn’s small guitar
That you are a dark-skinned bride
With Lela in Rotterdam
In the morning
It snowed in the temples of Europe
The lamp of my hand is a caravel
Among the fjords of Norway
I used to sell Karnoca
On the streets of New York
I’ve played ourin among the girders
Of skyscrapers under construction
In a building in Belfast
Remain the skulls and bones
Of my contemporaries
The blood remains
Alive in the telephone’s nostrils
Although the islands were uninhabited when the Portuguese explorers first discovered them in the 15th century, the early Portuguese settlers quickly married and shared their blood with the numerous other immigrants who settled the islands. These came from nearby West Africa (as part of the slave trade, which accounted for the early wealth of the archipelago), China, Italy, Lebanon and Morocco, along with more contemporary populations of Europeans and Latin Americans, accounting for the fact that today that the Cape Verdeans represent a mestiços (mulatto) culture whose people officially speak Portuguese but at home converse in a creole variant.
It is a culture, accordingly, that is thoroughly genetically and linguistically mixed; the poet seems particularly concerned about the latter in his first book, Bread and Phoneme, in which the act of eating (of survival) is equated with the act of speaking (a making of a reality that permits that survival). As Fortes writes in the poem “Emigrant”:
Go and plant
In dead Amilcar’s mouth
This fistful of watercress
And spread from goal to goal [porta em porta, in the original, goal seems an odd choice]
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 in a nation’s language
Food as survival is another important aspect of Cape Verdean life; as the poet hints in the first poem I quoted above (“Barefoot on the Bread of Morning”), the country is not only short of hands and feet, but also “short of protein.” Most of the islands’ land, due to its volcanic origins, is able to support only the most basic of foodstuffs, and over 90% of food consumed in Cape Verde must be imported.
In the early years of its existence, the island populations were regularly sacked by pirates such as Sir Francis Drake, and under the long Portuguese rule, particularly during the Salazarist dictatorship, the Cape Verdeans severely suffered from hunger and, coincidentally in the early 1970s, endured a severe drought. Along with other Portuguese-ruled African countries, particularly Guinea-Bissau, rebels from Cape Verde, led by the Amilcar (Cabral) mentioned by Fortes above, fought against Portuguese garrisons. In 1975, the publication year of Fortes’ Bread and Phoneme, the islands gained independence from their former colonial rulers. Fortes, formerly the ambassador to Portugal, published this early work in Angola, where he was serving as a judge.
The conjoining of food and language, accordingly, is perhaps an inevitable phenomenon for a poet in Fortes’ position. Both things, dependent on the mouth, make existence possible and give rise to the survival of a victimized population, many of whom had been forced to leave their homes simply to find enough to eat. Today the island country, despite its dependence upon imports, has one of the highest standards of living and the most democratic of governments in Africa.
It has been precisely their ability to connect one thing and another, to bring food and people into their somewhat isolated world that has resulted in the contemporary citizens’ continued existence. And Fortes stresses this interrelationship of things in his other books as well, originally published with titles like Tree & Drum and Stones of Sun & Substance. In fact, one might describe the poetics of this writer as representing a kind of engagement with conjunctions.
Time and again, instead of proclaiming and separating opposing arguments, Fortes conjoins his elements, as in the beautifully balanced, yet distinctively disjunctive work, “The Pestle and the Grindstone”:
The man And his female
That table and its tabernacle
The sun in the pregnant mouth
The bread of blood on the table
The man And his female
The source and its phoneme
The alarm in the revolted mouth
The cry of the artery over the map
And bread stone
Palm of the earth’s being
May it be
time & tamara
Time and temples
The dialogue the dialect
Over the palate
in its feijãos verdes
In a selection from “The Fisherman the Fish and the Peninsula,” Fortes employs the conjunction “E” (“AND”) as a major structural device:
In the calm of the prow
On the warlike waves
The boats carry in their souls
The final morna of the island
From the volcano to the sunset candle in the west
The thunderclap bursts into flower
On the tree of smoke
The living root of the harmattan
The oar is a lightning flash across the face of night
in the mirror of the waves
Ripples of blazing coal
This poet’s world is one of accommodation, a society in which things must be joined together in an inclusionary embracement, like that of food and language, or with regard to seeming oppositions which were originally of the same origin, “Tree and drum.” His countrymen represent a culture of combining things, having a long history of bringing people and provisions to their shores not only for their subsistence but for their very identity. Cape Verde is a not a world that can afford to stand aloof from any “other.”
Perhaps nowhere in his work is this philosophy better summarized than in the short poem, “Art of Culture,” a work which through its title suggests that “culture” itself is a kind of cultivated act (“Acto de cultura,” as the original poem is titled):
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
And it is the seductiveness of that “dynamism of expression” through which the reader will best remember this significant translation.
Selected Poems of Corsino Fortes (2015) (translated from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn and Sean O’Brien) is published by Archipelago Books / Island Position and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.
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