Selected Poems – Corsino Fortes (translated by Daniel Hahn and Sean O’Brien)

December sees a number of reading challenges being promoted, the first “twelve books of Christmas” challenges bloggers to read and review twelve works during the month, and when I totaled up my reviews of works this year for my personal listing of my favourites under the banner “Twelve Days of Translated Fiction” it came to eighty-eight, what better way to round out a nice 100 works for the year by joining in and ensuring I get to another twelve books before the end of the year.

Another reading challenge is “Diverse December” (you can read more here) where the BAME (“Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic”) writers get a little more exposure. Today’s review fits that demographic quite nicely.
Corsino Fortes was born in Mindelo on the island of São Vicente in Cape Verde in 1933. Serving as the first Ambassador of Cape Verde to Portugal from 1975 to 1981 he went on to become a judge in Angola and served several govenments in the Cape Verde Republic. Writing in both Creole and Portuguese, the works in this collection have been translated from poems written in Portuguese the official language of the ten island archipelago.
Earlier this year I read and reviewed “By Night The Mountain Burns” by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel (translated by Jethro Soutar) from Equatorial Guinea, a work set off the West African Coast of this nation and whilst reading Corsino Fortes’ poems there was a strong correlation to the island imagery used in Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel’s novel 
It only takes a poem or two to see these works are rooted in Cape Verde mythology and way of life, with recurring images of blood, the meridian, drums, guitars and the sea. From a widely travelled writer, and one who spent a significant time living overseas you can almost feel the pain of being forced to escape your roots, there is no escape:
There is fever now
            fever in the gum
The coat of sweat
            fouling the teeth
The corncob
            in the scorched mouth
The bay sweating
                        sun and sunflower
I left the plumb-line
                                    on the steps of the city
I left the hammer and the anvil
                                    in the council chambers
I left the pestle and the mortar
                                    Under you face: Monte Cara
And the wild surge of the waters
I packed my stuff
                                    And left
The heart behind and sailed to larboard
But before long before
I mortgaged
                                    my litre of blood
And left
I planted my thumb
                        Beside you tree
                                    o idol of my little earth
In that lesson
Of earth & blood
I heard the wild waves surge
                        From the heart to larboard
Very similar to the Mexican work (translated from the Spanish) “Diorama” by Rocío Cerón (translated by Anna Rosenwong), and winner of this year’s Best Translated Book Award for poetry, in the timbre of the local language, as opposed to English, these are poems that scream to be read aloud, and in their local tongue. As an example here’s a section from “Nightmare In A Foreign Land” describing the journey on a night train:
My sleep is goat my sleep is herb
My sleep is goat my sleep is herb
My mouth sleeps goat my mouth sleeps herb
My mouth sleeps goat my mouth sleeps herb
Goat train horse train goat train horse train
            Goat train horse train goat train horse train
Eating the earth eating the earth eating the earth
Eating the earth eating the earth eating the earth
And here in the original language (this books presents the original alongside the English translation):
Nha sone ê cabra nha sone ê erva
Nha sone ê cabra nha sone ê erva
Sone dnha boca ê cabra sone dnha boca ê erva
Sone dnha boca ê cabra sone dnha boca ê erva
Cabra comboie cavole comboie cabra comboie
                        cavole comboie
Cabra comboie cavole comboie cabra comboie
                        cavole comboie
Ta c’mê terra ta c’mê terra ta c’mê terra
Ta c’mê terra ta c’mê terra ta c’mê terra
In this example the rhythm and sound of the night train moving through the dark seems to have more power, and of course this is one of the major challenges that translators would face, especially with the poetic form. One of the translators here Daniel Hahn, I recently read through is work on “A General Theory of Oblivion” by José Eduardo Agualusa.
The collection shows a strong connection to country, being an outcast in another land, countries who display the bones of Cape Verde peoples in museums, as though they are showing us the birth of humankind.
From “Postcards from the High Seas”
Now as I walk
I watch the birth: the spring that watches
The shade of the shoulder-blades over the world
Striking the drum
            with the blood of Africa
            with the bones of Europe
Every evening my thumb returns
            And says to the mouth of the river
From Addis Ababa I came and drank
In the cataracts of Ruacana
This collection is taken from “Bread + Phoneme” published in 1974, the year that Portugal’s dictator Antonío Salazar was over thrown, this event triggering the decolonization of the Cape Verde Islands in 1975. “Tree + Drum”, “Stones of Sun + Substance” are the other published works that these poems are drawn from along with two “Uncollected” poems.
The earliest section, from “Bread + Phoneme” is a very obscure opening, and it took me a while to get used to the references, the metre and the rhythm of the poems, let alone the meaning, with poems taken from later collections having direct references and alignment to the island itself and feel a little more accessible.
This publication if very much grounded in being part of one’s land, one’s country is displayed in the poem “Earth to Earth” which explores the relationship between a child and a navel, we are born of the earth but we devour it.

Source personal copy (part of my Archipelago Books subscription).

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