Take the City Home

It’s autumn holiday week here – the sun is retreating, schools are on mid-term break, and summer is starting to seem like a distant memory. It’s time to escape the daily grind if at all possible.

But what will you take home? And how long will it last?


4,600 kilometres north, I can still hear the slap-slap of the waves of the Tagus in the port of Lisbon. This August I took home Lisbon Poets, a new bilingual edition of their best, with English translations by Austin Hyde and Martin D’Evelin. I was thrilled to see it in tourist shops – it was several cuts above the usual souvenirs, but no more of a strain on my EasyJet luggage allowance or budget. It led me to Florbela Espanca and others who are far little known in English.

The “Portuguese Shakespeare”, Luís Vas de Camões, is right with me now looking back to where the journey began (extract from The Lusiads, Canto IV:84, 1572):

Amidst a noble roar of eager cries,

in Lisbon’s harbour – where renowned Ulysses

made berth; where into briny Neptune spills

the Tagus its sweet liquor and white sands –

the ships stand yare at last; and not a fear

bridles from youthful show of zeal the crews,

for these seafaring men with men of Mars

will follow me, across the very globe.

This is the beginning of his voyage to the ‘Indies’ with Vasco da Gama, which was quite an adventure.

I haven’t seen anything quite like Lisbon Poets anywhere else: compact, compelling and making you want to find out more about a new place from the people who know it best.

I’m back in Warsaw next weekend so I’ll have a look. When I lived there in the 1990s Wydawnictwo Literackie did some lovely hardback editions of individual poets, but a lot are now out of print. The Czesław Miłosz edition has a host of translators; this poem from it is translated by Louis Iribane and David Brooks.

Like Camões, Miłosz looks at the capital city at a key historical moment: 1943. The perspective is very different – being conquered, not conquering, and viewed from the south, not the east – from Rome:

In Rome on the Campo dei Fiori

baskets of olives and lemons,

cobbles spattered with wine

and the wreckage of flowers.

Vendors cover the trestles

with rose-pink fish;

armfuls of dark grapes

heaped on peach-down.

On this same square

they burned Giordano Bruno.

Henchmen kindled the pyre

close-pressed by the mob.

Before the flames had died

the taverns were full again,

baskets of olives and lemons

again on the vendors’ shoulders.

I thought of the Campo dei Fiori

in Warsaw by the sky-carousel

one clear spring evening

to the strains of a carnival tune.

The bright melody drowned

the salvos from the ghetto wall,

and couples were flying

high in the cloudless sky.

At times wind from the burning

would drift dark kites along

and riders on the carousel

caught petals in midair.

That same hot wind

blew open the skirts of the girls

and the crowds were laughing

on that beautiful Warsaw Sunday.

Someone will read as moral

that the people of Rome or Warsaw

haggle, laugh, make love

as they pass by the martyrs’ pyres.

Someone else will read

of the passing of things human,

of the oblivion

born before the flames have died.

But that day I thought only

of the loneliness of the dying,

of how, when Giordano

climbed to his burning

he could not find

in any human tongue

words for mankind,

mankind who live on.

Already they were back at their wine

or peddled their white starfish,

baskets of olives and lemons

they had shouldered to the fair,

and he already distanced

as if centuries had passed

while they paused just a moment

for his flying in the fire.

Those dying here, the lonely

forgotten by the world,

our tongue becomes for them

the language of an ancient planet.

Until, when all is legend

and many years have passed,

on a new Campo dei Fiori

rage will kindle at a poet’s word.

Translator, editor, writer, reader

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Posted in books, literature, poetry

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