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.