Portuguese-American Poetry in the United States: From Emma Lazarus to Frank Gaspar

    by George Monteiro

It is time for an anthology of Portuguese-American poetry.  We—that is, Alice Clemente and I—expect to prepare such a volume. If it cannot be called The Oxford Book of Portuguese-American Verse, adding it—appropriately, we think—to that series of venerated anthologies issued throughout the twentieth century by the equally venerable Oxford University Press, we propose to call it, with little or no levity, The Gávea-Brown Book of Portuguese-American Verse.

        I should like to take this opportunity to name some of the poets whose work we hope to include in our book, along with an exemplary poem from each of those poets.  Before doing that, however, I should like to put before you some of the questions obvious to such an undertaking. First of all, is there such a thing as Portuguese-American poetry, and, if so, who are its practitioners.  Is there enough such "good" poetry—however one defines "good"—to flesh-out such a collection?  What, after all, are the rules governing our choices for inclusion in this volume?  And by the way, what is a Portuguese-American?  Because we are basically pragmatic we have worked more intuitively than logically.  Usually, the poems have come first to our attention; the niceties of adhering to unstated, largely implicit, rules follow later.

        The last question, for instance—who, for our purposes, is a Portuguese-American poet—must be answered broadly and flexibly to include, for example, not only the first generation-born in the U.S.A. but to the second and even, in one instance, the fourth generation.  The derivation of parents has been considered to be a matter of nationality or point of immediate origin rather than racial.  This enables us to include a nineteenth-century poet whose antecedents arrived in New York in the seventeenth century after having been expelled from Portugal and a twentieth-century poet born to Portuguese parents in the West Indies.  We have included only poets whose native language is English, whether by birth, as is the case in most instances, or, by very early acquisition.  This has meant that we have (reluctantly) excluded, for example, Jorge de Sena, José Rodrigues Miguéis, Alberto de Lacerda, João Teixeira de Medeiros, José Baptista Brites, Alberto Machado de Rosa, and Luís Amorim de Sousa, some of whom have written poems in Portuguese about the American subjects or themes.  (Such poems might find a place—in translation, of course, in an appendix.)

        I shall not now name all the poets whose work will most likely be represented in The Gávea-Brown Book of Portuguese-American Verse. But I would like to call your attention, in no particular order, to a few names, along with, in each case, an exemplary (though not necessarily our favorite among the poet's poems).    

                                       1.

     I begin with Art Cuelho (Coelho), a Westerner by virtue of birth and inclination--California and Montana--and a Whitmanian "rough" by choice.  A prolific writer, he has published, in recent years, a good deal of first-person expansive verse documenting his self-discoveries while searching out his Azorean ancestry.  He also edits a journal entitled The Azorean Express, put out by Cuelho's own Seven Buffaloes Press.  Here is the last stanza of a poem published some fifteen years ago in the journal Gávea-Brown.

One More Harvest, One More Dream

Oh distant rich green island of our birth
still harbors the fishing villages of our worth,
the blessings from passages that landed us as immigrants;
no, Portuguese is not a mere word:
it is a union, memories that link the heart
like close islands that band the sea together from
  loneliness;
from whale harvest to colorful quilts to festa sweetbread
our blood gives voice, identity, courage
to those who still claim part of their heritage
out behind the old valley hay barn here,
to the horse-cart cobbled streets there;
or in a beggar child on São Miguel Island
wondering about the tall American poet
writing a song for her smile . . .
taking her photograph back to Montana,
putting it above his desk like she was an unknown saint:
another kind of treasure, the curiosity that measures
the awakening in her of foreign boats out on her bay,
rolling into her small town the dream in
the quest beyond these waves to America.

                                       2.

        Then there is Olga Cabral, the daughter of Portuguese parents.  Born in 1909 in the West Indies, she was taken as a child to Winnipeg, Canada, and shortly thereafter to New York City where she lived for the rest of her life.  She was married to the Yiddish poet Aaron Kurtz.  She began publishing poetry in the magazines in the 1930s but her first volume of poetry, Cities and Deserts, did not appear until 1959 when it appeared under the aegis of Roving Eye, a press directed by Bob Brown of American expatriate fame.  Next appeared The Evaporated Man in 1968, followed by Tape Found in a Bottle (1971), The Darkness Found in My Pockets (1976), Occupied Country (1976), In the Empire of Ice (1980), and The Green Dream (1990).  In 1993 there was a collective volume titled Voice/ Over: Selected Poems (1993), which offers a sample of the poetry she published in book form for over four decades.  The poet and publisher Walter Lowenfels said to her: "You are the first woman poet I know in this country who expresses a national spirit.  This, as Whitman observed, is essential for great poetry.  In addition to your public poetry (arte publico) your most intimate and tragic revelations also speak for all of us."  The distinguished writer Grace Paley says that Olga Cabral's work is "impassioned, lyrical," with "history's fingerprints all over it."  A "Portuguese Communist," as she was described in a listing of one of her books on the net shortly after her death last year in her nineties, she was also a gifted lyrical poet.  Here is a poem from the 1971 collection Tape Found in a Bottle:

The Music of Villa-Lobos

Someone is speaking a lost language.
It is the music of Villa-Lobos.
I try to remember: where was I
born?  And from what continent
untimely torn?  I might have been
a priestess among the caymans
guarding the eye-jewel of the
crocodile god.  I might have sailed
orinocos of diamonds, seas of coconuts,
leased the equator for life and learned
my ancestral language.

But I have only some old sleeves of rain
in a trunk with spiders
to remember my ancestors by.
They have left me
nothing, and I have forgotten
that island of my birth
where the sun in his suit of mirrors
was seen once only with my vast fetal eye.

But in the music of Villa-Lobos
a god with a tower of green faces
comes striding across cities
of permafrost, and I am summoned
once again to the jaguar gardens
guarded by waterfalls
where the hummingbird people are at play
far from the cold auroras of the north.

                                       3.

        Sam Pereira is the author of The Marriage of the Portuguese (1978).  He is, I believe, a Californian.  Among his other publications is Brittle Water, a second collection of poems, illustrated by Louise LaFond and published by The Penumbra Press--Abattoir Editions in 1987. I shall quote the title poem of his first collection.

The Marriage Of the Portuguese

Implies something beautiful.
A dark man clutching a tuna
Like it was his little girl.

It implies a marriage
At sea,
Life as long as the water;

Nothing breaks it.
And when the woman dies first,
As she invariably does,

The scarved body is tossed
Of the coast of São Jorge.
It is about this body

That he thinks
As he splits the tuna in two
And breathes in deeply.

It is about the long-gone meat of his woman,
About the sea who turned thief,
The sea who stuck fingers

Into the corpse
Plucked the child and laughs now
At this fisherman who finds

Only fish.

                                       4.

        Frank X. Gaspar also lives in and teaches in California (though hailing originally from Provincetown).  He is a descendant of Azoreans and the author of three collections of poems at my last count—all prize-winners.  The Holyoke (1988) won the Morse Poetry Prize; Mass for the Grace of a Happy Death (1994) won the Anhinga Prize; and A Field Guide to the Heavens (1999) won the Brittingham Prize.  This poetry is of high order by any contemporary standards.  But it is Frank Gaspar's virtue as a elegiac poet that I would single out here.  He returns to his memories of Cape Cod over and over again with a reverence and awe that sacralizes, not the original experiences but the poetry-making that sets them down for posterity.  The poem I have selected, however, grows out of later memories.  From his latest book of poems, A Field Guide to the Heavens (1999).

I Am Refused Entry to the Harvard Poetry Library

Rightly so: for who am I but a tired question
squatting, in those days, somewhere up on
Beacon Hill, snow equally tired, crusted and dirty,
crouching in striated piles along the ancient curbs—
such a homely winter.  And so there should
be books at my elbow!  And there were rumors
of that splendid room: imagine sitting in
the warm, thick air, among the sons and daughters
of the sons and daughters, among the thin spines,
among the soft chairs.  I would not eat all
day but linger there and let the gray light slant
through the gothic windows, or the square windows,
or from brass lamps, or from fluorescent lights,
the exact details so impossible to imagine
that they roll and flicker and agitate
the manic breath and heart: walk to the T and lay
my coins down, count the stops, hunch in
the chill morning to coffee and sugar at the vendor's
cart near the square, then advance, certain I can
talk my way into the sanctified places, sure
I can find in my pocket some scrap of card,
some guarantee I might pass.  And if the world
has its own ideas, and if they are not in accord
with my own wishes, and if the mild young woman
shakes her head firmly and explains how I in
general never have, and never will, live a qualified
day in my life, I must not be afraid of the cold gray
sky and the sprawling yard—I must walk among
the gay colors of the coats and scarves, the backpacks
of the deserving: there are other buildings open
for roaming, and though I might be regarded
with the sideways look reserved for my kind,
someone will soon lay down a book or some other
thing that will fit a hand, and swiftly it will be mine.

                                       5.

        Thomas Braga is a native of Fall River, who, like Frank Gaspar, also writes poems that are prayers of praise.  The author of poems in Portuguese and French, as well as English, Braga has published widely, including collections entitled Litotes (1997), Borderland (1994), Crickers' Feet (1992), Coffee In The Woodwinds (1990), in addition to his quite remarkable first collection, Portingales (1981).  It is from that first collection, Portingales, that I choose this poem.

Codfish Cakes

No meat today, don't ask!
No red sacrifice, instead the sea
will confess our sins in white
make us pure in a frying pan.

It's Fri-day, herbs, black aprons
dress friends—mackerel, flounder, cod
Parsley, onions, green sauce anointed
fill our souls with sanctity marine.

Codfish cakes sizzle in holy oils
greasy hosts dished out to each
in kitchens of briny Ports
shawls chanting waves of the catch.

Salty patties, water, poesy, place
make the sea our sod, sanctuary
as we sail through centuries, grace,
eating codfish cakes, kale, statuary.

                                       6.

        My next poet is Nancy Vieira Couto.  Born in New Bedford in 1942, she is the author of one book of poems. The Face in the Water, awarded the 1989 Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize, was published in the Pitt Poetry Series by the University of Pittsburgh Press in 1990.  She is identified as having studied at Bridgewater State College and at Cornell University, where she received her M.F.A. in 1980, and as being on the staff of Cornell University Press.  Her dexterity is amply shown in a sonnet taken from The Face in the Water.

Broiled Haddock

"And they gave him a piece of a broiled fish . . . . And he took it, and did eat before them."—St. Luke

Believing's more than seeing.  You bear witness
your way—I, mine.  Just last night
didn't you touch your finger to my wound,
press the lingering flesh until it gave

and parted?  Wasn't that a miracle?
So I, asking less, scour the ordinary
fluorescence of supermarkets for evidence
to drench with clarified butter, dredge with crumbs.

Sometimes I make the sign of the cross in parsley.
You're coming for dinner.  Doesn't my kitchen table
shine like an altar?  Linen, lace, and candlesticks.
Bread on a salver.  White wine.  Artichokes.

Broiled haddock.  These are my offerings.
Take, eat: That will be your testimony.

                                       7.

        Raymond Oliver, a descendant of Azoreans, a poet-scholar-university professor, now retired and living in Berkeley, California, is the author of two books of lyric poetry—Entries (1982) and Other Times (1985)—both chapbooks—and a modern-English version of the Old English poem Beowulf.  The following poem, first published in the Southern Review in 1969, is taken from Entries.

Portuguese

This is no tongue to turn a compliment.
Or twist a curse too graceful to resent.
Or speak in flames grandly of heaven and hell;
Its sound is intimate, like the frying-smell
Of garlic.  With liquids like a heavy wine,
It speaks of sweet-loaves, olives packed in brine,
Chestnuts and squash; it consonants are blurred,
Nasals insinuating, diphthongs slurred
With overtones, like some ignoble wish;
It is a language of linguiça, fish,
Mary, and Christ—staples on which to fatten
Both flesh and soul.  Among the sons of Latin
It seems a country cousin, rich but crude;
Yet one must praise a tongue that savors food
And God with gusto: familial Portuguese,
In whose irregular moods I feel at ease.

                                       8.

        My next poet is O. A. Lopes, a retired teacher from East Longmeadow, Massachusetts, a descendant of Continental Portuguese emigrants.  His first book of poetry Norwich Hill did not appear until 1993, but was followed quickly by For the Duration (1994), Green and Growing (1996), and a Collected Poems (1999).

Son to Father

After twenty years, like Telemachus,
I have found you, not abroad in some alien place
But in me, resonant like the deep echo of a chord
Not always constant nor in time, often in counterpoint
To my own harmonies and discord.
My young reticence and timid fears
For what others might say or think
Clashed long with your bursts of laughter and story.
Your spirit was too free for me,
Mine too shadowy to yours.
Age is the leaven that resurrects fathers in sons.
Age is the lens for clearer vision:
You made it easy for me to see,
I made it difficult.  Did you ever guess?
Newly back from the war, I bought you a beer in a bar
Where embarrassment soon split our world between us.
Experience, yours and mine, alienated like an ever-widening
      wedge.
Gone were the westerns on Saturday afternoons
When you hooted disdain at the villain,
And from your seat directed loudly the bar-room brawl.
You swore you could smell the horses!
Then, at our last movie, shoulder to shoulder,
We sat in the dark watching Atlanta burn.
Silent with those immensities
You missed the innocence of heroes in white hats.
A tickle of laughter, dray as a summer cough, possessed me
As I sat next to Mother at your funeral.
Here you were, the center of the spectacle, without protest
After all your vaunted skepticism of Jesuit, church, and
      priest,
As your latest friend, the priest himself, in your own
      tongue
Pronounced soft words at your journey's end.
Never has this Odysseus abandoned Ithaca,
Never has Telemachus been bereft.

                                       9.

        David Oliveira's work I discovered only recently, at a conference on Portuguese-American Literature held at Yale University just three weeks ago.  An editor of Solo, a poetry annual published in Carpinteria, California, and the founder of Mille Grazie Press, David Oliveira lives in Santa Barbara.  He is one of three poets published in A Near Country: Poems of Loss and, in the year 2000, of In the Presence of Snakes, a chapbook issued by Brandenburg Press.  This latter volume contains an extraordinary fourteen-poem sonnet sequence titled "The Stations of the Cross," from which I take the eighth poem.

The Priest Weeps at David's Voice

Confirmation songs are sung in Latin
which we practice for weeks without knowing
what we say.  Despite what I think a near
perfect hit on Confirma Hoc Deus,
the priest insists I only mouth the words. 
Obedient, one of the demands made
on those who bargain for eternity,
I never sing a word for him again. 
I open my mouth to let nothing out,
out comes nothing; like the simple music
flowers make after the morning opens
their voices to welcome another day—
silent, silent—not a note out of place
in the endless song of our becoming.

                                       10.

        The tenth poet is Emily Monteiro Morelli.  Besides writing poetry and fiction, she helps to manage the Hotel Teatro in Denver, Colorado.  She lives with her husband in Boulder. She wrote the poem that follows, she explains, to make up for being such an indifferent student of Portuguese during her course at the University of Lisbon some summers back.  It was first published in the James River Review.

Francisco Monteiro

My grandfather died
after a two-year stint
at the Institute of Mental Health
in Cranston, Rhode Island,
way before I was born.

But I found him
one summer in Lisbon,
where I learned I
was a failure at my father's language. 
Instead of going to my
Summer classes, I rode the city
looking for something to
fuse me to that place,
and I found him.

I found him over and over,
and there were many of him,
although I could not
speak his language I
found him
wandering crazy in the winding
underground tunnels of
the Marquês de Pombal station.
Each time
he came to me arms out,
resting a hand on my warm
head, saying "A Carinha!" 
I knew it was him,
just as I imagined,
in a grey hat with low-crotched
black pants, white shirt: 

Portuguese, animal-dirty with pigeon dung,
sick, crazy, loving me,
driven underground
where the roots of trees live.

 

        This is a good place to stop, with the local and the universal, which is what true poetry is always about.  But I am obliged to call your attention to one more poet, the Emma Lazarus of my title. I shall do so by rehearsing what is, beyond doubt, the best-known work by a Portuguese-American poet, one whose ancestors were among the families of Sephardim from Portugal—the so-called "Twenty-Three"—who in 1654 arrived in New York (that is, New Amsterdam) on the St. Charles (the Jewish Mayflower). Emma Lazarus' sonnet, written on behalf of the "Bartoldi Pedestal Fund," is quoted on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty in Ellis Island in the New York harbor.

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles.  From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that win cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

 

George Monteiro’s most recent books are The Presence of Camões (1996), The Presence of Pessoa (1998), Stephen Crane’s Blue Badge of Courage (2000), and Fernando Pessoa and Nineteenth-Century Anglo-American Literature (2000). Forthcoming are bilingual editions of Miguel Torga’s Poemas Ibéricos, Pedro da Silveira’s Poemas Ausentes, and Selected Poems by Jorge de Sena. He is currently at work on two other books, The English Face of Fernando Pessoa and Elizabeth Bishop’s Brazilian Beat. “The Bureaucratic Tale of the Harbor-Master and the Collector of Customs,” his translation of a story by José Saramago, appeared in PLCS 6.
Email: georgemonteiro@prodigy.net 

 

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