Postcards from the High Seas
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
You'll never sell around the town
From door to door
The thirst for sweet water that slaps
In a tin can
In the morning
It snowed on the temples of Europe
The lamp of my hand is a caravel
Among the fjords of Norway
It's been raining on the prow
Steel rain that numbs
Our abandoned bones
gnomon of silence without memory
The ship is the landscape of a blind soul
And your name upon the ocean
the sun in a fruit-tree's mouth
I used to sell Kamoca
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 telephones' nostrils
The ears of the islander heard
The sun-drenched voice in the Olympian throat
Of a pestle in Finland
I saw patricians
clad in togas
In vast auditoria
Beyond the Pyrenees
there are blacks and blacks
Immigrants to Germany
in the soup-making countries
the blacks of Europe
Crioula, on Sunday evenings
with the sun on the bushes
You will say to the good-natured faces
Of old cricket-players
That the names
Paliba and Salibana
white stamps on documents
passport and laissez-passer
At the doors of the embassies
Our mouths testify
that the earth and the story
Emigrate with us under our tongues
the dry knees and elbows
of the colony of Cabiri
Along the chemins-de-fer
I give blows and receive them
From neighbouring governments
over land disputes
And cultural norms
In a night of lunacy
In the colony of Sacassenje
We divided the land
Between fruit-trees and seeds
Between blood and scars
Having foreseen this I stayed at the border
Gripping the lock of my door
Now from the road
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
The literal translation of this poem was made by Daniel Hahn
The final translated version of the poem is by Sean O'Brien
Creole: Although Portuguese is the official language, Capeverdean Kriolu (Kriolo, Crioulo) is the everyday language in the Cape Verde islands. Kriolu evolved from Portuguese and African languages. As the islands were uninhabited when discovered by the Portuguese, Cape Verdeans do not have various tribal languages like mainland Africa. Most people in Cape Verde are of mixed race, also referred to as Creole.
Cape Verde's islands were probably never as green (verde) as their name suggests. The name refers to their position across the sea from the verdant butt of Senegal, Cap Vert. Even before the time of the Portuguese discovery in 1462 the islands were largely arid.
Lying as they do in the Sahel zone, they are exposed to dry winds from the Sahara for half the year. Between August and September the southwest wind can bring a monsoon, but as Cape Verde is just above the doldrums, where the southwest and northeast tradewinds meet, these rains are not guaranteed. Regular droughts occur when the rains don't come. Overgrazing, deforestation, and the colonizer's neglect, have left the islands even drier and islanders regularly suffered catastrophic famines until the middle of the twentieth century. The regular droughts have led many Cape Verdeans to work as sailors or to emigrate, temporarily or for good. The droughts and emigration are very much a part of everyone's lives.
'Crioula': 'Creole girl' is patronising, and 'Creole woman' is stuffy; both are wordy. We wanted to keep the familiarity of this opening address, so we stuck with 'Crioula', allowing the context to illuminate its meaning.
'how dark you are, how you are…': 'That', the staple of prose syntax, is inescapable in poems, but can provide a lifeless link - 'that you are engaged…' gives the reader information that sounds inconsequential. 'How dark you are…', with its suggestion of an exclamation, draws the reader into the song.
'the fresh water / you spill from tin cans': Fortes plays on the sibilance of 'sede' (thirst), doce (fresh), and 'balouça' (sloshes) to accentuate the sensuality of the image. We've settled for a crisper assonance with 'spill from tin cans'; the suggestion of sexual desire is nevertheless maintained in the fluid 'spill'.
'hardened abandonment': Fortes plays on the phonetic proximity of 'Aço' (steel) to 'ossos' (bones) in a passage that suggests a dreamlike state of enchantment. We've found an alternative density of sound in the a's, d's and schwas (the 'uh' sound in English) of 'hardened abandonment'.
'bursts on my palate': We've reworked the 'succulent mouth' of the literal, which made for cryptic English, attempting to preserve the sensual desire.
'were left': 'Remained' simply refers to the bones and skulls. 'Were left' contrasts the fate of the bones and skulls with the fate of the people who, like the speaker, are still alive. It thus focuses more intensely on the experience of loss.
'their blood calls / through telephone wires': We couldn't find a way of repeating the precision of 'the nostrils of the telephones' without introducing bathos. We transferred the 'nostrils' (or 'mouths' as we would say) of the telephones to the 'wires'. The call of the blood is less insistent, but more lonely and sad, in a form of limbo somewhere on the telephone exchange.
'pestle and mortar': We've specified 'pestle' so that 'mortar' doesn't read as 'artillery'.
'immigrant Germany': We couldn't find a direct synonym of 'immigrated' and so applied 'immigrant' in a slightly alien collocation.
'the soup countries', i.e. the countries of Southern Europe.
'with light in the trees': 'Sun on the bushes' sounds like a vision of scrubland in English. The delicacy of 'with light in the trees' feels closer in mood to the vision of 'good-natured people' on a Sunday afternoon.
© Poetry Translation Centre 2004-2015