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

Since yesterday
It's been raining on the prow
            Steel rain that numbs
Our abandoned bones
            gnomon of silence without memory

Since yesterday
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
Speaking Creole
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
            Of Djone
            Paliba and Salibana
Present themselves
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
To witness
            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

Translation notes

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.

1 Comment

1 Breyten Breytenbach

A beautiful, moving, luminous poem! And translated with sensitive understanding of the original. Allow me to congratulate you and thank you for such fine work.

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