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Corsino Fortes, “Postcards from the High Seas”

Postcards from the High Seas

by Corsino Fortes, translated by Sean O’Brien with Daniel Hahn


Crioula! You will tell the night
guitar and the dawn guitar
how dark you are, how you are engaged
to Lela in Rotterdam

Now you will never go door to door
through the town
selling a thirst for the fresh water
you spill from tin cans


In the morning
snow fell on Europe’s brow.
The lamp in my hand is a ship
passing through the fjords of Norway

Since yesterday
the ship has faced into rain
steely paralysis
hardened abandonment
the silence gnomic without memory
Since yesterday
the ship a blind landscape of the soul
and your name across the sea
bursts on my palate
sun + tree


I have sold Kamoca snacks
on the streets of New York

I have played ouri
on the girders
of skyscrapers

The bones
of our friends were left
in a building in Belfast
Their blood calls
through telephone wires


The ears of the islander hear
the resplendent Olympian sound
of a pestle and mortar
through the streets of Finland

Then I saw Patricians
dressed in togas
speaking Creole
in the forum

Beyond the Pyrenees
there are blacks and there are blacks
in immigrant Germany
the soup countries
are the blacks of Europe


Crioula! On Sunday afternoons
with light in the trees
you’ll tell the good-natured people
and old cricket players
that one day the names
of Djone
Palaba and Salibana
will be like
white stamps on documents
like passports and free passage

at the embassy doors


Our mouths give evidence
that the soil the drama
emigrate with us under our tongues
our parched knees and elbows
bear witness
in the colony of Cabiri

Along railway tracks
I punch and get punched
by neighbours in high places
over land disputes
and protocol

One night of madness
in the Sacassenje colony
we divided the land
between fruit seeds and fruit trees
between blood and scars

And with foresight I stayed on the border
not letting go of the bolt on my door


Now the road
I see being born: a spring that sees
the shadow of a shoulder blade over the world
beating a drum
with African blood
with European bones


every afternoon my thumb returns
and tells the river mouth
I came from Addis Ababa and drank
from the waterfalls at Ruacaná


Corsino Fortes’s first book Pão & Fonema[Bread & Phoneme] appeared in 1974 with an immediate impact. It is a compressed intensely lyrical book andcorsino yet it has an epic arc which maps out a very Cape Verdean odyssey. The first canto focuses on the islands’ typical hardships such as droughts and the second on the Cape Verdean experience of emigration. The poem sequence ‘Postcards from the High Seas’ is from the second canto. The third canto looks forward to an independent Cape Verde where islanders can settle and build the country. 1974 was the year in which Portugal’s dictator Salazar was overthrown starting the process which led to the decolonisation of the Cape Verde Islands in 1975.

Fortes was born in 1933 in Mindelo on Cape Verde’s São Vicente island. He has been a teacher lawyer and Cape Verde’s ambassador to Portugal as well as a judge in Angola. After Pão & Fonema he published Arvore e Tambor [Tree and Drum] (Publicações Dom Quixote Lisbon) in 1986 and finished what he had long seen as a trilogy in 2001 with Pedras de Sol & Substância which was collected with the previous two books under the title A Cabeça Calva de Deus [The Bald Head of God] (Publicações Dom Quixote Lisbon).

Find the original poem in Portuguese, or read more about the poem, poets, and translation process, including Sean O’Brien’s extensive notes, at the Poetry Translation Center website.

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