It’s Saturday night in Porto and this throng of twentysomethings is all abuzz. We’re at bookstore-café Flâneur, the city’s hippest livraria, in a friendly neighbourhood just north of the city centre, and this place is about to get lit – no really, we’re all here for a poetry reading. The shoulder-to-shoulder crowd spills along book-lined walls, around arrangements of flowers and leaves and vintage bikes the staff use to hand-deliver orders. Cátia Monteiro and Arnaldo Vila Pouca opened this shop in 2015, inspired by Manuel António Pina, a Porto poet who wrote that books themselves can be “for readers as a city, a crowd, a world is to the wanderer.” Cátia and Arnaldo take the stage and the room quiets, ready to discover a new destination.
The poetry of Porto is said to be extraordinary. Earthy, succinct, subversive, pagan – I feel its call long before I arrive in this port city. Last summer in the remote Azorean islands of my ancestors, I heard Portuguese poets read in a style I’d never heard: like a tender lullaby you’d sing to a lover to capture all the sweetness you’ve shared, mixed with the gravitas of a great stage actor. The sound is as distinctive as Ella Fitzgerald’s contralto, as strong and captivating as fado, the country’s emblematic music. As a playwright, I’ve premiered my plays, focused on Portuguese life and history, from Los Angeles to Lisbon, and I’m working on a new piece inspired by a woman who fled the Spanish Inquisition via Porto. The city’s mix of sea air and working-class culture is meant to give it an intimate, familiar feel, like the poetry of the place itself, like the passionate exchanges around my grand-parents’ table when I was a child. I need to experience it for myself as I build this woman’s world.
Cátia and Arnaldo introduce the evening’s program, cradling the reason for tonight’s celebration: the shop’s first publication, a Portuguese translation of Chicago poet Carl Sandburg. A young scholar excitedly sets the scene, the translator humbly adds his perspective, while I wonder why they chose to focus on a poet writing 100 years ago and 6,000 kilometres away. Then performer Cristiana Afonso’s voice rings out with a translation of Sandburg’s ode to his hometown: “Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so / Proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.” Ah – I get it. Porto and Chicago are primos – cousins. Cristiana, once more: “Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat / Stormy, husky, brawling, City of the Big Shoulders.” Sandburg might have been writing about Porto. The performance comes to an end, and the audience explodes with urgent questions.
Poetry by Alice Branco
Água Mole Em Pedra Dura
Como água em rocha, flexível e exacta,
entras na minha pele, maré a encher.
Só temos asas porque temos corpo.
Water on Stone
Like water on stone, flexible and exact,
You enter my skin, a rising tide.
We only have wings because we have a body.
From Água Mole Em Pedra Dura (Water on Stone) by Rosa Alice Branco from Gado do Senhor (Cattle of the Lord), 2011, translated into English by Alexis Levitin.
I lean over to my neighbour, who happens to be one of the country’s most famous poets and a favourite of Portugal’s president Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, and ask her about Cristiana’s voice, which resonated with intimacy. “Oh yes!” says Rosa Alice Branco. “We call it dizer.” Portuguese poetry dates back to the troubadours of the 12th century, so that explains the mix of love and historical heft in Cristiana’s voice. But what about the crowd, all around me, questioning so fervently? Flâneur’s muse, Pina, incited his countrymen – living through the Estada Novo dictatorship, one of the longest in modern history – to “fight for books to be truly free.” Poetry here has the feeling of dialogue, and its recital, just the opening lines of a conversation. After all, it was poetry, set to music, that was the secret signal that brought down the government during the peaceful Carnation Revolution of 1974, when folk singer Zeca Afonso urged us to look around: “On each corner, a friend / On each face, equality.”
The next day, I find myself in front of the famed Café Piolho on a rainy evening, feeling quite close to the country’s tumultuous past. Behind the gold anchors that adorn the colonial facade is one of the rare places where women – including Rosa Alice Branco – could speak freely during the dictatorship, a period when free speech came at a high cost. Poet Maria Teresa Horta was arrested and allegedly tortured by the state’s secret police for co-authoring a banned collection of fiction, letters, poetry and erotica. Horta, now 80, has said, “Until the dictatorship fell, women didn’t have a voice in Portugal.” Except at Piolho.
As I’m contemplating the continuity of conversations in Porto, José Efe, a poet friend I first met in the Azores last summer, strolls up. From the nearby Miradouro da Vitória overlook, we snake down the city’s hills, past curvilinear murals by street artist Hazul, across the River Douro. We step inside the Mercado Beira Rio. A foodie’s hipster-modern fever dream, it also hosts concerts, art exhibits and, you guessed it, poetry events. However, it’s Sunday night and the market vendors are wrapping up, so José and I set up our own pop-up poets’ corner. Over powerful Portuguese espresso, smoother than its Italian counterpart, José dizers to me passages from his books about the city. Through his gentle, basso profundo voice, Porto’s six bridges explode into vibrant images and paintings. He evokes the hand-to-hand dances of women selling their wares at Bolhão market and allegories adorning Porto’s churches in blue and white azulejo tile, before bringing me back to the conspiratorial tertúlias (gatherings with friends to discuss art and politics) happening at today’s Café Piolho.
Poetry by José Efe
E nas extremidades que tudo começa
E, no eixo central, onde as mãos sem unem,
a obra acontece
Ponte: meia lua debruçada no rio.
It’s on the edges where it all starts
And, in the central axis, where the hands blend
The work happens
Bridge: half-moon leaning over the river.
From Fragmento (Fragment) by José Efe from +Porto, 2016, translated into English by Manuela Caldeira with modifications by Elaine Avila.
In the bright of daylight, Rosa Alice drives me through stands of tall pines and eucalyptus trees an hour south, to her hometown of Aveiro. It’s all beira-mar (seaside) here: estuaries, lagoons, inland waterways, beach dunes and canals, dotted with brightly coloured moliceiro boats. Rosa Alice is taking me to her childhood home, now the Vic Aveiro Arts House, a five-storey, multi-purpose building: part guest accommodation, part artists’ residence, part art gallery, part performance space.
Hugo Branco, Rosa Alice’s sound-designer son, has been restoring and converting this mid-century building, which once belonged to his grandfather, Vasco Branco. “The idea is to keep the personality of the place,” he says as we walk through the guestrooms. Each has a theme – jazz, animation, film, alchemy – in tribute to his grandfather’s indefatigable creativity. Rosa Alice writes in her latest English-Portuguese collection of poems, Cattle of the Lord, that her father, a pharmacist by day and a filmmaker, sculptor, writer and painter by night, “always doubled and caressed his talents with feverish fingers and all his minutes.”
Poetry by Vasco Branco
Palavras Sem Voz
minha estrada fluida e breve
meu céu infinitamente azul
meu odor a sal e a algas ressequidas
sou todo sentidos
Words Without a Voice
my fleeting, flowing path
my sky of infinite blue
my smell of salt and drying kelp
I am nothing but my senses
From Palavras Sem Voz by Vasco Branco, 1985, translated into English by Alexis Levitin.
Hugo shows me the screening room, where his grandfather hosted viewings of forbidden films and held secret gatherings for the leaders of the resistance, hiding in plain sight with his awards from Cannes and epic art projects. Today, the space has been transformed into a 1970s-style rec room, with a projection booth, cinema seats and a minibar that sparkles with trophies. Hugo uses the space to promote international exchange, hosting events by the Democratic Women’s Movement of Northern Portugal and a Ukrainian vagabond indie-folk photographer. After each event listing that he posts, Hugo writes: “We await you with open arms, always.”
In Aveiro’s central square, I see one of Vasco’s installations, ceramic panels celebrating the workers of Aveiro: peixeiras, trigueiros, salineiras (fishmongers, wheat scythers, salt rakers) in bright glazes and sensuous shapes. I remark on his alchemical transformation from pharmacist to artist, and the Porto connection to workers and the earth. “Of course!” replies Rosa Alice. “Without this connection, what would we write about?”
Back in Porto, she whisks me off to her favourite café, Praia da Luz (Beach of Light) in the seafront neighbourhood of Foz, at the mouth of the River Douro. The ocean carves ancient dark stones into a cradle for seafoam, customers sunbathe on comfortable cushions, Rosa Alice sets up our mobile office and we write. As we sip on mineral water and more Portuguese espresso, the swoosh of the waves nurtures our words. Rosa Alice smiles into the soft, bright sun and refreshing sea air. “It’s just us,” she says, “and the universe.”