Monday, 26 May 2014

Corsino Fortes sings the people of Cape Verde

Corsino Fortes (b. 1933) was born in São Vicente and is a Cape Verdean poet and politician. He finished his Law degree at the University of Lisbon in 1966 and has served his country as ambassador to Portugal and in other governmental functions. His poet oeuvre, from what I’ve managed to discover, boils down to a trilogy called A Cabeça Calva de Deus, composed of Pão & Fonema (1974), Árvore & Tambor (1986) and Pedras de Sol & Substância (2001). The trilogy, as far as I can understand it, is a nationalistic epic: it’s the odyssey of Cape Verde’s people, a look at its history, a defence of its language (part of it is written in Creole, a revolutionary decision at the time), an attempt at explaining what Cape Verdean identity is, and a lament for the tragedy of emigration in a small nation that is devoid of resources and hope. Of the three Cape Verdean poets I discovered, Corsino Fortes was my least favourite. João Vário is grave transcendental, and Arménio Vieira, the subject of a future post, is irreverent and comical. But Fortes doesn’t have a particular feature that endeared him to me. I read it thinking I was missing something, a key to unlock it. Most of it just went over my head and seems written, well, for Cape Verdeans, who can certainly understand the esoteric references, impenetrable to an outsider like me. At this point I think it’s permissible to argue that there are two poetic lines in Africa: one that looks inward, concerned with national topics; and another that looks outward, cosmopolitan in outlook. Conceição Lima, José Craveirinha and Corsino Fortes belong to the former; João Vário, Mia Couto and the forthcoming Arménio Vieira, to the latter. I confess that I prefer and understand the cosmopolitans more, because they’re more accessible, universal if you will. Fortunately, almost 300 pages of poetry eventually yielded a few poems I genuinely enjoyed, culled from the larger odes and cantos that form the trilogy (these Cape Verdean poets seem to have a tasting for the long form), show that Fortes, although not to my liking, does have considerable poetic talent:


Poet! the whole poem:
            Blood geometry & phoneme
Listen Listen

A top spins
            Fruit trees
                        At mid-day

And drums
                  On the hill

A heart of scattered dirt

And f far
From the surge to the cold viola
            I recognize the bemolle
Of the domestic hand
                        That sings

Sea & monsoon sea and & marriage
Bread stone foot of earth
            Bread & patrimony


Before morning
                        She went
From bay to bay
            In the uterus of things
            The uterine voice of ships

On the island
My mother is a naked island
Around December tearing
            Her calico winter


My lungs dry
            In them
                        The forest’s wood is born
From sun to sun
                        My bones are green
                        Your bones are plants
Like bread-fruit the drum and the ground

From sun to sun
            I shouted for Rimbaud or Mayakovsky
                        Leave me alone


When the island is priest
                        And the sea cathedral
And sunset!      Prayer
            That rises
In the sea         And its fish school
The hook approaches service
Like the palate
                        Between the wafer and communion

And the bow says to the seventh wave

Between the fish and the fisherman
There is no better bait
                        Than the beating heart


Your son’s face screams over the sea
Like dead pots like living pots

                                        In the faint oven

Silent mortars faint ovens
In the volcano and in the viola of your heart

The people’s mouth in the fire of our faint ovens

People’s ground stone ground!
The sun boils the sun in your blood
And boils the blood in my breast
Like the fire and the stone in the Fire volcano

From sun to sun
                        You opened your mouth


Every evening sunset bends
Your thumb over the island
And from sunset to thumb
            A progress of dead stone
Which the Peninsula
            Still drinks
From the cup of colony
All the blood from your pilgrim body

But when your voice
            Is wave on the beach’s violin
And the face’s earth And the earth’s face
            Stretches the palm of its hand
From the island’s sea rim
            Of bread & bread made
You’ll add your final hunger
            To your first hunger

From on high will come
            Thus the grass thus mercury
Will pull the crosses from your body


That the land is flesh!
                        Now and forever
Already the child speak of it to us
                        Devouring it
            The earth of scars
            The earth that heals
                        And not always
The dust Which blood irrigates
Or earth woven
                        Into the compass
But the earth!
            A batter mix of earth
                        Which blood drinks
And the child says
            “in the wound: saliva and red earth”
And never
            Earth brought
                        On the shoe
But the mould of earth
            Which a bellybutton devours

Archipelago Books, by the way, is releasing the Selected Poems of Corsino Fortes this Fall, so you can find out for yourselves if this poet is for you. 


  1. Fortes has some visual resemblance - oddly, also some thematic resemblance - to the A. R. Ammons poems I have been reading.

    I don't know if I will write about Ammons or not. One thing dissuading me is that reproducing the arrangement of the lines would be such a pain!

    1. I hadn't even heard of Ammons before, so that'd be a good reason for you to write about him.

      The arrangement of lines... yes, I liked that part about Fortes; I'm fascinated by the way the arrangement, the gaps and the words may work together to force us to change the way we read them.