Friday, 16 May 2014

José Craveirinha was born a million times

José Craveirinha (1922-2003) was born in Lourenço Marques, a former name for Maputo before the independence. He was what we call a mulato, that is, the son of a white father and a black mother from the Ronga ethnicity. He worked as a journalist during the colonial period and was a member of the FRELIMO, the revolutionary movement, for which he was arrested and lived in solitary confinement between 1965 and 1969. His first poetry book, Xigubo, came out in 1964 and today he’s widely considered Mozambique’s greatest poet. A founding member of AEMO, or Mozambican Writers Association, he was also its first president between 1982 and 1987. In 1991 he was the third, and first African, recipient of the Camões Prize. This prize has only been awarded to four African writers since him: Pepetela, Arménio Vieira, Luandino Vieira and Mia Couto. A Portuguese-language proponent of Négritude, Craveirinha’s poetry came to light during the colonial era and is explicitly political, dealing with African identity, racism, imperialism and colonial history. Some of it in fact reminds me of the poetry of the great Langston Hughes. I have not read as much as I could by him. His popularity, although it may be resilient in Mozambique and throughout the former Portuguese colonies, has declined somewhat in Portugal and much of his oeuvre has long been out of print. In fact it was by chance that I happened upon his Obra Poética I, from which I’ve taken these poems:


I am coal!
And you pluck me brutally from the ground
And turn me into your mine

I am coal!
And you light me up, boss
To serve you eternally like a motor
But not eternally

I am coal!
And I have to burn, yes
And burn everything with the force of my combustion.

I am coal!
I have to burn in exploitation
Burn down to the ashes of damnation
Burn alive like tar, my brother
Till I’m not longer your mine

I am coal!
I have to burn
And burn everything with the fire of my combustion.

I’ll be your coal


I came from whatever part
Of a Nation that doesn’t yet exist.
I came and am here!

I wasn’t born only me
Nor you nor another…
But brother.

I have love to give by the handful.
Love of what I am
And no more.

I have in my heart
Screams that are not mine alone
Because I come from a Country that doesn’t yet exist.

Ah! I have lots of my Love to give
Of what I am.
Whatever man
Citizen from a Nation that doesn’t yet exist.


To Rui Baltazar

How many died in the hold?
Those who were there and us.


The ship was large
Was large but not enough.
The holds were huge
Were huge the holds but not enough.

The bunks were many
Were many the bunks but not enough
And the ship ran aground.

But the disciplined cargo fit
And when the Company’s large ship ran aground
The entire cargo of kaki bundles and golden buttons
Was renounced.

But do not despair, mothers
Don’t be sad, fathers and friends and brothers
Don’t wet with goodbye tears the white handkerchiefs
Idyllic brides and bereaved sisters.
The ship was insured
And not insured only the cargo lost
Over the salty erotic breasts of the sea.
Don’t be sad, brides
Don’t despair, old parents, friends and brothers
The Company’s losses were covered
The Company of the ship that for three days
Came out on newspapers’ first page
And then no longer.

Under the hatches
The cargo had no history
Nor anything new in the biographical record
Of the ship log.

They were sons and brothers
Black Chinese and mulatos
Grooms and football players
Almost all of them soldiers
With numbered photographs
Kaki coats and yellow buttons
Eyes without metaphysical questions
Mouths without dialectics
Rock and roll singers
All beautiful with absurd youth
And together sailed away almost human
Towards a brusque seashell destiny
Dressed in the same inclement
Purple of the munitions’ heat.


Who was it that screamed?
It was the cargo.
Who was it that burned?
It was the cargo.
Who was it that exploded?
It was the cargo.
Who was it that disappeared?
It was the cargo.

The cargo consumed the strength
The final strength of burning arms and legs
The final strength of glass eyes and burned hands
The final strength of flame-consumed screams
The final strength of suruma in the hiatuses of agony.

Oh, the cargo liberated all the forces in the hold
To the lazy sound of the waves and the palm tree breeze
With the hull biting the hard rocks
And to the unmarvellous rhythm of the uproar of the living on the deck
The merchandise broke its nails
Bled its hands in the mirage of the gangway
And gave up without seeing
The promised green landscape.


The men were in the bunks
The men were in the beds
The men were in the quarters
And the cargo that burned in the sea’s morning
Belonged to the bunks
Belonged to the beds
And belonged to the merchant who screamed in vain
In the horror of the burial of salt and burning irons
With the mothers and sisters
The fathers and brothers
The brides and friends
Travelling on the left side of the kaki overcoat
With scintillating buttons like night stars
Fatal route bloodied by the Indic.

They came in the bunks and beds
The passengers
Almost soldiers
Almost husbands
Almost grooms and almost men
And almost children in the living memory of childhood hunts
And together they huddled fraternally
In the excessively warm vertical walls
Of the tropical death zodiac.
And together they united final voices
In the ultimate understanding
And together they spat the same contempt of smoke and fire
And grinded their teeth in the same biological ludic
Joy extinguishing itself in a sexless love.

They came in bunks and in beds
And together asked peace
And together disembarked in the peer of absolute silence
With leather belts binding their kidneys
And with the eye haze of the old mothers
Of the old fathers and recent childhood friends
The eye haze in the pretty brides and brothers
In the infinite minutes of longing
In the enigmatic hour of the smoked arms and screams
With the pretty yellow buttons shining in the uniforms
Unique metallic flowers blossoming in the zenith of gunpowder
And exploded ammunition in the common grave of the holds.


They came in bunks
And the holds’ beds
The beautiful boys almost men
Who filled their old mothers’ eyes with haze
Who dug deeper their old fathers’ wrinkles
Of the old friends for twenty years now
And the brides and brothers
Mourning in the newspapers’ headlines
Faces in the typographically clear photogravures
Looking at us with the same obsessed eyes
Of dead adolescents
That won’t grow older.
It had no history now it does
The innocent cargo that burned in the entrails of the monster
Of the liquid vengeful forests of the sea.
White faces
Dark and brunette
Curly and smooth hair
Acquired on the same terrible day of the ship ran aground
The same mythological colour of poppies
And the exact integral dimension
Of the same sated death
In the cargo of brotherly soldiers
In the infernal hold of the burned ship.


If you saw me die
The million times I was born

If you saw me cry
The million times you laughed…

If you saw me scream
The million times I shut up…

If you saw me sing
The million times I died
And bled…

I tell you European brother
You’d be born
You’d cry
You’d sing
You’d scream

And you’d suffer
And bleed alive
A million times like ME!!!


The preconception of the bird
Is not the size of its wings
Nor the thicket it lands on

But the beauty of its singing
The wideness of its flight…
And the shot that killed her.


In the past
(Before Jesus Christ)
Men built stadiums and temples
And died in the arena like dogs.

They also build Cadillacs.

I always love a poet with a sense of humour.

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