Sunday, 16 October 2016
Portugal: Poetry = Emotion, Motion
Before my week in Senegal (which you can read about here) I spent a week in Portugal, a country which was also new to me. I had friends to visit in a couple of different cities, so a few days in Lisbon were followed by a few days farther north in Coimbra.
Lisbon has an extremely dramatic setting on the Tagus estuary, amazing beaches and many different and fascinating areas, but it felt a little elusive. It was, as well, a city with the feeling of a chessboard or a game board. Of course I cannot explain this, but it may be some feeling left by the patterns of the huge mosaic world map in Belem, or the landmarks such as the castle above the city and the Belem tower, which seemed like iconic game pieces. It could also be some historic impression. One of my main discoveries was that the Portuguese, who I did know had explored widely, went absolutely everywhere in the age of exploration - and I do mean everywhere. When I arrived in Senegal I found that, of course, they had been among the first there from Europe, and the nearby Cape Verde was colonised by the Portuguese. You end up mentally consulting a world map a lot while in Portugal. It is pre-eminently a maritime nation, a small country which had an enormous impact on world history, and one with a very long coastline.
Poetry is an important part of Portuguese culture. When I was flying to Lisbon on TAP Portugal, I noticed that the in-flight magazine had more mentions of poetry and poets than I have probably ever seen before in an in-flight magazine (I watch out for these things). Everywhere in Lisbon I found traces of poetry, which so far have left me with more questions than answers.
Then there was Fernando Pessoa, who for many embodies Lisbon. This great writer of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century wrote under heteronyms, which were personas rather than pseudonyms: this adds to the impression of Lisbon as a many-faced or many-masked city. Pessoa has a couple of statues dedicated to him, quite close to each other, which in itself I found unusual. Yes, that is me in the photo with the first statue (doing my best poet-face), outside some of the cafes he frequented. The second and stranger statue is outside his birthplace.
Coimbra was my next stop in Portugal. This ultra-historic city has a famous university with an extraordinary library (populated by bats), a beautiful old town centre and nearby Roman ruins. I didn't have a lot of time to explore its poetry, but Luís de Camões, the sixteenth century poet who is considered Portugal's Shakespeare or Dante, may have been born in Coimbra and definitely attended the university.
And then there were the cork poetry bookmarks. Portugal is famous for its cork production and you can buy all sorts of things in this versatile material. Shopping for souvenirs in Coimbra, I found a cork box of chocolates which also detached into three literary bookmarks. Obviously this was a must-buy.
I had to look up Queiroz. As well as realist novels and short stories, this great 19th-century writer wrote prose poems and translated Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines into Portuguese.
Of course, there is another world of contemporary Portuguese poetry. I can always do some reading, and maybe I'll discover more of it on a future visit.