The Poet and the City

December 25, 2012

Fez, Morocco, June 2013

Poet panelist interviewed at break in Forum

As part of the sacred music festival, a forum
is dedicated to “the Poet and the City,”
discussions by a panel of distinguished poets from many countries
on the poet’s responsibility to society,
the place of poetry within the world.

My poet sister, Riantee, and I enter the courtyard
and settle into folding chairs under a thin awning
that blocks most but not all of the heat.
Riantee translates from French, whispering into my ear
the gist of the phrases.

The relationship between poetry and politics,
the polity and the poesie, the polis and the poeia…

Some of the poets have prepared speeches
tying the subject of the forum to the theme of this year’s festival,
“Re-enchanting the World,” and its homage to the great Persian poet,
Omar Khayam.

Think of something vital, says one.
Then take a step back and think with marvel, with enchantment.
As an example, my life was a two-way street and around a corner
was a car coming straight at me. The marvel was to be alive afterward.

My second life was not just to say, but to do,
to confront the lie that had been my life before.
Entering all the religions,
encountering the fact that each one believes it has the truth
Le dieux or le dieux…
Enchantment is the consciousness of death,
it is the experiencing, the experience.
Poetry is essentially experimental.

Poetry should always be spoken and not read.
The poet is the shepherd of the word.
The spirituality of poetry, that’s its power,
to be a witness.

There is an ambiguity between poetry
and spirituality because the poet is in the pay
of the powerful of this world—the kings.
They censor, shut his mouth.

I taste salt
on my lips without being aware of sweating.

Many poets are banned from their own century,
from their country, especially here.
The freedom of expression of the poet
nowadays is controlled by the market and the economy.

Because of the crisis we are living now, we look at the past
at what the poets had to say in order to
discover what is breaking his voice. There are factors
that change the reality of the truth, influence
it in a certain direction that is no longer true.

An announcement from the moderator:
one of the poets who was going to speak is lost somewhere in the medina.
As soon as we have news, we will give it to you.
Laughter ripples through the audience.

This is my gift, says another, poetry is verbal, vocal,
a catching in the throat, a sign, a place in the shade,
a burning at the base of the spine. What other people
call wonder we find as we fall, a sense of the ground giving way
always, with each next step.

An audience member expresses amazement
to hear what he has been hearing, wonders if by enchantment,
the panel is suggesting that it is the poet’s job to justify
atrocities, in this world that has come to a place of no return.

We call on a more ancient world, still an enchanted world
and stumble into the urban world filled with torture and the films
in which Orwell asks, “What is the use of
art and literature in our time?”

Salvador Dali, in relation to the civil war in Spain, had only one arm
and his moral sense didn’t go any further than the elbow.
Orwell said abundantly that disenchantment
is part of the discourse of the poet.
He took that from Shakespeare.

Is it the poet’s responsibility to be merely a witness, then,
a reporter of horrors?
Stop looking at the world to find marvelous things;
if you look too long, eventually, you find amazement and horror.
After a while you begin to feel something called suicide,
you look and you feel murdered.

You have to genuinely be alive.
Poetry is stronger than these things.
In any conflict that involves oppression,
poets are one of the first voices censored
Poet as agitator, poet as reconcilor, poet as articulator.
Poet as thief, poet as romancer, necromancer.
Poetry delivers paradoxical feelings.

In Nigeria, the first person is the compassionate
and the last is the people. It is a daily poetry,
the voice of the multi-rhythm
is considered a poetry.

A young Nigerian produced the first movie in our country.
He suffered very well separated from his father.
He traveled with a poet in order to enchant his father and find his father.

There is the Gulf War and the cemetery cities;
they create indifference.
An accelerator of history is the Gulf War,
so many things happen,
improbabilities. The people in the countryside,
they are not even thinking about food. They are thinking
about water.


So Far

November 22, 2012


Wednesday, June 13, 2012
Fez, Morocco

What I’ve learned so far: that rinsing your clothes in fresh cool water and wringing them out and putting them on damp is lovely, and that placing my hand on the top of the door jamb as I am entering the little bathroom reminds me to duck so I don’t bang my forehead, and how to crawl up the stairs: each step being anywhere from ten to twelve to fourteen inches, randomly changing height due to some nuance of need at the time of construction. I use all four appendages, bare feet, bare hands, slap slap slap up the stairs in a hunkered position. When carrying something, it becomes a three-point operation (cup of coffee, basket of writings, clothes), making each move methodically because to slip and fall would have disastrous consequences, the least of which would be broken bones. “Sobriety check!” Maggie promptly declares.

And on each step, a pattern of tiles that imitates no notion in nature except the rhythm of the heart, a diamond becoming a square as it flies on to another tile that is winking its eye at the fountain’s splash of water from the beard of the moss and the saint who lies under the archway, whose heart is immured in the wall, invites and descends, welcomes and turns his back, delights and absconds.

Here I am trying to undo language and find that I am undone instead.

I transit between places known and unknown: the sky with my name written in it, the water in the gutter with its mysterious chemical transience, the doll that peeks out of a window with a glass eye shut.

I come here with burdens, with sorrows, with fears and with fingers, with a throat and an arched foot and a wristwatch. I come here with a fragile paper ticket, something made out of the pulp of endangered trees, and stand in the fragrance of the perfumerie knowing I will not be able to invent this. This is why I am here. Because I cannot invent this and because I dreamed this.

From the outdoor roof terrace is a steep ladder to a higher terrace that gives a view over the rooftops to the Middle Atlas mountains. To the north, I often see tiny robed figures moving among the ruined arches that lead to the tombs, just shy of the luxury hotel where alcohol is served at enormous price—and that alone after you pay the taxi driver and mark your way home in the medina with strips of paper embedded with signals identifying monuments that will look the same whether seen under moonlight or shadow of noon.

Already at eight in the morning the railing of the terrace steps is too hot to invite the touch of the hand and the cat that looks like a chihuahua hunkers on a nearby rooftop and waits for some signal like food or stone, wary. The tombs on the hill represent north. It begins to make sense—the roofline, the satellite dishes pointing mostly in the same direction, away from the minaret’s bold creation of the story of the universe. Each day and several times the muezzin calls out to remind you where the sun rises is to be holding the gold coin purse of the dawn. Each night and before bathing cross yourself to gently uncover your nightmares and make for them a bed in which you will lie down and comfort your twenty reasons until they twin themselves and unmask the eroded bones of your own story, the one you lost interest in long ago but which now you see everyone is pinning on you with eyes of marble and lemon and shoe.

Already at eight, the day.

The Hotel des Merindes turns out to be rundown, vainglorious, an anachronism, complete with defunct glass elevator with the shaft full of weeds and the glass cloudy with dust, shabby window dressings. We went up there by taxi one day and did not stay for the requisite drink on the terrace. There was a clever, if faded, map bolted to the balcony with silhouettes of the prominent architectural and land features, keyed so you could identify the mosques, the peaks. We left after wandering through the lobby a bit, and walked partway back down the mountain road, and eventually caught a taxi driven by a nearly toothless man who kept up a hilarious conversation in French with Riantee about his time in Lyon and how he lost his teeth, nearly a point of pride if all you could read was his body language.

I borrow a book from the library of our host, Fez: City of Islam (by Titus Burckhardt, translated from the German to English by William Stoddart, published by The Islamic Texts Society, Cambridge 1992), noting details in my journal so that I may find it again and again, as needed. I read of the birth of Sufism in Morocco, of the arrival of the Merinides to Fez, one of a series of rival conquerors, either Berber or Arab Bedouin, who are always sweeping, as in “they swept down out of the Atlas Mountains,” or, “They swept across the north of Africa.” One imagines great brooms swabbing the milky way. This story leads to the pluralism of Sufism, but even so there is a drive toward purity that can at times leave not much room for the respect of other beings.

The festival we are attending is in large part a result of the original tenets of Sufism—a cultural event created from a desire on the part of the festival founders to promote tolerance as an antidote within a violently intolerant time, to underscore and revivify differences, and accomplishing this through the agency of music, bringing master musicians from all different cultures, speaking myriad language, to Fez, site of a university older than any in Europe, the largest living Medieval city. I read that Sufism and its approach to the divine through ecstasy is mistrusted by fundamentalist Muslims, and some of its practices (singing and dancing oneself into ecstatic union with god) are taboo in parts of the Muslim world. This endears me to Fez, and the Moorish culture that flowered in Spain, the great respect shown toward scholarship and literature. I note for Maggie that the word for “lawyer” in Arabic also means “scholar.”


Cafe Clock

Little Cat Shit Alley

for Maggie and Riantee

Once I had a dream

and now it’s always beginning
all over again: it is either dawn or dusk; the stairs that lead to the roof terrace, the narrowing alley, the medina pulsing outwards and inwards. In the hazy distance—olive groves and tombs. Dust dust a reddened barrenness from which all living things erode, and once the moon has opened the sky: three women slip inside the breeze and relieve their feet of their shoes, their sweaty socks, their miseries, practicing a habitual sequence of thoughts strung on this necklace of dust.

After music, after the medina, after the legless beggar with his nobility and nonchalance, we slither up the stairs to the terrace, cradling bottles of wine and bowls of fruit under our arms like monkeys. Sit at the table and face each other: a trio, a triangular mirror. Beside us, marmalade the color of dawn and flat breads made from the same wheat as the rooftops of the old city. The watermelon on the plate of blue turns into a blood peach in the mouth and then becomes fragrance. We relive our lives until now, we embellish them with retelling, we sigh and we laugh and we gossip and close our eyes briefly in order to further enjoy this decadence of pleasure in each other’s company.

Below the alley to our lodging outlined in cat shit that caused us to lift our suitcases extra high the first morning and touch our hands to the cool plaster of the alley wall and lean towards our bones.

When I came into the bedroom, she said, you were sleeping on your back and your book was—here—and she made a small arc with her hand.
Within hand’s reach the moon over the caramel rooftops.
At the foot of the mountain a packet of sugar, sweet dusk livened by swallows. Brief pleasure, these lives of ours, the first taste of the evening peach stewed in mint tea.

Carmo: a theory of ruinas

September 8, 2012

Marble Hands, Evora

Lisbon, Portugal, 2006

Trembling lightly, I put out my hand for the railing of the Santa Justa lift as it takes me and the others up and up, the patterned metal cage of the elevator flicking at my eyes, giving me jerky visions of pharmacies and photo shops, then an entire line of roofs, then another, as we rise up through two street levels.

Christy, I say out loud, I’m up above the rooftops now. I’m behind the angels. Way over across the downtown district are the enormous winged creatures that face the Praca de Comercio. They stand majestically, with their backs toward me, gesturing with arms that seem from this distance to be almost my size, if a mouse could look from a rooftop and decide that people in the street below were finally her size.

I am going to the Convent of the Carmelite Nuns, the Convento do Carmo, and the lift ascends to where a metal passageway connects the commercial district with the twisted winding streets of the Chiado district. This passageway extends from the tower, hovering three stories over the street below. Stepping out of the elevator I see that the passageway is gated and locked, and I can only stare across at the arches that touch the sky to such tender blues against the white stone, arches that come to faint points, just like my longing.

Without the passageway, the elevator is a dead end, with a cheap restaurant at the top. I will have to descend and go around the long way. Paulo will be sorry I came without him. He’ll say that now he won’t get a chance to draw in the ruins. But I’ll tell him I could go to the Carmo every day, because every time I see it I experience new forms of happiness, and curiosities, new confirmations that the universe is unfinished, a ruina, a place where pigeons dart through the gracious stone windows from the street and come out into the sky.

From the main platform I ascend a narrow spiral staircase of metal, which comes out one level above, where the workings of the elevator are housed: the counter weights.

I try my best not to look directly at the machinery as even a glance causes all of my bones to become fluid, quivering with vertigo. Up another level of staircase, and the dizziness increases, and I am at the restaurant on the roof of the world, serving hot dogs and coca cola, at eye level with the Carmo’s buttresses. I can look right across at the top floor of the restored Chiado buildings, destroyed in fire a few years ago.

It looks like the top floors have been converted into beautiful flats, unfortunately expensive, from what used to be decrepit rehearsal spaces for theater and dance. I take the elevator down again and map out the shortest route to Carmo: up the main street, closed to cars, that connects the commercial district with the Chiado, and the first right. As I trudge, I come to a square where I recognize the fountain and the massive wooden doors of the Carmo. A small brass plaque explains that the church and museum are closed, for “obras.”

Wall Detail, Obidos

Works. Repairs. Obras. Moments of heaven. Next door to the church, a police station. A uniformed officer with a rifle stands at attention in front. The square has two cafes and 490 pigeons. I sit on the steps of the fountain for a moment. Of course. It wouldn’t be possible, would it? Simply to walk in, to enter, to be devastated by the sky framed in walls that rise up three stories. It’s always the journey, never the end, never the magpie, always crust. My camera eases some of my disappointment and I am hungry. I am simple.

I take pen and knife off to the Brasileira Café, even though they don’t make their own pastries and what they have brought in isn’t fresh. But they serve outside on the cobbled square and from my metal table I have a full view of the bronze statue of the poet Fernando Pessoa. He is seated at a café table looking languid and thoughtful, and there is an empty bronzed chair beside him. Periodically people take each others’ pictures sitting next to him.

I sit and pay the only kind of homage I know how, with pen and journal, though it is weak, and I feel a distinct lack of poetry in my bones the last few days more often than any true spark of inspiration. Or, I feel so much that falls apart under the impact of words and I end up saying something else and that something else becomes important to others, and I am left feeling that I’ve spoken for no one, because I have not spoken for myself. However, I am angular and persistent and greedy, and I will make poetry simply by being in the world without credentials.

Once this is decided, of course, a young woman approaches the café with her mother, immaculately dressed, with a few daubs of simple, but bright makeup on. I notice her because she is wearing shoes similar to the ones I bought last week, black with square heels and square toes, and because her mouth is so pink and her cheeks rouged vibrantly. She carries a musical instrument case and I suspect she has just come from a recital and her mother is going to buy her a treat.

Her mother is also dressed very correctly in black, with new glossy jewelry and simple straightforward but forceful eye shadow and lipstick, a shade more sophisticated than her daughter. They begin to set their things down on a table. The girl abruptly puts down her coat, and walks across the square carrying her violin case. She sets it down at the feet of the statue of the poet Chiado and opens it, taking out a concert violin.

It is such a satisfying incongruity to see this creature that just walked off the hallowed floor of some private conservatory trilling out concertos to the public square. A man comes up to her, at first shyly, to listen, then becoming more aggressive, stumbling up until he is standing not more than a foot away from her. Is he drunk? A vagrant? Her mother intercedes, touching the man on the shoulder, trying to shame him into leaving. The girl plays on, smiling calmly. Over the course of the next ten minutes two different men come up and persuade the man to back off and let her play, but he only weaves away for a minute or so and returns.

No crowd needs to gather because a crowd is always gathered in the Largo de Chiado. Mom sits, elegant and stylish on a nearby chair, drinking beer out of a can. By now she has played half a dozen classical pieces, my little Carmo, my monument to the unfinished world, tearing and ripping sweet notes off of the violin and scattering them over the wandering groups of shoppers, business people, bohemians, gypsies, and students.

Other young people stop, carrying musical instrument cases themselves. They stand with soft, open eyes and slack lips, watching her movements, passing comments among themselves. People begin to clap now after each piece is finished, and to bring coins up and drop them into her case. The tramp hovers, reluctant and eager, perhaps called to dance in some dim corner of his alcoholic thought, perhaps even aware of the hostility which causes his eagerness to become a travesty of enjoyment, an assault on the white female in front of him playing music written in anglo countries, for anglo centuries.

Finally the curtain of onlookers shields me from her figure and I can only hear her strings, the hand that sails over the bow, giving it old notations in an afternoon of new and passing life.

How do we live, and where do we go when we die? Does our discernment give us any greater pleasure in the afterlife, or is it just one more thing to shed, one more arrogance on the descent to blandness.

Or is death bland—quiet wriggling of worms and flesh tattering. Is there nothing we can take or construct that would make its way over the chasm?

An old man stops to let me know that this girl playing music isn’t even Portuguese. She’s English. Why should so many people take an interest in her? She has sat down now. I see a red sore under her chin from holding the violin so violently against her life.

Forty million people in the world speak Portuguese, explains the man, more than Spanish. Spanish and Portuguese aren’t the same. Americans are stupid. They have no culture. They think Spanish and Portuguese are the same language.

Roman Mosaic of Neptune at Conimbriga

One all sides, language stumbles against itself and breathes. Feet clack over the stones laid out in patterns that we saw at the Roman villa of Conimbriga near Coimbra. Mosaics of little stones. All the eyes of the crowd on this young woman who may be English, but she has bitten off her soul and chewed it in Portugal. So many jackets, so many legs. The statue there, says the old man, that’s Fernando Pessoa, a great writer. Portuguese. I nod. He continues. But he was a communist! So what, I say. That is a small thing. He is a writer, a fantastic writer.

And pink people go by and green people, and their shoes are made of mud and here comes a neurasthenic and there goes a worldly woman, and a gypsy with morning sickness.

Now that she has stopped playing, the young woman sits with her eyes unfocused, impatient with a long-haired artist who has invited himself to her table, seated himself at her altar, speaking eagerly to her. Who is it, I wonder, who sits beneath the statue of the poet Chiado without consequences? Which of us is carrying our stomach about the square after lunch, and which our shopping. Which of these people will remember this day as the moment we endeared ourselves to heaven? Beggars come by the table, some with real afflictions and some with feigned. I only listen to the old man. He’s just a crank, and an ornithologist. He flutters his words like the 900 pigeons that cover the statue of the Marquis de Pombal.

I pay my bill and stand.

Copyright ©2006  Theresa Whitehill, All Rights Reserved

Cell Phone of Longing

September 8, 2012

Portuguese Arches - Evora

For Mary, 1997


I was traveling in Portugal with my husband, Paulo, to research and write an article about Portuguese fado, when I received the phone call from Heather at Appellation Magazine telling us of our editor Mary Chesterfield’s death in a car accident. Afterward, we went out and wandered through the streets of Lisbon, stricken. It was after midnight, which in September can be a very pretty time of night, when the air is still soft and the aqueduct is illuminated like a second moon. Moving through crowds of people on the cobbled streets, we passed a church with statues I have always admired. It’s not one of the notable or famous churches, just a neighborhood place, but that’s how things are here: on nearly every street corner, and down each alley, there is a piece of something, some part of a whole, which speaks.

I looked at the statues hard, as if they had answers. As hard as I looked, they remained graceful and certain, full of yearning and devotion. How is it, I thought, that we make these things which endure, and then we die? It’s so often said that this is the reason we make them, so that something of ourselves will endure after us, but it seems tonight to be so backward, so unreasonable, a kind of dyslexia of the soul.

I am in Lisbon because of Mary, because she saw something in my work and gave me a chance to carry it a little further. I was thinking about this and about the fado. Here, I’ve found a form of music that takes all those confusions, these ironies of life, and makes of them a series of notes and a faltering of the voice that is so expressive, it turns the eyes into fountains.

There’s this great moment that often comes towards the end of a fado. The fadista pauses. The musicians, who have been working with and against her heartbeat—she stands literally between them with a hand on either shoulder—pause, and out of this silence comes a great wail of sound that sets up a sympathetic vibration in the strings of the instruments and can be heard at the farthest corners of the bar.

I sit stunned, understanding that my bones have set up a sympathetic vibration, just as Mary’s life will—now, and into the future—have repercussions that will not leave us lonely. I dedicate this confection of 24 hours in Lisbon to Mary, with apologies to the compression of time and inclusion of the 1994 fado sessions in the counting room inside the aqueduct, the year that Lisbon was Cultural Capital of Europe.

Chapel of the Bones - Evora

CELL PHONE OF LONGING: Twenty-four Hours in Lisbon (1997)

Day begins in a Lisbon cafe at the moment a cellular phone in the hand of a Portuguese child startles me awake. I am awake to history and to longing, intertwined in the scrolls of steam from a bika of Portuguese espresso.

I have slept just enough to pay homage to the god of dreams, but not so much that the pastries have lost their internal heat. Ordering coffee, I look around and see cell phones everywhere: being used in line while waiting to pay the cashier, tossed in the air, against an ear here or a mouth there, the mouth laughing.

The day opens in front of me, and I can think of no more pleasant duty than to be in Lisbon with the man I love, and to give myself to this city, and allow Lisbon to give back in stone, olive, and guitarra.

Olisipo, this city was called in 60 BC, when it became the western capital of the Roman Empire. Lisboa, city that parades at the edge of the sea… a sea that distorted the very shape of history with its swells. The ocean was forever drawing away sailors, bringing back gold, fishermen—rhythmically—the stiff, dried codfish newly arrived from Iceland hanging in bakery windows. Under foot are the pedrinhas calcado—the little dressed stones—which tick tack beneath high heel shoes, and are said to give way to weeping at the slightest exhibition of sentiment—the merest tenderness of pastry, or phrase of song.

Lisbon is home to hundreds of chapels where candles are lit, begging the Virgin for safe passage for its sailors. It is home to houses of fado music, where laments are sung to absent or drowned lovers, children running from the dictatorship, fathers gone far away in search of work. This element of absence and distance is a particular component of the Portuguese saudades that makes up the yearning of a fado composition.

I rip at the flesh of my croissant and it comes away with a damp and fragrant crackling—whorls of flaky cirrus clouds that melt against the tongue. My espresso arrives: uma bika. I sort change in my pocket, look out at a passing bus advertisement for a television show on the life of Fernando Pessoa, national poet. I mark how far the sun has fissured the sidewalk with shadows.

A survey of the cafe reveals shining glass counters and display cases set with multitudes of pastries, glistening in their sugar and egg glazes. There are dozens of rows of golden flames, some with tongues of cream sticking out, others with bits of smoked ham emerging, still others covered with almonds or powdered sugar. The sheer variety dazzles, even in the humblest pastelaria: custards and glossy buns with currants sailing over the tops of tiny muffined peaks, the tell-tale orange glow from egg yolks dark as country mustard.

Once ordered, the delicate creations are plucked onto a plate and slung across the counter. The pace is brisk, the attendants professional, singing out their orders to the operator of the espresso machine.

Portuguese convents are credited with developing this artistry with flour, butter (oftentimes lard), sugar, and eggs. This legacy is echoed in names of some of the more unusual or decadent pastries: Nuns’ Bellies, Bacon from Heaven, Angels’ Breasts, Abbots’ Ears.

The coming heat of the day is already prickling in the armpits as we walk past the Cafe Brasilera, and go to find a book of Fernando Pessoa at Libraria Bertrand—publisher and bookstore in the Chiado district—one of my favorite places to browse literature, art, and history in bilingual editions.

Soon I have Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet tucked under my arm, and I walk to the beat of his descriptive details of everyday happenings, pondering the fact that he calls these incidents of daily Lisbon life formless. I envy his insomnia. I try the music of his language on my tongue. Insomnia would be an asset in this city, where the small hours of the night are equally as fragrant as the late morning.

His words make clear to me why there are alleys criss-crossed by cats, and bolts of freshly baked rustic bread dipped in “green” wine. No matter where I go in Lisbon, his articulate laments trail after me, correcting my metabolism, taking hasty conclusions and rhyming them with unfinished business, turning over each brittle perfection to show its more colorful side.

We descend from the Chiado district on little streets to the Baixa, and shop for a skirt in that mustard color of the Portuguese Rope Factory, followed by shoes of supple Portuguese leather, and consider linen jackets in impossible shades of pistachio and faded periwinkle.

Then we make our way, back up the twisted streets—streets that survived a fatal eighteenth century earthquake an order of magnitude higher than the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. We order lunch at Cervejaria da Trindade, a restaurant that first opened its doors in 1836 in a former (thirteenth century) monastery. Under the vaulted roof of the main room we sit surrounded by towering human figures representing Earth, Water, Fire, and Wind, painted in the classic yellow and blue on panels of azulejos, tiles heavily cracked and fragmented from earthquakes over the centuries.

The first time I ate Açorda de Marisco here, I became a devoted patron of this place frequented by foreign visitors, locals, young people, lone poets. The dish—a shellfish stew based in bread and garlic broth—is served in a bowl that can be shared by two, and with Vinho Verde, the light, sparkly wine of the north, the early afternoon passes.

Poppies, ruined wall

Leaving the central area of the city behind for a park, the Jardim de Estrela, we find the rejuvenating quiet and absolute stillness of heat, and sit ourselves down in a secluded grotto to swoon a bit—those brief lapses of consciousness during which a whole hour can pass. If we are lucky, we might see an aranhão, a spider—one of those eight-limbed human creatures with two heads and two sets of arms and legs, each twined round the other—which inhabit discrete corners of public parks, often near fountains, reminding my companion that there is no place in most crowded family apartments in Lisbon to snuggle with your sweetheart.

Jardim de Estrela is the park where children are fed ice cream and told stories, like the one of the queen, Dona Isabel, who spent much of her time providing food to the poor. The king, Dom Dinis, found her love of the people distasteful and forbade her to go out on the street. She, being sweet-natured, continued in her bad habits. One day, when she was out, distributing bread which she held concealed in her skirts, the king rode up on his horse, furious. “Madam,” he said, “what do you have there?” “Flowers, my Lord,” she replied. He demanded that she show him, and when she opened her skirts, out fell a cascade of white blossoms.

Or you hear the story told in an old song, “Fado do Embuçado,” Fado of the Hooded Figure, which tells of a time when a fadista came to the taverna each night and sang, always concealing his face under a hood. Finally, one night, a member of the audience demanded that the singer reveal his identity. After he had sung, and charmed everyone, and left tears standing in many eyes, he lifted his hood, and it was the king himself.

At the moment the street lights come on, we find ourselves in Cascais, west from Lisbon along the Tejo River, where it opens up into the Atlantic Ocean, sitting on the terrace of the Hotel Baia, watching twilight steal the colors of the fishermen’s boats and throw them up into the clouds. Boats and yachts at anchor swing and point upriver. Crowds of people mingle and promenade. Waiters whirl over the marble terrace with their trays tilted at that slight angle that assures us the sky will now finish drinking the light.

A public address system floats the sound check of a band setting up to play an evening open air concert. A hesitant and colorless drum solo is pursued by the wavery notes of a saxophone, and then I sit up, startled, as a singer rises through his octaves and pushes back the night. In that brief ascension and crackle of microphone, I hear the Renaissance: whole tones, tangling in mirrors. The bathers, the waiters, the strolling families… everyone in the vicinity behaves as if this were ordinary, merely a local band doing old songs from the villages.

“Green,” he sings, “large moon, and the large guitars.” His voice rings out over the PA system and the heart stops, full of centuries of dust and rivers of gold.

Just as we resolve to stay and hear the concert, down comes an unexpected rain, in fat slow drops that become more rapid until laughter rings out over the terrace and dozens of people scoop up bags, periodicals, writing tools. That little phrase of notes becomes a permanent tease, an unfinished concert that infects me with uncertainty. I will never find out how happy I might have been, or who the singer was. Or what would have happened to my life afterward. Fate.

Conimbriga Mosaics, Roman-era

As we head into the night, driving past old boulevards that lead to the river, we pass the Praça do Commercio, then suddenly left, diving into the Alfama. The streets immediately narrow, the buildings close in.
The Alfama district keeps its link to the Moorish inhabitants who were here before the Portuguese. Close to the harbor, sailors have always lived here… centuries of sailors longing for the sea, and women longing for their sailors.

The center of the night is spent at small tables listening to the passionate voices of the fadistas, in streets that have never been counted by census. And who’s to say whether or not, during the long hours, a plate of pretty little white beans didn’t arrive at our table, doused with olive oil, or a chorizo, splashed with bagaço, grape aguardente, and lit on fire? Or a bacalhau, poached gently in cream—leaching out all that saltiness—while the conversation hovers over the end of the dictatorship in 1974, or the curious Auto Palace on the Rua Alexandre Herculano, designed by Eiffel himself during a lost weekend from his native France.

The bottles in front of us change color, from the moody red of the Alentejo region to a transparent green that, when tipped, filled us with wine the color of summer grasses, the labels a chant of historical names: Cadaval, Catarina, Fernão Pires, Trincadeira Preta; the presunto covered with a proper linen napkin on a corner table; all very correct.

From the Alfama we wander to the Bairro Alto district and further on to Lapa, ending up in a room inside the aqueduct itself, where amphora rest in niches lit by blue neon. I am told this is the old counting room, where medieval Lisboans were summoned to pay their taxes, with the encouragement of chains and maces. In the venerable stone room, women dressed in medieval costumes carry plates of flaming chorizo above their heads as they make their way along the rows of linen-covered tables. Fadistas and their musicians and friends come here after their performances elsewhere to gossip, eat, smoke, and only if they feel like it, sing. Faces come and go; small dramas unfold in in all directions. There is much bantering; stories are referenced that speed up the precious remaining hour of the night, and slow down the pulse.

Before we realize it, the night is over. Taxis are called. We step out into the dawn, and pass through a quiet city, the streets just starting to come awake, and park next to the Tejo River. Trucks and cars are double parked. A steady flux of people are preparing for the morning market.

Evening ends at the waterfront at dawn, with slow sips of Longshoreman’s coffee and their dense pastry like communion wafers; the sky arching away from night, lifting the top of the head off, as the body starts to come down from the baptism of the night’s voices. We stand at the counter with our feet in the sawdust, and suckle on the little bikas. My mind begins to blink. All around us is the bustle of the grand marketplace, a palace of produce, fish, and pigs’ trotters; flowers from all over Portugal and the world; stalls of hams, cheeses, and fruits arrayed in pyramids.

Perhaps somewhere in Pessoa’s notes there is a passage that explains why our hearts falter at old stone and old sorrows, why we are always making them new again. Until then, I will have to return to this corner of the world and reset my Portuguese clock of twenty-four hours, which ends with a cell phone in the hand of a pedestrian crossing the trolley tracks at dawn in front of the Mercado.

Copyright © 1997 Theresa Whitehill, All Rights Reserved
Originally commissioned by Mary Chesterfield, editor-in-chief, Appellation Magazine, as a feature article for an issue devoted to Portugal; the issue never came to publication