On October 28, 2001 Pedro da Silveira was honored by the Casa dos Açores of New England at Stoughton, Massachusetts. The occasion provided me with the opportunity to set down some thoughts regarding this extraordinary individual. What follows is a lightly revised version of my remarks on that occasion. Ordering my thoughts about Pedro da Silveira, legendary scholar of prodigious memory, every-day ironist of the first water, author of some of the most engaging poetry of our day, and good friend to many of us – trying to bring those thoughts to book (as Robert Frost would say) – I had come to mind, in one of those entirely unexpected moments, a startling idea expressed by a famous New Englander. One and a half centuries ago the Concord native Henry David Thoreau ventured the thought that if once, if just once, we were able to see out of another person’s eyes, we would understand everything. Whether or not this is so has not yet been verified. It remains a notion and not a theory or a hypothesis because it cannot be tested, let alone verified. What it leads me toward, however, is an understanding of what it is that the good and great poets have always attempted to do. For what is poetry, I would submit to you, but the result of a gifted individual’s attempt to permit us, for a moment or an hour, to see things through his or her eyes. It might not be the same as seeing the world through another’s eyes, but it might well be the closest that we can come. Pedro da Silveira knows this. Consider Sinais de Oeste (1962), a wondrous second book of poems. It was reviewed in Books Abroad, perhaps Pedro da Silveira’s only English-language review in the United States (see Appendix). Sinais de Oeste is full of surprises and wonders. The poet prefaces a cluster of poems collected under the title of “Pouco Mais Que Paisagem” with an epigraph from José de Bellegarde (O Vigia de Baleias) that reads simply, but emphatically: “Minha vida é olhar, olhar!…” And so it has been with Pedro da Silveira, ever alert to what is beyond his sight not less than to what moves or sits before him. Prizing above all exact and unimpeachable knowledge, he is a (William) Blake-like scholar and poet, honoring us by his dedication to all things in their particulars. It is only natural to assume that there are things that escape his tyrannical eye, but there seems to be no point in trying to name them.
Robert Frost called Henry David Thoreau the most “noticing” person who has ever lived. By that he meant that Thoreau noticed the most things. Notably, Frost was himself quite an accomplished “note-taker” of things and people. Not willing to question Frost’s attribution of the crown for “noticing” to his New England predecessor, however, I will say only that Frost never met, in word or in the flesh – and it’s a pity that he didn’t – the Portuguese poet Pedro da Silveira. From A Ilha e o Mundo, published in 1952, a first collection of poems that, half a century later, are as fresh and original as the feel and taste of steel, to the ambivalently titled Poemas Ausentes, published barely two years ago, the poet has stuck to his convictions. He has trusted his senses, above all, his ability to see, if not the Truth, at least the truth of things as they are, to lead him to write plainly and directly. For “plain and direct” are the best words I know to describe Pedro da Silveira’s literary style. They are also, in my vocabulary, honorific terms when applied to personal character no less than to literary style.
The poet Pedro da Silveira comes after the Adam of Genesis. He is not the namer of beasts and flowers and places. He is the discoverer, the verifier, and the conservator of names. He will know the regional name no less than the more generally used name of a farming implement or an uncommon fruit. I’m reminded of an incident, some years ago, at a conference on the island of Terceira. In my talk, based on letters written and a diary kept by an American wintering on the island of Fayal during the mid-1850s, I quoted a sentence in which he referred to the “cherimoya.” It was obviously some sort of fruit but I could find no equivalent English term. I asked Pedro da Silveira about it, and he ran through some possibilities for identifying it. But he could not please himself with what he could then recall. Of course he took it as a challenge. It wasn’t much later that I received a letter from him announcing that he had nailed it down. Of course he had. Did anyone ever think he would not? (Let me speak parenthetically now. Just last month, a feature story in the food supplement of the Hartford Courant, my local newspaper, announced in bold headlines, that food stores in the area were now featuring all sorts of [to Americans at least] exotic vegetables and fruits, including the hitherto elusive and mysterious “cherimoya.”).
Pedro da Silveira’s poetry is studded with names of persons, places, things. He sees magic and truth in the names of ships – the Kennard, the Bidarte, the África, the Sarah, the Fredónia, the Verónica, the Dona Maria, and the Good Hope – this last ship, the Good Hope, being under the command of the poet’s cousin, Capitão Francisco Augusto when it went down, taking the Captain with it, while attempting to cross the treacherous seas at Cape Horn. He names places he has seen. He names places before he has seen them, such mysterious and magical and quasi-legendary names that stand out in island and family history. He dedicates the section of poems titled «Os Caminhos do Mundo» in A Ilha e o Mundo to the memory of “José Laureano da Silveira (1826-1901) and António José de Mendonça (1838-1911), pioneiros da Gold Rush,” grandfathers both. Memories of the California Gold Rush and the once-in-a-lifetime experiences of the so-called “forty-niners”, transmitted, undoubtedly, by those who received them from those who were there in the flesh, seem to have fed Pedro da Silveira’s spirit and surged into his imagination from the start. In the unnamed, generalized “pioneer” he salutes in the poem «Êxodo», he names the names of California: Yerba Buena (the place we now know as San Francisco), San Diego, Eureka, Red Bluff, Monterey, Fresno, the San Joaquin valley, the Nevadas, Sonora, Bakersfield, Oakland – all places touched by the Azorean forty-niners or their descendants. It is the genius of what is, perhaps, Pedro da Silveira’s best known poem, «Ilha», a poem of yearning, illusion, ache, and hope.
O céu fechado, uma ganhoa
pairando. Mar. E um barco na distância:
olhos de fome a adivinhar-lhe à proa
Califónias perdidas de abundância.
The greatest poet of the Elizabethan Age William Shakespeare once created a character who asked rhetorically: “What’s in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” I would venture that Pedro da Silveira would not entirely agree. Consider the poem «Soneto de Identidade», placed second in Poemas Ausentes, which presents an analysis, by way of his own name, of what he takes his character to be.
Chamo-me Pedro, sou Silveira e sou
também Mendonça: um tanto duro, como
Pedro é pedra; picante agudo assomo
de silva dos silvedos-não me dou!
Raiz flamenga, já se sabe; e um gomo,
no fruto, castelhano. E assim bem pouco,
pois, que doce me passara à outra
pátria (ou língua?) que me coube e tomo.
Ainda Henriques (alemão? polaco?)
e outros cognomes mais: espelho opaco
de errâncias várias, que mal sei. (Desfaço,
talvez por isso, no que faço.) Ilhéu
da casca até ao cerne – e lá vou eu,
sem ambição maior que o livre Espaço.
After such an act of self-presentation and self-knowledge (to adapt a phrase from English poet T. S. Eliot), no forgiveness is needed or appropriate. If Pedro da Silveira is a poet of youthful longing, the emotions of dreaming and the discovery of illusions – all checked by the things and truth of reality – he is now the poet, too, of loss, diminution, and, par excellence, of aging – this latter a theme much larger than that of death alone. Life shrinks, age mounts up, the salt is always about to lose its savor. Having been “absent” for much of his life from his island, his islands, his home – though never failing to live out, over the decades, his routine of seasonal recurrence – return and departure, return and departure – he now returns to Flores for the last time. This voyager, explorer, who concluded a poem titled «Arte Poética», from Sinais do Oeste, with these rousing lines:
Fiquem os restelos para os secos e pecos
que tiveram medo da navegação.
A mim, o Mar!
– this traveler, feeling old, returns to his island of Flores, to the house that is still legally his. Like the tongue that licks the tooth that aches, he returns once again, yearning for recognition. «Último Regresso» is one of the poems that result from this visit. The poet calls it an elegy. It has the earmarks of the quintessential Pedro da Silveira poem – the named trees, the singled out things of the house.
Com os seus malvões, a amoreira, a magnólia,
– estas duas talvez da minha idade –
o pátio à frente imitava
uma varanda corrida sobre o mar, a oeste.
Subo o caixilho da janela e fico a olhar
para isto que tanta vez eu vi mas hoje sinto
alheio, ou, quem sabe?, inimigo.
Os retratos ainda estão, como estavam,
entre ouros de moldura nas paredes;
e a cadeira-de-embalar (com um braço partido)
dorme entre sombras no canto onde a deixaram.
Volto-me outra vez para a janela aberta.
Liso, calado, azul nítido, o mar
é, sem mais nada, mar até ao último fim.
Um instante parado
entre os craveiros que resistem no quintal,
um gato espreita-me,
estrangeiro que lhe sou em minha casa.
Written in the late 1980s, this poem – «Último Regresso» – maneuvers dangerously, for the most part, in the waters of self-pity. But the situation is redeemed (and that is the reason for the poem’s being) by the appearance of the spying cat on alert, which offers the speaker of the poem the insight that matters: despite the familiarity of everything in his house, he must now recognize that he is a stranger in his own house. The “insider” has become the “outsider.” The question of who has the better claim does not go unanswered. Even Ulysses, back from the war and at the end of his long travels, found an old family nurse who identified him by recognizing an old scar.
In his maturity, T. S. Eliot – already mentioned – wrote: “old men should be explorers.” There is no need to preach that sermon to Pedro da Silveira, who, after all, has crossed the Rio Atlântico to be with us here, this afternoon, in L(USA)lândia. What the English poet did not say is that the man ages, yes, but the explorer never grows old. His motto might well be, in the words of another poet, “Tudo vale a pena / Se a alma não é pequena.” And that, of course, is Pedro da Silveira’s secret – behind the searing irony, the crusty gruffness, the angry refusal to engage in polite manners or the hollow speech of mere civility, the sometimes overbearing insistence on obedience, though not obeisance, to fact and reality as he sees it – behind all that is a large and capacious spirit. He won’t like my saying this, perhaps, but there it is – I’ve said it.
To evidence that his is an engaged and engaging spirit, let me conclude with another poem from Poemas Ausentes. Dating, I would guess, from the 1990s, this sly, lively, mischievous poem, called «Acabado, Mas Não Tanto», is in tone and substance as ancient as the Greeks, and as modern as tomorrow’s still unknown poet. Even the slings and arrows of life’s experiences, culminating in nature’s insults to the human body, cannot eclipse, finally, this poet’s love for the things of this world. See if you don’t agree.
Agora restam-me só dois dentes
e a vista já não é o que antes era;
às vezes sofro de azias e náuseas
e vêm dias, como hoje, em que nem reparo
nas mulheres em flor que passam a meu lado.
É Fevereiro ainda, mas o tempo
é como se já fosse a Primavera:
um dia de sol, com flores coroando árvores
no jardim à beira de que estou parado
esperando um autocarro que não chega mais.
Olho as árvores enflorando, a relva verde-tenro,
e também uma nuvem que o sol da tarde
faz mais clara no azul claro do céu.
Vejo isto, e vendo-o esqueço
os dois dentes que só tenho, um deles cariado,
a vista baça e tudo o mais que diz
que o meu corpo envelheceu –
como ainda há poucos dias me lembrou o gesto
da rapariga que quis dar-me
o seu lugar no eléctrico à cunha,
de manhã à hora de a caminho do emprego.
Sim; o dia parece mesmo de primavera
e com isso apetece estar vivo, embora
sabendo que os anos andaram sobre o corpo que temos
e não renovamos, com rebentos e flores,
como as árvores que vou vendo enquanto não chega
– vem aí, finalmente! –
o autocarro que há bocado espero.
Abalando, esqueço de todo os dentes que já mal tenho
e a minha memória, nova agora como a tarde clara,
não tem fundo para além do dia de hoje
e das flores do jardim de há pouco.
Sim; mas há as coisas que às vezes me lembram
(e nem sempre sem que doa ou amargue)
que já não tenho a idade em que me diziam:
– Pedro, vê lá o que fazes, toma juízo!
(Olhem, por lembrar: – esta manhã gostei de ver
como o meu canário começava o seu dia cobrindo
a canária que anteontem lhe pus na gaiola e agora
é a razão por que não me acorda como