Letters from Portugal


by Landeg White
Kondwani Publications

Letters from Portugal, Landeg White’s latest collection, illustrated by António Bandeira Araújo, makes free use of the epistolary form to range widely in subject matter and style. The letters are interspersed with shorter poems, equally broad thematically, while demonstrating his mastery of lyric forms.

I must begin again by trusting, I who
always needed the five doorways,
only afterwards learning from the poem
the matter in my heart
. So this dusk
my discipline is to water blindfold.
That hollow pattering on organ pipes
is the onion patch, that drizzle
on beach umbrellas the okra poles,
while the tomatoes are like spraying
a carpet till it hisses with saturation.
Drenched mint, thyme and basil respire
more pungently than in any cookbook.
I brush the bay tree and the scent
dusts the back of my hand till morning.
Then I open my eyes to the aubergines,
their purple sheen running with droplets,
the pimentos’ crisp purses, the chillies’
scarlet toenails, as I shut off the hose
and open this blank page.

always been different words for what
I write of. Pinheiro, three syllables
precise as their lengthening shadow
on the pan-tile earth of summer. Is
pine-tree the shadow of that shadow?
In a lifetime of travel, translation’s
been the vehicle, as what’s English-ed
becomes commonplace. Words like
picong, chimanga, nsondo, saudade,
ferried me tourist class to other worlds,
leaving me castaway with no link,
not even a hyphen, to the cramped
Baptist dialect of my childhood.

In a folded
spear of the Bird of Paradise lily,
two snails are mating. They began yesterday
and after twenty four hours’ foreplay
are still at it, inserting mutual
penises into mutual vaginas. “In times
dedicated to universality and excess,”
I have “never been so interested
in very small things – twinkling tadpoles
in a barrel of water, the germination
of a fungus, ants nibbling at the leaves
of a lemon tree and leaving it like lace.”1
It’s good to live where, as you return
from market with a rubbery fig shoot,
people ask “Where’s it for?” as they
stroke the leaves lovingly. To sink
the roots of an olive sapling is to invest,
whatever the language, in millennia.
Step back after staking it, dusting
eloquent manure from your palms,
and history’s fetch is at your elbow.

from Letters from Portugal by Landeg White