Terras de Lava

Posted on February 20, 2015 in Essays

Visiting the Azores for the first time, I’ve figured out just where in the world they are. Ideally, you need a two-page map of the Atlantic, with Lisbon to the right, New York to the far left, and Bermuda lurking in the south west. The nine islands of the archipelago are about a third of the way across. But atlases are grudging about water, and the Azores get squeezed into separate boxes at odd corners of the maps of somewhere else. To my surprise, they turn out to be west of Lisbon – not a hint of Africa, about them – the visible bits of something called the north mid-Atlantic ridge, and on the same latitude as Washington DC.

It doesn’t take an expert to see this is a volcanic landscape. The Azores are blatantly, extravagantly volcanic – the hills humped like camels, the bays formed with extravagant twirls of razor sharp rocks, the mountains like stadiums with steep sides and lakes or plains in the middle. I’d forgotten how new and exhilarating such a landscape feels – as though raised up only a century ago, and still steaming and fecund.

São Miguel consists of two huge volcanoes with a valley in the middle. Hiring a car, you have two options. You can take the coast road, with the sea on your left or your right, depending on your choice of direction. You pass between steep smallholdings, divided by hedges of the local bamboo or by ridges of volcanic mud. The black and white cows are fatter and sleeker than seems possible, especially when they loom above you, perched like goats on odd spurs. Every few miles you cross a deep gorge with a torrent dropping to a fishing village on the coast. Just twice in your circuit of the island, at Ribeira Grande and at Lagoa, these swell to the size of small towns.

Alternatively, you can drive into the volcanoes. To the east is the crater known as Sete Cidades, two linked craters forming a double lake with a bridge. You descend by a steep, winding road, between embankments of blue hydrangeas, and park beyond the small town. In the brochures, these crater-lakes shine milky green. Today they look grey and ruffled, like a Scottish loch. The stern mountain ridge forms an almost perfect circle a thousand feet high. After dark, the disc of starlight seems remote, as though seen from the bottom of a well.

Furnas to the west, is less forbidding but more dramatic. My wife, appropriately for an African, has a healthy respect for swamps and jungle. How did I get her to descend into a still-smoking volcano? But it last blew in 1630 and the Portuguese have thoroughly domesticated it. You approach by a gentle hydrangea-lined road, and don’t notice the caldeiras (craters) flinging up their sulphurous gobbets of black, scalding mud until you’re almost upon them, next to the white-washed tourist post. It’s as though the volcano was some kind of difficult pet, not fully housetrained. The impressive thing is that the crust you’re standing on feels like crust, about to cave in, while boiling and ice-cold springs are literally only inches apart. But awe is again dissipated in typically Portuguese fashion by the restaurant menu. It offers Cozido (a popular mixed-meat stew with cabbage) das Caldeiras (cooked in the volcano).

I’m here on São Miguel, the largest island of the Azores, to do a lecture on my translation of Camões’ Os Lusíadas, a workshop on African poetry, and a public reading of my own poems in the main bookshop in Ponta Delgada. As always, I feel a strong sense of having pulled a fast one. Why should anyone pay me to do this, when I’d be happy to do it for free? My friend from the British Council tells me I’m a side show to the main event that has to do with implementing the six-hundred-year-old Treaty of Windsor. There are diplomatic kudos in having some cultural baggage in train – it scores over the other delegates. He slips me this indiscretion shortly after I’ve read a poem with a rather good joke about codfish heads and the Treaty of Windsor. Who says poetry makes nothing happen?

We’ve been looking forward to the seafood. The islands are hundreds of miles from any sources of pollution and they’d been conjured for me as a crustacean paradise, so abundant the waiters wouldn’t make too much of an issue of the bill. But the lamas (limpets) are tough and the cavacos (lobsters) are unavailable. Local pineapple, however, with fried morcela (black pudding) turns out a delicious combination, every bit as good as melon and smoked ham. It also reminds me that today (11 November) is St Martin’s day. In Barnsley, St Martin’s is celebrated with a black pudding competition, in which Portuguese morcela-makers participate. In Portugal, they do it with roast chestnuts and the first treadings (agua pé) of the new season’s wine. Here, along the waterfront of Ponta Delgada, there are no chestnut braziers – only stall after stall of hot dogs, with their appalling plastic mustard and ketchup containers.

After my Camões piece, I meet Eduardo Moreira da Silva, a local poet and lecturer. Did I think Camões was serious? The Lusíads has too much irony for an epic. It’s a parody of an epic which the Portuguese have been fooled into taking at face value. Vasco da Gama was hopeless as a hero. He never does anything, never even comes out of his boat except briefly in India, and then he spends half a canto trying to get back into it. I remark that the real journey is Camões’ voyage in the ‘craft’ of poetry. This goes down better than it deserved and he insists on our sharing a bottle of wine. Not wine from the Azores, but a Grão Vasco Dão from the mainland. Would I look at his poetry? Eduardo writes only in English. Portuguese, he declares scandalously, is not a language for poetry. There is, however, a local wine he recommends with a frown, Terras de Lava, not the red but the white.

Judging by the bookshop, are three ways of writing about the Azores. You can stress the fabulous. Ptolemy’s ‘Fortunate Islands’ are likely to have been the Canaries. Camões identifies the Cape Verde archipelago with the Hesperides, and the Bissago Islands (off Guinea Bissau) with the islands of the Gorgons. Perseus slew Medusa and flew back across the Sahara, her head shedding adders and petrifying the giant Atlas. But the Azores don’t feature in The Lusíads. Could they be bits and pieces of the lost continent of Atlantis? With their irregular cones and needles, they certainly look like fragments, and they remain provisional. A tenth island, appropriately dubbed Sabrina, surfaced for a few weeks in 1812. Are they the islands reputedly mentioned in The Book of Roger, that encyclopaedia prepared by Muhammad al-Idrisi for King Roger of Sicily in 1154?

Abandoning the unanswerable, you can write about the times the islands have featured in other people’s histories. In wartime, for example, from the sinking of the Revenge (‘at Flores in the Azores’, unusually for Tennyson, an imperfect rhyme), to the World War 2 American base at Lajes, the source of Nato’s support for Portugal’s colonial wars. Or those interludes when famous people were on their way somewhere else. Chateaubriand was here, America bound, and left a short account. Charles Darwin landed briefly, on the way home after five years in the Beagle. Jules Verne passed through in the course of an unhappy cruise.

Thirdly, you can treat the islands as a cultural museum. These books tend to be coffee-table size and have lots of black and white photographs. All three approaches treat the islands as exotic.

The Portuguese take a superior line about British colonial architecture, feeling correctly their public buildings show a more enduring commitment. Compared to Jamaica’s Kingston or Zimbabwe’s Harare, Ponta Delgada is seriously, delightfully elegant, so much so the very comparison is demeaning. There are baroque churches everywhere, built of volcanic rock carved into windows and arches, with ropes and anchors and scallop shells and tassels, a sort of tropical gothic. There is a public square given over to banks but with a touch of moorish Spain in its colonnades.

British architecture, at least in the West Indies and Africa, was plainly a form of annexation, but its very shoddiness was temporary. By importing the best, Portugal declared she was here, not there, to stay. An aspect of this is that de-colonisation has been altogether a more painful experience than for the British, who seem to have forgotten they ever had a responsibility for the territories that are today in such distress. Perhaps a better way of understanding recent history is to say the Portuguese have never truly de-colonised. To relinquish overseas possessions is to recognise the time for departure is overdue, and perhaps even to accept that the project was invalid from the start. The Portuguese exit from empire in 1975, with three-quarters of a million retornados pouring through Lisbon airport, was an experience more akin to mass-deportation, an entirely different psychological process. It bequeaths the illusion that, rather as during the Spanish ‘occupation’ of 1580 to 1640, history will one day be corrected. Last year’s out-pouring of national grief over the tragic events in East Timor had imperial overtones. Lisbon’s public statues were draped in black, and women sobbed in public about what was happening em nossa terra.

What disconcerts about the Azores is the lack of an indigenous, colonised population. One repeats the phrase ‘the islands were uninhabited when the Portuguese discovered them’ without reflecting on how odd it is. I try to imagine São Miguel with its two volcanoes as a desert island, awaiting the first footprint, the first gun fired, awaiting even a name, and I draw a blank. A sense of long inheritance, and of that inheritance being disputed, is part of the feel of every place I know. Did the myth of the Americas as virgin territory, a continent of unlimited opportunities, begin with the discovery of these unpopulated Atlantic islands – islands like the one Don Quixote promises Sancho Panza as his reward for faithful service? Cervantes fought at the battle of Salga on the island of Terceira in 1581, and knew what he was talking about.

I’m used to places that look like this having an ethnically distinct majority asserting its identity through rebellion. But the Azores are an extension of Portugal. Like Madeira, they are all that remain to Portugal as reward for being the first to brave the dangers of the Atlantic. Searching for the pottery factory in the town of Lagoa, we get lost in the maze of one-way streets, and find ourselves looking at – well, looking at poverty. I don’t mean slums and I don’t mean beggars, the indices of poverty on the mainland. This is the poverty of people left behind, for the energetic and enterprising have long since adopted the authentic Portuguese solution of emigration. Since 1640, Portugal has depended on exporting its surplus labour. Azoreans are original in emigrating not to Brazil, Angola or Europe but to the United States and Canada. This explains those St Martin’s day hotdog stalls along the Ponta Delgada waterfront. They turn out to be what I was looking for, the mark of difference.

Waiting for our baggage at Lisbon airport, we find Eduardo was on the same late night plane. I may laugh at this, he says, but Furnas is cooling down. The volcano is dying, the culture losing its vigour. Cozido das Caldeiras used to take four to six hours, now it takes at least eight. You need to phone your order by 5.00 a.m. to enjoy a proper lunch. I tell him I sold seventeen books and that we have brought back cheese, pineapples, a pawpaw sapling, and two bottles of Terras de Lava. He gives me his poems. Cultural exchanges.
(First published in Poetry Wales, April 2001))