Through the Gates of My Ancestral Island

Scott Edward Anderson

(USA)

Approaching the Azores from the air seems unnatural, for descending upon them in such a way, a bird’s eye view, if you will, removes the sheer verticality of the islands as they thrust up out of the flat plane of the sea. Seen from above, the nine islands of this archipelago are also wildly out of scale; they seem smaller, confined as they are by the surrounding ocean waters; one loses the sense of power the islands convey when approached by sea. Upon the perspective of the slightly undulating level horizon of the ocean, with its ephemeral liquidity, you can see how everything on the island is, in contrast, solid and vertical, rising upwards, no, thrusting upwards, instilling a sense of its violent birth.

Landing on an airport tarmac also gives a false sense of indeterminacy. On São Miguel Island, the airport is located almost at sea level, on a flat expanse to the west of the city of Ponta Delgada, and because of this location, the island loses its power to overwhelm and intimidate. Disembarking from the plane, what first strikes you is the humidity; it’s palpable, as your skin reanimates, seems to swell with moisture, as if responding somehow to what the great Azorean writer Vitorino Nemésio called the ‘amniotic fluid’ of surrounding salt water. You must take a car into the city and, again, this gives a false impression that all the island is flat, for it is on this approach: low, artificial berms built along the highway to bank the exits and entrances, providing only a false topography. You should hire a boat to take you from the airport to the port of Ponta Delgada and restart your landing on the island in the way that all but passerine birds should be required. Only then will you get the true impression of the island, which Raul Brandão described as “a crackling-shaped black stone,” as it rises before you in layer upon layer of seemingly haphazardly stacked, mostly whitewashed buildings, almost always the tallest of which are the churches with their bell towers and hubris. For obvious reasons, most of the settlements on the islands were located on the coast, following the contours of the rocky coves and bays, capes and headlands, and then up into the hills, endlessly rising toward the volcanic peaks (the highest of which—the tallest in all of Portugal, actually, is on the island of Pico). Much of the expanse outside of the coastal towns is still given over to farmland or protected areas.

When you arrive in Ponta Delgada, you must walk, always walk. Perambulation is the true way to see these islands, of course, on the land itself, with their unrivalled nature, more especially in its coastal cities and parishes. You need to roam, as a flaneur would roam, taking in the cobblestone streets, the buildings and their purposes, and the architecture, with its mix of Baroque, Manueline, and International styles reflecting the history of island settlement and regeneration.

“I take my time looking at the city, where a yellow pyramid, a monument bursts forth,” Brandão wrote in his travelogue, As Ilhas Desconhecidas (The Unknown Islands, in English). “Further away, some scalped hills [and the city] extending into the coastline with its convents, heavy streets and a fort at each end.” He was writing about Horta on Faial in this passage, yet Ponta Delgada, while a larger, somewhat more modern metropolis, lends a similar feeling and commands you to slow down, to stroll along the promenade that now lines the edge of the city’s shoreline following Avenida Infante Dom Henrique from the west, where sits the 16th century castle-like Forte de São Brás, squat and formidable, an important fortification that defended the island and still serves as a military base as well as a museum, past the Ponta Delgada marina, and out to the Escadaria Portas do Mar (the Cruise Ship Terminal), a staircase overlooking the Baixa de São Pedro, which is meant to let tourists see the cruise ships as they come in, but has a commanding view of the city and port, if one looks the right way. At night, the city gleams, a bejewelled facet of the island’s human enterprise over the last six hundred years.

From the Portas da Cidade, the city gates through which my maternal great-grandparents once passed when they left the island in 1906, you walk up the Rua António José Almeida passing the Church of São Sebastião (Igreja Matriz), with its basalt and whitewashed walls and ornate Manueline door carved of limestone imported from the mainland. Perhaps stop for a beer or a coffee at the outdoor Café Central and take in the view toward the port. The church bells ring from the clock tower hourly, sometimes in a remarkably syncopated pattern as elaborate as the carvings on the church door. Finishing your drink, you will wind uphill passing cafes and shops towards the Rua Machado dos Santos, then a jog to the right and a quick left onto Rua Carvalho Araújo, and past the Hotel Do Colégio, an old school turned into a European-style boutique hotel, where I stayed on my first trip to São Miguel, and continue until you reach the Igreja do Colégio, the old Jesuit college church, with its wildly ornate baroque façade of grey basalt inlaid with white. The Jesuits were thrown out in the 18th century and the building now houses the Museu Carlos Machado. Here, on most summer nights, you will find the building lit with deep blue, red, or multicoloured lights and perhaps a performance on a temporary stage built in the plaza—ballets, operas, and music concerts. 

Walking around Ponta Delgada on my first visit in the summer of 2018, I started to feel comfort with the landscape, the architecture, and the streets. Most of the streets and sidewalks are made of polished black basalt stone blocks, accented by intricate designs and patterns in white limestone juxtaposed with the basalt: swirls, waves, compass roses, stars, interlocking chain links, and geometric shapes. Really, one could spend days wandering the streets looking at nothing but the paving stones below your feet. My great-grandfather, a mason, may have had a hand in laying some of these streets and sidewalks as a teenager before he left the island, and I absorb the intricate patterns of artisanship with a dual sense of pride and admiration.

Mark Twain, while he famously didn’t have kind things to say about the island inhabitants from his visit in 1867, waxed poetic about their streets. “Everywhere you go, in any direction,” Twain wrote in Innocents Abroad, “you find either a hard, smooth, level thoroughfare, just sprinkled with black lava sand, and bordered with little gutters, neatly paved with small smooth pebbles or completely paved areas like Broadway.”

The Broadway to which Twain referred had been paved in 1849 using a dressed stone block pavement patented by Russ & Reid. The so-called “Russ pavement” was, Twain remarked, “a new invention, yet here they have been using it in this remote little isle of the sea for two hundred years!”

I also start to feel comfortable around the people; the people here look like me: average in stature and lithe in build, olive skin, darkish hair, which is one aspect of belonging, I suppose. Strangers speak Portuguese to me, which catches me off-guard. I’ve tried to learn to speak the language, albeit with little success beyond a few rudimentary phrases. And I may not be saying those correctly either, as the Brazilian Portuguese offered by most of the language learning products is quite different from continental Portuguese. (Later, the difference was explained to me by an Azorean waiter at the restaurant Calçada do Cais in Ponta Delgada, “Brazilian Portuguese is sexy.” He’s right, and Azorean Portuguese sounds somewhere between its hard, consonant-laden, almost Slavic-sounding Continental parent and its soft and sexy Brazilian cousin.)

My first visit to the island was made possible by a residency organized by Disquiet International, which brings together Portuguese and American writers, with an emphasis on the Luso-American diaspora. This was the first year of its Azores residency, which took place just a few blocks up from the Museu Machado in the Jardim José do Canto. There were fourteen of us and a couple of guest writers who had been speakers at Disquiet’s conference in Lisbon the week before. It was a warm July morning when we all met in the lobby of the Hotel do Colégio to walk up to the garden for the first time. Our writing took place in the manor house, which once belonged to do Canto himself, and housed his library before many of his most important and rare volumes were donated to the public library and archives. We were also encouraged to roam and use the grounds and some of us took advantage of that charge. There was still a sizable library in the manor house, which we stumbled into one day, before being quickly chased out by the housekeeper.

As you approach the house from the entrance to the garden, there’s a large statue of do Canto peering down the red crushed gravel drive. In his right hand is a book, and I love this detail: one of his fingers is holding his place in the book, as if the sculptor interrupted his subject’s reading to ask him to pose. Do Canto was a bibliographer and bibliophile and his collection numbered over 18,000 volumes, including a first edition of Camões’s Os Lusíadas from 1572. In all, Do Canto’s collection of writings by Camões numbered over one hundred Portuguese editions published up until 1892, as well as 105 translations of the epic, including English, French, German, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Russian, and Spanish editions. He also collected first-editions of his own Portuguese contemporaries, such as Antero de Quental, Alexandre Herculano, and Eça de Queirós.

Do Canto was born on 20 December 1820, in Ponta Delgada, into the wealthy class of São Miguel. His father taught the young do Canto and his brother Ernesto, who also went on to become a bibliographer, and, by the age of ten, José was able to read the works of Cato the Younger in the original Latin. Later, José was sent to Paris to study at the Colegio de Fontenay-aux-Roses, but he didn’t like it there and soon returned to the Azores. A few years later, he attended the University of Coimbra on mainland Portugal, studying mathematics, before getting married to Maria Guilhermina Taveira Brum da Silveira, the rich heiress of a wine making family from the islands. Managing the lands that belonged to his wife’s family, do Canto began to adopt and promote new agricultural techniques and to import species of plants to the islands, working with foreign specialists to help modernize agriculture on São Miguel. He founded the Sociedade Promotora da Agricultura Micaelense to promote the new techniques he was developing and importing to the islands, and published one of the first Portuguese agricultural periodicals, Agricultor Micaelense. Do Canto imported and cultivated a number of species new to the islands, including pineapples and tea, but also camellias and Cryptomeria japonica, or Japanese cedar, a conifer of the cypress family that is now the predominant evergreen species on the islands of the archipelago. 

The garden, where we wrote daily, was conceived and designed by do Canto and the London-based architect David Mocatta, and modeled on the English-style Victorian gardens, with its manicured grounds and abundance of botanical samples. Do Canto began constructing the garden in 1845, and there is a large rubber tree (Ficus elastica) — one of the largest I have ever seen — which, over its 170-plus years, has grown to several stories high. Its root structure, spreading out for dozens of feet, almost like rivulets of wood streaming above the ground, sits at the base of a wall several feet below the manor house, while the canopy rises at least two stories above the roof. The garden, which stretches to almost fifteen acres, counts upwards of 6,000 species of trees, shrubs, and flowers.

I found an old tile picnic table at the edge of the manor house grounds, between two cork oak trees, where I could set up with my pens and notebooks. The Wi-Fi didn’t reach out there, which was simply fine with me. Each morning, we had three hours of writing, then lunch on our own, with occasional group trips scheduled to see the island sights in the afternoons. I spent every free moment I had at the public library and archives, where I was researching my family, digging through their papers, connecting the dots, and building and verifying my family tree.  

On the second day of the residency, Brendan Bowles, the director of the program, invited me and another Azorean American poet-in-residence, Michael Spring, to have lunch with the renowned Azorean literary critic Vamberto Freitas, where we would learn about the literature coming out of the islands and its struggle for mindshare. We met at the outdoor café of Confeitaria A Colmeia, a favourite spot of Freitas’s, on the street level of the large Solmar Avenida Center, a shopping mall and apartment complex overlooking the Portas do Mar. The air was humid and pleasant, with the scent of the Atlantic Ocean mingling with that of coffee and pastéis de nata, the ubiquitous custard tart of Portugal with its flaky, buttery shell and decadent egg-custard filling that melts in your mouth. Proust had his madeleine, which evoked memories and reverie and a dream-like state; the Portuguese have natas, evoking saudades.

Freitas is tall and angular and has the air of an international literary character, what used to be called a “public intellectual,” engaged with the world, with literature, with ideas. He was born on Terceira and emigrated to California with his family as a child. After graduating from Cal State Fullerton in 1974, he taught high school in southern California for fifteen years. He returned to the Azores in 1990, after meeting his future wife, the novelist and poet Adelaide Freitas, at a literary festival in São Miguel. On the day we met, his wife had recently died after a lengthy battle with Alzheimer’s, and we felt even more honored by his presence, given the circumstances.

He explained to us the cultural divide between the Azores and mainland Portugal. “They see the islands as ‘the country,’ as rural areas, and don’t take our literature seriously,” Vamberto said. “That leaves a mark on it. A little resentment, perhaps, and a question of redefining our identity. We are part of Portugal, but separate. We have the pain of being alive in this little part of southern Europe and all that carries, yet we are also removed from it and surrounded by the sea.” He paused to light a cigarette and order another coffee.

“That gives us an impulse to move out further into the Atlantic and away from the continent,” he said, taking a drag on his cigarette and turning to blow the smoke out toward the sea. “Not as discoverers or colonists, rather as emigrants.”

Freitas is encouraged by what he sees from the diaspora, the emergence of Luso-American writers who are redefining the Azorean place within the American mosaic. He cites writers like George Monteiro and Onésimo Almeida as leading the charge of promoting Azorean literature in the US, and writers of the subsequent generation, like Katherine Vaz, Frank Gaspar, and Nancy Viera Couto. As he speaks, I realize why Brendan has organized this meeting for Michael and me: as the only Disquiet residents from the Azorean diaspora, this is an important moment for the two of us from the next generation of Azorean American writers.

“An immigrant will always be a divided soul,” Freitas offered, taking another drag on his cigarette, the ash forming a perilously long column evocative of cloud-covered basalt. “Always longing for what is lost, always longing for his or her motherland.”

I understand that longing and point to my poem, “Saudade,” where I tried to define that seemingly untranslatable word as “a longing for lost things.” It is something I have felt for most of my life without really knowing why or from where it came; rather, I understood it intuitively. As Vamberto reads the poem while we’re sitting at the table, I can see a sense of recognition in his eyes.

“This is among the best explanations of the essence of that word,” Vamberto offered, resting the book on the table, his hands keeping the page open to my poem. My face flushed and my hands sweat. His words opened me up and I became like a sapling whose roots are poking down into the soil, striving for the water of life on this island, a water that will come to sustain me over time.

Later that evening, in a program at the library in Ponta Delgada, Vamberto reads Michael’s poem, “Approaching the Azores” and my poem “Saudade,” proclaiming them as examples of “fine Azorean American writing from the new generation.” Michael and I beam with pride and a little embarrassment at being thus called out. It is the first time I’ve been referred to as an Azorean American and, I’ll admit, I could almost sense my ancestors in the room.

Vamberto also spoke of a poem by Jorge de Sena, “In Crete, With the Minotaur,” which he claimed is “the greatest emigrant poem ever written in the Portuguese language.” For him, the poem captures all the themes, anxieties, and sufferings of those who choose to become strangers in a strange land. An excerpt, in a translation by George Monteiro, which Vamberto sends to me later reads like this:

I shall collect nationalities like shirts that are shed –

One wears them and one throws them away – with all the respect

Due clothes one has worn and which have given good wear.

I am my own homeland. The homeland

I write about is the language into which by chance of generations

I was born.

As the day begins to lean toward the “after” side of noon, and the approaching end of our meeting at the Confeitaria A Colmeia, I hear the clomping of horse hooves on cobblestone before noticing a man driving tourists along the quay in a horse-drawn coach. Drawn by two dun-colored horses, the black handsome coach is a six-seater with an ivory canvas canopy and red wagon wheels. The driver, who appears to be in his early sixties, wears a black top hat, pin-striped waistcoat, with black trousers and a pressed white shirt. Suddenly, I recognize him.

“I think that’s my long, lost cousin,” I say to my companions, and after the conclusion of our lunch, Michael and I make our way over to where the horses and carriage are parked just off Cabral Square, near the Portas da Cidade. Sure enough, it is Victor Casquilho—to whom I’d been introduced via an Azores Genealogy Group on Facebook. “Victor!?” I query upon my approach. “Scott!?” Victor asks, recognizing me from my Facebook photo. We pose for a photograph, both smiling broadly, a similar crinkle on the edges of our almond-shaped eyes. A retired banker, giving these tours clearly brings him immense joy; when I approached him, he had been polishing his carriage and preparing for the next group of tourists. Ours is a brief reunion, as the Disquiet residents were expected at the public library for our evening program. We promise to connect again while I’m on the island.

As Michael and I pass through the Portas da Cidade, I think again of my great-grandparents who left through these very gates over one hundred years ago. “Wow,” Michael says to me. “What are the odds of running into a relative on this remote island?” It was the first of many encounters, it turns out, on my small ancestral island as I reconnect with the family left behind all those years ago.

Scott Edward Anderson

is a

Guest Contributor for Panorama.

Scott Edward Anderson is an award-winning poet, memoirist, essayist, and translator. He is the author of Wine-Dark Sea: New & Selected Poems & Translations (2022), Azorean Suite/Suite Açoriana (2020), the Nautilus Award-winning Dwelling: an ecopoem (2018), and two books of nonfiction, including Falling Up: A Memoir of Second Chances (2019) and Walks in Nature’s Empire (1995). He has been a Concordia Fellow at Millay Arts and received the Letras Levadas/PEN Açores Award, the Nebraska Review Award, and the Larry Aldrich Emerging Poets Award. He is currently the Poet Laureate for the Ryan Observatory at Muddy Run and divides his time between the Berkshires and São Miguel Island in the Azores. His translation of Vitorino Nemésio’s Corsario das Ilhas/Corsair of the Islands, will be published by Tagus Press. Habitar: um ecopoema, Margarida Vale de Gato’s translation of his book Dwelling, was published in September 2022 by Poética Edições in Lisbon.

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