"Afroinsularity" is one of two winning poems selected by Airea D. Matthews for the 2021 Words Without Borders—Academy of American Poets Poems in Translation Contest.
Listen above to Shook read their translation of Conceição Lima's "Afroinsularity"
They left the islands a legacy
of hybrid words and gloomy plantations,
rusted mills, breathless sterns,
sonorous aristocratic names, |
and the legend of a shipwreck on Sete Pedras.
They arrived here from the North,
by mandate or perhaps in the service of their king:
navigators and pirates, slavers, thieves, smugglers,
simple men, rebels and outlaws too, and Jewish infants
so tender they withered like burnt corn.
On their ships they brought compasses, trinkets, seeds,
experimental plants, atrocious sorrows,
a standard of stone pale as wheat,
and other dreamless, rootless cargos,
because the entire island was a port and a dead-end road.
All its hands were black pitchforks and hoes.
And there were living footprints in the fields slashed
like scars—each coffee bush now exhales a dead slave.
And on the islands they were
bold: arrogant statues on street corners,
a hundred or so churches and chapels
for a thousand square kilometers,
and the insurgent syncretism of roadside Christmas shrines.
And there was the palatial cadence of the ússua,
the scent of garlic and zêtê dóchi
on the témpi and ubaga téla,
and in the calulu, bay leaves blended with palm oil
and the perfume of rosemary and of basil from the gardens on our family land.
And the specters melted into
the islander’s clocks—tools of empire
in a structure of ambiguous clarities
and secular condiments,
patron saints and toppled fortresses,
cheap wines and shared dawns.
At times I think of their pallid skeletons,
their hair putrid at the edge of the sea.
Here, in this fragment of Africa
where, facing the South,
a word rises high
like a painful flag.
© Conceição Lima. Translation © 2021 by Shook. All rights reserved.