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from the September 2021 issue


"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.


Words Without Borders · Poems in Translation Contest: "Afroinsularity," by Conceição Lima, tr. Shook

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.

Click here to listen to poet Conceição Lima read this poem in the original Portuguese

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