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The City and the Writer: In Lisbon with Patricio Ferrari

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


Can you describe the mood of Lisbon as you feel/see it?

Anyone who strolls down the Rua dos Douradores leading to Praça da Figueira [Fig Tree Square] in the amber hours, who lounges on one of the rooftops of the Baixa, the downtown quarter with its uncharacteristically grid-like streets (rebuilt in the neoclassical style by the first Marquês de Pombal in the aftermath of the 1755 earthquake), or who, by a series of circumstances, ends up bargaining in one of the city’s enclaves––perhaps the feira da ladra [flea market, literally “female thief’s market”] in the once Moorish quarter of Alfama (from the Arabic Al-hamma, meaning “the hot fountains or baths”)––bathes in the city’s mood, the pulsing of her mood, which can only be understood in relation to what beckons. Outdoors, here in the open. Where the least sound counts, as in poetry.

Bones of sun, lines shifting in the city’s air, tangible air. Some tangency of scent perhaps, regardless of the season, that blends in one hopscotch of light. Over wide sidewalks, esplanades, beneath stairways. Those idle particles. At a given point the straight line just touches. Taking palette root. A dimness of ochre, ferric. It is the hour when life lays on a slant. The half-light of entryways across great squares, far-off ships, habit. Audible habit. In Lisbon, just blink. And listen. For light is hearing seeing inwardly.

And each neighborhood begets another rhythm, another bend. Of mundane objects and doorknobs and gestures. Each neighborhood, a bend. Or turn. Another face. Or turning on, magnetic.

A tin-viridian riverfront of mansard roofs and tile-framed windows, of fountains and the water motion of night. Faces. All holding malleable contours, and never quite resembling each other. Through the centuries. In their instant of street. Streetstreetstreets––even in their narrowest pulse, tending. All suggesting a discreet succulence to succumb to. Leaven light. Awaken and warm, palpable air.

As if something in these fringes of the world, on the widest stretch of the Tagus River, turned Lisbon into a destination––a final destination. With its own babble. From the bar or embouchure to the city’s palatable words. Where it is never late for the word candor, for the word familiar. Where she writes her rhythm; where she writhes her fog. Mundane and vast, vastly human. One incessant homecoming search under the sign of saudade––a feeling of longing, melancholy, or nostalgia that yet is not all pain––for a remembered time yet to come.  

Lisbon, as in a radiant sleep.  

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

Once, in a sepia time: the cable car, Tram 28, was a mere means of transportation for the working class, men and women commuting to and from the Baixa; a zig-zagging engine’s shrill, reaching window eyes and wash suspended on pulley lines squeaking till taut. Clothes, unfurling clothes in whiffs of the raw sabão azul e branco––the generic blue and white soap used by everyone. Unfiltered life.

This happened. Before the tsunami of gentrification that has consumed Lisbon in the past decade; before massive tourism, tuk-tuks, and flash; before the ubiquitous distractions and addictions of cell phones, portable email, and social media––modern tokens of community that leave one emotionally unplugged.

Prior to these, as Alain Tanner depicted in Dans la ville blanche [In the White City], the clock in Lisbon didn’t always tick forward. And no one seemed to notice, except for out-of-towners. A metaphor for the cultural and collective conception of time in Portugal, as a washerwoman taught me in Alfama.

At the communal laundry, around the day of Santo Antonio, one washerwoman spoke. To say that her voice was the size of the communal sink would not be an exaggeration; this was suggested not only by its volume but also by the way the words came out of her mouth. Each stretching, attracted to the next, leaning against the other––now elbowing, now cuddling up. Each phrase, one prominent thrust––a crowd of memories and hands––as the washerwoman rubbed, stirred, and twisted sleeves and socks.  

The bulk of her spoke, matter-of-factly. Facts about her neighborhood, Alfama, the fame of her medina-like quarter, its consciously confounding streets and then, Lisbon:


. . . Seilá desdeaminhamocidadequenãovoupra’Lisboa . . .

[ . . . noidea haven’tbeentoLisbonsincemyouth . . . ]


As if for her (and how many others?), Alfama, the second oldest neighborhood in Europe, were not part of Lisbon; as if something other than distance distanced Alfama from the rest of the capital. Alfama, the only possible neighborhood in the world.

The washerwoman’s disinterest in Lisbon was plain. There was no shame, no regret, as the sound of her hands drowned out the scrub of the washing boards. This was no posture. Mid-June, shimmering. As her left hand just kept telling the right what to do.

Time: half memory, half gut.


What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

On the Pombaline-style facades of the Baixa begins the wonder of painted wall-tiles and terracotta tiles covered with glazing motifs and original cracks. A rarity are those edged by weeds and wild roots and lavender moons: “tile decrepitude” (metonymy for Lisbon, as poet Martin Corless-Smith once referred to the city in conversation), an espial moment on the verge of extinction. For Portugal’s capital is rapidly changing. Major tourism growth, real estate speculation, restorations, hysteric architecture, design projects, boutique hotels, international retail stores . . .

One detail, an extraordinary detail, untouched by such frenetic mutations is Lisbon’s toponymy––the delicacy and charm reflected in many of her street and alleyway names. A naming convention that does not just take after saints, historic figures, and commemorative events, but also draws from the country’s flora and fauna, as well as its penchant for reverie, hospitable imagination, and idleness . . . A disposition that allows for odd, strangely poetic names:


Beco da Bolacha [Cookie Alley]

Beco dos Contrabandistas [Smugglers Alley]

Beco do Imaginário [Unreal Alley]

Beco do Paraíso [Paradise Alley]

Beco do Quebra Costas [Backbreak Alley]

Beco do Xadrez [Chess Alley]

Estrada dos Prazeres [Pleasures Street]

Travessa do Fala-Só [Man Who Speaks Alone Alley]

Rua da Saudade [Nostalgia Street]


And then there is Triste-Feia [Sad and Ugly], accompanied by neither "street" nor "alleyway." An artery off of a main cobblestone street in the neighborhood of Alcântara, west of the Baixa, near the Tapada das Necessidades [Necessities Park], located less than a mile upriver. According to neighbors, the name is an homage to a Lisbon woman often seen on her stoop at 28 Triste-Feia. It remains unknown whether she was sad because she was ugly or ugly because she was sad.


What writer(s) from here should we read?

Without a doubt, Fernando Pessoa, whose modernist aesthetic of self-othering stands unparalleled in terms of his predecessors (e.g., Robert Browning) and his contemporaries (e.g., W. B. Yeats and Ezra Pound). For his literary scheme of self-othering, Pessoa coined the term heteronimismo [heteronymism], a concept that he formalized in 1928, seven years before his death in 1935 at the age of forty-seven. The concept distinguishes Pessoa’s own work from that of his main fictional personas (Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis, and Álvaro de Campos). These heteronyms came into being around 1914, each with its own literary and philosophical idiosyncrasies, diction, individual practice of poetic meter and poetic rhythm, and personal traits. Thorough archival research counted, described, and anthologized 136 distinct fictitious personas created by Pessoa—with some forty of them having an Anglophone name.

Besides the posthumous Livro do Desassossego [Book of Disquiet]––a prose-poetry book in which Lisbon is both backdrop and elusive character––the necessary works of poetry by his heteronyms are “O Guardador de Rebanhos” [The Keeper of Sheep] (by the nature poet Alberto Caeiro), “Tabacaria” [Tobacco Shop] (by Álvaro de Campos, the urban futurist poet), and “Odes” (by the classical poet Ricardo Reis). For these works in Portuguese, see Tinta-da-china; for English, see New Directions.

Those who come to appreciate Pessoa’s writings and wish to delve deeper into the modernist period should turn to the experimental works––verbal and visual––of his lifelong friend, the Lisbon-born poet Mário de Sá-Carneiro (1890–1916)––an author influenced by Symbolism and Decadentism and still largely unknown outside European letters.

A living poet to discover is António Osório, originally from Setúbal (a port town south of Lisbon)––son of a Portuguese father and an Italian mother. A lawyer by profession, from his early books, A Raiz Afectuosa [The Tender Root] and A Ignorância da Morte [Ignorance of Death], which were published in the 1970s, he explores, time and again, childhood, the ephemerality of life, everyday objects, nearly extinct professions, animals, rural settings, joy, loss. With rigorous diction, yet fluent and clear––graceful, expressed in unforced refinement. To read Osório today is to embark on a journey with one of Portugal’s most singular voices, one that has remained marginal to the all-too-gravitational Pessoa.


Is there a place here you return to often?

Lunchtime on any weekday: to Campo d’Ourique, a quiet quarter west of the Baixa tourist hubbub, where at 150 Rua Saraiva de Carvalho, Sra. Antonia has greeted clients for more than three decades. Antonia is the owner, cook, and server of the Adega Peseta––an unpretentious restaurant with no English menu, offering local, fresh dishes for about fifteen US dollars. After a substantial meal, a café com cheirinho (scented coffee), a Portuguese alcoholic coffee made of an espresso with a measure of aguardente, is highly recommended.

Weekend dinner: to the Antigo Restaurante 10 de Maio, a hole-in-the-wall located in one of the less frequented streets of the labyrinthine Bairro Alto (where the oldest human remains of the city dating from the Neolithic period were recently excavated). The Portuguese-only menu (rare for this quarter thronged by tourists) offers a wide variety of traditional popular dishes such as ameijoas à bulhão pato [clams in white wine] and carne de porco à alentejana [pork in the Alentejo manner], and an affordable selection of Portuguese wines from various appellations––all served by the loquacious, impassioned Miguel, the only polyglot waiter in the peninsula.   

Returning to Lisbon also means savoring another delectable local delicacy: the mouthwatering Portuguese language with its varied assortment of vowels (while the Portuguese language has five vowels [a, e, i, o, u], there are fourteen vowel sounds in European Portuguese [nine oral and five nasal ones])––climbing, twining, and creeping around consonants (and each other) like vines. Say azambujeiros [wild olive trees], borboletazinha [little butterfly]; go with gargalhada [burst of laughter]; dare desassossegado [disquieted] . . .


Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

The café and restaurant Martinho da Arcada at 3 Praça do Comércio, across the sumptuous square of basalt and limestone dating back to 1782. It is said that on November 27, 1935, three days before Fernando Pessoa’s death, the author of The Book of Disquiet and his artist friend Almada Negreiros shared their last coffee here––the oldest continuously operating café and restaurant in Lisbon (current name since 1845).


Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

Despite its conducive geography and weather conditions, a curious misconception about the City of the Seven Hills is that trees and luscious plants, riotously colored vegetation, don’t thrive here. We read about this dearth in Baudelaire’s “Any Where Out of the World”:

Cette ville est au bord de l’eau; on dit qu’elle est bâtie en marbre, et que le peuple y a une telle haine du végétal, qu’il arrache tous les arbres.

[This city lies by the water’s banks; they say that she’s built in marble, and that people there hate verdant green nature, that they uproot all the trees].

Less than a mile away from the, Lisbon’s cathedral, built in the twelfth century over the ruins of the grand mosque—itself constructed over the destroyed Roman temple of Cybele––lies an entrance to an inner garden.

One arrives there afoot, calves pulling, stepping on white against black: the calçada portuguesa, the Portuguese sidewalk––product of the nearly extinct profession of pavers who work with stone. A pavement of symbols carved in basalt and limestone. A floraison of imagery. Unless one walks Lisbon, she will seem monochromatic, static, or petrified. Nonchalantly. For the calçadas unfold, delivering unexpected alleyways, archways, quaint squares dotting the undomesticated light. Of nooks, terraces, panoramas, and belvederes. Undulant belvederes and Juliette balconies.

From one of the Juliette balconies, on the Rua da Oliveirinha, from the right-most Juliette balcony––Tagus in the distance––an inflorescence burst of south. A bougainvillea with its million and one thorns against white walls, cracking. As if some craquelure inside a frame.

They say this city lies. Contiguous cracks of magenta light.


Where does passion live here?

In Bairro Alto, at the Tasca do Chico, one of the popular houses of fado vadio (literally “bohemian, vagabond, or loafer fado” sung mostly by amateurs) where voices of men and women of different ages and social backgrounds meet in true, raw notes.

On any of the busy streets where ethnicities intersect and children play cinco pedrinhas (the Portuguese version of jacks) on the front steps of their homes, as in the medieval Mouraria (once a ghetto of the Moors), now a multicultural quarter where in the past few years local projects have refurbished old buildings as a way to preserve history and integrate different communities and generations (young, old, and recent immigrants), and leave fear, suspicion, and distrust at the border.

In the street, hands practicing nearly extinct professions: amoladores de facas [knife sharpeners], calceteiros [pavers], engraxadores [shoeshine men]. In their callous handshake. Unpremeditated, unhurried. Translucent.

There by the quays where seabirds––with the contours of ruins and spitting waves––keep our silence.


What is the title of one of your works about Lisbon and what inspired it exactly?


From persona
apt to pose,
full of bent faces,

pliant selves

person is
not the mask
grasped as a fist
nor one daily friction
of habit turned toward the abyss of           

if person is
this realm of fiction
called by artifice of mien or word
person is between 

an earful of commas
like the port to geese


Included in the third volume of the multilingual trilogy Elsehere (in progress).


Inspired by Levi, “Outside Lisbon does an outside exist?”

It remains to me a conundrum whether one can speak about a city’s outside without referring to a given moment in that city––and without turning to one that involves language.

One such occurrence that comes to mind is censorship, particularly that which took place in Portugal during a great part of the twentieth century.

António de Oliveira Salazar, who served as prime minister from 1932 to 1968, was responsible for the Estado Novo [New State], the corporatist authoritarian far-right regime that ruled the country until 1974. This regime enforced a stifling censorship in Portugal as a way to halt influence from the outside and “subversive” thoughts from within.

Just days after the end of this oppressive regime, Portuguese writer Jorge de Sena published Pessoa’s first satirical poems about Salazar (two of which are reproduced below in their original Portuguese)––which de Sena had originally brought to light in Brazil in 1960:


Antonio de Oliveira Salazar.
                      [António de Oliveira Salazar.

Trez nomes em sequencia regular . . .      Three names in a regular
                                                                      sequence are . . .

Antonio é Antonio.
                                    António is António.

Oliveira é uma arvore.
                               Oliveira is a tree.

Salazar é só apelido.
                                  Salazar is a surname I recall.

Até aí está bem.
                                         So far so good.

O que não faz sentido
                               What makes no sense at all

É o sentido que isto tem.                          Is the sense for which this name
                                                                    has stood.]


Este senhor Salazar
                          [This Mr. Salazar

É feito de sal e azar.
                          Is made of salt and tar.

Se um dia chove,
                               If it rains at all,

A agua dissolve
                                Water will dissolve

O sal,
                                                  The salt,

E sob o céu
                                        And beneath the sky

Fica só o azar, é natural.                   Only tar stands tall.


Oh, c’os diabos!
                               Oh, damn!

Parece que já choveu...                    It looks like the rain's already come . . .]


Patricio Ferrari is a poet, editor, and polyglot translator (English, French, Hindi, Portuguese, and Spanish). He left Merlo (Buenos Aires) at the age of sixteen to attend high school and play soccer in the United States through Rotary International. He received his Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature from the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle. While in Paris he was exposed to the works of Fernando Pessoa, which led him to Lisbon, where he learned Portuguese in order to read this master in his native tongue. During his time in Portugal’s capital, Ferrari earned a PhD in Portuguese Linguistics at the Universidade de Lisboa. He is responsible for seven Pessoa editions, including the first critical edition of his Poèmes français (Éditions de la Différence, 2014). His recent editions and translations include The Galloping Hour: French Poems by Alejandra Pizarnik (with Forrest Gander; New Directions, 2018) and The Complete Works of Alberto Caeiro by Fernando Pessoa (with Margaret Jull Costa; New Directions, 2020). His work also appears in Arcadia, Asymptote, and the Paris Review, among others. Ferrari resides in New York City and teaches at Rutgers University. Additionally, he serves as managing director of the San Patricio Language Institute (founded by his mother in Greater Buenos Aires in 1971) and collaborates with the Endangered Language Alliance in New York City (a nonprofit organization focused on linguistic diversity within urban areas worldwide).

Published Mar 30, 2020   Copyright 2020 Nathalie Handal

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