Post Road Magazine #25

The Strange Question of Alberto de Lacerda

Scott Laughlin

Looking back, the life and work of my late friend, the Portuguese poet Alberto de Lacerda (1928–2007), has become a painful reminder of the power of the dominant culture and those who influence it. Read this, read that, the dominant culture says, which is to say, buy this and buy that.

From that thick soup some ingredients are invariably left out, despite the fact that their inclusion would add another dimension, something transformative, even revelatory. The poetry of Alberto de Lacerda has become one of those missing ingredients. But I realize it's a strange question to ask of humanity, the same one that Max Brod considered when he decided not to burn Kafka's manuscripts: should we care?

I walked into Alberto's class, called "Poetry from Symbolism to Surrealism," in 1991, the fall of my senior year at Boston University, and here was a man with a wisp of white hair sort of floating above his balding head, his head turned in slight profile, thus displaying his most prominent feature: his nose. Two pillars disrupted the classroom, and after I sat in one of the only empty chairs, which happened to be behind one of these pillars, he exclaimed, aghast, "No, not there! I must see everyone!" He instructed me to move my chair, which I did, blushing as I screeched the chair across the floor while other students cringed.

Each student who came in after me suffered the same fate, so that by the time class began, we all found ourselves zigzagged across the room, at odd angles to one another, but perfectly placed for Alberto to see all of our faces.

Because Alberto hadn't followed the typical path into academia, because he was a poet and not a PhD, his teaching was quite different from much that I'd experienced before. He kept a sort of devout distance from the poems we read: instead of invading the center of the poem with analysis, he kept the mysterious center intact, and by keeping it intact, we students were able to perceive it. It was a trick that Alberto somehow pulled off, perhaps one that only he could achieve. The result was that I began to see poems as objects that exist in space, rather than mere words on a page. Through Alberto, I understood implicitly what Keats meant when he called his urn that "unravished bride of quietness."

Later in the semester, Alberto told us that he would be happy to have "a coffee" with any of us. It was the first time I'd had such an invitation from any of my professors, and when I later saw him limping down Commonwealth Avenue (the limp was the result of an injury sustained on a wet street in Lisbon in the '60s) a few weeks later, I ran up behind him and said, "Professor Lacerda!" He lunged forward, trembling, "Ah! You gave me such a fright!" (He spoke with a British accent and had many British-isms.)

Despite the fear I struck in him that day, we ended up meeting regularly throughout the semester, and when he returned to London in the spring (he only taught at BU in the fall semester), we began to exchange letters. This was the initiation of what would become a prolific correspondence: we exchanged over the course of our friendship over 300 letters.

His letters at that time were mostly full of suggestions: go to this café (it's quiet, no music), pick up that book, definitely see this exhibition. I remember in particular a very small show of drawings at the Museum of Fine Arts that he recommended and that was wonderful. No one was there. It was my introduction to searching beyond the blockbuster, artcelebrity show. I reported back dutifully on my visits and my purchases, and he responded in kind. But as I had now become a second-semester senior and was turning my attention to life beyond school, the letters dwindled in frequency and eventually stopped altogether.

After graduation, I moved to France, and after a stint farming in the south, I ended up with a room in Paris. From there, I visited a friend in London, and I picked up the phone and called Alberto. "Do you remember me?" I asked. "What nonsense! Of course I remember you!" We met in the café at the National Gallery and then went to see all of the treasures in the museum, which were, to him, like friends. He spoke of them as if he'd known them for a long time but was constantly surprised at how they could still offer something new. In front of Piero della Francesco's "The Baptism of Christ," he went as silent and still as a statue, until finally whispering, "It's one of the wonders of the world."

This visit cemented our friendship. The letters resumed in earnest: from Paris to London; from my native California to Boston; from New York, where I moved in 1993, to Boston, and always to London. Slowly, too, I began to hear about his world, and about his poetry. In one letter, he told me, as a matter of fact, without boasting, that he had "written one of the largest bodies of work in all of Portuguese literature."

This body of work is out of print in the United States, suffering a fate similar to that of Fernando Pessoa's work. And they are linked in other ways: it was Pessoa's Portuguese publisher who accepted Alberto's first book of poems when he was just eighteen. I often ask myself, is he out of print here because Americans don't care much about Portugal, or about poetry, or quite sadly, both?

Alberto's poetry is direct, without artifice. Here's one poem, in its entirety, written when he was about eighteen:

Water
My first element

Fire
Later

Light

Light is now
My slow element
Forever.

Language was Alberto's garden, plucked and tended with utmost care, no weed sneaking through the soil. About the language he wrote in all his life, here is a poem entitled "The Portuguese Language":

This language that I love
With its barbarous cut
Its honey
Its hellenic salt
And olive
This limpidity
Which so often
Has a deaf halo
This wonder
So massacred
By nearly all who speak it
This languor
This singing
Amphora
This manly sword
So graceful
Capable of brandishing all the ways
Of all the air
Of all the dances
This voice
This suburb
Language
Capable of all the colours
All the risks
Of expression
(And always wins the game)
Capable of everything
Like a woman really
In love
This language
Is my constant India
My endless wedding
My love forever
My dissipation
My eternal
Virginity

Although Alberto's poetry is mainly free verse and often with very short lines, he did write a book of sonnets, which he later published in Venice under the title Sonetos. This book contains 147 sonnets, many of which he wrote during an eight-day trip to Venice. He told me that they just fell out of him, perfectly intact, and that he often didn't alter even one word. The subject matter of his work recalls his beloved Frank O'Hara: there are poems to and about Mozart, Picasso, Martha Graham, Stravinsky, The Beatles, Godard, bullfighting, wine, ecstasy, love, paradise, and his many friends. (He once said, "This is what I live for: friendship and the things of the spirit.") There are places, too: Austin, New Orleans, San Francisco, New York, Boston, Lisbon, Mozambique, and, of course, London. London, his "most silent most difficult/Beloved friend. . .

My favorite form of inhabiting the world/My throne. . . To this enchanted forest I came to be born/When I was twenty-three." Alberto was eighteen when he left his native Mozambique (the year was 1946). He arrived in Portugal in the thick of António Salazar's Fascist regime. The situation was bad enough to provoke a move to London to work for the BBC in 1951. London quickly became his spiritual home.

There, he befriended the Sitwells, who introduced him to, as he said, "the world." He became a regular part of London's literary scene in the late '50s and '60s. Arthur Waley translated his first book, 77 Poems, which appeared in 1955. Through Edith Sitwell, the book quickly circulated among the top echelon of London's poets, and Alberto's reputation as a poet "who knows" became established. On a return trip to Portugal in 1962, during a period of student upheavals, he was briefly jailed by the dictatorship; the charge was associating with subversives.

Alberto then emerges in the United States, touching the inner circles of American poetry. In the late 1960s, a chance encounter led him to a professorship at the University of Texas at Austin. Within a few years, he had organized, along with his good friend Octavio Paz, a reading that featured Borges, Zukovsky, Creeley, Milosz, and Robert Duncan. Alberto was then recruited from Austin to Boston University, where he befriended Anne Sexton and Rosanna Warren, among others, and became one of the most beloved professors of those lucky enough, like me, to encounter his classes.

Lacerda's obscurity today wouldn't be so strange if it weren't for how he had been championed in the past: T.S. Eliot sought him out at a party at the home of Edith Sitwell; Marianne Moore quoted him in one of her prose writings; John Ashbery said to Alberto, of his poetry, "You don't need any crutches." I have not even touched upon his friendships in the Portuguese-speaking world: Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen, Cesariny, and Manuel Bandeira, not to mention two of his best friends, both of whom also expatriated themselves, the painters Vieira da Silva and Paula Rego.

Of course, there are other factors contributing to Alberto's obscurity. First, Portugal itself, the country of Vasco da Gama and the discoveries, so rich in history and global influence, but a country that lost its colonies to the ideas born in the Enlightenment, to revolution, and that squandered its wealth and shrank to a sliver on the edge of Europe, its culture marginalized by the rest of Europe as not as "great" as French, British, German, or Spanish culture. Add to this situation Salazar and the stamping out of culture that the twentieth century saw. After all, it wasn't until after the '70s that Pessoa, that most beloved of Portuguese poets, began to find his rightful place in the literature of Portugal. Although born in 1922, José Saramago, the Nobel Laureate, didn't even begin writing in earnest and receiving fame until after the Salazar regime fell in 1974.

Finally, those who stayed and endured the dictatorship, of course, held the keys to Portugal's cultural establishment, and naturally they wanted to promote those whom they knew—those, like them, who had stayed and endured. To many, Alberto had turned his back, so why promote him? It is a myopic view, to be sure, but one that is very much in play. Then add the fact that Alberto was gay, and there appears quite a lot for him to overcome. After all, the first openly gay character in Portuguese fiction didn't appear until as late as 1997.

Not to say that there aren't those who have championed him, namely his good friend, the poet and memoirist Luís Amorim de Sousa, who inherited Alberto's estate. Despite constantly dwelling on the edge of poverty, Alberto amassed a huge collection that consists of books, recordings, letters, over a thousand works of art, posters, photographs, letters and signatures. (During a recent visit to Lisbon, I held in my hand in the space of an hour signatures and letters from Proust, Lorca, Mallarmé, Pessoa, and Whitman, among others.) Luís has been working tirelessly to find a home for this estate, and he's also brought out books of Alberto's poetry, as well as books about Alberto and his friendships. We're still waiting to see whether or not his efforts will launch Alberto as fully as he should be into the Portuguese consciousness.

He is also remembered by some in the United States. Jhumpa Lahiri, who was also his student at Boston University, wrote about him in two separate remembrances, one in Poetry, where she called him "one of Portugal's greatest poets in the second half of the twentieth century." Rosanna Warren also recently published a poem entitled, very directly, "Alberto de Lacerda." Poet's House in New York had a show last year that put on display some of Alberto's collection as well as documented his literary friendships. Christopher Middleton, Jhumpa Lahiri, David Wevill, and Luís Amorim de Sousa all came to speak at the opening. There's also a book going to press through the University of Buffalo, which will explore Alberto's relationship with Robert Duncan and Jess. Finally, there's the literary program that I co-founded in Lisbon, called Disquiet, which is dedicated to Alberto's memory.

Alberto de Lacerda died in 2007 in London from complications from a stroke. He is gone, but his verse is there, is here, still waiting to be born.

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