Sunday, June 24, 2018

Dia de Macau: 印光任的"三巴曉鍾詩" / Yin Guangren's "Bells of São Paulo at Dawn"

Feliz Dia de Macau! To celebrate, I'm cooking porco balichão tamarindo, and I've taken a very hasty stab at translating a poem from 澳門記略, AKA the Breve Monografia de Macau, or the Short Monograph on Macau (a misleading name, since it's not particularly short.) Compiled in the 1750s by 印光任 Yin Guangren and 張汝霖 Zhang Rulin, two Chinese officials who'd held Macau-releated posts, the book is a pretty fascinating study in Chinese perceptions of the Portuguese. I haven't come close to finishing it, but there's something about the work and its authors that's held my imagination for a while.

As poetry was a requisite skill of Chinese officialdom, the text is interspersed with plenty of poems. Below is one I copied from the really nice Fundação Macau edition, which reproduces the Chinese text from what I believe is a 19th-century edition. (I've also got the 2009 Portuguese edition translated by Jin Guo Ping, which is the one I can read without taking forever, and which I referenced in making my translation.)

I'm not sure that the poem is written in five-syllable lines, since the original text is printed vertically and without any punctuation, so I apologize if the transcription (and thus my translation) is wrong. I aim to one day understand Chinese poetic structures well enough to be able to tell five- and seven- and x-syllable styles apart without much trouble, but as an off-the-cuff rendering, this will have to suffice for now.

Enjoy, caro leitor! 澳門萬歲!





Bells of São Paulo at Dawn

From a distant temple, the sparse ringing of bells:
a comforting sound in the stillness.
A glint of moonlight sinks into the sea
in harmony with chill clouds crossing the mountains.
In the fifth watch, between darkness and dawn,
all things are without distinction.
I try asking among the foreign priests
if they have insight into this crucial matter.

大三巴 is the Chinese name for the (ruined) church of São Paulo in Macau. Jin Guo Ping doesn't translate it, choosing to render it as Sanba; maybe the poet isn't talking about São Paulo, but in this context it seems to me that he is.

 I've used the characters as they appear in the original text, even if they were used in place of another character (e.g., 蕃 instead of 藩).

Saturday, May 26, 2018

"Feast Day"

Here's the story I submitted to the Rota das Letras competition this year. Almost all accounts of the attempted invasion of Macau by the Dutch in 1622 talk about how the invaders were defeated primarily by African slaves and Jesuit priests manning the cannon atop the Fortaleza do Monte (which is now the Museu de Macau). I find this episode compelling, so I wrote a story about it. Enjoy.

Feast Day

As the Dutch beat drums and blew horns aboard their ships all night long, the Chinese slipped away, so quietly that nobody in the Christian city noticed they were gone until daybreak. 

—Where'd they all go? Paulina asked.

—Where do you think? They left soon as the heretics' ships arrived and everyone started shooting. Like sensible folk.

—So why are we here?

I laughed. On a normal day the laugh would've been swallowed up by the noise of all the people who came here to draw water and buy fish and vegetables, but now it merely echoed off the brick walls of the temple where they burned incense and asked their gods for money and good luck. 
—Must be because São João wants us to stay, Paulina decided.

—Sure, if you listen to what the priests tell you. 
—This is no day for blasphemy, boy.

Maybe, but I still couldn't believe we were sent out here to the Chinese village just to fetch food and water. I felt like bait in a trap.

—You smell joss sticks?

I found the Chinese and their idols intriguing, so I was always happy to leave the Christian city and come here, no matter how many bad looks or nasty words were thrown my way. Since I was brought here three years ago, I'd watched the Portuguese spend more time getting rich than convincing the Chinese to exchange their gods for one nailed to a cross. The Chinese mostly ignored the Portuguese. I liked them for that, and for the smell of their incense, too, even if the priests said they were going to Hell for worshiping false gods.

—Let's go. Nobody selling nothing here. Fill the buckets and move it. My kids are waiting.
I dipped a bucket into the spring and looked around. The water here was no better than what could be drawn from Lilau, but the senhora was feuding about some petty thing with one of the ladies who lived there, and refused to let even us slaves go there for water. She was mad, our mistress, probably because her husband was a miserable old man who ignored her when he wasn't out to sea. 
—Step lively! How you think the heretics will treat you if they catch you here pretending you can read Chinese scrawl?

I hung the buckets on my shoulder pole and got moving. I only spilled a little when the Jesuits fired another cannon off up on the Monte and, a moment later, there was a loud, muffled explosion behind me.


Meu Deus, that boy thinks he's clever, with his jibes about the whites and the padres. He thinks the Chinese like him, too. He's lucky they know he's a slave, and that the whites keep his ass in line. If they didn't, he'd run off and end up rotting in some hole in Canton, surviving on moldy rice and cold tea and begging God to forgive his stupidity.

The Portuguese knew the heretics were coming, which must have been why they had us go out to the village, hoping we'd find something out, or at least make the Dutch waste bullets on blacks instead of whites. While Henrique stood around congratulating the Chinese for running off like cowards, I did what needed doing. I spoke up for São João, whose day it was, against the boy's lazy blasphemy, and used the faculties God gave me. The boy was right that there was no smell of joss sticks, but his nose missed the stink of gunpowder drifting from the northeast. His eyes, fixed on the empty village, missed the faint pall of smoke hanging over the horizon in the same direction. His ears—meu Deus, the boy was too busy listening to how quiet the village was to hear the faraway shouting in the heretics' ugly, foreign language.

—You still here when the Dutchmen show their red hair, even São João won't save you, I said.

—You think he's going to save you?

God knows the boy needed slapping harder than any of my children, but I had no time for that. As the padres up the Monte touched match to powder and opened fire on the heretics, I stepped lively and didn't look back until I reached the pile of stone and crushed shells they called the city wall.

—Hold up there!

I looked up and saw some half-breed with a sword in one hand and a musket in the other, looking at me like I was some Chinese trying to sneak in after hours.

—What? Senhora is waiting on me. Open the gate.

—Only Portuguese allowed inside the gate now.

—My blood's more Portuguese than yours, you left-behind bastard.

—Prove it, then!

Was he serious? The heretics were about to storm the City of the Name of God in China while São João was up in Heaven, spending his feast day trying to intercede on our behalf, and this puffed-up Malacca boy decided this was the time to prove he was a man? I squatted, eased the carry pole off my shoulders, and picked up a rock. I squinted at him long enough for him to consider dropping his sword and pointing his musket at me, but the rock was out of my hand before he did anything.

—Filho da puta!

I missed, but it didn't matter. He shrieked and ducked out of sight. A moment later, the gate opened just enough to let me and Henrique through. Once we were inside, someone slammed it shut and barred it.

Nobody, white, black, Chinese, or halfbreed, said a word to me until I reached the house, where the senhora was leaning out her bedchamber window, her veil partially drawn back, puffing on the pipe she thought her husband didn't know about.

—Paulina! What took so long?

—We came as fast as we could, senhora.

—Get in here right now and find Padre António. He wants to talk to all of you.

—May I see my children first, senhora?

—Is that really necessary? This is a matter of life and death. The Dutch are upon us, and there is nobody to defend us but boys and Jesuits. Did you hear what the heretics threatened to do?

—No, senhora.

—Suffice to say you and I both would be better off dead by our own hand, sinful as it is to even think that, let alone say it aloud. What are you waiting for, girl? Hurry!

Even in the face of death, the woman was insufferable. I went to my children, Duarte, Madalena, and Catarina, who by the grace of God were still asleep. After kissing them goodbye, I went looking for the priest.


—Do you know what day it is, Henrique?

—Of course, Padre. São João's feast day.

—That it is, the priest said, smiling at me like I was simple, or a child. And to celebrate this holy day, I have something for all of you.

I looked at Paulina, Zé, Carlinho, Inácia, and the others from our household who'd been told to meet Padre António out by the pile of stone being used to build the Jesuits' fortress. Everyone knew we weren't here to celebrate the feast day, no matter how much Padre António, cursed by his youth and recent arrival in Macau to minister to black slaves instead of rich whites, tried to pretend otherwise.

—What about the Dutch? asked Zé. Shouldn't we be preparing for them?

—That is why you are here. You all love God and the Church, don't you?

We all said yes.

—And you know that your masters are here in this foreign land to share God's love and His truth.

We nodded.

—Very good. We must defend this city from the Dutch. Do you know why?

—Because they're heretics! Carlinho shouted. That fool went to church even more than Paulina, who went three times a week even though she had to sit behind the Chinese. 
—Precisely, Carlinho, Padre António said. He turned and nodded to the novice waiting nearby, who dragged over a giant basket. The boy removed the lid, revealing bottles of Portuguese brandy and gourds of Chinese wine.

—This is a gift to you on this holy day, the priest said. There's another one, too.

All of us crowded around the basket, and anyone who says they weren't thinking about how to share twelve bottles between fifteen slaves is lying. We got wine at Mass and sometimes on feast days, but only a little. I had a suspicion about why the priest was being so generous, and he proved me right.

—Your other gift is the chance to defend God, His church, and His missionaries, your masters, from the Dutch pestilence. Accept that gift now, and God will smile upon you for eternity.

—How can we do that? It was Inácia, the senhora's personal attendant. She looked tired, but I could tell she was glad to be away from that crazy old woman. You going to give us swords?

—Swords, spears, and muskets. 
That was all it took for people to start grabbing for bottles. Paulina, pulling the stopper from a gourd, looked at me and shook her head.

—Don't you dare open your mouth, she said. Don't you dare.

—I'll take their wine, but it's their fault this place was left undefended, not mine.

—You heard Padre António, said Carlinho. It's a gift to fight for God. 
—If the Dutch don't kill you, they'll make you a slave, Zé reasoned, wiping brandy from his lips.

—I'm already a slave, fool. So are you.

—Better Portuguese slave than heretic slave.

I was about to punch Zé in his ugly face when Padre António intervened. No, he said. Save your anger for the Dutch.

—What if I don't want to fight?

The priest said nothing.

—That's what I thought. I spat and snatched the gourd from Paulina, who just looked at me sadly.

—I cannot force you to fight, Henrique, but I will not allow you to speak rebelliously to the others. And you know Zé is right. You may think it cruel that God has made you a slave, but at least you are not a heretic's slave. The Portuguese have seen to your salvation.
I listened to the boom of cannon as I gulped down Chinese wine. I wanted to hit the padre even more than I'd wanted to hit Zé, but if I did that, I was as good as dead.

—Don't be stupid, Paulina snapped at me, her eyes blazing. You're fighting against yourself when you should be fighting for yourself. She took back the gourd and took a pull.

—Those muskets got shot and powder? I asked Padre António. He nodded. Good. We'll need more wine, too.


Everybody but me was drunk when Padre António led us to the city gate and started handing out weapons. I had a few mouthfuls of Chinese wine to put fire in my belly, even though the day was already hot. All I wanted was to see my children again. Liquor wouldn't help me do that, but it would drown my fear.

—This is a stupid idea, Henrique said. He wasn't sober, but he wasn't already falling down drunk like Inácia and that boy Ferrinho. 
—Maybe, I said. But maybe God will look out for us, and it'll be over soon.

—Oh, it'll be over soon, no doubt.

A few scared boys trying to pass for soldiers watched us as we armed ourselves. Maybe they were jealous because here we were, slaves, drinking all the wine we could. Or maybe they pitied us, since we were the ones going out to meet the Dutch. Padre António and another priest showed us how to load and fire muskets, then prayed for victory over the heretics.

—I want to give my confession, Padre.

—There's no time, Paulina. We have to go now.


The priest nodded. His hands were shaking. It is my duty too, he said.

—You said it was a gift.

—To serve is another kind of gift. He took a deep breath and wiped the sweat from his broad forehead. God be with you, Paulina.

—And with you, Padre. 
At least fifty slaves rushed out when the soldiers opened the gate. The priests insisted we stay in smaller groups, though, and Padre Antonio led ours. I saw Henrique turn and look back at the city wall and spit. I don't know how that boy could live with such pride and anger. I expected him to run away as soon as we weren't looking.

—Why didn't you take a musket? Inácia asked me. She looked ready to throw up, and nearly dropped her gun.

—I'll take yours if I need one. Don't think I will, though. I looked at the pike I'd been given, half again as tall as me.

—You really think São João will help us?

—I know he will. 
—I think—

—Be quiet, girl, and pay attention. Follow Zé and the padre.

I could hear gunfire and see smoke rising from around Guia Hill. As we made our way through the Chinese fields, Padre António prayed and kept his musket at the ready. A ways behind us came more defenders of the city, mostly slaves, but also some real soldiers, Portuguese and mestiços.

Zé started singing, and when Padre António didn't stop him, all of us followed suit. I took a bottle of brandy someone passed me and drank deep. As the sound of battle grew louder, my fear melted away and a new feeling, wild and hot, came over me. Had I not been fighting for São João, I'd have thought I'd been possessed by the Devil himself. I gripped the pike so hard my knuckles hurt and started up the hill after Padre António, wondering what I would do when I saw the Dutch with my own eyes.


I squinted down the length of my musket at the Dutchmen who'd stopped at the bottom of the hill, not far from a grove of bamboo creaking in the feeble breeze. They were red-faced and sweaty, dressed in leather and wool. They were the most pathetic white men I'd ever seen, and I wondered at the Portuguese fear of them. Zé had been right, though: who would want to serve those wretches?

A black slave I didn't know, who'd been one of the few men holding the hill during the first Dutch advance, sat against a nearby rock, mindlessly polishing an old, rust-pitted sword. He was younger than me, and had blood on his tunic.

—What are you waiting for? he asked.

—A better shot, unless you want to run down there and get their attention.

—That's easy enough.

He tripped on a root as soon as he got to his feet. He almost fell headfirst down the hill, but I grabbed his arm and hauled him back.

—How stupid are you, bobinho? I was joking! Those Dutchmen will cut you to pieces.

—God's looking out for me. I already killed three white men.

—Well, you go down there now and you ruin everything. You go when I say you go, or Padre António says so.

—Why should I listen to you? I've been fighting all morning. You just got here.

I wished, not for the first time, that I'd run away and hid until this was all over. But even if I'd done so, Paulina, Zé, Inácia, this man I didn't like and whose name I didn't know, and all the rest would still have to fight, and their lives—our lives—were already miserable enough without me making things worse.

I made sure my match was still lit and took aim at the nearest, most haggard Dutchman. Just before I squeezed the trigger, everything went as silent as the Chinese village had been that morning.


I thought of my children as I waited for Padre António to give the signal to attack. Inácia and Ferrinho were shooting at the heretics as quickly as they could, which wasn't very quickly at all, and their drunkenness didn't help their aim. As the sun beat down on me and I sweated out the wine I'd drunk, I didn't know which was worse: the fear which told me I'd never see Duarte and Madalena and Catarina again, or the urge to fight that filled my chest and made it hard to breathe. All I could do was put my soul in God's hands, just as I always had.

Somewhere to my left, further downhill, I heard a volley of musket fire, followed by a cry in Portuguese.

—Santiago, and at them! Charge!

―Now! shouted Padre António, pointing with his sword at the Dutchmen, who looked tired and confused, perhaps even afraid, but maintained their ranks. Now! God is with us!

Later, I could barely remember my feet carrying me swiftly down the hill, the high-pitched screams that erupted from my throat, and seeing that boy Henrique use his musket like a club. Yet I would clearly recall the sun catching the blade of my weapon just before I buried it in the neck of a sunburned soldier, the smell of blood hot from the vein, and running through and hacking at that soldier's brothers in arms as if they were fresh blocks of the bean curd the Chinese are so fond of. I allowed the Devil to take me so I could do what needed doing for São João, the City of the Name of God in China, and my children.

I didn't pray for forgiveness or give thanks to God until I got home. It was only then, my children held tight against my ruined blouse, that I had something to pray for and someone to be thankful for, even knowing the Devil would never leave me.


―Where are your trophies, Henrique?

I turned and looked at Zé, who was carrying a bag full of coins and had two severed heads tied to the rope he used as a belt. I spat at him and kept walking, wondering if the smell of joss sticks would ever penetrate the stink of gunpowder lodged in my nose.

—I saw you, Henrique. You killed at least two. Why didn't—

—Shut up, Zé.

—But we won! We won! Aren't you proud? 
—Proud of what, idiota? 
—Proud of what we did, Paulina cut in. She sounded, even looked, like a different woman. Us. Not what the Portuguese or priests did, but what we did.

—Who's us? Carlinho's dead. Inácia's dead. Ferrinho lost three fingers. Even Padre António might be blind in one eye.

—The padre said that the senhor and senhora will free us for what we did.

I said nothing. Neither did Paulina, for a while. She spoke when we reached the city wall, where the sound of church bells ringing in victory was almost deafening.

—Do you hate God so much that you won't admit that he sent São João to help us today? 
—I don't hate God, Paulina. I hate his slaves.

—You're a slave, Zé pointed out.

I was more tired than I'd ever been, and I wanted to turn around and go back to the Chinese village before the Chinese returned. I wanted silence and the smell of incense.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

"Nights Like These"

I submitted the following story to the annual short story competition held by the Rota das Letras, AKA the Macau Literary Festival, at the end of 2016 or early 2017. Obviously, it wasn't selected. I've been sitting on it for a while, thinking I might submit it elsewhere, but that ain't gonna happen, so here you go, dear readers. I've got another one that wasn't selected that I'll probably put up soon as well.

Enjoy, and thanks for reading.

Nights Like These

Most evenings, Luís Gonzaga Gomes is too exhausted from a day divided between the Liceu, the library, the Leal Senado, or a half-dozen other organizations to do anything when he gets home, other than eat supper, listen to a record, and smoke a cigarette or two before putting in another few hours' work revising lessons, answering letters, writing articles, and reading.

But there are nights like these, when he lights the last of his cigarettes and thanks God not only for tobacco, but for running out of it, as it will force him to make a detour on the way home to buy more. Doing so will give him the opportunity to shake off the loneliness that haunts him from time to time, when he's surrounded by too many books and too much silence.

This loneliness, awful as it can be, isn't enough to drive him to despair, though it is discomfiting and gets in the way of his work. It took him a long time to learn to differentiate loneliness from solitude, and to figure out how to combat it, but now when the spectre of loneliness looms he stops what he's doing in favor of recreation, usually in the form of a long walk. If it's not too dark, he stops by the soccer pitches and hockey fields to watch others play. When there's no sport to be had or watched, he turns to his ever-growing record collection or the radio. If it's particularly late at night he sifts the static until he finds English programs from Hong Kong or tiresome propaganda from much closer. These latter broadcasts are hardly conducive to relaxation, though in their own perverse way they remind him of how fortunate he is, and how important his work is, for one of the reasons he does what he does is to remind this small sliver of the world, and hopefully that other slightly larger sliver halfway around the globe to which this one belongs, of the glories, intricacies, follies, mysteries, and truths that comprise the legacy of the Chinese, whether they live in the recently red mainland or here, south of the Portas do Cerco, under a foreign flag.

Once he's procured cigarettes from a street vendor, he resumes walking, in no hurry to get home. His thoughts turn slightly less inward to a project he has not yet begun, because it bears too much resemblance to an earlier endeavor— one he doesn't quite regret, but in which he remains disappointed, since in it he sees his limits as a writer and translator. He quickly abandons this line of thinking, which is no less painful than loneliness at its worst, and focuses on the old houses to his left, their pastel walls aglow with latent sunshine even as night settles over the city. It's an effect he imagines isn't found anywhere else in the world, though if asked he'd be the first to admit that this belief stems from a love of his home more than any objective study of light and architecture. Over the years he's been asked all sorts of questions by all sorts of people, in several different languages, and he's always done his best to answer them, or at least teach those who ask how to find the answer for themselves.
But as darkness seeps into the City of the Name of God, there is practically nobody around to ask questions. He counts it a blessing, remembering how crowded the streets were during and after the war, packed with refugees desperate for any scrap of charity or chance to start anew. He listens to the sharp sound of his new shoes against the old cobblestones, diluted echoes of the firecrackers of last month's lunar new year celebrations. Without the need to dodge other pedestrians, rickshaws, or automobiles, he moves freely and quickly, letting his feet, rather than his mind, lead him.

And so he finds himself in the vicinity of the Seminário de São José. He pauses to light a cigarette and leans against a high stone wall, careful not to get his suit dirty. The priests-to-be and their instructors are probably taking their evening meal or are at prayer, but he catches sight of a familiar figure leaving through the back gate and heading his way. In the thickening darkness the billowing white cassock and wispy, trailing beard lend the oncoming padre a supernatural air, diminished by his thick, black-framed glasses and satchel full of books and papers. 
“Senhor Gomes,” the priest calls out. His Portuguese bears the stamp of the metropolis, only slightly altered by decades in what may turn out to be Portugal's last overseas territory. He raises an arm and waves, the gesture somehow both lazy and solemn. “I did not expect to see you here. Where are you going?”

“Nowhere in particular,” Gomes says, moving his cigarette to his left hand so he can offer the padre a proper handshake. “How are you this evening, Padre Teixeira?”

“Tired,” the priest says, “and I didn't even have to teach today.” His long beard and thinning hair make him look much older than Gomes, despite being his junior. “Have you been doing research, Senhor Gomes?”

“Perhaps too much,” Gomes says, surprised at the hint of shame in his voice. “I needed a break, and it so happened that it was time to be going anyway.”

Padre Teixeira nods vigorously. “I know precisely what you mean.”

The priest isn't simply being agreeable. They've met in the city's archives and libraries more often than they have in church, and Gomes occasionally suspects that Padre Teixeira's disdain for attention and fame is not entirely honest. He doesn't doubt the priest's love of history or his devotion to God, but he's seen him at too many public events, and read too many of his books, to think that Padre Teixeira is as convinced of man's earthly transience as he claims. Then there's the matter of old-fashioned chauvinism: Gomes has heard that Padre Teixeira looks down on his Portuguese because he did not have the fortune of being born in Portugal. Nevertheless, Gomes overlooks such picayune details, because he and the priest are more alike than not, and both of them have a deep affinity for the city and its history.

“Where are you headed, Padre?” Gomes asks.

The priest shrugs. “To eat noodles, I suppose. I'm tired of bananas.”

Gomes smiles. Padre Teixeira lives on bananas and Scotch. “I won't delay your supper, then,” he says.

“Have you eaten?” Teixeira asks. 
“I don't have much of an appetite right now,” he replies. 
“I see,” the priest says. “In that case, go with God, and boa noite, senhor.”

The priest hurries off to slurp sopa de fitas among Chinese nonbelievers. Gomes finishes his cigarette and starts walking, unsure as to what to make of his brief encounter with Padre Teixeira.

He roams the labyrinth of streets along the Porto Interior, gloomy even in the full light of day and nearly impenetrable by night. The sound of Hong Kong pop music drifts from an open window above him, while an elderly Chinese couple argues behind the half-closed door of a shop selling pots and pans. It sounds like an argument they've had a thousand times, and Gomes smiles at the ritual of it. A confirmed bachelor, the closest he comes to this sort of domestic back-and-forth is with his sister or, more frequently, the cook, who likes to needle him for not marrying and having children. He ignores her now, having long ago explained that most of the time he prefers his own company, and couldn't imagine being as productive or able to indulge his myriad interests if he had a family to look after. Perhaps if he'd joined the priesthood his decision wouldn't raise so many eyebrows. The thought makes him grin.

When he reaches the waterfront, where the bustle of the day's maritime trade is giving way to nocturnal pursuits of varying sorts and legality, he turns north. The floating casino is packed with gamblers, and he can smell their clouds of cigarette smoke from the road. A trio of foreign sailors speaks a language he doesn't recognize and gawks at their surroundings. If Gomes were a betting man, he'd wager that they'll spend all their money by midnight, most likely in the brothels along Rua da Felicidade. He doesn't understand the appeal of gambling or prostitutes, and wishes that the city had a more salubrious reputation, but such things were woven into the social fabric long before his time, and he isn't one to pluck at the threads. 
After watching a steamer arrive from Hong Kong, he turns back toward the heart of the city. In need of a brief rest, he takes his time walking toward the Jardim Luís de Camões, where he finds a bench, catches his breath, and reties his shoes. Two men sit at a stone table nearby, playing Chinese chess in meditative silence, while a middle-aged woman reads the day's issue of Va Kio Pou aloud to a bird in a bamboo cage. Her eyesight must be amazing, Gomes thinks, to be able to read in near-darkness. A group of children runs by, too quickly for him to identify their school uniforms, and disperses with equal speed, each of the dozen boys and girls scattering in the direction of their homes and, presumably, the supper that awaits them.

Gomes looks at his watch and decides that he'd better get home soon. Before he goes, he walks up the hill to the stone grotto where the bust of Luís de Camões broods in shadow. Camões faces west, toward the Porto Interior and China beyond, but Gomes imagines that the poet's one eye is fixed, in an unchanging bronze stare that betrays none of the saudade that must have weighed upon his heart when he came here four hundred years ago, upon a much more distant Portugal.

It takes Gomes longer than expected to get home. He keeps letting himself become distracted by the city in its nocturnal form, stalked as it is by hungry ghosts of the past and present and lit by candles and casino neon. He wonders what the future holds for the Cidade do Nome de Deus, Não Há Outra Mais Leal, and how tomorrow's historians will view the rapid changes that Gomes sees taking place all around him. With his understanding of the city's past, he should know better than to worry, but something in the air these days gives him pause when he contemplates the city's fate. He knows what it is, of course, but prefers not to think about it.

From the street outside his house he hears the neighbors' son practicing the flute, and the man of the house periodically interrupting in disappointed, Chinese-accented Portuguese. Gomes hopes the boy improves enough someday to silence his father, who does not play the flute himself. Gomes unlocks the door, goes inside, and heads straight for his study. He loosens his tie and takes off his shoes before settling into the low-slung, long-armed rocking chair his grandfather bought from a Goan family. His feet hurt, his stomach is empty, and his perambulations around Macau have put him behind in his work, but Luís Gonzaga Gomes is no longer lonely. He is merely alone, alone as the solitary figure in the landscape scroll hanging on the wall, alone as he has always been and has always wanted to be.

 He lights a cigarette and closes his eyes.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Expanding Mind

A couple months ago I started listening to Erik Davis' Expanding Mind podcast. I've been a big fan of Erik Davis since reading Techgnosis in college; I sent him a copy of Axis Mundi Sum when it was published (I got a copy of his chapbook on Burning Man in return), and I've known about Expanding Mind for a while, so I'm not sure why I didn't check it out sooner. These days I don't worry too much about coming to something late, though, as it seems like I find things (or they find me) when the time is right—and conditions are certainly ripe for the fascinating, friendly, intense conversations Davis has with his guests.

Some time ago I noticed that I didn't seem as curious about the world as I'd used to be. A lot of things I'd been into, or wondered about, had fallen by the wayside. This is a typical developmental process, as we outgrow or discard some interests in favor of others, and with age we (usually) start to figure out that the world is too vast and complicated a place to keep tabs on as much as we might so desire, which forces us to reduce the scope of our attention. And yet I find this process, which I suspect is more conditioned than it is natural, rather stifling, since for most people it never stops. As wild and unpredictable as the world can be, humans are really good at ignoring it in favor of locking themselves into increasingly restrictive patterns, and through those patterns, we come to view the world and our existence therein as smaller, safer, more mundane, less pregnant with meaning, than they actually are, or can be. Which is perfectly understandable to a point—who doesn't want or need a reliable degree of safety, certainty, and comprehensibility?—but at some point the pattern tightens to the point of inflexibility, and you're stuck, often without even knowing it.

Erik Davis' conversations with folks on Expanding Mind are a wonderful way to break those patterns, as is his writing. His/their discussions of religion, psychedelics, science, high weirdness, the occult, music, pop culture, and all the ways in which such things intersect and intertwine are consistently thought-provoking, as well as thoroughly enjoyable. (As one of the guests on Expanding Mind recently noted, enjoyment is a crucial component of consciousness practices. If awakening, or clarity, or whatever, is nothing more than a chore, then why not stay mired in samsara?)

What I find especially valuable is that neither Davis nor his guests are credulous true believers: they may be practicing sorcerers, meditation teachers unaffiliated with any particular tradition, esoteric musicians, scholars of Gnosticism, or scientists pursuing the outer reaches of psychedelic research and therapy, but there's never that sense of "holy shit, these people are up their own ass" you might get on AM radio or Facebook. There's a healthy skepticism (not in that tired-ass Dawkins/Harris/etc. sense, mind you), intellectual honesty, and connection to modern critical frameworks that makes you eager to hear everything they have to say, even if it's completely fuckin' out there. And out there, caro leitor, is where it's at.

I mean, I find magic(k) fascinating, and I've been meditating for a decade now, but it's way easier for me to think about things like ghosts, egregores, 氣/qi, and hoodoo as psycho-social phenomena and practices with potentially tangible (and very real aesthetic) effects than to say "oh yeah, that shit is 100% real", just as I can look at more mainstream theologies and appreciate them without imbuing them with what, to me, is the mark of death known as certainty. Erik Davis is more or less on the same page, albeit far more informed, well-spoken, and cooler than yours truly, so if any of this sounds interesting, check out Expanding Mind and his writing, a couple decades' worth of which can be found at

All right, dudes, that's it for now. I was going to get into some other stuff, like meditation, but I'll save that for another time. I gotta get dinner started, so I'll just sum up by saying that Erik Davis rules, and that I wish I'd run into him when he was at Rice, because having a beer with him at Valhalla would've been all kinds of rad.

"When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro." -HST

Your pal,

Sunday, March 25, 2018

15 years!

Yesterday marked the 15th anniversary of this blog. Never imagined I'd keep at it this long, though there were long dry spells in there, and I never figured it'd metamorphose into a blog mostly about translation. I wonder what the next 15 years hold.

Thanks for reading, folks, and keep supporting what's left of the old(ish) World Wide Web!

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Cecília Meireles: "Canção Póstuma"

Bom dia, folks. I've got another Brazilian poem in translation for you. Along with the João da Cruz e Sousa poem I posted the other day, I read this during the event this past Sunday at the BAF, "O Brasil Secreto". The event went pretty well; attendance was good, and people seemed to enjoy the work presented. I look forward to doing it again in a few months' time.

Today's offering to the gods and muses of literature is by Cecília Meireles, one of Brazil's most widely known poets. I've got another translation of one of her poems in the works, so look for that in the near future, along with renewed efforts to practice my classical Chinese (via translation, of course).

Até breve!

Canção Póstuma
Cecília Meireles

Fiz uma canção para dar-te;
porém tu já estavas morrendo.
A Morte é um poderoso vento.
E é um suspiro tão tímido, a Arte...

É um suspiro tímido e breve
como a da respiração diária.
Choro de pomba. E a Morte é uma águia
cujo grito ninguém descreve.

Vim cantar-te a canção do mundo,
mas estás de ouvidos fechados
para os meus lábios inexatos,
atento a um canto mais profundo.

E estou como alguém que chegasse
ao centro do mar, comparando
aquele universo de pranto
com a lágrima da sua face.

E agora fecho grandes portas
sobre a canção que chegou tarde.
E sofro sem saber de que Arte
se ocupam as pessoas mortas.

Por isso é tão desesperada
e pequena, humana cantiga.
Talvez dure mais do que a vida.
Mas à Morte não diz mais nada.

Posthumous Song
Cecília Meireles
translated by D.A. Smith

I wrote a song to give to you;
however, you were already dying.
Death is a strong wind.
And Art is such a weak sigh...

It is a brief, timid sigh,
like that of everyday breathing.
The cry of a dove. And Death is an eagle
whose cry nobody can describe.

I came to sing you the song of the world,
but your ears were deaf
to my fumbling lips,
tuned to a deeper song.

And I am like someone who has come
to the middle of the sea, comparing
that weeping world
to the tears on your face.

And now I close the massive doors
on the song that arrived late.
And I suffer not knowing which Art
dead people concern themselves with.

That is why you are so desperate
and small, human song.
Perhaps you will last longer than life.
But you have nothing to say to Death.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

João da Cruz e Sousa: "Vida Obscura"

Last year I mentioned to Maurício, who runs the Brazilian Arts Foundation, that there should be some kind of Brazilian or Portuguese-language literary event sometime. This past November he put me in touch with some like-minded folks, and this coming Sunday, February 25, we're having our first public reading of Brazilian poetry in translation and short fiction in English by a Brazilian writer, along with artist Tony Paraná discussing his work. If you're in Houston, come on by, check out some Brazilian literature, drink a Topo Chico. The fun starts at 4 PM and wraps up around 5:30.

One of the poems I've translated for the event is by João da Cruz e Sousa, who I believe was Brazil's first black poet. I initially ran across his name on a list of Symbolist poets on Wikipedia, and after reading a little more about him I hunted down his collected works. Not only is he a fascinating figure—the son of freed slaves, a polyglot, and an abolitionist—but his poetry is quite good, and his prose poetry (or whatever the proper name for it is, if it has one in Portuguese) seems far ahead of its time. I look forward to reading, and translating, more of his work, which I don't think has received any exposure in English.

Enjoy, and maybe I'll see you Sunday.

Vida Obscura
João da Cruz e Sousa

Ninguém sentiu o teu espasmo obscuro,
ó ser humilde entre os humildes sêres.
Embriagado, tonto dos prazeres,
o mundo para ti foi negro e duro.

Atravessaste no silêncio escuro
a vida prêsa a trágicos deveres
e chegaste ao saber de altos saberes
tornando-te mais simples e mais puro.

Ninguém te viu o sentimento inquieto,
magoado, oculto e aterrador, secreto,
que o coração te apunhalou no mundo.

Mas eu que sempre te segui os passos
sei que cruz infernal prendeu-te os braços
e o teu suspiro como foi profundo!

An Obscure Life

Nobody felt your dull spasms,
Oh lowly among the lowly.
The world, drunk and giddy with pleasure,
was black and hard for you.

You passed through in dark silence,
your life chained to tragic duties
and arrived at the highest wisdom
humbled and purified.

Nobody saw in you the uneasy feeling,
hurt, hidden and terrifying, secret,
which your heart pierced in the world.

But I, who always followed in your steps,
know what infernal cross bound your arms
and how deeply you sighed!