Thursday, March 24, 2016

Jhumpa Lahiri / Closing the Circle

Jhumpa Lahiri

Closing the Circle

Alberto de Lacerda, one of Portugal's greatest poets in the second half of the twentieth century, died this past August at the age of seventy-eight. I met Alberto in September 1993, when I was a graduate student in literature at Boston University. He was teaching a seminar about Fernando Pessoa, and I was the only registered student (there was also one auditor). I had no prior interest in Pessoa, had never heard of him, in fact. But Alberto came recommended. 

When we crossed paths he was a small man in his sixties with a gentle sing-song voice and white wispy hair, but he made a formidable first impression, enough to make me consider dropping the course. My staying made the class possible, but Alberto seemed, in those early weeks of the semester, suspicious of my reasons for being there. He lectured without notes, an intense, virtuosic delivery peppered with occasionally condescending asides. In the course of making a reference to a painting by Picasso or a passage from King Lear, he would turn to me and ask, "Do you know whom I mean by Picasso? You are familiar with Lear?" 

The first of the many things I learned at Alberto's table was not to let these remarks bother me. We dove, our modest party of three, headlong into Pessoa, but in spite of the seminar's singular focus, Alberto's lectures knew no bounds, his mind skipping from Mozart to Duchamp to Dylan Thomas. I brought a pen and a notebook to class, but mainly I just listened. By the middle of the term the class was no longer a class but rather an escape from the ordinary, and I approached our weekly three-hour sessions with the pleasure of visiting a dear and exceptionally learned friend. 

Though Alberto's creative life was no secret, he was quiet about the fact that he was an acclaimed, working poet. Like his hero, Picasso, he believed that artists were born and sustained in the process of studying other artists. His attitude toward Pessoa and the other geniuses he loved was pure, visceral, inexhaustible, devotional. Alberto's mission was not to explain a poem or a painting, but to absorb it. He approached art matter-of-factly, ritually, as one approaches a meal, as if his very existence depended on it. Ever the aesthete, he was also a great gossip. Tea with Edith Sitwell, sitting next to T.S. Eliot at a dinner party—these were among the anecdotes he mentioned now and again. (On Sitwell: "She was a snob, but wonderfully generous to me. And had fabulous hands.") 

He gave me a bilingual edition of 77 Poems, his first published volume (translated by Alberto with Arthur Waley and published in 1955), without fuss one day, inscribing it with a ballpoint pen as I sat across from him in a pizza place that doubled as his public office, on Boston's Commonwealth Avenue. By then we had been friends for four years. Before handing over the book, he turned to a page that was in Portuguese and corrected an error in the text, even though he knew that I did not understand Portuguese and that my eye would never fall there. Alberto seemed shy on his side of the table, as I did on mine. It is always strange to experience, for the first time, the creative work of a friend. And it is rare to know a friend for so long and not encounter the work. In a way, I knew that it was irrelevant to Alberto whether or not I liked the poems. I did. They were transparent in the best sense: they hid nothing. They were fearless and vulnerable, the two things, I was beginning to learn, that an artist must be. I was haunted by the frank expression of melancholy and loneliness, by the combined detachment from, and desperate connection to, the world. Rereading 77 Poems after Alberto's death, I was undone, because so many, written when he just in his twenties, seemed uncannily to predict the course of his life, and to articulate beliefs he held into old age. "The only usefulness of the poet/Is to exist" he wrote in "Poem 75," a credo that distills so much of Alberto's essence to me. Here are the first two stanzas from poem 24, titled "The Shore": 

My song dies away beyond this life 
Because it does not belong to it entirely; 
Facing death, and lonely, 
I am going to close the tragic circle. 

Friends I had not, and that loving 
Vision which Love forbade me here— 
I slowly suffered their absence 
In my agony of interrupted Wing.

Though Alberto in fact had many friends and delighted in their company, there was an impenetrable aspect to him, a privacy he ferociously guarded. He could be remarkably hospitable but invited next to no one into his home. In 1996, he retuned to London, the place he considered his center. For the next eleven years he continued to write poems, and during that time he wrote me a number of letters. He quoted Blake, told me to go see the Ingres exhibit at the Metropolitan, warned me of the tyranny of editors. In 1998 he wrote: "I've written quite a bit since I returned [to London]. Not lately. It doesn't matter. I've done enough; anyway, I never had that kind of anxiety." 

In 1999, three years after Alberto gave me 77 Poems, I, too, shyly presented him with my first published effort. Before then, I never mentioned to Alberto that I was an aspiring fiction writer. If he intuited anything, which most likely he did, he never pried. It was better that way. And yet he influenced me deeply. "I've just, this very moment, finished writing a poem," he began one letter. "If you knew Portuguese, I would send it to you. It may survive; maybe reading it tomorrow, I'll tear it up." He never opened the door of his apartment to me, but from that declaration of camaraderie and trust, that cold, clear-eyed appraisal of a writer's process, I glimpsed something more precious. 

Anyone who knew Alberto, even briefly, understood that he was an idiosyncratic, outspoken, in some senses anachronistic man. He was not afraid to say what he thought, not afraid, now and again, to make an enemy. But I believe that in the most profound aspect of his life—his work—he found peace. He understood the importance of art and the mystery of it, accepted the inability, ultimately, to control what is produced and what becomes of it in the eyes of the world. The point, he knew, was to stay inspired. It is an awareness that, I think, grounded and accompanied him throughout his life.

Originally Published: January 2, 2008

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