Wednesday, August 10, 2022

The Fado of Port of Leaving





Port of Leaving, a collection of poetry from Finishing Line Press, by Roberto Christiano is a journey into the suffering inherent within the human condition. The origin of this poet’s suffering emanates ancestrally and psychically from the Portuguese port of departure (leaving) Salir do Porto and includes the hard-to-define Portuguese word saudade. Saudade infuses into suffering a longing for something that may never be achieved.


Christiano’s yearning (saudade) initially springs from the love and acceptance he wanted from his Portuguese father, a man who was a bricklayer.


Driving through Georgetown
on a congested Friday afternoon,
I find myself stopped
behind a truckload of bricks
when my father comes to me—
red brown in his Portuguese skin.
“I’m a bricklayer by trade,”
he often says,
and his hands show it—
all calloused like tree bark.

excerpt from “My Father Is a Bricklayer”

Despite his father not speaking English well and disapproving of the poet’s choice of a career in acting, this man would attend his son’s performances.


Although my father never approved of acting,

he came to see every play I was in.
His favorites were A Midsummer Night’s Dream

and Macbeth. …


My father’s choices bewildered me—

he spoke a broken English at best,

and the only thing he read
was the front page of the paper.


excerpt from “My Father and Shakespeare at the Sylvan Amphitheater”


 As a child, the poet was not allowed by his father to speak during dinner, so he tested his father (who loved to play the accordion) by singing.


I was not permitted a word at dinner

because you were too hot from laying

brick in the sun to bear the voices
of children …

Sometimes I ventured a phrase,

but you pushed me down quick.
“You no speak. You have no responsibility.”

The r in responsibility you would hit
with a rough Portuguese trill.

I watched how playing your accordion

for hours into the night soothed you.

Above the keys in gleaming silver

cursive was written Excelsior.

Since the accordion weighed too much

to pick up, I began to sing—
often in the middle of dinner.


excerpt from “Why I Sang at Dinner”


The poet suggests by noting the word Excelsior that the accordion had a higher purpose. His father neither stopped his son from singing nor showed approval.


In the wake of the father’s inability to verbally express the love and acceptance his son wanted, Christiano’s narrative, free verse or prose poems are often emotionally flat, but not so in his title poem “Salir do Porto” which ends with these lines:


I will not find the words to say to you—

little leaving port of Portugal
to whom I am forever returning.

What words could ever say
how he left me who cannot swim,

standing on your shore of sorrow?


Truth-telling and clarity comes across with this writing style of emotional flatness which invites the reader to reflect deeply on what the poet has presented. For example, in “Flight,”  we learn about the painstaking efforts the father makes to save a baby bird.


A baby blackbird
falls from a nest.
He struggles
to fly and fails.
My father picks him up,

sticks him in a cage,
puts him in the basement.

The blackbird refuses

the worms I offer him,
the same with flax seeds.

Father mashes leftover bread,

takes the blackbird
in his bricklayer hands,
feeds him mouth to beak.


The son tries to feed the bird but fails. The father succeeds and releases the blackbird into the “cold, crisp air” and the bird opens his wings and flies. The emotion that the narrator (son) feels (What if he can’t fly?—because he is the empathic one) is down played. The mood shifts to neutral because nature takes over—the father releases the bird. There is no drama. The son’s angst is down played and so there is, in this reviewer’s opinion, an emotional flatness providing clarity in just stating what happened. This writing approach makes room for seeing the quiet goodness and parental leadership of the father.


“He will fly,”

Father says,

pushing open the screen door,

advancing into the backyard.


With both hands,
he throws the blackbird

into the cold, crisp air



Sections 2 and 3 of Port of Leaving open outward to Relatives and Portugal and the World. However, the poet’s father is present in these two sections of the book as well. For example, in “Coke Memories”, the featured relative is the poet’s Great Aunt Anna who “remembers when the real thing/ first came out” and how Coke made one feel good. After all the poet writes:


In 1886, Coke first appeared
as a patented medicine—
a digestive and headache remedy

as well as an impotence aid.

Each glass contained nine

milligrams of cocaine.


The poem ends with the poet’s father thinking Coke would cure his acne:

He pedaled barefoot
on a bicycle
through miles and miles

of poverty and sorrow

to buy a Coke

because he believed

it would cure him.


The last section of the book reveals a family secret—the poet’s family had Jews who converted to Catholicism. Several times the poet asks his father what happened to the Jews? (First in section 1 “Hitler’s Trains” and later Section 3 “The Past Is Never Dead.” The poet provides the explanation in “The Wars of Rosemary and Marjoram”:


My father’s town was founded by two families—the Cristãos and the Alecrims.

The two families intermarried. My grandparents were first cousins.
We all turned out inbred, depressed, and nearsighted.


In 1497, Manoel the First of Portugal demanded that all Jews convert or leave.

Some left. Some converted. Some pretended. Some changed their names
to the names of herbs. They were called the New Christians or Conversos—

the converted ones.


Somewhere along the line in America, Cristão proved too challenging

and turned into Christiano. I came to hate it. I always thought Christiano

sounded like a stage name. And then there was history—
the history of Christianity to salt the wound.


In the rollicking 1730’s, the toast of the Lisbon theatre
was Antonio José da Silva. He wrote delicious skits with songs
satirizing politics and the bourgeoisie. Most of his plays were for puppets.

His big hit was The Wars of Rosemary and Marjoram.
The King just adored him. His nickname was The Jew.


Every Thanksgiving my favorite cousin, Elizabet Alecrim, tells me all the dirt,


I invite Cousin Elizabet to sit in the seat of honor. I begin to carve

the clove studded ham. She pours herself some wine and says,

“Have I told you yet that we have Jewish blood in the family?
After all these years, I did the Ancestry thing, and well, now I know

why Alecrim means rosemary.”


Port of Leaving by Roberto Christiano is a compelling journey of self-examination that opens out to the world we live in. It is a song in the fado tradition—“Blues of Longing”. It’s a tradition that Christiano willingly shares:


What I sang was sadness.
It was not my sadness.

It was ours.


excerpt from “Memoir”