washingtonpost.com
Poet's Choice By Edward Hirsch

By Edward Hirsch
Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Portuguese and Galician term "saudade" suggests a profoundly bittersweet nostalgia. Aubrey F. G. Bell described it as a "vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist, for something other than the present, a turning towards the past or towards the future" ("In Portugal," 1912). It is not just a nostalgia for something that was lost; it can also be a yearning for something that might have been. The feeling can be overwhelming, and the Portuguese speak of the desire to "matar as saudades" ("to kill the saudades").

Whereas we tend to consign a dark, bittersweet nostalgia to the all-encompassing dustbin of sentimentality, the Hispanic sensibility has saved it as a poignant and durable feeling relating to the transitoriness of life. Saudade, like duende, is a name for something we don't have an official word or term for in English, but can recognize when manifested in music or called back in poetry.

Ten years ago, I was moved by the Nicaraguan poet Claribel Alegría's book titled "Saudade," which Carolyn Forché rendered as "Sorrow" (1999), a collection of yearning love poems, brief piercing lyrics, to her dead husband, Darwin J. "Bud" Flakoll, her collaborator, translator and companion for nearly fifty years. "Sadness/can't cope with me," she declares, "I lead it toward life/and it evaporates" ("It Cannot").

(Editor's note: To see this poem laid out correctly on paper or on your screen, click the Print button in the Toolbox.)

Searching for You

I went out searching for you

crossing valleys

and mountains

ploughing distant seas

asking of the clouds

and the wind your whereabouts

it was all useless

useless

you were within me.

I sometimes hear saudade, or something like it, in contemporary American poetry, in the California melancholies of Garrett Hongo and Larry Levis, in the bittersweet nostalgias of Donald Justice's Florida poems, Philip Levine's Detroit ones and Stuart Dybek's "anti-memoirs" of Chicago. Tracy K. Smith has a poem called "Minister of Saudade" ("Duende," 2007).

I hear saudade, too, in Landis Everson's "Coronado Poet," which appears in "Everything Preserved: Poems 1955-2005" (2006), a book that won the Emily Dickinson First Book Award when Everson was 79-years-old. Everson (1926-2007) was born in Coronado, Calif., and became an unlikely member of the "Berkeley Renaissance," a group of Bay Area poets that flourished in the 1940s and '50s. The group included Robert Duncan, Robin Blaser and Jack Spicer, who believed in poetry as magic and described Everson in a letter as "a sort of Babylonian Adonis in a cashmere sweater." Everson stopped writing in the early '60s for more than 40 years. Spurred on by a friendship with the young poet Ben Mazer, Everson started writing again, and his reconstituted work has remarkable poise. He was impervious to changes in poetic style and picked up where he had left off, though with even more directness. It was as if he were writing for his old friends again, a few far away, most of them dead, but still vividly present to him ("Poem from a Line by Robin Blaser," "Jack Spicer in Berkeley: 1949").

I find a poignant and stinging sense of fatefulness in some of these declarative poems, which remember more innocent times and dwell simultaneously in three time zones: the 1940s, the years 2003-2005, the looming future "among the valleys of the distant waves":

Coronado Poet

I am an old man who writes like the 40s.

My suntan is a period piece.

Young men then spent all day at the beach

to avoid reality.

.

I stay upright.

Nothing makes me go down dusty roads to change my style.

I don't believe in love anymore, the foghorn

blasted it out of me.

.

Jack Noble

died of skin cancer, his life cooked out on the sand¿

in his coffin waves will break.

Between his knees sandcastles fight back.

How many bathing suits did he wear out

in 70 years?

.

Among the valleys of the distant waves

we will eventually meet. Hi Jack, I'll say.

Well, it won't matter who got the superior tan.

The orange sun will recognize us. It owes us.

.

It will be the sun from nineteenth hundred and forty-forever.

O no cloud in the sky! O ocean full of fish hiding!

The sun seduced us before we could be virgins.

Claribel Alegría's "It Cannot" and "Searching for You" appear in "Sorrow," translated by Carolyn Forché (Curbstone, 1999). Landis Everson's "Coronado Poet" appears in "Everything Preserved: Poems 1955-2005," edited by Ben Mazer (Graywolf, 2006).

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company