A figure of almost translucent fragility, Al Berto was a Portuguese poet whose physical appearance seemed an exhalation of his rarefied verse.
I had looked in vain for his works in the bookshops of Lisbon and Coimbra, but was lucky to find a couple of French translations, published by the brave little Bordeaux poetry press L'Escampette, in the Librairie Hispano- Lusophone in Paris. One of them, La Peur et les signes, a beautiful translation by Michel Chadeigne, has a title in which the words "fear" and "signs" shine like emblems of the poet's own almost indefinable terrors and mystical obsession with signs and omens. That 1993 translation was followed by another in 1996, La Secrete vie des images: again, signs and secrets. The title of his best-known book, O Medo (1988) means, simply, "Fear".
His real name was one of similar complexity - Alberto Raposo Pidwell Tavares, so understandably he preferred to be known as Al Berto, one of the few simplifications he managed to achieve in his short life, which began on the charming Alentejo coast south of the Tague.
His early ambition was to be an artist and a photographer, but with the outbreak of the war of independence in Angola, during the last years of Salazar's dictatorship, Al Berto sought exile in that most welcoming of cities for sensitive souls, Brussels. Shortly after the "Revolution of the Carnations" he returned to what Ronald Firbank called "fairy Lisbon", then far from fairylike, and divided his life between the capital and his birthplace, Sines.
Al Berto became a prolific poet. The greater part of his work is contained in O Medo, which was awarded the Portuguese Pen Club's prize for poetry in 1988, and which assembled work composed between 1974 and 1985. It is a poetry of post- symbolist anguish and trembling awareness of an all-too-intrusive reality, but its rather narrow emotional range is one of the utmost refinement and clarity. An older poet and critic, Ramos Rosa, defined Al Berto's shimmering intangibility as "the cry of an extreme and irreducible fragility in human beings, of their infinite disarray, their absolute and desperate revolt against the fatality of being born".
Al Berto himself hazarded that he wrote "in order to survive life" and hinted that for him "writing was the best way to burn oneself out".
His shy, intimate tone gently detaches him from conventional imagery and metaphor, as being perhaps too crude a resort for such hesitant expression of unspeakable feelings, and prefers subtly narrative description and a private, subdued conversational mood, sometimes dangerously skirting poetic prose. It is this constant denial of the obvious and the showy that watercolours his luminous style, what Ramos Rosa called "the sovereignty of erotic force submerged in the impulse towards death".
Just a short walk from the Pompidou Centre is a quiet alley off the rue Saint-Martin where stands one of the great unsung glories of Parisian literary life, the Theatre Moliere at Maison de la Poesie. In a deeply sympathetic small theatre, Michel de Maulne organises remarkably eclectic and international programmes of contemporary poetry led by the poets themselves whenever possible in their native language, and by well-trained French speakers of poetic translations. It was there, in March this year, that a number of Portuguese poets were invited to perform from their works, and among them was Al Berto, notably nervous, his tall, slender body apparently racked by regrets at having to expose his art in public, and his face bearing in its only self-defence a timidly ironic half-smile. He was already in the last stages of the cancer from which he was to die.
Here is part of a poem, that was read from Fear and the Signs: after evoking the spirits of the fellow-tormented Rimbaud and Cavafy, the poet takes leave of us:
. . . from now on
I abandon you for ever
to the silence of one who wrote
you are thirty-seven like Rimbaud
perhaps it's time to think of dying.
Al Berto had just published his final book, Horto de incendio ("Burning Vegetable Plot"). Alberto Raposo Pidwell Tavares, poet: born Sines, Portugal 1948; died 13 June 1997.
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