Quite frankly, nothing much happens.
You walk downhill all day
From the fascistically monumental Four Seasons Ritz Hotel.
I have to say,
I’ve had a pleasant stay.
My Junior Suite makes me feel like Mussolini, it is huge.
I think of the edifice as Salazar in stone.
Salazar’s slogan for Portugal was ‘Proudly Alone’,
My kind of dictator.
He wanted a grand hotel in Lisbon
And arranged to have one.
I consider that admirable.
It’s all downhill
From the hotel.
You walk downhill all day
On the Avenida de la Libertad and never lose your way.
You end up at the harbor. Obrigado.

And it’s off in a cab to Brasileira, the café in Chiado
Where Fernando Pessoa spent so much time writing his immortal
Multiple-personality-disorder poems,
Now called Dissociated Identity Disorder.
That’s where you find the statue.
That’s where you pay homage.
He sits at a little bronze table outdoors
At the edge of the busy café tables, having an espresso
Made of bronze.
There is a chair next to his as part of the statue
So you can be photographed sitting next to him by someone.
I weep when we meet.
We bow deeply to each other.
His eyes mist over.
It is fate.
Tomorrow is Election Day 2008.
I’ll fly non-stop Lisboa to Obama.

Really, the worst were the Portuguese.
But does it really make sense to talk about better and worse? Please!
In 16th-century Portugal, there were thirty-two thousand African slaves.
They came overseas in waves.
They sailed over in their graves.
It comes over me in waves.
They died and went on living. At Cabo de São Vicente, the black Atlantic
Spanks the gruesome cliff at the outer edge of Europe and gets sick,
Throwing up white.
The white is made of night.
The wrath fucks froth against the cliff.
Waterboarding makes the cliff stiff.
I voted for Obama and I ask Obama if.
Yes we can. I ask Pessoa.
I ask Lisboa. Did they know about the Shoah?
Yes we can.
We can do anything known to man.

It’s heaven up there above the sky.
It’s heaven down here, too.
I got to heaven without having to die.
It was a near-death experience with Bush 43. Phew.
But meanwhile the economy. So what are we going to do?
We’re going to get through.
It’s heaven up there above the sky.
Hey, it’s heaven down here, too.
I love the future I won’t live to see. I don’t know why.
And don’t even know if it’s true.
Maybe I’ve already lived to see the future.
My multiple personalities climb to altitude on a single pair of wings.
Luxury Man rises to the top and Evening Man brings
To the podium the first African-American president to sing fado,
Chicago fado dado didi dado. Obrigado.
Please fasten your seatbelts for takeoff, we’re beginning our descent.

That isn’t what I meant.
That long-ago Inauguration Day, 1960,
In a bitter cold Washington, D.C.,
The slender prince spoke without a hat or coat, elegance, eloquence.
His death in Dallas practically the next day was intense.
That’s how the poem began.
It’s time to leave the poem behind.
People saw a god trying to be a man.
People want to be blinded, to be blind.
The tragedy of Kennedy
Decanted me.
Beautiful things that go fast have enchanted me,
But it’s time to leave Jack Kennedy and my motorcycles behind.
It is time to attend a new Inauguration.
It’s checkout time at the Ritz in Lisbon.
The bill will be considerable.
I drank tons of their best port in my Baby Mussolini Suite.
I’m inside a seatbelt on a plane. It’s time to vote for victory over defeat.

Sieg Heil!
I said that to make you smile.
But you’re not smiling.
(Why aren’t you smiling?)
I said that to put you to sleep,
But you’re Sieg Heiling.
I want to put you to sleep.
I think I’m falling asleep and I have a dream.
And everyone, come on everyone,
Come gather at the Lincoln Memorial!
Come together now! All together now!
And there is a woman singing.
I’ve fallen asleep in front of the set
And the vote keeps coming in
And millions of people are on the Mall.
And it is bitter cold.
And hopes are soaring! In the bitter cold they’re ecstatically ignoring!

I face a yawning lion shaving in my mirror in the morning, roaring,
And there’s my grandchild standing in the doorway, adoring –
Many teeth to brush, a beard to shave!
OK, it’s not solace, but it’s not nothing, still to be able to roar, to rave
With vim and vigour about the loss of vim and vigour.
It’s sort of like a finger on a trigger
Is facing me in the morning mirror, and starts to snigger.
It’s sort of like walking downhill in Lisbon
On the Avenida de la Libertad all day, but then I start to run
To get to the economy and Obama and the election –
Though I’d have to say,
I had a pleasant stay.
The breadlines in America will eventually go away,
And we will live to see another day.
A great leader lasts longer than a day.
The rain comes. The sun shines. He does not melt away.
A black man on a white horse shall chase the redskins away.

It’s the dignity at Appomattox of Robert E. Lee
Live from Phoenix on TV.
That old white warrior John McCain gracefully concedes.
Nobly gives the nation what it needs.
A thousand years from now, you know it,
This day will be remembered, poet.
By the shores of Gitche Gumee,
By the shining Big-Sea-Water,
Told his message to the people,
Told the purport of his mission.
Car horns are celebrating up and down Broadway.
Tractor-trailer air horns joyously blasting.
Harlem to Times Square – Tribeca to Mecca.
Fado dado didi dado.
A nation conceived in liberty conceives.
Kids high-fiving, others crying.
Fado dado didi dado.

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Vol. 31 No. 6 · 26 March 2009

There is no Avenida de la Libertad in Lisbon, or in any other Portuguese city, despite what Frederick Seidel asserts in the first and seventh stanzas of his poem ‘Lisbon’, since Portuguese street names are always given in Portuguese (LRB, 26 February). It is especially unlikely that the name would ever have been given in Castilian Spanish, since the liberty the road’s name celebrates is, precisely, liberty from Spain. As the Portuguese proverb has it: ‘Da Espanha nem bom vento, nem bom casamento’ (‘from Spain neither a good wind nor a good marriage’). The road that it took Seidel all day to walk down (at a very slow speed, we surmise, since it is barely a mile long, but perhaps he walked not always in a straight line) is, instead, the once beautiful Avenida da Liberdade.

The Portuguese used to be proud of their country’s main artery, but its elegance has much diminished in recent decades, on account in particular of its commercialisation. The beautiful and stately old buildings have given way to nondescript office blocks, occupied mostly by the Portuguese branches of the Spanish firms (banks, insurance companies, shipping companies etc) that have installed themselves on the banks of the Tagus – part of the economic invasion favoured by the European Union, and much resented by the locals. Perhaps Seidel was right to translate the name of Lisbon’s main avenue into a foreign tongue after all.

Ana de Resende Waissbein
Lucca, Italy

Frederick Seidel’s ‘Lisbon’ refers to ‘that long-ago Inauguration Day, 1960’. He surely meant 1961.

Mat Snow
London SW12

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London Review of Books
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London, WC1A 2HN


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