I Sing to That Bird Knowing He Won’t Sing Back
Finishing Line Press, 2017
The intersection of poetry and music is not a new concept; it continually recurs in the cadences of poets, the language of singers—or in Bob Dylan’s win of the Nobel Prize in Literature. The debut chapbook from Luso-American poet Marina Carreira, I Sing to That Bird Knowing He Won’t Sing Back: Fado Poems, continues this tradition. These poems, grouped into four sections (“Estranha Forma de Vida,” “Tudo Isto É Fado,” “Lágrima,” and “Primavera”) are written for and in the fado tradition—a style of music known for its mournful tone, with origins tracing to Portugal.
The tones and topics of fados are also often associated with the Portuguese term saudade, a word that roughly translates to “a feeling of longing.” Jasmine Garsd defines it as “a melancholy nostalgia for something that perhaps has not even happened. It often carries an assurance that this thing you feel nostalgic for will never happen again.” For English-speaking readers, these words might be unfamiliar, but one doesn’t need to know the Portuguese in the book to experience its tone. The code switching in I Sing to That Bird is an important way that Carreira pays tribute to the musical tradition of fado, and it becomes a way for readers to get a better sense of what fado might sound like in its own language.
Carreira’s poems become music in and of themselves through her own cadences and stylistic choices. Her lines sing, “Outside, olive trees hum/ the small-stringed hymn/ festooning windows and walls./ Won’t you, oh won’t you,/ sing me this song?” These staccato, alliterative lines represent much of the quiet music playing throughout the collection.
Unsurprisingly for fados, Carreira’s poems feature characters suffering a loss of some kind. One such poem, “Fados for the Marias,” moves between scenes of women who share a name: Marias in the speaker’s family or Marias running the bodega on the block, Marias as “witches and saints, / whores and queens / raped and ruined / by holy men who renamed / the goddesses.” Here, the poem invokes the names of past Marias to honor and acknowledge those who have been erased in histories.
Carreira’s poems hold this power of memory and longing, translating that feeling of saudade over and over, writing that untranslatable word into moments and snapshots of people and even things. The first section of the collection, entitled “Estranha Forma de Vida” after Amália Rodrigues’s song of the same name, examines just that: the strange way of life. In “Fado as Black Dress,” Carreira personifies a dress: “Hanging like a eucalyptus tree, / waiting for a body to slip in to, to feel something / other than saudade and the hot breath of moths.” Within this saudade, there is a glimmer of hope, hope to experience more or revisit what once was—there is always a hope in longing after all. And each poem then asks us to linger in the closet, to feel the light fabric between our fingers to remember the woman who once wore it and perhaps imagine who will don this classic attire of a fado singer next.
There are also sentiments of strangeness in the poem “Fado for Sylvia”—which not only discusses Sylvia Plath but also echoes motifs of anxiety and grief from Rodrigues’s song “Estranha Forma de Vida.” But instead of the soft plucking of strings and the bluesy voice of Rodrigues, Carreira declares directly in her poem, “I fucking hate you / and the breakdown / you broke me with.” Unaccompanied by sentimental melodies, Carreira’s bluntness shines light on the experience of life with mental illness without romanticizing it.
At the heart of this collection, Carreira aims to honor experiences, people, and places that shaped her coming of age, her moving back and forth in time and between Portugal and the streets of Newark, New Jersey. Lines from “Fado for My Sister” depict this blending of worlds and languages: “We are what happens when Lana del Ray / and fado meet. A beautiful song; sad / ends bad, but we know all the words.” I can almost hear the crooning of Ray’s “Summertime Sadness”; I too knew all the words to that one. This American pop star is later juxtaposed with the Portuguese rock band the Gift in “Fado da Primavera”: “Hei-de te amar / with every particle, / or count to ten, / and forget.” The songs referenced here and throughout the poems share these seasons of longing, these countdowns toward goodbye. When rereading this collection, I played tracks from Rodrigues and the Gift to experience such inspirations alongside the poems they helped birth. I can imagine the poet typing away to such a playlist of fados, as her own lines spill out of her.
That’s just what this collection does: it reveals a writer paying homage to those in her life and those who have come before, in a way so intimate that she allows herself to spill onto the page. And although this collection might not easily fit into the category of confessional poetry, it does paint vivid portraits of a family, especially honoring matriarchs.
In “Fado as Mint,” the speaker’s Avó recites “the rosary along to the radio, / sweat and steam dotting a forehead / folded by years of worrying / that life—like soup— / can have too much salt.” Avó, who appears throughout the collection, becomes an important figure for the speaker and shapes her memories most. The alliteration of these lines mixes religion with music and food with family. It makes the portrayal of Avó simultaneously universal and more intimate.
Avó reminds me of my own grandmother, also a European immigrant. I see her standing at her stove, cooking with the ingredients of a different country, using pots and pans from another home. The smells of that kitchen almost waft out of this book. And that’s the beauty of this collection: Carreira takes us into our own family music and sorrow and love. We become hungry for that nostalgia.
Thus, I Sing to That Bird Knowing He Won’t Sing Back “commands that [we] forever long for the home [we] never knew but whose seed lingers on [our] tongue,” telling us to sing back our own songs to those images.
Melissa Adamo received her MFA in Creative Writing from Rutgers University–Newark and is currently an associate editor for English Kills Review. Her other essays, poems, and reviews have appeared in Idle Hands, Mezzo Cammin, Modern Language Studies, The Rumpus, and World Literature Review, among others.