Why I Will Never Write an Epic Poem
for Camoens


What if you came back from a trip to Goa in the mid 1500's, and you were Portuguese? What if you had lost an eye, and had been sent there in the first place because of a failed love affair with a lady of the royal court who was far above your station in life? And when you finally made it back from India with a few coins in your pockets, she had been married to some squire with connections and a ton of gold, and you met this dandy in the streets of the capital and drew your sword on him and for her sake took only a little skin from his leg when you could have taken much more? So, big guy, what next?
You had better think of something to fall back on, because your days as a lover of royal handmaidens are finished. Retribution is also out of the question. Killing a cousin of the King is always a bad career move. You'd better volunteer to go back out to the colonies again, and try to squeeze enough royalties from the natives so that you can return to Portugal in style. Otherwise you are sure to see her every day, crossing the plaza as the sun goes down, and be tempted to scale the wall of her villa one night with a knife between your teeth.
But even if we put aside the immorality of such a plan (I mean going back to Goa, not killing her husband), there are several reasons why it will never work. You are a poet, for one thing, and you haven't got a chance in the cutthroat world of colonial exploitation. You get along with the locals all too well, because you are sensitive and speak their languages. In fact you fall in love with one of them, and it is never easy to plot and deceive and thus become rich when your secrets are being broadcast to every friend and relative of your mistress. Also, the hours you should be working on your business plan, you spend scribbling in your notebooks. Because, finally, the sensual world is never enough for you. You want to write it down. That was obvious the first day or so of your second return trip home from Goa -- oh yes, you went -- when your sturdy bark began to founder in a typhoon at the mouth of the Mekong. Faced with the loss of your native lover, who could have been saved if you had simply shouted her name and reached out for her, or of the epic poem on the conquest of the world by Portuguese men of war that you'd been working on for six years, you grabbed the box of writing paper and headed for shore.
Yes, you did that! You left the one you loved in the arms of a tropical storm, never to be seen again, spent the next three years in Mozambique as a penniless, pitiful exile, and nearly lost everything. Probably came close to pawning your other, good eye, too, so you could truly think of yourself as Homeric. And that, I'm afraid, is the moral of the story. If it was so hard for you to save the manuscript of that mindless and repetitive epic on the grand navigators and slave masters of Portugal, if you had to limp ashore and watch the luxurious black hair of a woman who loved you unconditionally go down in a swirl of dirty brown water, you should have thrown that damned manuscript away. No one is ever going to read it with pleasure.
Oh sure, professors may assign The Lusiads to every student of Portuguese in the country. Penguin Books may print it forever in a mediocre if well-intentioned prose translation by someone who has actually been to Goa (Luis, I haven't) -- but believe me, it isn't a good poem and there never can be a good translation of it.
The poems you should have written were lyrical, as were the women and places that would have inspired them: the princess in Portugal who looked so scrumptious in a silk gown, down by the river, or the half-caste in Goa; the sweet and clear waters of the Mondego, near your birthplace, or the wild plants, animals and unnamed rivers that unmanned you in India. Instead you returned to Coimbra with those ten bombastic cantos about the exploits of men who would never have considered you one of their peers, giving your King the perfect opportunity to condemn you to literary oblivion, to be rid of you as a rival forever. He didn't have you strangled in a back alley. No, he ordered the royal printer to publish The Lusiads, and your life as a lyric poet sank without a trace.
Look up Coimbra in an American dictionary, Luis. It isn't there.

- Greg Simon