Saturday, 28 September 2013

Important Announcement: Eça de Queiroz' The Mystery of the Sintra Road

Dedalus Books continues the translation of Eça de Queiroz' oeuvre into English. This October readers will finally have the opportunity to buy The Mystery of the Sintra Road (1870). Dedalus Books could easily have overlooked this novel because it belongs to the first stirrings of Eça's literary career and has a minor place in his oeuvre, and because he co-wrote it his friend Ramalho Ortigão, co-authorship always casting doubts about the authenticity of a work of literature. How much of the novel belongs to Eça? Is this a real Eça de Queiroz novel? I'd say, yes, vehemently yes, it's Eça through and through, in the humour, the imagination and the critique of manners. Especially because Ramalho Ortigão played a vital role in the development of Eça's humour, inviting his former student to co-write As Farpas (The Splinters, 1871), monthly satirical articles on Portuguese culture, politics, literature, society, serving as an experimental lab for Eça to hone his skills before embarking on his solo novels. So reading this novel written with two pairs of hands is essential to appreciate his development. In the past I wrote about The Mystery of the Sintra Road and its place, as I see it, in the history of the detective novel, both as a satire of then current tropes and also as precursor of several modern ones. I still think it's a good post, but for those who didn't read it, I advise you to read the novel first since it contains lots of spoilers. I of course expect everyone will be interested in reading this little novel.

Now if Dedalus Books would translate O Conde de Abranhos...

Sunday, 22 September 2013

I’m incapable of considering a crime someone thinking in a way that I don’t think: Fernando Pessoa takes on the dictatorship

In Portugal, and I presume abroad, interest in Fernando Pessoa’s life and work shows no signs of fatigue, nor does one notice an abatement in the phenomenon that the critic Eduardo Lourenço called the “great textual machine,” that is, the frantic and never-ending publication, not only of books, biographies, essays, studies and doctoral theses about this poet, but also of the disordered, fragmentary writings he left behind in a chest. Although fans of pessoana will have no complaints if they have no other goal than collecting everything he penned, not every critic has approved of this liberal state of affairs wherein a newly discovered poem and a handwritten note to his sweetie (the author of this blog won’t put it past him the possibility of writing one day about the poet’s collected love letters) received the same critical and editorial treatment. As far back as the 1970s José Gaspar Simões, arguably the father of pessoan criticism, while reviewing a then recent study of Pessoa’s esotericism showed reservations about this situation. The author of the poet’s first biography had reasons to defend a more judicious publication of the 25,000 or so texts and fragments that constitute the poet’s archives in the Portuguese National Library. Several publications follow the same pattern: a researcher (re)discovers a handful of texts – type-written or hand-written, complete (a rarity) or full of lacunae, lengthy or epigrammatic in their brevity – that seems to contain thematic or narrative cohesion that justifies its grouping together, writes a beautiful and informative introduction to said texts, and publishes them. The reader thinks he bought a Fernando Pessoa book, but he really just bought a critic’s introduction with some of the poet’s texts tacked on. Frequently the introduction inflates its size from pamphlet to book with spine. One could say that without Fernando Pessoa many literary researchers and scholars in Portugal would have to look for a new job. But I don’t begrudge them their introductions; without them, to put the texts in their proper historical and biographical context and to explain their relation to the rest of Pessoa’s work, these fragments would make very little sense. True, some of Pessoa’s writings relinquish introductions; for instance his letters or his failed detective short-stories stand easily on their own. The reader doesn’t require much guidance to understand the back-and-forth correspondence between, say, Fernando Pessoa and Aleister Crowley. A more complicated situation occurs when one reads a straightforward article Pessoa published in a newspaper and fails to grasp the importance of the text. In this case one rejoices at the critic’s gift of making everything clear. It happens, to me anyway, that I sometimes relish an introduction full of delicious details of the poet’s personal life more than the proper texts.

These considerations by way of preamble stem from my recently reading Fernando Pessoa’s Associações Secretas e outros escritos (Secret Associations and other writings, 2011). The book’s construction pattern does not deviate from what I laid out above: an editor, in this case José Barreto, selects a text, this time a newspaper article Pessoa published in 1935; he then adds the drafts of said article; next a preface to its publication in book form that never happened; then texts Pessoa wrote in reply to the reactions to the text; and finally an assorted collection of texts thematically linked to the article. The editor caps it off with a lengthy postface, for me the main reason to read this book. This book discusses and sheds light on Pessoa’s politics and his troubled relationship with the dictatorship of the Estado Novo.

To summarise, Portugal became a Republic in 1910. Political and social instability, however, plus a debilitated economy and chaotic finances gave the army, in 1926, justification to stage a coup. Historians call the period between 1926 and 1933 the Military Dictatorship. In 1928, the regime, unable to solve the financial and economical problems, invited a university professor called António de Oliveira Salazar to become the minister of finances; it also nominated General Óscar Carmona, one of the officers who supported the coup, for a position equivalent to that of prime-minister nowadays. Salazar carried out political and financial reforms and with Carmona’s help drafted the 1933 Constitution, which granted Salazar absolute power and inaugurated the Estado Novo, or New State. As early as 1926 the regime started practising censorship on the press and literature. In spite of that, some intellectuals and writers, as it always happens, welcomed and defended the regime. Fernando Pessoa counted himself amongst those, a position made clear by the pamphlet he published in 1928: O interregno: defeza e justificação da dictadura militar em Portugal (The interregnum: defence and justification of the military dictatorship in Portugal). This has led historians and critics to consider Pessoa a fellow traveller.

José Barreto offers a more complex and nuanced interpretation of Pessoa’s political position.

On Fabruary 4, 1935, Pessoa published in the Diário de Notícias an article called “Secret Associations,” in reaction to a bill presented by deputy José Cabral in the National Assembly, seeking to outlaw “secret associations,” although Pessoa quickly pointed out that the main purpose of said law consisted in going after the Free Masonry; more on this later.

Barreto calls the article the “most important political text the author published, as much for its content and timing as for the vast audience it reached.” It took the front page and two more inside. Add to this the fact that Pessoa managed to circumvent the censors and publish a text overtly critical of the regime, which resulted in the already increased printing running out. In the text, besides courage, Pessoa shows great wit in the way he dismantles the idea of secret associations:

Given the latitude of this definition, and considering that by “association” one understands a gathering of men, connected by a common goal, and that by “secret” one understands what, at least partially, is not done in the public’s view, or, done, is not made entirely public, I can , right now, denounce a secret association to Mr. José Cabral – the Council of Ministers. In any event, everything that is seriously or importantly done in meeting in this world, is done secretly. If Councils of Ministers don’t meet in public, neither do the committees of political parties, the tenebrous figures that guide sports clubs or the sinister communists who compose the boards of administration of commercial and industrial companies.

Barreto also states that this event marked the schism between Pessoa and the Estado Novo; until then not only had the censors left him alone (no doubt it also helped that he didn’t publish much) but the state itself had granted him a prize for the nationalist epic poem Message. Pessoa, in turn, had co-existed peacefully with the regime. After his defence of the Masons, though, the state started going after him and at last he experienced censorship when his attempts at replying to his critics in newspapers collided against an editorial wall lifted to quell the scandal. The censors had finally received orders to filter out everything that bore Pessoa’s name, adding him to the list of growing writers who would see their names and writings disappear from the public arena.

Pessoa, dabbler in astrology, voracious reader of esoteric books and expert on occult lore, had a natural tendency to admire the Free Masons. He even considered himself an initiate in some of its mysteries. Furthermore, as a liberal, he admired the Free Masonry for, to him, its role in shaping modern Europe as well as for the Masons’ contributions to sciences, arts and literature. To him the Free Masonry had originated from liberal Protestantism in the United Kingdom; one must never lose out of sight the fact that Pessoa had a British upbringing in Durban, South Africa. For my part I don’t share Pessoa’s enthusiasm for this secretive group of people; I wonder what Pessoa would think of his up-standing Masons if he knew of the political scandals involving Masons in recent years here in Portugal. But although he had genuine admiration for them, Pessoa in his replies to his critics also made it clear his defence really served as a pretext to attack the regime:

For a long time now it has become necessary to attack certain influences, infiltrated in lots of places and parties or pseudo-non-parties, which threaten, all over the world, the dignity of Man and the freedom of the Spirit. Decided, since always, to do what I could – within the limits of my intelligence and of my action – to oppose those forces, I used the 1st opportunity offered to me. It was Mr. José Cabral’s bill; it could have been anything else.

So why did Pessoa decide to attack the regime? Barreto offers a series of sensible explanations, although a man of Pessoa’s complexity never allows easy answers. From what I could understand, the article resulted from a conflict between Pessoa’s anti-reactionary positions and his profound sense of individualism. Politically, Pessoa accepted the status quo; he defined himself as what in Portugal we call a situationist. Let’s not confuse this with the Situationist International, a French avante-garde group of left-wing intellectuals founded by Guy Debord (of the Society of Spectacle fame) in the 1950s. In Portuguese, a situationist (situacionista) means a partisan of a certain political situation. In other words, Pessoa accepted the political situation created by the regime. But let’s read in his words the three forms of situationism:

   The first is conformity by doctrine; the second conformity by acceptance; the third conformity by non-opposition. I leave out one of the most vulgar – conformity for advantages – because that’s not what it’s about, at least for me.
   Conformity by doctrine means that the partisan is in agreement with the political programme of the situation he joins. Conformity by acceptance means that the partisan, without joining totally or partially to that program, nevertheless trusts in the situation and refrains from doctrinal points. Conformity by indifference is the same as joining just because it’s not hostile.
   I’m a situationist by acceptance. I don’t discuss political problems, constitutions or programmes. I trust, instinctively but not irrationally, in General Carmona and Professor Salazar.

A few lines later he states that he knows nothing of finances so he can’t pronounce himself about Salazar’s reforms. From what I understand of Pessoa’s position, he lived exclusively for literature and culture, aloof from the political and social matters, which he left in the hands of people he expected to understand those matters better than him. A fellow traveller (here I think of so many left-leaning writers who served the interests of the revolution) would want to have an active role in the policy and doctrine; Pessoa isolates himself due to a humble admittance of his ignorance. If we can judge Pessoa from a lack of participation as a critical voice, I think his example also has something to teach the multi-opinionated modern writer who thinks he has the competence to speak about every theme and social problem under the sun.

But, like I wrote, Pessoa’s upbringing in South Africa had also made him a liberal in the classic conservative tradition:

Besides the situationist that I am, I’m an absolute individualist, a free man and a liberal, and that means that I have a perfect tolerance for the ideas of others, that I’m incapable of considering a crime someone thinking in a way that I don’t think.

So we have here two opposing views: on the one hand, Pessoa didn’t like to get involved in politics, because he didn’t consider that his area of competence; on the other hand, he believed in the total freedom of the individual and saw the bill against secret associations as a curtailment of civil freedoms. In this sense Pessoa, who hated communists, goes so far as to accuse the bill of being a “communist bill” because he likened it to the erosion of freedom in the Soviet Union. Pessoa also ideologically opposed Nazism and Italian fascism, and unusually for his time stood up for Jewish people (he even believed to have Jewish ancestry). His lack of interest in the political situation also resulted from his liberal view with its suspicion of the State’s interference in the lives of people. As a nationalist (see his tourist guide), he believed Portugal needed to restore the former glory and greatness of its imperialist past, but this time thanks to culture, and he doubted the Estado Novo had the means to carry out this grand enterprise:

If the Portuguese nation wants to save itself from its current provincialism, it has to do it itself, and not the State for it, for in everything that belongs to the spirit we can’t depend on matter, and the State is matter.

The liberal Pessoa could only believe in personal responsibility and salvation. So we have an individualistic writer who didn’t like the state interfering in his life, and a mystic poet who doubted the state’s role in the spiritual regeneration of his country. Another factor contributed to his schism with the regime. Pessoa, who prized his independence, needed to find a way to distance himself from the state prize he had recently received for Message, which the state media praised as a poem that foresaw the dawn of the Estado Novo; in other words, the press made it look like Pessoa had written the poem as propaganda to ingratiate himself with the regime, as if he had written it on order. Indeed the poem displayed a complex brand of mystical nationalism wrapped in obscure symbolism and history, but Pessoa could never accept that the regime could make that glorious future happen, especially given the way the regime treated writers. Four days before Pessoa published the article a gathering of writers had signed a petition against censorship. Although Pessoa did not join the signatories, Barreto speculates that Pessoa used the article to voice his own displeasure of the political situation. I’d add that, considering Pessoa’s individualism, he found this way in order not to join a group. Writers had reasons to express concern. 1935 marked a turning point for censorship. On February 21, two weeks after Pessoa’s poem, Salazar gave a speech at a propaganda awards ceremony that changed the conception of censorship. Adolfo Casais Monteiro, another great Pessoa scholar, wrote in O País do Absurdo (The Country of the Absurd, 1974), of this shift. At the moment I do not have the book within my possession to quote from it, but he explains that before 1935 censorship just concerned itself with writers not writing against the regime; after 1935 writers started receiving directives on how to write to help create the New State. But to quote from Salazar’s speech:

To elevate, strengthen, aggrandize nations it’s necessary to feed in the collective soul the great certainties and to counterpoise the tendencies of dissolution with strong purposes, noble examples, wholesome habits.

The dictator had laid out the fascist version of socialist realism.

Throughout the year of 1935, his last, Pessoa continue to show signs of distancing himself from the regime. First of all he decided to stop publishing in Portugal (let’s not forget he had English poems published in England) save in newspapers famous for opposing the regime. He repudiated the pamphlet O interregno: defeza e justificação da dictadura militar em Portugal. As Barreto says, his gradual distancing from the regime and his repositioning as its opponent and critic continued steadily until his death in November. His loss of confidence in the regime also shows up in satirical and bitter poems about Salazar and the directives writers should adopt. Poetry, of course, remained his best means of self-expression. For the first time he had suffered censorship, and for a man who loved debate and to use his reason, it must have infuriated him to see denied the freedom to reply to his critics who promptly crucified in the newspapers. Poetry, however, never let him down. I finish this post with a poem that contains as much of stoic fatalism as it does of weary wisdom:

I heard all the wise man arguing.
I could laughingly refute them all.
But I preferred, drinking in the wide shade,
To hear indefinitely.

The boss bosses because he’s boss, and
It matters not if he bosses well or bosses badly.
Everyone’s great when it’s their hour.
Underneath everyone’s the same somebody.

Don’t envy pomp, and to power,
Since it rules, without rhyme or reason
Obey, for life lasts briefly
And so there’s not a lot to suffer.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

The words are the confused, agitated shadows of the vertical silence that expands: José Saramago's turn at poetry

José Saramago became a published writer in 1947 with Terra do Pecado, a novel the author probably wouldn’t have minded if it had disappeared from human memory. He didn’t publish another book until 1966. Information made available in recent years has dispelled the notion that he spent the fifties in idleness; in fact he started and interrupted many projects, and even submitted a second novel, Clarabóia, to an editor who didn’t get back to him. In most of those projects, however, he didn’t abandon prose, which makes more startling the fact that he decided to publish a book of poetry, Os Poemas Possíveis. This book, for reasons that will become obvious within moments, left an even more tenuous trace in the minds of the readers and critics than his first novel. Undaunted, Saramago published a second book of poems, Provavelmente Alegria, in 1970, to similar unresponsiveness.

There’s no question that Saramago’s poems aren’t very good. But I think he had greater adversities to overcome than poetic craftsmanship. Saramago the poet had no place amongst either the poets of his generation or the poets who reached maturity in the 1960s. By the poets of Saramago’s generation I mean those men and women born around the 1920s and who started their careers at the same time he did: Jorge de Sena (1919-1978), Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen (1919-2004), Eugénio de Andrade (1925-2003), Alexandre O’Neill (1924-1986), Mário Cesariny (1923-2006), Natália Correia (1923-1993). By the new generation of poets I mean those who started publishing at the end of the fifties and early sixties: Ruy Belo (1933-1978), Herberto Hélder (b. 1930), Fiama Hasse Pais Brandão (1938-2007), Vasco Graça Moura (b. 1942), Manuel Alegre (b. 1936). The former had two decades’ worth of poems published, were widely admired and read and already had stature; the latter were revolutionizing Portuguese poetry with innovative work. It should come as no surprise that a new poet with an aesthetically conservative style would fail to succeed in such an exciting environment. And I repeat, the poems weren’t very good. From time to time, no doubt through my own fault, I may give people the occasion to think that I’m a huge fan of Portuguese literature. Well, let’s take it by parts: I don’t think I ever attempted to give the impression Portugal has much to offer in the way of novels; outside the whole of Eça de Queiroz and José Saramago, Raul Brandão’s Húmus and this and that novel by Aquilino Ribeiro and António Lobo Antunes, I think (and for what it’s worth so did the literary critic João Gaspar Simões) we never had a commendable or worthwhile novelistic tradition. Simões thought that our prose writers showed more talent in novellas and short-stories. Maybe. But poetry, for me that’s where our literature reaches all its magnificence. Even without Fernando Pessoa, the number of high-quality poets leaves me overwhelmed. It’s a rich tradition that dates back to the 12th century, contains great names like Sá de Miranda, Luiz Vaz de Camões and Cesário Verde, and in it there was no demand for what Saramago had to offer it. He, who didn’t publish poetry again after 1975, would certainly agree that his role in Portuguese poetry was negligible.

I don’t think the poems show a damning, embarrassing lack of merit; in fact they display some sophistication in the way Saramago manipulates images and language to achieve his ends. It’s just that nothing stands out, it’s garden-variety poetry, pleasing to the brain in the act of reading but forgettable. Once in a while a jewel crops up. I’ll focus on some of those. We’ll start with Os Poemas Possíveis (Possible Poems):


If I don’t have another voice to unfold
This silence into other sounds’ echoes,
Then I must talk, go talking, until the hidden
Word remains of what I think.

I must say it, broken, through diversions
Of an arrow that poisons itself,
Or a high sea full of ships
Where the drowned arm waves at us.

I must force down a root
When the exact stone cuts its path
I must hurl it into the air when it says
That a tree is more tree from the loneliest trunk.

It’ll say, uncovered word,
The usual sayings about living:
This hour that chokes and relieves,
The not seeing, the not having, the almost being.

Saramago here tackles a theme that was dear, or unavoidable, to the poets of his time: censorship. It’s a new theme for him; in Terra do Pecado he hadn’t demonstrated any unease over the limits of language. But throughout the first book of poems he constantly comes back to the anguish of not having the freedom to express himself.


I cut out my shadow from the wall,
I give it power, heat and movement,
Two coats of colour and suffering,
A reasonable amount of hunger, sound, thirst.

I step aside to watch it repeat
The gestures and words belonging to me,
An unfolded figure and confusion
Of truth dressed in lies.

About others’ lives this game
Is projected in two dimensions
Where nothing is proven with
Reasons like a bow without an arrow.

Another life will come to absolve me
Of the half mankind that remains
In this thick private shadow,
In the formless thickness that mends it not.

It seems to me that he also expands censorship to be more than just being forbidden to use some words or express some thoughts, but takes it as a way of being that ultimately leaves man incomplete, an emotional amputee.


Can I speak of death without living it?
Can I howl of imagined hunger?
Can I fight hidden in the verses?
Can I pretend everything, being nothing?

Can I take truths from lies,
Or flood a desert with fountains?
Can I change strings and lyres,
And turn a bad night into open sun?

If everything’s reduced to vain words
And with them I cover my retreat,
From the shadow’s perch I deny the light
Like the song denies itself embalmed.

Glass eyes and fettered wings,
I stopped at the rusting of words
Like at a trace of true things.


The thought won’t go where the body
Doesn’t. Walled up between cliffs,
Even screams contract themselves.
And if the echo throws back an answer,
It’s mountain things, it’s secrets
Kept between the legs of a spider
That weaves its misery web
Over the crag’s dangling stone.


We won’t say deadly words, wet
Sounds of masticated saliva
In the grinding of the teeth and tongue.
Filtered through the lips, the words
Are the confused, agitated shadows
Of the vertical silence that expands.


And when the protests of the blood
In the compressed arteries don’t shut up?
And when leftovers, false teeth and
Misery remain on the table?

And when the animals shiver in cold,
Looking, castrated, at their new shadows?
And when in a desert of shudders
We play darts and cards against ourselves?

And when we get tired of the questions,
And answers we have none, not even screaming?
And when to the hope gathered here we
Don’t know what to say or when?


This world is covered in lice:
Not one piece of earth where they suck not,
Not a soul secret that they won’t pry on
Nor a dream that they won’t bite and pervert.

In their furry torsos they flaunt
All the colours that, in them, are threats:
They’re brown, green, yellow,
They’re black, red and grey.

And they all dig in, they all eat,
In tandem, voracious, in their attempt
At leaving, like a banquet’s leftovers,
Clean bones on this earth’s desert.


Here, on Earth, hunger continues.
Misery, grieving, and hunger again.

We light up cigarettes in napalm fires
And say love without knowing what it is.
But we made of you the proof of richness,
And also of poverty, and of hunger again.
And we put in you I know not what desire
Too high for us, and better and purer.

In the newspaper, with tense eyes, we spell
The vertigos of space and wonders:
Salt oceans that circle
Islands dead from thirst, where rain doesn’t pour.

But the world, astronaut, is a good table
Where only hunger, playing, eats,
Only hunger, astronaut, only hunger,
And napalm bombs are but toys.

This is a personal favourite. This is just undiluted Saramago. It has his gentle pessimism and his ironic beliefs that, for all its technological wonders, mankind has changed very little and continues to distract itself from the important questions.


The gods, in other eras, were ours
Because they loved amongst us. Aphrodite
To the shepherds gave herself under the branches
Which Hephaestus’ jealousy deceived.

From the swan’s plumage Leda’s hands,
Her mortal chest, her bosom,
Docilely plucked Zeus’ seed.

Between heaven and hell, presiding
Over divine and mortal loves,
Apollo’s smile glistened.

When the gods turned chaste,
Great Pan died, and now his orphans,
Men knew not and sinned.

I think Saramago’s best poems are found in his first book. The second one, Provavelmente Alegria (Probably Joy), is weaker and poses greater difficulties in selecting good poems, but still there are two I think are well worth it:


My friend, my fright, my familiar,
I wish I could tell you these great things,
For I speak not of the sea, and the sky is
Nothing if it fits in my eyes.
Earth is enough where the path stops,
In the body’s figure is the world’s scale.
Tired I look at my hands, my labour,
And I know, if so much a man knows,
The deepest ways of the word
And the larger space that, behind it,
Forms the soul’s lands.
And I know also of light and memory,
From the running blood the challenge
Above the frontier and the difference,
And the burning of stones, the hard combustion
Of bodies battered like flint,
And fear’s caverns, where shadows
Of unreal fish cross the doors
Of the last reason, which hides
Under the confused mist of speech.
And then silence, and the gravity
Of lying statues, resting,
Not dead, not frozen, returned
To unexpected life, revealed.
And then, vertical, the flames
Kindled in the brows like swords,
And the hoisted bodies, the bound hands,
And the instant the eyes fuse
In the common tear. Thus chaos
Slowly ordered itself between the stars.

Those were the great things I was saying
Or my fright would say, if saying them
Weren’t already this canto.


To hell, gentlemen, to men’s hell,
There where not bonfires but deserts.
Come all of you with me, brothers or foes,
To see if we populate this absence
Called loneliness.
And you, bright love, new word,
May your hand not leave my hand.

José Saramago, in the self-deprecating note to Os Poemas Possíveis, concedes that the reprinting of his poetry was just a publisher’s cash grab, but at the same time he rightly states that in his poetry one can see the formation of “nexuses, themes, obsessions that would come to be the spinal column, structurally unchangeable, of a literary body in change.” What I notice, on reading his earlier books, is that the poetry is really the beginning of the writer we know nowadays. His first novel, although not terrible, was an enjoyable if tragic love story in 19th century moulds, and gave no evidence of the acerbic, sacrilegious author of Blindness and The Gospel According to Jesus Christ. It was with his poetry that Saramago found his voice, although not his prose style; by voice I mean that it was here that we first meet a socially and politically committed writer, militant in several causes, spokesman for history’s anonymous, sceptical and ironical in his tone. In the poetry he found the topics that he’d take, first to his newspaper articles, and then to his novels. I tried to select poems that show this progression from poet to novelist, in the way he discusses freedom, authoritarianism, existentialism, and in the manner he criticises religion, technology, the illusion of progress and apathy. For what they shows us of José Saramago’s construction as a writer, these poems are necessary reading.

Monday, 9 September 2013

It is said that Jorge de Sena was vain, egocentric, it seems even megalomaniac: some poetry by Jorge de Sena

In his 1996 diary José Saramago remarked, in a tone of displeasure, that Jorge de Sena’s oeuvre had not yet been completely collected. He was writing eighteen years after Sena’s death, in 1978. The two authors did not have, according to Saramago himself, a close relationship. In an article written three weeks after his death, the Nobel Prize laureate, while evoking the memory of this great poet and essayist summed up their dealings as a series of letters they exchanged “for editorial reasons,” dating I presume from the years Saramago worked as editor at Estúdios Cor, publisher of Sena’s books. “Written, there were very many dozens (hundreds?) of pages that this and that side wrote.” These letters Saramago would have liked to have seen published one day. Unfortunately he too has passed away, before he had the opportunity to fulfil Mécia de Sena’s request to write the preface to that eventual book. Seventeen years have elapsed since Saramago’s lament but Sena’s vast oeuvre continues uncollected, coming out sporadically; Sena is becoming a serious rival to Fernando Pessoa for the title of Portuguese writer with more posthumous publications; at least he has left Eça de Queiroz behind. Thanks to Mécia, who has done a tremendous job organising her husband’s work, many collections of his letters have finally started coming out in recent years. Amongst the interesting people he corresponded with we have Sophia de Mello Breyner and the critic João Gaspar Simões. So far none of the letters he and Saramago exchanged, but I admit I wait for them with some apprehension: reading the correspondence between the author of Blindness and José Rodrigues Miguéis, another writer published at Estúdios Cor, left me thinking that Saramago may not be suited to the epistolary genre. But perhaps a poet and thinker of Sena’s stature succeeded in getting Saramago to write more than dull business reports about royalties.

Sena’s poetry, however, hasn’t received similar attention, which is strange since he’s chiefly famous for his poetry. In 2010 a poetic anthology came out, and a prefatory note renewed the pledge to publish his complete poetry. The wait continues and the reader has to get along with an edition that contains but one tenth of his poems, which a critic estimated to be in the order of 1600. Antologia Poética is a fine book, a hardbound with a cleverly designed dust jacket, sturdy paper and sewn binding. In lieu of an introduction it comes with a brief but excellent compilation of excerpts of ‘Jorge de Sena talking about Jorge de Sena.’ We can read for instance Sena explaining (1954) that his poetry represents “a desire of partisan independence from social poetry, a desire for erudite, classic expression, of surrealist liberation, a desire to destroy through the unheard of tumult of images every obsolete discipline” and “a desire to express what I understand human dignity to be: full loyalty to the responsibility of being in the world, even when everything wants to show us that we’re one too many… or too few.” Just as lucid is his short definition (1960) of the art of poetry. “The art of poetry is not, in the poetry to be considered genuine, more than the science, better or worse informed, rationally or intuitively obtained, of expressing ourselves responsibly.” He was also a keen observer and ferocious critic of traditions in Portuguese literature. In 1963 he wrote in his preface to As Metamorfoses:

The alleged absence of speculative and cultural traditions in the poetry of the Portuguese language; the confused identification of poetry with lyricism, and of the latter with only sentimental abstractions, still so prevailing in our critical writing; the impressionist and picturesque level in which, in our country, the different approximations between the diverse forms of artistic expression are processed; the indistinct notion that speculation is not only prosaic but something didactic and pedagogical, and that, consequently, meditation is not a genre of literary expression, and above all not poetical: all that, I know, won’t contribute to making these poems loved and understood.

In the same vein, in a note to Exorcismos (1972) he accused the lack of freedom in Portugal of having created the notion that “poetry is a delicate thing and for delicate people, where it’s bad form and evil to write harshly and directly.” Sena was not one to choose his words delicately. When he died, it was his acerbic personality that Saramago chose fit to praise. “It is said that Jorge de Sena was vain, egocentric, it seems even megalomaniac. Perhaps he was all that and much more, perhaps he concentrated in himself all the flaws the human species has collected: it’d be another singular form of greatness. But Jorge de Sena had the admirable forwardness of not sparing precisely the words that more risks contained.” As I wrote in the past, Sena was not just a man of letters; he was also a man of deeds, and in one of the defining episodes of his life (1959) he took part in an aborted revolution whose consequences led him to exile himself first in Brazil and then in the USA. This also means that Sena, unlike many of his countrymen, had the advantage of writing his best books of poetry – As Metamorfoses, Arte da Música – in total freedom.

Although the selection of excerpts is very good, I have problems with the selection of the poems themselves. The anthology, by its nature, aims to cover his whole career. The problem is not really with the selected poems, since most are quite extraordinary, but with the idea that Sena’s poetry is fit for selections. Sena constructed his books carefully, evidently leaving them in stasis as long as they had to be until he got them the way he wanted, meanwhile working on different projects. Several of his books adhere to unifying principles – As Metamorfoses (1963) was a series of meditations about objects, paintings and images; Arte da Música (1968) was about music; As Evidências (1955) was a collection of sonnets numbered with roman numerals – instead of him publishing a new book once he got enough new poems to fill it. For instance, in the preface to Peregrinatio ad Loca Infecta (1969) he wrote that this book was “a poetic diary of the years 1959-1969, parallel to the composition of two series about works of art (plastic or musical)” already mentioned. So yes, I think his work defies selection; it is, after all, a nuisance having to jump from sonnet II to VI; what was lost in between that could have elucidated the other sonnets?

Notwithstanding this quibble, Antologia Poética is filled with excellent poetry. Sena’s talent is on display in many pages, starting wit this poem from A Perseguição (1940):


Search not what is ephemerous…;
Search not what is Eternal,
You cannot know, you’re not enough to know
What is or is not eternal.
Search not but the closed silence,
Withdrawn and tepid,
And you’ll start feeling a freshness that falls from on high
And will start filling you…
Like the water from above in the abyss it covers
And on whose rocks your feet get stuck.
Let the water pass over your head,
Let is rise really well,
Don’t agonize,
Don’t think you’re drowning!
… And then you’ll unstuck yourself
And you’ll float up with it,
There’s a vacuum, in you, enough
To float with it.
The silence, the closed, withdrawn and tepid silence,
Will come down from on high… ah, but make no mistake
Because it is not God! It’s not God!
It’s just a remainder,
A sigh, a sweat of eternity,
Of eternity that is not time,
Of eternity that is not just height,
And only difference of worlds!... The bath
You bathe yourself in without listening…
Ah, but make not mistake it’s not God,
Flesh complicates you,
Matter involves you,
You won’t have a soul to flee you, a soul your own
And the Presence that remains afterwards
Now that ah but make no mistake: it’s not God.
You may not feel it, you may not see it,
It’s far, it’s high, it’s exterior,
Everything you hear is a mistake,
Mistake from your material eyes,
Hateful, despicable…
The bath you bathe yourself in
Of withdrawn and tepid silence,
Let yourself be covered and float,
Sounds don’t travel there,
Light doesn’t travel there,
Flesh, there, doesn’t vibrate,
The music you hear plays in no place…
Ah but make no mistake,
Life surrounds you, surrounds you with being,
And water falls from afar, from on high, from outside,
One day only later,
One day only later, how and maybe,
Ah but make no mistake!,
The accepted withdrawn and tepid bath
And the freshness inside ah make no mistake…
And DON’T MISTAKE HIM: you’re not enough
And he, he, is not yet him God himself!

I think in these early poems the influence of surrealist imagery is more prominent.


I went about the nave.
God was lit in every corner.
It smelled of tombs and, while
A smooth cooling was added to it…:

The purple stones.. and, in the middle, the beam
Where a faceless and armless saint swings – just one mantle
Sculptured on the stare fixed on it.

Then a whistle… and each time stronger
The ancient and tender smell of so much death!
(The saint spreads exhausted doubt!)

And the thread of judgement weakening, tense…
The stone sky grew dark immense.
Then?... God went out… he’s nothing.

Obviously he also had problems with religion, as shown in his irreverence about it. It was a considerable change from the solemn tone employed by our mystic poet, Teixeira de Pascoes, about whom I need to write more.


One day we’ll see that the world didn’t live a drama.

All these battles, all these crimes,
All these children who didn’t manage to unfold into living flesh
And of whom, however, they made living flesh immediately dead,
And all the other poets abandoned by those who
Didn’t even have courage to kill a man,
All this youth tricked and robbed
And the other that died knowing it was being robbed,
All this blood expressly curdled
At the full face of the earth,
All of this is the glorious reversal of the ending of errors.

One day we’ll release ourselves from death without ceasing to die.

We move on to Pedra Filosofal (1950), with a cheeky poem about censorship:


In my country there’s no land, there are streets;
Even the hills are tall buildings
With far higher rents.

In my country there are no trees and flowers.
The flowers, so scarce, change in the gardens every month,
And Town Hall has very specialised machines to uproot trees.

The singing of birds – there is no singing,
But only canaries on the 3rd floor and parrots on the 5th.
And the music of the wind is cold in the slums.

In my country, however, there are no slums,
Which are all in Persia and China,
Or in ineffable countries.

My country is not ineffable.
It’s life in my country that is ineffable.
Ineffable is what cannot be said.

I find the last verse clumsy and unnecessary, but very well; the rest of the poem is very intricate in the way it dismantles life during the Estado Novo. A much better one, with the right combination of gallows humour and pessimism:


You’ll speak of us as of a dream.
Golden twilight. Calm sentences.
Slow gestures. Smooth music.
Sharp thinking. Subtle smiles.
Landscapes sliding in the distance.
We were free. We talked, we knew,
And we loved serenely and sweetly.

A diluted, melancholy anguish,
About that you’ll dream.

And the storms, the disorders, shouts,
Violence, mockery, odious confusion,
Springs dying ignored
On the neighbouring hills, the prisons,
The deaths, the sold love,
The tears, the struggles,
The despair of the life we’re robbed
– just a melancholy anguish,
Over which you’ll dream a golden age.

And, in secret, nostalgic, enchanted,
You’ll speak of us – of us! – as of a dream.

The irony is that his prediction was right. For all its crimes, the Estado Novo has also achieved the status of prickly Golden Age. It’s become a usual when someone complains of Portugal to add that ‘things were so much better under Salazar.’

From Fidelidade (1958) we have another poem about the dictatorship:


They rob me of God,
Others, the Devil
– Who will I sing?

They rob me of a country;
And Mankind,
Others steal it
– Who will I sing?

Someone’s always known
What I desire;
And of myself
Everyone robs me
– Who will I sing?

They rob my voice
When I shut up,
Or silence me
Even when I speak
– Someone help me!

Another one from the same book, just the first part of a long five-part poem:



It has neither colour nor shape, but
Our own when we’re human.
In it men grow, not just
Being children not children, pubescent,
But men awakening in hearts
Already theirs, knowing that other men
Exist in other hearts just barely
Awakening too. It’s a way,
A form, a sweet look, a being present,
An invention, a conquest like
Having spoken, fire, or tenderness.
It’s mankind’s own being being
More lucid and more sweet, more humane,
One more in so much dispersion,
One more in so much union.
Everything in life is negation without it,
It’s deafness or blindness, it’s slumber or death,
Inflexible, fluid, humble, haughty,
Stubborn like weeds, and the reeds
Whisper like it when the tyrannical
Wind blows by, and fearful.
Everything in life that, without it, is fear,
Is free like wind in the hair,
One lives, thinks and dies for it.
It’s feared by whoever fears sunlight, the glow
Of stars in the darkness, the friendly hand,
The sea’s undertow, the flame’s ardour,
The mark of a wheel on the path,
The shuffling of wind in the pines,
The distant light, the steps in the silence,
The twilight conversation, the flowers
Blooming, the animals walking, and everything
That becomes human to ours eyes,
And everything that is like those rocks
Worn out by centuries and centuries of human
Hands, grateful, respectful, whores,
And are polished like young faces.
In front of peace, everything has an ancient name,
And the fear of the fearful is the first one,
The immense fear of thinking and being.

The pièce de résistance, however, is As Metamorfoses. We’ll start with one of my favourite poems of the Portuguese language:


You can rob me of everything:
The ideas, the words, the images,
And also the metaphors, the themes, the motives,
The symbols, and the primacy
In suffering pains of a new language,
In the understanding of others, in the courage
Of fighting, judging, of penetrating
In hollows of love for which you’re castrated.
And then you may not quote me,
Suppress me, ignore me, praise even
Other happier thieves.
It matters not at all: for punishment
Will be terrible. Not only when
Your grandchildren know not who you were
They’ll have to know me even better
Than you pretend not to know me,
Like everything, everything you laboriously pilfer,
Will revert back to my name. And even mine will be,
Attributed to me, counted as mine,
Every scrap and misery
That, on your own, without theft, you created.
You’ll have nothing, nothing at all: not even bones,
For one of your skeletons will be retrieved,
To pose as mine. And for other thieves,
Same as you, on their knees, to place flowers on my tomb.


Pompous and dignified, officially serious,
She’s the ideal geometry of banking princes,
Nephews, cousins, uncles from all Europe,
Of kings, land lords and shipowners,
Severely balanced between
Sex, devotion and mortgages.
The world is an immense quay of austere intolerance,
For unloading slaves, spices, charity
In the shadows of columns without gothic barbarity.
In her firm mouth, like in her stern look,
Or in the ferociously upbraided hair,
Or in the immense pearls that multiply,
Or in the embroideries of the dress where breasts
Don’t even jut out much, there’s a cold virtue,
A science of not-sinning in the confession and in the alcove,
A reserve of distant enchantment
Where Reason of State was a haughty stroll
Through trees of an airy garden,
With rational tree-lined avenues and grass.
Without a doubt the stars presided,
In a science of already round earth,
To the same proportions that rule the painting.
Palaces, parties, complicated odes,
And processions and gallows and
From a Toscany sky purity that poises
On the dust and ruins of imperial Toledo,
All this condenses in a penetrating
Vague ochre tone, where colours oppose
Themselves like very practical Tridentine theses
Elaborated with patience for the eternal rest
Of the Christian princes who devour each other
Under the paternal watch of an ethereal Rome,
Guarded by the Swiss, by cardinals and friars.
The grand-duchess – if she was, wasn’t, whose daughter she was,
Whose mother she was, in front of such a portrait
It matters very little – had herself painted.
But the painting was something else, a shield,
A shield of arms and an embossed buckler,
To die peacefully, when the anguish surges up,
Like a vomit of blood, from the mere fact
Of having or not a soul, the worlds being multiple,
And the Sun moving or not around the whole earth,
Illuminating the crowds, the races, everything,
And the princes, the subjects, in that world harmony,
Whose silent cry could be heard at dawn
Screeching discreetly, at the castles’ doors.

The poems in As Metamorfoses are examples of ekphrasis, poetry based on images. Perhaps it’s this book that suffers the most in the anthology. The original edition reproduced the pictures each poem was based on. Without them, much is left unexplained. We continue to Arte da Música:


Between Haydn and Chopin, open for what one was
And the other could have been, there was in this man a life hidden
From his own life, from the forms to which he pretended to enslave himself
Cheerfully, from the same light and melancholy grace that was but
What in music imagination and society allowed
A critical conscience of life to be. There was strangely
A feeling of the world, in which man should be
Not just himself affirmatively, but, more than that,
He should be, besides the consciousness of himself, collectively
Happy. A world where joy should not be
Just the nostalgic presence of happiness always more dreamt
Than lived, but a structure of being in the world
With oneself and others. In these divagations
A strange thing runs through it, entirely new:
A soul.
Which is not pre-existing to any music,
And which no music is created to express.
A soul that could seem to the musician himself
The one that is lost or gained in the occult rituals
Of accepting life like an ascensional dream.
And which nevertheless was just what we still lack the words to call
Something other than the soul, not of the world, not of that man,
But the firmness of recognising himself, through the creation
Of forms that multiply, the creation of itself
As the connection, the bond, the trace, the balance
Between a man who is more than himself
And a world that another always fills with men
Happy for music not saying them
But making them. How
Was it possible that this man died?

I honestly have no idea what he’s talking about. Sena wasn’t joking when he said his poetry was meditative. I’d add it’s very dense. Sometimes I can’t follow what he’s saying, I just like the way he says what I can’t understand. Also, a great and unexpected put-down of Tchaikovsky:


He was very young when he imagined this poem
Of anxieties against everything and death.
Certainly he still held intact the confused hope
That it was possible in life to be like he was:
Romeo and Juliet in a same passionate and timid teenager
Who didn’t know himself as a false man for Juliets,
And as an impossible woman for the Romeo he saw
In his ambiguous dreams. So he was able to conceive
A beautiful chant, full of rumbling and easy lyricism,
Where the same easy has the naïve sweetness
Of pure trust and of innocent ignorance
That makes death so beautiful. And in these tunes there’s already
What will later create the illusion of music,
By which he’ll fill an unsuspecting audience with his loneliness:
The ballet steps, the pathetic hiccups, the chaste melody
Wisely pretending not to be obscene.
But there’s also the promotion of harmonic despair,
Strident and lamenting, hidden under a lovely smile.
This is a poem of youth that knows itself not in the horror
Of making a difference. It sings not the union of Romeo
And Juliet; it sings what they’d be
In their union, in the hug where they were a sole body
Far more than a single soul; sings what both were
Before the sexes were two, in infancy.
It sings of peace and certainty, before good and evil.
And it dreams and makes one dream, in this greatness so sonorous and futile,
Of the horror of being oneself and of not being two.

Well, I still like Swan Lake. His poems on Chopin and Strauss (of the Zarathustra fame) fame are also unmissable for their corrosive remarks. We move on to Exorcismos, with a heartfelt poem about his children forgetting Portuguese:


I hear my children speaking English
Between them. Not just the smaller ones
But the older ones too and talking
With the younger ones. They weren’t born here,
They all grew up having Portuguese
In their ears. But they talk in English,
They won’t be just Americans: they’ve dissolved,
Dissolve in a sea that is not theirs.
Come tell me about the mysteries of poetry,
Of the traditions of a language, of a race,
Of what is not said with but the experience
Of a people and a language. Idiots.
Languages, which last centuries and survive that much
Forgotten in others, die every day
In the stuttering of those who inherited them:
And are so immortal that half a dozen years
Suppress them from the dissolved mouth
Under the weight of another race, another culture.
So metaphysical, so untranslatable,
That they melt like that, not in the high skies,
But in the daily crap of others.


Through the side door of the cathedral in Cologne
(built – è vero – for the bones of the Magi)
I left into the white sun of the winter morning,
When a rustling of Portuguese crept up
The stairs in dark clothes. Nuns
To whom I spoke yes Brazilians pilgrimaging
Step by step towards Rome. When I said
That I was Brazilian the mother superior whose veil
Surrounded a Portuguese and soft face
Said: “Ah, naturalized, you’re not Brazilian.”
The other case was in Hamburg in
Hauptbahnhof. The kiosk with newspapers
From all languages. Arrives a brunette
Woman – a trace inside opulent furs – and asks
For Portuguese newspapers in reasonable German.
It was obvious that only a Portuguese as such would
Seek to inform herself in Hamburg of the state of the universe like that.
Are you Portuguese? I am. One words leads to another,
So was I. But she exclaimed:
“Naturalized Brazilian? Ah, you’re not Portuguese.”
And she gave me her back with the newspaper in her hand,
Balancing her still fishmonger’s legs
With difficulty in her very fine high heels.

It would be irresponsible of me to omit Jorge de Sena’s contribution to the noblest poetic theme conceived by Man: an elegy for a dead cat. From 40 Anos de Servidão (1979):


Dom Fuas has died, seven years my cat,
Pompous, regal, solemn, almost inaccessible,
In his disdainful elegance of gigantic angora,
Ashen and white, of opulent fur,
And tail like a legendary helm’s plume.

However, at his leisure, and when he happened
To stop at home for more than eating
Or visiting us condescendingly like
The Duchess of Guermantes receiving Swann,
He had instants of effusive tenderness,
Which he quickly interrupted on returning
To his imperial steps, to his ducal stare.

He never knew any other existence
Of cat save his in this house. Everyone
Else stepped aside so that he passed along
Or so that he ate, the others staying
Far away contemplating the majesty
That never meowed to ask for anything.

He was sick, trouble upon trouble,
And it showed in his body and opulent fur,
As well as in his head’s look how so much humiliation
The suffering imposed on so much pride.
At last he was americanly admitted
Into the vet’s hospital. And there,
Through the phone, alone, lonely,
Like any human here, we learned he’d died.

The only difference, and it’s better like this,
In such an ambient terror of being the animal that dies,
Was not seeing him ever again. Because either we die,
Like before one died in public,
The whole family, or the whole court around, or
It’s better not to see in anyone’s face
– even or especially in a cat’s who was all pride in life –
Not just the mark of that dying alone which one always dies
Even when the world entire is making one company,
But of another hygienic, technocratic loneliness
That suppresses us transformed in the
Lovely professional voice of a concerned secretary.

Dom Fuas, you’ve died. I won’t say
May the earth be light on you, because it’s more than certain
You didn’t even have the privilege of sleeping forever in
The earth you dug with careful art to depose in it
The faeces of existence that you so well covered,
Like a polite cat and natural nobleman.
In these years of so much death around me,
Yours also counts. No other
Will have your name like so many other cats
Before you were also Dom Fuas.

A good poem to finish this post, written on what must have been a really bad day, comes from Visão Perpétua (1982), a posthumous book:


In a dark cartway in the outskirts
You’ll bury me. May my tomb
Be the dark place for meetings.
May the lonely and desperate youth
Come drifting there to masturbate;
May the boyfriend without a room
To bring his beau for abuse, bring
And force and rape her on my tomb;
May the homo come kneel next to it
In front of whoever sells sperm,
Or pull down his pants and give himself,
The hands bracing themselves against the stone.
May bands of malefactors bring there
The girl they kidnapped, and
Leave her lying there running blood.
May the tacky, filthy prostitutes
Drip bodily fluids on the slab when
They sell themselves to old men there.
And may the playing children come
Play around me, without stepping on the corners
The foulest of shit fouler than death
And which is the human memory of cartways,
And find there, barely guessing,
The brown stains of what was violence,
Or was desire or what is called vice
And laughingly wash them away with their warm piss
Crackling on the stone that covers me
(And may they come back one day to reproduce them).