Sunday, 27 October 2013

Miguel de Unamuno on Portuguese Literature

Spain in the last century produced three philosophers that I want to read: Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo (1864-1936), José Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955) and George Santayana (1863-1952), who nevertheless wrote in English and belongs to American letters. Of Ortega y Gasset I intend to read What is philosophy? and The Dehumanization of Art, while Santayana’s The Sense of Beauty intrigues me. Of the three so far I’ve only ventured into Miguel de Unamuno, particularly known for essays like The Tragic Sense of Life and Our Lord Don Quixote, and the novel Mist, all available in English.

It says a lot of my prejudices, however, that I chose the lesser-known book Por tierras de Portugal y España over his more famous books. Through Portuguese and Spanish lands, says the title. I couldn’t wait to learn what impressions, written between 1907 and 1912, the author had formed from his Portuguese travels and readings. For Unamuno doesn’t just describe villages and customs; he also discusses history, then-current topics like the 1908 regicide and the republican movement, and the literary scene, which the author knew very well, calling friends many of the important Portuguese authors of the time. I admit I found the first part of the book, dealing with Portugal, much more interesting than the second part describing his travels in Spain. Not for the obvious reasons but because for this book lover descriptions of Guadalupe and the Canary Islands don’t hold a candle to a good analysis of a poem. And I have my theories why he didn’t bother to write about, for instance, the Generation of ’98. The short articles that constitute this book began as newspaper articles for Spanish readers; so one understands why he lingers in Portuguese culture and literature instead of lecturing about the Spanish poets his readers no doubt knew already. Another reason for this differential treatment: Unamuno sets out as one of the main purposes of the book to educate the Spanish reader on the culture of a neighbouring country he doesn’t know very well. “Here in Spain, Portuguese literature is not as well known and appreciated as it should be, although both languages are so close that without great effort we could read Portuguese.” In broad strokes he explains this isolationism: “The Spaniard, especially the Castellan, is disdainful and arrogant; and the Portuguese, like the Galician, is suspicious and impressionable. Here, it’s customary to disdain Portugal and to make it the target of derision and mockery, without knowledge of it; and in Portugal there are those who imagine that the Spaniards dream of conquering them.” Indeed, Portuguese and Spaniards live in a famous state of mutual and apathetic ignorance: we ignore each other’s novelists, poets, philosophers, historians, musicians, and filmmakers, with a few exceptions. Unamuno, who shows love and admiration for Portugal in these pages, uses whatever resources he has to bridge this gulf of apathy. “I make a journey here at least once a year and each time I return more enchanted by that suffering and noble people.” And I wonder, did Portugal create an equivalent paladin of Spanish culture? I hope so.

Needless to say, the Portuguese part of Por tierras de Portugal y España has received attention from Portuguese people long before me. I don’t think we can resist knowing what foreigners think of us, with our chronic insecurity, and especially what Spaniards think of us, a people we, as Unamuno accurately points out, feel suspicious about. Anyone who’s read Eça de Queiroz’ The Maias has an obligation to remember João da Ega’s famous quip that Portugal should just be sold to the Spanish. But, specifically, the interest of Portuguese editors focuses more on his impressions of our literature than of his travels through our villages. Besides Por tierras de Portugal y España, my knowledge of Unamuno comes from Portugal: Povo de Suicidas, a strange book that collects the articles about Portuguese literature from the first one, leaves out the others about travels, and then adds three more articles Unamuno wrote on Portuguese culture. This book, more curiously, was published before the complete translation of Por tierras de Portugal y España. We care to know what Unamuno thinks of our poets, but we don’t care about his observations in, for instance, the Alcobaça monastery (William Beckford, author of Vathek, wrote a book on that exact topic, and I’d love to acquire it) and fishing in Espinho.

This second book I mention, a Portuguese construct, lays bare what interests us so much about Unamuno; it’s right there on the cover; what in the first book is the title of an article and a tentative remark inside it, in the second book it becomes the defining moment of a thesis: the no doubt controversial view that the Portuguese nation, as a whole, is suicidal. Yes, somewhere in the book Unamuno says this about the Portuguese, not without good reasons. But few things show the age of this book like these sweeping generalizations that hark back to the old times of stereotypes and paternalism. Unamuno, however, doesn’t force the point, which stems from his close readings of our intrinsic fatalism, sentimentalism and sadness. Unamuno, both in Portugal and in Spain, is concerned with finding the national identities of these countries. I can say, without a shadow of a doubt, that Miguel de Unamuno makes good intuitions about what makes the Portuguese people tick. What separates us, though, is how we handle those idiosyncrasies of the soul. We both see the Portuguese as sad, suffering players in a tragicomedy of cosmic proportions. But whereas he celebrates these traits, I, well, I deplore them.

To Unamuno, the Portuguese identity coalesces around a few key concepts: pessimism, fatalism, martyrdom, sadness, resignation, and longing for past glories, symbolised by saudade, the famously untranslatable pain one suffers in the absence of one’s loved ones. He arrives at his conclusions studying what was then modern Portuguese literature. “Without denying the value of some of the Portuguese classics, I must say that, in my understanding, Portuguese literature worthy of being read dates back from the last century, from the Romantic period, from the epoch of Almeida Garrett and Alexandre Herculano. I think its true golden age is now.” I agree that few of our classics have any value, in fact I think most of our classics on the whole form a barren desert inhospitable to most people, Portuguese included. But we disagree on the golden age. For me Eça de Queiroz starts putting the Dark Ages out to pasture but it’s not until the 20th century that we can boast of a tremendous body of literature. If this sounds harsh, bear in mind that Unamuno mainly lists names no one, save those tasked with the cumbersome ordeal of writing histories of Portuguese literature, reads anymore. It’s not his fault the generation he knew fell by the wayside. It’s more worrying his glib treatment of Eça, but all in due time.

First of all, let’s meet the bygone writers Unamuno extols. Unamuno opens the book with a paean to Eugénio de Castro (1869-1944), a largely forgotten poet, and particularly to Constança (1900), a poem about Constança Manuel, a Castellan princess and the legitimate wife of D. Pedro I (1320-1367), whose adulterous affair with Inês de Castro was immortalized in Luís de Camões’ The Lusiads. According to history and legend, Pedro and Inês married in secret but the King, due to political pressure, could not approve their union, so he ordered Inês’ execution; when Pedro became king he persecuted her assassins, tortured them to death, then dug up her corpse and crowned her queen. Myth or not, it has all the ingredients worthy of a sentimental, passionate, melancholy nation. As Unamuno puts it, the adulteress is always more interesting than the legitimate wife, the reason why Inês has received more attention from writers. Not just Camões but his contemporary, António Ferreira, wrote about her, in the tragedy A Castro. Unanumo praises Eugénio de Castro for his bold move in showing the tragic love story from Constança’s point of view. “It’s an intimate and silent tragedy, the tragedy of the poor wife who sees her closest and most fraternal friend steal the heart of her Pedro; it’s this martyrdom that Eugénio de Castro tells us in verses of exquisite and profound sweetness and saudade.” We can already see Unamuno collecting notes for his general theory of the Portuguese psyche:

   Portuguese literature – I’ll speak of it generically in another time – is characterised by two dominant notes: the amorous note and the elegiac note. Portugal seems to be the country of sad loves and great shipwrecks.
   In this regard, there’s a Portuguese work profoundly and notoriously representative, a work full of painful passion. It’s called Amor de Perdição, by Camilo Castelo Branco. Few works can be read with more tragic and concentrated passion. In it, together with Inês de Castro, who there becomes Teresa Clementina de Albuquerque, there’s also a sort of Constança, Mariana, who, not even being the wife of Simão Botelho, Teresa’s beau, follows him along and serves him in prison and, when he dies in the ship that carried him to exile, she jumps in the sea embracing the corpse of the one she loved unrequitedly. In all the literatures, there are few characters more firmly delineated than Mariana.

Camilo Castelo Branco, remember him. We’re coming back to him. For now let’s see to what depths of pathos Constança can sink:

Poor Constança suffers in the innermost of her heart when she discovers that Pedro’s love for Inês is devouring his soul. This suffering purifies and sublimes her, to the point of thinking about running away with a page boy in order to be considered an artful adulterous, allowing thus for Pedro and Inês, free of remorse, to love each other in daylight.

Martyrdom, masochism, suffering, the obsessive notes of Portuguese literature, played over and over. As great as Unamuno’s descriptions of the poem – I’d hazard a guess that they’re better than the poem itself – may be, it’s what he extracts from it that I find so fascinating:

The cult of pain seems to be one of the most characteristic feelings of this melancholy and saudoso Portugal. In the wonderful poem, Pátria, the most unequal but also the most intense and vigorous work of the greatest of its poets – and one of the few, scarce few, left in all of Europe, in this so unpoetic age – Guerra Junqueiro, the most vibrant stanzas are the ones where the Saint Nuno Álvares – whose life was magnificently narrated by Oliveira Martins – invokes pain.

Once again, the cult of pain. Guerra Junqueiro (1850-1923), by the way, an anti-religious, republican pamphleteer, is also not read anymore, nor is the historian Oliveira Martins. Unamuno then momentarily turns the gaze inward:

The cult of pain is found in the Portuguese perhaps even more than in us, the Spaniards. And in them it doesn’t adopt a certain character of ferocious bravery that was adopted by us. Their anxiety for martyrdom didn’t take them as much as it took our grandfathers to the madness of martyring others.

But we also had the Inquisition and one of Portugal’s great contributions to world vocabulary was auto-da-fé, which isn’t just the fancy title of a novel by Elias Canetti. Furthermore, without a taste for martyring others I don’t think we’d have had Baltasar and Blimunda. But I shouldn’t interrupt Unamuno when he’s waxing poetics on pain:

I’ll never forget that morning when, in the pleasing quietness of Coimbra, secluded at Eugénio de Castro’s home, we read, he and I, that passage from Os Trabalhos de Jesus, by Father Tomé de Jesus, in which the good friar describes the misery, affliction and suffering Christ endured during the nine months he was shut up in his mother’s belly. The good Portuguese friar, who wrote his work while captive of the Moors, in Morocco, possessed a fertile imagination to invent refinements of suffering. His book, all of it full of lyrical effusions and inflamed orations, is a vast hymn to pain – sometimes diffused, others emphatic, of an emphasis more Spanish than Portuguese.

It’s commonly said that when a writer writes literary criticism he’s really writing about himself. I wonder, then, what does it say about Unamuno that he’s infatuated with sadistic fantasies hurled at a holy foetus? Still, if good criticism can also be measured by what it teaches us, Unamuno gets high marks: I had no idea we had, in our classics, a book that imagined the pains of foetus Jesus. All of a sudden, José Saramago seems less blasphemous than just part of a long tradition. It’s this clarity, this ability to recontextualize writers, that I admire in criticism.

Besides Eugénio de Castro, Unamuno praises other antiques few people outside specialists care to read: João de Deus (1830-1896) “a charming prodigy of grace, sweetness and sentiment,” Correia de Oliveira (1878-1960) a poet who explodes in “prophetic fulminations,” and Almeida Garrett (1799-1854), whose startlingly original Viagens na Minha Terra he quotes over and over in his travels. Garrett, in all fairness, is a different case; he’s part of our curriculum and, together with Camilo, our best prose writer before Eça. Things become less nebulous when he turns to Antero de Quental (1842-1891), a master of the sonnet:

Quental is something else. The famous sonnets of Antero de Quental – in his country he’s simply called Antero, just that, like Camilo Castelo Branco is simply called Camilo – are something frequently bony and hard; the conceptual and abstract elements show up very raw, not always well covered by fantasy. However, what depths of despair! What intensity of religious hurting! Poor Antero, who ended up killing himself, is a soul that can be placed alongside the ones of Thomson (…), Senancour, Leopardi, Kierkegaard and the most desperate. In Spain we have nothing like him. Next to him, Campoamor is a falsifier of scepticism. Quental was one of the souls most tormented by the thirst of infinity, the hunger of eternity. There are sonnets by him that will live on so long as the memory of people lives, for, sooner or later, they’ll be translated into all the languages of men tormented by the sphinx’s stare.

My favourite tribute to Antero, though, comes when Unamuno quotes the historian Oliveira Martins:  

This man, fundamentally good, if he had lived in 6th century or in the 13th century, would have been a companion of St. Benedict or St. Francis of Assisi; in the 19th century, he’s just another eccentric, from that cut-out of eccentricity that is indispensable, for in all the eras the heretics were indispensable.

I’ve began to love this Oliveira Martins (1845-1894). If this rich book had done nothing more than introduce me to him, it would have already done a lot. Oliveira Martins is also not widely read these days, which is understandable since historians have shorter shelf lives than poets. After all, who still reads Edward Gibbons? But after I read this book I started checking out his books in the library, and was greatly impressed; one of the most remarkable was a book about Portuguese maritime history, with topics ranging from French corsairs’ raids in our coast to the role of the legend of Prester John in our chronicles. It’s not unthinkable that we’ll hear of Oliveira Martins again at St. Orberose.

Teixeira de Pascoaes (1877-1952) is another poet who gets high marks from Unamuno, and deservedly so; Unamuno devotes an article to As Sombras, one of the finest books of poetry I ever read. So much so I need to write about it one day. It’s a book infused with gentle religious mysticism that in Pascoaes becomes a pantheistic and polytheistic outlook culled from many religions, including Buddhism, represented by a memorable poem about Buddha. Unamuno uses the book to make a curious remark about Portuguese Christianity:

The Spanish Christ – Guerra Junqueiro once told me – was born in Tangiers; he’s an African Christ, and he never gets far from the cross, where he’s full of blood; the Portuguese Christ walks in the fields with the peasants and eats with them, and only at certain times, when he has to fulfil the demands of his role, does he hang himself on the cross.

His final words on As Sombras end with a lovely image:

   If this book had been published in French, by some literary artisan – even though none could have done it – of the boulevard, with friends in the Mercure group who had applauded him, he’d by now have started having imitators in these parts. However, he’s an obscure Portuguese poet, who lives his life and his songs on the margins of the Tâmega, secluded in Amarante.
   I, however, since I appreciate these almost ignored flowers, that are born and flourish away from the wide paths of nations, where the dust of those paths can’t find them, go pick them up so that I can call others to come enjoy them too.

Now aren’t we bloggers like him, going to the farthest byways to pick up the almost ignored flowers to call others to come enjoy them too?

But his most heartfelt encomiums go to Camilo Castelo Branco (1825-1890), the Romantic novelist. In the course of his travels in Portugal, Unamuno must have read some two or three novels by him, wonderful companions to have in the train. I’ve never read a Camilo novel I didn’t like, and his Mysteries of Lisbon inspired an outstanding movie. But he belongs more to the romance than the novel, if that makes any sense. I think he was an efficient storyteller with a clumsy prose but a great talent for anecdotes and social satire, qualities Unamuno downplays. For him, Amor de Perdição is “the most intense and most profound love novel ever written in the Peninsula and one of the few books that represents our shared Iberian soul.” The man is obsessed with national identity, there’s nothing to be done. He credits Teixeira de Pascoaes with telling him about the novel: “It was the fire with which he spoke to me of Amor de Perdição, of Camilo Castelo Branco, that led me to read that eternal classic amongst works of passion, very superior, in my view, to Manon Lescaut, of Abbé Prévost, even though the fact it’s a Portuguese book has obscured it next to the French one.” Remarkable how even then, when Portugal had a reasonably important empire, our language had difficulty traversing borders. Unamuno goes on: “Amor de Perdição, by Camilo, is one of the fundamental books of Iberian literature (Portuguese, Castellan and Catalan).” Now I think he’s just straining it.

With Unamuno’s obsession with martyrdom and suffering, with his infatuation with mystical effusion, with his Romantic outlook, what does he think of Eça de Queiroz?

While his name and his works conquer prestige and fame outside Portugal, in his country it’s normal to find illustrious and cultivated Portuguese who reject and renege him, considering him frenchified, one who disdained his country. And yet, underneath the French clothing, how profoundly Portuguese Eça de Queiroz is! His despair and his haplessness are quite Portuguese, and also Portuguese his irony. But, in truth, it’s quite natural that his countrymen have difficulties in forgiving his disdain and his sarcasm.

Well, if illustrious and cultivated men can’t see the greatness of Eça, are they really illustrious and cultivated? I get the feeling Unamuno doesn’t like Eça very much. Unamuno tries to overcome this disliking by distorting what makes Eça so outstanding and by projecting onto him the traits he admires so dearly in Portuguese literature. Sure, Eça belonged to the realist school, emerged from an irreverent generation that publicly decried the previous Romantic generation, mocked a tragic view of life, had a sense of humour, made Victor Hugo the punch line of many jokes in his novels, but deep down he’s just like them! Perhaps he did become a bit like them in the end.

The mocking and satirical note walks, in Portugal, hand in hand with the erotic-elegiac note. It seems to be a people that knows not but to cry or mock. And mocking tends to be a way of crying. The Romantic German poet Heinrich Heine mocked in order not to tear his breast with moans. And does the reader think the irony of Eça de Queiroz, his implacable satires, are not as painful and whining as the most plangent elegy? Read The Illustrious House of Ramires and, next, The City and the Mountains, works already translated into Castellan. If one wants to know Eça de Queiroz, however, read above all The Correspondence of Fradique Mendes. It’s here that one sees how corrosive a supercritical spirit can be.

Now, to the average reader these three titles are just three titles, but to a reader like me who’s read Eça’s almost entire fiction, and who can organize it chronologically, these three books are taken from what is called the author’s last phase, his weakest too. It’s the phase marked by the loss of his edge, the one where he made peace with his country and mitigated his social criticism, rejected his realism in favour of nationalism and sunk so low as to write a ridiculous novel idolizing the countryside and demonizing the city. It’s not the kind of simplistic moral fable I’d want someone to use to judge the talent of a writer who once wrote a satirical tale about Adam and Eve from a Darwinian perspective. Contemplating the statue of Eça de Queiroz in Lisbon, he speaks of him as “Eça de Queiroz, the man who didn’t believe in his people, or at least didn’t believe in the Portuguese city, and searched for Portugal in the mountains, far away from contact with civilization (…)”. For him, clearly, Eça was little more than The City and the Mountains. Unamuno couldn’t help expressing some of his own prejudices here. In the final article of the book he launches into a passionate, Rousseauian defence of nature and all its virtues. He’s free to love what may be Eça’s worst novel, but does that give him the right to recommend a castrated, domesticated Eça? These three novels, are they really the ones best showcase Eça’s talent? Not a renowned masterpiece like The Maias, not the relentless study of lust that is The Crime of Father Amaro, not the laugh-out-loud attack on religious hypocrisy that is The Relic? Almost as damning as distorting Eça is his omission of realist poet Cesário Verde (1855-1886), a great innovative poet who helped to move away from the antiquated lyrical tradition of the past into a more naturalistic and urban poetry, effectively setting the stage for Fernando Pessoa.

So after going through several authors and identifying several common traits of Portuguese literature, Unamuno can finally say that the Portuguese nation is a suicidal one:

   Portugal is a sad people, even when it smiles. Its literature, including its comical and jocose literature, is a sad literature.
   Portugal is a nation of suicidal people, perhaps a suicidal nation. Life for it doesn’t have a transcendental purpose. They want to live, yes, perhaps; but for what? It’s best not to live.

To prove his point he enumerates several figures that committed suicide: Antero de Quental, Camilo Castelo Branco, the sculptor Soares dos Reis, the poet Manuel Laranjeira, the army officer Mouzinho de Albuquerque, the writer Trindade Coelho. I can add the poets Florbela Espanca and Mário de Sá-Carneiro, Pessoa’s friend.

Like I wrote before, Unamuno makes many shrewd observations about the Portuguese spirit. If I feel any anger for this book it’s not because he misrepresents it, it’s because I know it all too well. I do think our literature, which is a spitting image of our spirit, is masochistic, sad, sentimental and resigned. He endorses all these traits, whereas I loathe them for what they’ve given to Portuguese literature: the insipidness, the “melancholy lyricism,” to quote Saramago, the plangent I of so much of our 19th century poetry, a preference to sing personal misfortunes than inventing characters and narrating situations, which has resulted in a mediocre novelistic tradition. Perhaps nothing different could be expected from a national tendency for sentimentalism, masochism and resignation. If few things have changed in over a century, I think it’s because of several historical reasons: first of all, the chaotic 1st Republic, then half a century of dictatorship that exacerbated some of these psychological traits; and since 1974 an inability to heal the traumas of the dictatorship, not to mention a terrible economic depression. But the Portuguese writers I admire escaped from Unamuno’s straitjacket: Eça de Queiroz, Fernando Pessoa, José Saramago. And could that be the reason why they’re also the most successful Portuguese writers? Of the three, none was more singular than Eça de Queiroz, the first author of detective fiction in Portugal (The Mystery of the Sintra Road) and also one of its first practitioners of fantasy (The Mandarin), two genres that never prospered in Portugal, perhaps because they require creative imagination. Eça did two things well: he wrote in an impeccable style; and he had a peerless sense of humour. Since Eça every Portuguese novelist has obsessed over style to the point most of our novelists are practically incomprehensible. But few have tried to emulate his sense of humour. Eça was like a lightning in an endless night, illuminating everything for a brief moment before the shadows obscured things again. Fighting an entire culture is hard. It wasn’t until Saramago that a Portuguese novelist again exhibited ornate prose, a talent for storytelling and a sense of humour, all in equal proportions, making the real heir of Eça. But Saramago is sometimes accused of not being a real Portuguese writer, he’s too magical realist, too South American for that; the same way I learn from Unamuno that Eça once upon a time wasn’t considered a real Portuguese writer, just a frenchified one. Unamuno just avoids accusing Eça of self-hatred. Maybe that’s my problem; I can live with it. Perhaps the problem is that I’m exposed to globalization, perhaps I just have wrong expectations of what literature should be; perhaps I should be more accepting of the unique identity of Portuguese literature with its emphasis on misery. Perhaps Agustina Bessa-Luís is a better writer than Jorge Luis Borges. Perhaps The Baron in the Trees and The Master and Margarita are literary offenders. Perhaps Vladimir Nabokov was a fool for innovating the novel when in the 1950s Portuguese novels were still being written like they were in the 19th century. Perhaps that’s all true. In that case I prefer my Portuguese writers with a touch of the French or the South Americans, or in Pessoa’s case of the British. I so wish writers of their stature and genius were the norm in our literature instead of the chronic joyless, self-centred whiners.

Miguel de Unamuno, to recapitulate, has written an excellent book about Portuguese literature and identity. I can’t disagree with any of his general views save his hearty endorsement. But for anyone who, in a remote chance, may read this book, I hope it becomes clear this book shows not what’s great about Portuguese literature but the direction it has to move in for its own good, I daresay for a place in the world.

This post was written for the 2013 European Reading Challenge.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

So the Romans were like me: they loved places where greatness and solitude walked hand in hand: travels with Eugénio de Andrade

I have to share this with the reader: I love conceptual poetry books, that is, poetry books that don't just put together a handful of poems but follow a unifying pattern, whether it be a theme, a style, or a structure. For instance, I’m a sucker for William Blake’s The Songs of Innocence and Experience, with its symmetrical structure, and Jorge de Sena’s The Metamorphosis, in which each poem is based on a picture or painting. For that reason I have focused on Eugénio de Andrade’s books that incorporate this conceptual construction into them, like his all-prose poem books or his book of homages. So for my final post on his poetry I’m taking poems from a book that is all about places: streets, countries, cities, villages, dunes, castles, gardens, you name it. It’s not so much a book of descriptions but a book of moods and impressions connected to those places. It’s also where his poetry is more economical, lithe, condensed and enigmatic, I’d even risk saying that the poet owes a huge debt to the Imagism of Ezra Pound for this book. The book is called Escrita da Terra (Earth’s Writing, 1974):


Like that linen smell
Only caressed shoulders have
The earth is white

and naked.


In Summer at the evening’s end,
like Hadrian or Virgil or Marcus Aurelius
I entered Rome by the Appian Way
and by Antinous and all the world’s love
I swear I saw the light turn to stone.



so much
there’s just wind in my country

white wind
green black wind


dries tears

cuts the voice in the root.


Will the night in order to sleep
ask a drop of water from me?


With the last waters the trees depart
the whole garden is then a smile.


There’s a rupture
a crack in the dark
of the silence:

one hears the murmur
of urine
from the soldiers against the wall.


What music would you be
If you were not water?



the air

lacks only the blade.


It’s over the buttock’s splendours
that I reconcile myself with tears.


One thing is to live in the skin
another to have night for a frigate.


This mist over the city, the river,
the seagulls of other days, boats, people
in a hurry or with all the time to while away,
this mist where Lisbon’s light begins,
rose and lemon over the Tejo, this water light,
I want nothing more from step to step.


Like in the Whitman poem a boy
Approached me and asked: what is
            the grass?
Between his gaze and mine the air hurt.
Under other afternoons’ shades I spoke
to him of bees and thistles close to the earth.


of the slow restless
loneliness of the choked
finally the black,
thick bottom,
like in Alentejo
the obstinate white.


You approach the earth. Now more.
With eyes closed you contemplate a stone.
Small. Uninhabitable. Almost white.
It’d be perfection if it were water.
(A child sings like in dreams.)


The platanus.
and the strident
Sun vertical to the cicadas.
the river almost at hand.
And a whisper,
not of nymphs: of words.
Blue is white,
The two men sleep
in the afternoon’s shade.
And memory’s.


I like these pigeons, these children.
Eternity cannot be but like this:
pigeons and children turning
the incomparable morning light
into the poem’s innocent place.


With my mouthful of sun, so much sun,
how could the shadow and its rings
approach from scale to scale
and quickly bite your waist?


With this sun, this vertical blade
between the eyes,
how to give you so much thirst to drink?,
the piercing blade tearing deep.


So the Romans were
like me: they loved
places where greatness
and solitude
walked hand in hand.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

If I had to die it’d be now, the weight of the shadow on my heart: Eugénio de Andrade's prose poems

Eugénio de Andrade also wrote prose poems. In fact two of his books contain exclusively prose poems: Memória Doutro Rio (Memory of Another River, 1978) and Vertentes do Olhar (Gazing Slopes, 1987). Since this month I’m interested in showcasing several of the poet’s facets, I’ve selected a few samples. I think more commentary is unnecessary at this point, these prose poems don’t deviate from his life-long interests and themes: childhood, memories, nature, eroticism, they only address them in a new form. So just enjoy them:


Night should have already fallen, the river’s skin darkens. Happy voices moved away luminous, climbed down the stairs gently, while tears would burst out in the dark not before long.
They didn’t know the wolf had managed to run away and the hunter had fallen asleep, tired, under the big red tree. Without the least noise the door started opening, first it was just burning eyes, then the whole animal entered the room.
If I had to die it’d be now, the weight of the shadow on my heart, pushing me towards the waters, ever closer and more deserted.


By which word to begin, by which disorder? The wind rises quickly from the stone’s roughness, the fire horse kicks, neighs in the yard, the little boy opens the gate for him, rides in the dust.
There’s not a lot more to say about that day – the twilight gradually approached the house’s steps, the plough and its shadow are indistinguishable, and at the end of the horizon the kid, the wind’s accomplice, goes away sheltered by insults.


Everywhere where the land is poor and high, there they are, the goats – black, very feminine in their petite hops, from stone to stone. I’ve liked these hussies since I’m a child. I had one that my grandfather gave me, and he himself taught me to serve myself, when I was hungry, from those fat, lukewarm wineskins, where hands dallied slowly before the mouth approached so the milk wouldn’t be lost across the face, the neck, the chest even, which sometimes happened, who knows if on purpose, thinking of the nice-smelling vulva. She was called Maltesa, she was my first horse, and I don’t know if my first wife.


A bee, one of those they say to be Italian, came through the window, stubbornly she chooses me, poises on my shoulder, rests from her work. Flattered by that preference, I started loving her slowly, holding my breathing, afraid that she’d soon notice her mistake, that she’d soon discover I wasn’t the stem from where the dunes are sighted. But her look brought me peace, she was a calm wheat wave. Now only a question disturbed my joy – with me, how would she produce her honey?


I’ll learn a trade I like, there are so few, perhaps carpenter, or stone mason. I’d build a house on this sand ground with wet, polished rocks, or full of water weeds, cold, they’re so pretty, with their crossing veins, or moving away with their backs to each other. I’d go through those narrow goat paths to see, at the end of the afternoon, the travelling circuses arrive in all their glory, which the slow, departing clouds, so white, direct me to.


On waking up I remembered Peter Doyle. It had to be six o’clock, on the Australian blackwood in front of me a bird sang. I won’t swear he was singing in English, only Virginia Woolf’s birds have such privileges, but the rejoicing of my bird reminded me of the mockingbird of the American fields and the cold face of the Irish young man, who on that winter Walt Whitman loved, seated at the end of the tavern, rubbing his hands, next to the stove’s heat.
I opened the window, in the scarce clarity that grew closer I searched, in vain, for the immaculate delicacy that had awaken me. But, suddenly, one, two, three times, wet trills were heard, informing me of a breath of feathers barely discernible in the foliage. Then, invoking very ancient metaphors for singing, I picked up the venerable book that I had at hand and, from stanza to stanza, I went about opening the water levees of being, as one getting ready to fly.


They grow up in secret, children. They hide in the depths of the house to be wild cats, white birches.
One day you’re distracted looking at the flock returning with the afternoon’s dust, and one of them, the prettiest, tip-toes next to you, whispers in your ear that he loves you, that he waits for you over the hay.
Trembling, you go pick up the hunting rifle, and you spend the remaining afternoon shooting at jays, innumerable at that hour.


To go back, to start again – with what words? A band of hooligans laughs, sings in a street corner. I’d like to think that I and those voices that wallow in the night ignore each other to the bone. But it’s not so: the vulgarity of those sounds moves through walls; they are, in spite of it, a company. I live in a country without memory – does anyone know of a sadder place? It’s time for the white robin to fly away. Let’s then return to the beginning. And the beginning are half dozen words and a passion for the clean things of the earth, inexorably sovereign. Those, where light takes shelter, offended. Only they open the doors to sortileges, and sortileges occur in day time, even when they invoke the night, and the waters of silence, and the indelible time without time.


I still feel the rough skin of his hand on mine. He was a stone mason, like me – is there a more precise name for my trade? The old man didn’t suspect I’d be like him one day: patient, affable, dreamy, working from sunrise to sunset. Only with less talent. But then the materials are also different – words, they don’t keep the stone’s weight, they inherit only the colour. Mine have, sometimes, the white smoothness of pebbles, but in others night seemed to have found shelter. They’re the most secret, with them I could make a crown of lighting bolts. Yet, I prefer those with which I disguise tenderness, tenuously veiled by the twilight’s light, with rare occasional glimmers. Exactly what the old man asked of the stone.


Schubert died last night. I’ll miss him, every morning I woke up with him singing. He was fabulous: he sang with his whole body. Thus should the poet be, I thought sometimes, tired of so much speech where only the spirit lingered. But between men and birds there is, at least, this difference: a bird when he sings plumbs vertiginously to the root; for man, it’s very rare that the ardour of vowels burns his waist. That’s why his death moves me so much. Let these lines remain to remember the master.


We still need to bring to these pages, even if only obliquely, those who grow fat on hatred. They come at nightfall, in the slow trail of melancholy, their fat glimmering with satisfaction. Some loved me so much when they were young that it’d be petty to deny them now a glass of wine or a place by the stove to warm their hands. November has arrived, and the cold justifies in a way my promiscuity.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Eugénio de Andrade addresses dead people

Eugénio de Andrade once revealed his two books he didn’t like very much. For one of them, As Palavras Interditas (Forbidden Words), he couldn’t explain why he could not longer “recognize himself in them.” But he cogently explained his lack of love for Homenagens e outros epitáfios (Homages and other epitaphs):

   I don’t know if in truth you can call book to a collection of verses without unity, reflecting tonal variations, fluctuations of writing and other marks of time, which poetry can’t escape from, as a living thing it also is, and all because they were gathered, in so many few pages, these texts that manage to have more than forty years between them. What reason approximated them in my spirit?
   In their majority, these writings were requested of me by friends, and in one or another case the insistence was as much as to make the task be carried out. If there’s poetry of circumstance (and I think there is, most of it is nothing but), no other by me is as much as this: from occasional verses for catalogues by artists I admire to sorrowful laments for dead friends, all these lines speak about nothing but love for a torpid reality that the hands touched or the eyes caressed, so many times covered by the modesty of sentiments.

Poetry written on order; although Eugénio de Andrade can’t bring himself to call it that, there remains little doubt that he doesn’t consider the poems in this book to form part of his real oeuvre. He admits as much in another paragraph.  “My preferences go to more rigorous architectures, where a handful of substantives and some verbs, fascinated by transparency, balance themselves in constant tension, and the voice within won’t stop each syllable of rising vertically.” Like I wrote in my previous post, Eugénio de Andrade adhered rigidly to a restricted lexicon out of which he built his poems. I think he ultimately resented these poems for constraining his propensity for sneaking lime and bird into poems willy-nilly.

I, in opposition to him, like this book very much. All literature manifests a relationship of the author with his time and place; but literature can also establish a dialogue with the past and with itself. And I love to see poets talking to other poets through poetry. The book’s poems constitute a good example of that. Eugénio de Andrade addresses world poets: Guillaume Apollinaire, Vicente Aleixandre, Kavafis, Marina Tsvetaeva; filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini and composer Richard Strauss; murdered Brazilian environmentalist and union leader Chico Mendes and revolutionary Che Guevera; Portuguese poets: Adolfo Casais Monteiro, Jorge de Sena, Ruy Belo, Luís de Camões, Vitorino Nemésio, Carlos de Oliveira, Cesário Verde, Luís Miguel Nava; novelist António Lobo Antunes, philosopher Eduardo Lourenço, actress Eunice Muñoz and Vasco Gonçalves, a controversial revolutionary and socialist president; and painters and architects: Augusto Gomes, José Dias Coelho, Jorge Martins, Armando Alves, Mário Botas, José Carlos Loureiro, Pádua Ramos, Álvaro Siza Vieira. The readers shouldn’t feel bad if they don’t know most of the names on the list, most Portuguese readers wouldn’t know them either. I don’t anyway. I also like the poem exactly because of the tone, so different from the rest of his work, a bit angrier, more malicious, looser, less meditative but irreverently funny many times. The first edition came out in 1974 and successive editions kept adding new poems; out of respect for the presentation of the poems I’ll include the year of their writing.



You were always a river, a wounded river,
A whisper of blood that sings and sings,
Not between reeds, between shadow and sorrow,
The complete nudity burning your throat.

A river of blind waters, of guitars,
Not guitars, of scissors or swords,
Of lemon juice, of searching hands,
Trembling, offended and hapless.

Thus I see you: the face resting on loneliness
And the open wounds screaming for the sea,
O clear light of Spain between ruin and death,
O masculine flower of lime and nightlight.

Eugénio de Andrade’s complaints, as you can see, had no grounds. He can still put lime and nightlight and reeds and water in the verses. Incidentally, I never read this Spanish poet. In keeping with the long tradition in Portugal, I know almost nothing of our neighbours’ literature.


(Prague, 1983)

All poets are Jewish,
All are marked
By a black star,
Whether it be pink or yellow,
All walk South-wards
Fatigued, not from the raw
Light of the dunes: but the dead
Weight of that star.



Tied up to silence, the heart still
Heavy with love, you lie sideways,
Listening, so to say, the black
Waters of our agony.

Pale voices search you in the fog;
From field to field they search
A horse, the tallest palm tree
Over the lake, a boat maybe
Or the spilled honey of our joy.

Eyes squeezed by fear
Wait the sun in the night where it rises,
Where you’re mistaken with the Summer’s
Blood thickets or the whisper
Of white feet of rain in the sands.

The word, as you said, arrives
Humid from the woods; we have to sow it;
It comes humid from the earth: we have to defend it;
It arrives with the swallows
That drunk it syllable by syllable in your mouth.

Each word of yours is a man standing up,
Each word of yours turns dew into a knife,
Turns hate into an innocent wine
For us to drink, with you
In the heart, around the fire.

Another elegy to Che Guevara to add to a vast list. Behold, incidentally, the supernatural powers he attributes to Mr. Ernesto de la Serna. Jesus Christ could only turn water into wine, a paltry miracle (especially if you consider he had God behind it) that merely requires turning one liquid into another, a third-rate alchemical feat, a legerdemain for fools if I ever saw one. But Che could turn an abstract emotion into a liquid substance. For this reason, and in spite of countless doubts, I never cease to remain a Communist sympathiser: our secular wonders far outshine Christianity’s. But speaking of blasphemy:


I know little of you but this crime
Makes death even more unbearable.
It was November, surely cold, but you
Didn’t even feel the air, your own sex
That was always a fountain now stabbed.
A poet, even solar like you, on the ground
Is not much: a knife, the whisper
Of April can kill him – it dawns,
The first buses have already passed,
The factories open the gates, the newspapers
Announce strikes, repression, two dead on the
Page, blood rots or will shine
In the sun, if the sun comes, amidst the grass.
The assassin, he’ll continue day after day
Insulting the bitter heart of life;
In court he’ll imply that he only answered
To an (immoral) aggression with another aggression,
As if anyone ignored, except of course
The honourable judges, that whores of this kind
Confuse morals with their own ass.
The theft is enough most honourable gentlemen
As a motive for a crime that the fascists,
And not just the Saló ones, wouldn’t mind to
Whatever the reason, and there are many
Which Capital the Church and the Police
Hand in hand are always ready to justify,
Pier Paolo Pasolini is dead.
The farce, the dirty farce, that continues.

No one can deny the horror of Pasolini’s death, but I bet deep down Eugénio de Andrade relished the fact that the murder occurred in November, a word he uses as often as bird and lime.


(September, 1972)

What hurts isn’t a poplar.
It’s neither the snow nor the root
Of joy rotting in the hills.
What hurts

Is not even the glow of a pulse
Having ceased,
And the music, which brought
Sometimes a sigh, sometimes a boat.

What hurts is knowing.
What hurts
Is the fatherland, which divides us and kills
Before one dies.

Adolfo Casais Monteiro (1908-1972) deserves a post in my blog, and will have it one day. A modernist poet and literary critic, we owe to him some of the earliest studies on Fernando Pessoa, not to mention the conservation of letters essential to understanding his work. The Salazar regime, which he vocally challenged, impeded Casais Monteiro from teaching in Portugal and he exiled himself in Brazil in 1958, where he penned many excellent small essays on culture, history and politics. My admiration for the acuteness of his mind knows no bounds. Nor does my admiration for Jorge de Sena:


(August, 1978)

Is it out of pride that you don’t
Climb the stairs anymore? Did you guess
That I didn’t like that revenge
Constituted by your agony?
Is that why you didn’t come
Knock on my door this Summer?
Don’t you know by now
That between me and you
There’s only night and never will be death?

You didn’t lack in pride, I know;
Pride in lifting every day
With trembling hands
Life to your height
– but who suspected the other face?
Who loved in you
The frail, insecure boy,
The gentle sister we didn’t have?

You wrote like blood sings:
And you showed how it’s not easy
In this small country to be brief.
Maybe you lacked the time
To weigh with your happy hand the air
Where a juvenile ardour
Lasted until the end.

In what you left us there’s everything,
From the glass or cold water
To the howl of chased wolves.
Some prefer to read your verses,
Others the prose, others still
Prefer what about the freedom
Of being a man
You left behind you here and there
In prose or in verse, and tangible
It shines
Where before it seemed dead.

Sometimes you took pride
In having, instead of one, two countries;
Poor thing; you didn’t have any;
Or you just had that one
That gnawed your heart,
Loyal to the tribe’s words.

You wandered around a lot seeing if the world
Was bigger than you – you concluded it wasn’t.
You had a wife and children portuguesely
Allotted through the world,
And some friends,
Amongst whom I count myself,
And the wind too.

Now, instead of an elegy to a poet I admire very much, an elegy to a poet I never read anything by but plan to one day:



You are probably well at ease by now,
Between the angels and, with that smile where childhood
Always took the train for the long vacations,
You’ve already made friends, without missing the days
You spent almost anonymously and lithe
Like the beach’s breeze and the girl from
Who didn’t notice you, or if she did she was from Vila do

Death like thirst was always close to you,
I always saw it next to you, in every meeting
There she was, a bit distracted, true,
But she was, as was the sea and joy
Or rain in the verses of your youth.

I just didn’t expect to see it so early, in the fourth
Page of a newspaper brought by the wind,
In that Caldelas August, in the noon heat,
Newspaper where in the headline there was
Also the promotion of a military to general,
Or maybe two, or three, or four, I don’t know;
These military men are hard to tell apart,
Made in moulds like Barcelos roosters.
Equally brave, equally useless,
With their melancholy asses taking for walk
The empire’s nostalgia and syphilis,
And so inimical of that feast
That in you, in me, starts in the dunes.

At least I’m consoled that they left you
In peace in death; no one in the
Of the Republic pretend to have read your verses,
Nobody, full of pity for himself,
Proposed state funerals, or, posthumously,
Wanted to make you viscount, knight, abbot,
Something like that to fertilize the fields.
They didn’t notice you, and it’s your fault,
You were always discreet (even in death),
You didn’t tell the country to go fuck itself, or a
You didn’t piss off anyone, not even your
And you were buried in a small town I don’t
Know where it is, but wherever it is it’s yours.

I’m pleased that’s how it all went, and now
That you’ve started making a body with the earth
The only proof is growing towards the sun.

By the way, for those in need of a visual aid to understand the Rooster of Barcelos:



Nobody reads yours verses, some so admirable,
And your prose doesn’t have many readers,
Although everyone agrees, even those who
Didn’t read it, that it’s magnificent.
Pessoa’s the fad, poor thing: he suits everything;
And it’s his fault, with that moving
Inability to be himself.
It was no good for him to say and re-say
That fame was for actresses.
What a vocation for sheep most have:
There’s no college dyke or uniformed
Stallion that doesn’t say the country
Is his language or go fuck yourselves.
No, that didn’t work with you. For years
And years they kept you on the shelf:
You were the Knight of the Sorrowful Countenances.
Conversion to Catholicism, favours to the dictatorship,
State propaganda prizes didn’t help to get you
Read, plus there were other writers to be
Praised, admittedly quite mediocre, but
By conviction,” a thing they say you weren’t.
This dying for the country is not for
Everyone and you, decidedly, had no inclination
At all for death. After all,
Besides the birds to whom you gave your eyes,
You just had verses, and some pretty bad,
Something of negligent importance anyway,
As Pessoa, exemplarily, proved after death,
Who is, as we know, in paradise.
Poor thing, he thought he had time to tidy up
The papers in the chest, but death came before time.
With you, at least, that didn’t happen,
You drank less, you managed to tidy your house.

None of this matters to you now, and anyway
What do they read those who read when they read?

I never read Nemésio’s poetry, guilty as charged. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and read it one day, no, really; but I have read (started it anyway) one of his novels, and I have to say that Stormy Isles has disgusted me as few novels have. A complete waste of time, energy, ink, eye sight, humanity, paper, and space. And to think a translator bothered to translate this piece of garbage into English when better books continue to wait, perhaps may never have that luck; this behaviour I can only describe as bordering on criminal negligence. On the other hand I have read Cesário Verde and I can attest to his greatness:



In this city, where I now feel
More foreign than a Persian cat;
In this Lisbon, where tender and smooth
Days pass by watching sea-gulls,
And the colour of the flowery jacarandas
Mixes with Tejo’s, also blooming;
Only Cesário comes to me,
Makes me company, when from street
To street I search for a distant whisper
Of steps or birds, I’m not really sure.
Only he adjusts the happy light of his
Verses to the burnt eyes that are
Mine in this moment; only he brings the shadow
Of a very ancient Summer, and music,
Sun juice dripping from my mouth,
O childhood, my closed garden,
O my poet, perhaps it was with you
That I learned to weight syllable by syllable
Each word, those you almost
Ever took, like few did,
To the supreme perfection of language.



Although heir to all Romantic
Music, you could tell he wasn’t
One those who lose their life par délicatesse.
Solid, well built, firm legs of
A happy animal, like some
Schwabing barman,
He had an easy sensuality,
Which he solved also easily with a dish
Of sausages and beer, or else
With a more than lithe soprano,
One of those he tripped on every day
In the Opera – nothing that stopped him
From being, naturally, a good family man.

Not being affable, he had
Positive things, for instance:
He hated tenors – the pavarottis
And the plácidos were women in his operas.
He wrote several operas, some incomparable:
Salome, Der Rosenkavalier,
Ariadne, Die Frau ohne Schatten, with Hofmannsthal
Showing him how transparency
And lightness weren’t easy.

Between the passionate and solar Don Juan
Of his twenty-five years and the Vier
Letzte Lieder of more luminous old age,
He did what he wanted with music;
Methodically, like the beaver makes his house;
Sometimes brutally, sometimes
With subtle intelligence, as if God
Chose him, although an atheist,
As an accomplice for his greatness.

With the Nazis he knew not to be arrogant,
Although his condescendence
Did him little good – the boots
Have much difficulty in
Distinguishing a man
Of genius from a rat.

But how not to forget such weaknesses,
And others, on hearing Schwarzkopf
Singing the last songs,
Or on listening to the opening of Capriccio,
That sextet written in a state of grace,
As if Mozart himself were
Driving the hand of Doktor Richard Strauss?

Jorge de Sena has Eugénio de Andrade beaten as far as vitriolic poems against Richard Strauss go, but I admire this effort nevertheless Next time we'll read some of his prose poems.