I will always remember Mário Cesariny as a cadaverous-looking poet whose still-living skull Time had aged into a fine impersonation of Yorick. I must have first read him one or two years before his death in 2006, I a university student yet, and rather infatuated with transgressive vanguards. Cesariny, by turn, had behind him half a century of activity as the father of Portuguese Surrealism. As such, he deserves more and better words than I’m willing to devote to him here.
Cesariny, born in 1923, led to my knowledge a bourgeois life until 1947, when he travelled to Paris to study Art. Because of Portugal’s isolation from Europe during the fascist years, a holiday beyond the Pyrenees was enough to turn you into a literary superstar if you played your cards right. Cesariny, who probably skipped every Art class, judging from his awful paintings, took wind of something called Surrealism, by then fizzling in France but still unknown over here, and started writing about it in his letters to friends. With said friends he inaugurated in 1949 Lisbon’s Surrealist Group.
This informal gathering of friends who met at cafés and terrorized Lisbon’s complacency with hoaxes and nonsense came at a time when a right-wing dictator ruled Portugal. Up until the 1970s Portuguese cultural life only existed in cafés (yes, we were a George Steiner generalization), with writers and artists meeting after work to eat, booze, party, write, read, smoke, secondhand smoke, and debate well into the night, living the Bohemian life without missing any of the clichés movies have invented. Rebellious, recalcitrant, and an overt homosexual, Cesariny was in the right place at the right time to wage an absurdist guerilla against mores, bigotry and authority. No ideology suited him; he ecumenically despised both the state’s official literature and the opposition’s Marxist-driven social realism. (See the facile “exquisite poem” where he rips into Ezra Pound and Pablo Neruda). For him, anything Mme. Mainstream had rubberstamped her approval on could not be trusted; when Fernando Pessoa’s popularity exploded in the 1950s, Cesariny flaunted his indifference to him, preferring the mystical poet Teixeira Pascoaes, the poetry of whom he anthologized. 30 years before Cesariny, Pessoa had also played the role of non-conformism guru; if we wanted to psychoanalyze this (and Cesariny being a Surrealist, we have to, don’t we?), we could interpret it as an unconscious battle between fathers and sons, Zeus battling Cronus, or some other Greek myth you may wish to name a complex after.
Lisbon’s Surrealist Group quickly dissolved for the same reason the original Dada members parted ways with lots of bad blood between them: egos, people wanting to lead the group, rigid poetics meticulously deciding what was and wasn’t surrealist, which was quite contrary to the spirit of freedom underlying it. Cesariny, who wanted to lead, abandoned it and created a dissident group in another café where he pontificated as a coryphée.
During a good deal of his life, Cesariny not only worked as the fiercest promoter of Surrealism in Portugal, but also edited anthologies, published other Portuguese surrealist poets – in the case of António Maria Lisboa literally rescuing his dead friend’s poems from a public garbage can – and translated Luis Buñuel, Antonin Artaud, Novalis, Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell, and Claude Simon’s Le Vent, during Portugal’s nouveau roman craze. His friend João Palma-Ferreira, one of my idols of literary criticism, convinced him to take some time off to edit an anthology of what we call “literatura de cordel”. Anything quirky and off the beaten path appealed to him. He also pursued an interest in visual arts, painting and creating collages; in fact he earned his living from his paintings.
In his final years he became a much sought raconteur because of his remarkable memory and the frankness with which he talked about his life, never afraid of causing controversy.
Cesariny published his first poetry book in 1950 and his last one in 1997. What can I say about it? Recently perusing it for the first time in several years, I realized they haven’t aged as a part of me. I suspect I never did like his poetry that much, but once upon a time, when I was a much younger and more insecure reader and believed everyone else was right, I had this power of self-delusion that numbed my aesthetic judgments. The only benefit of my ill-advised attempt to write a novel is that I replaced this power of self-delusion with the self-delusion that everyone save me is wrong about aesthetics.
Cesariny’s poetry appeals to angry teenagers who need their predictable rebellion against society validated by authority figures. Nowadays I regard literary Surrealism – and why not throw Dada and Futurism into the mix while I’m at it? – as an absolute fiasco, worthy solely for the paintings and sculptures it produced. Cesariny’s purely destructive personality embodied an attitude of negation. His was a poetics of impoverishment: in meter, in rhyme, in lyricism, in grammar, in meaning. And that’s just the language aspect; the nihilism, inhumanity and spiritual emptiness he had to uphold in the war he waged against all conventionality didn’t make his poems any more interesting. As I pointlessly handpicked the least bad ones to translate, my mind kept going back to that passage in Hans Richter’s Dada: Art and Anti-Art about how the Dadaist’s disdain for normal human relations, whether it be love or friendship, pushed many of them to self-destruction. Yeah, well, Arthur Cravan disappearing off the Mexican Gulf coast aside, I fear art suffered the greatest loss. I can understand Cesariny’s reasons, from a historical perspective; in the 1950s, Portuguese poetry was deeply lyrical, sentimental, old-fashioned. I get what Cesariny was revolting against, and why, but the net product of such revolt still strikes me for the most part as drivel. He opened a void only to fill it with vacuity. I wish I could say repetition, bad grammar, and random cuts of words in mid-verse amaze me, but John Lyly’s Euphues has raised my amazement bar so high you need a Pegasus to reach it.
Nowadays I prefer the builders and nurturers; rearing to tearing apart; form to chaos; sedulousness to carelessness; the silent artisan toiling slowly in his grimy workshop to the loudmouth shouting in the street lest nobody notice his super-duper transgressions. I’ve accepted that pursuing perfection and craft provides greater pleasures and spiritual rewards than worshipping novelty and strangeness. Cesariny’s writing-poetry-is-so-simple lesson runs contrary to my instincts both as a reader and writer, even if I’m not much as either. Nonetheless, after having spent one year building my own rhyming dictionary to write a short-story in decasyllabic rhyming prose, there are things about the writing of others I’ve given up trying to “understand” and “contextualize” like an even-handed literary critic. If there’s one thing my own writing has changed me for the better, it’s in how intolerant it made me.
Cesariny also wrote the only cat poem I know that doesn’t fawn over the greatness of our feline betters. If that doesn’t eloquently betray a misguided poetic vocation, what does?
However, the poem “to a dead rat found in a park” remains one of my favorite poems of the Portuguese language.
But don’t trust me, I’m in the minority. I have a co-worker at the office, an Italian post-graduate student, writing a thesis on Cesariny. (Antonio Tabucchi, an admirer, translated a bunch of Portuguese Surrealists in the 1970s). Last time we chatted, she was reading Freud to “understand him better”. My heart always throbs when foreigners take an interest in our writers. But our chat also reminded me why I’m glad I left Academe.
Object once used to induce loneliness. The la-
st to know its employment were the druids,
who called it “the nail of melancholy” and nail-
ed it on women’s brows so that they were pure
and exempt from precipitation.
There are fossils that allow to pinpoint the appear-
ance of this tool throughout the whole second glacier
everything in your smile says
that you’re only missing a pretext
to be happy
a quarrel would perhaps do
or a small shepherd who passed by
on the road, with his sheep
a smile, a detail
that upon the moment perched
and made it better
go thinking about old things
– not a shadow of disdain! –
about that fugacious flash
that your smile no longer has
and which belongs in the past
because our great wisdom
didn’t know how to treat so delicate a being
and the day, it declines
the small shepherd is no longer coming
joyful and sad joy
mother of day
pure and covered bosom
catapult on the desert
praise to the prince of denmark
into the sepulcher that is
hidden between the curtains
like the thieves
who profit thirty monies
poor of him for what he sees
now i grew sad, for real,
i went mute
what this mouth feels
when it smiles!
the park is unpeopled
and there’s a vague dream about
when my absent strength comes back
i’ll think of this alibi
the legible cat
OR ILLEGIBLE OR ILLEGAL – The establish-
ed’s catastrophe: the legal metric system’s sickness, abandon
of the horizontal position for the defunct, very active
repudiation of the rights of Father, of the duties of Mother, of the ex-
ploitation of man by the Son, etc.
VIRGULAMPÈRE – Convulsive dialectics.
Liberation of the object subject, trepanation of the subject
fascinated by the object. First concretions of grand
style: Victor Brauner’s picto-poems.
You need to say rose instead of saying idea
you need to say blue instead of saying panther
you need to say fever instead of saying innocence
you need to say the world instead of saying a man
you need to say candelabrum instead of saying arcane
you need to say Forever instead of saying Now
you need to The Day instead of saying A year
you need to say Mary instead of saying dawn
scene for the finale of a third act
a corner another corner
then the fleeting florid flowerbeds
from when the city was petite
then the long brutal rocks
the moon the eternal sea the pier
Mr. Pound is an Ezra corpse so awful to see
As the Pablo Corpse of Mr. Neruda.
Mr. Neruda is not an English penny. But
Mr. Pound is quite a half a crow.
Dust of a Second Empire Library: Mr. Pound.
Spaniard – tourist – dust around Machu Picchu:
Mr. Pound was born in the United States (I
suppose) from the heart of his mother, Mr. T.
S. Eliot, and the belly of his father, Santa
Claus. That’s why he writes so frequently
the Greek – Latin – Arabian – and – Acca-
Mr. Neruda was born in Chili. That’s why his
poems are written in the most unmingled
Góngora mass. (Góngora: see Castile, Spain).
Mr. Pound is a well-known Nazi. His
Mr. Neruda is a well-known Marxist. His widow too.
Here in Europe everyone loves Mr. Pound. Chiefly
at the Universities of Rome, Sicily, Auschwitz, Dachau,
Belsen, Hydrosulfate, and Oradour-sur-Glaine.
Mr. Neruda’s work is more cherished around Gdansk,
Budapest, Praha, Chasm, and Siberia.
(Note: Cesariny wrote this poem in English originally; I corrected a few spelling mistakes, keeping intact what I interpreted as word puns.)
I’m a man
a machine for making colored glass
a cup a stone
a configured stone
an airplane that lifts taking you in its arms
that now cross the earth’s last glacier
My name is tired of being written on tyrant’s lists: senten-
ced to death!
the days and nights of this century have shouted in my chest so much that
a tree has grown there by miracle
I have a foot that has travelled around the world
and the family in the street
one is blond
and never shall they meet
I know your voice like my fingers
(before I met you I already went to your home to kiss you)
I have a sun over my pleura
and all the sea’s water waiting for me
when I love I imitate the tide’s movements
And the year’s most vulgar assassinations
I am, from outside myself, my gabardine
and I the Everest’s peak
I can be seen at night in the company of highly suspicious people
and never by day by you blooming your mouth
because you’re the day you are
the land where for thousands of years now I’ve been living the parable
Of the dead king, of the wind and springtime
As for everybody else’s – I’ve seen some things
Trips to Paris – a few things have been procured.
Entanglements and divorces – not that few.
Conversations with international meteors – ditto, they’ve also pass-
I am, in the most energetic sense of the word
a carriage propelled by halitus
the friends I had the women I haunted the streets through which
I passed just once
all of that lives in me for a story
of yet hidden meaning
like a hamlet abandoned to the wolves
stony and dry
like a railway outraged by time
that’s why I carry a certain extinct weight
on my back
used as fuel
and that’s why I think the coming landscapes will be
scrupulously electrocuted alive
so we don’t have to throw them half-dead on the railway
And to tell you everything
I’ll tell you that with my twenty-five years of solar existence I am
in clear ascension towards you O Magnificent
in bed in the crack of a rock In Lisbon-Upon-Frights
and that the expedition-man who gets neither news in newspapers nor
tears at the family’s door
is me my beloved it’s me gone in the morning found lost between
lakes of fire and your huge portrait!
to a dead rat found in a park
This one ended here his vast career
as a living and dark rat before the constellations
its small measure doesn’t humiliate
except those who want everything immense
and who only know how to think in terms of man or tree
for no doubt this rat destined the way it knew how (and even the way he didn’t)
the miracle of the paws – so close to its nuzzle! –
which were apt after all, working very fine
to claw, flee, hold the food, go back suddenly,
Is all alright, then, o “God of the small cemeteries”?
But who knows who knows when there’s a mistake
over at hell’s central office? Who can tell that
it wasn’t for prince or judge of nations
the primal impetus of this creation
a gewgaw in the world – with a world in it?
All the many pains housewives – and doctors – took from him!
How to play good and evil if they fail us?
Some kid understood its so unique life
and ran over it the wheel with which they love one another
eye to eye – victim and henchman
It had no friend? It cheated on its parents?
It was going about, a minuscule amused body
and now still, watery, it stinks.
what ending shall one give this poem?
Romantic? Classic? Regionalist?
How to end with a courageous and ever so humble corpse
killed in full exercise of its lyre?