Alexandre O’Neill is one of my favourite Portuguese poets. His importance in the vast panorama of 20th century Portuguese poetry isn’t well defined; a self-declared “great minor poet,” he lacks the consecration bestowed upon Fernando Pessoa, Eugénio de Andrade, Miguel Torga and Sophia de Mello Breyner (and unlike this venerable quartet, he hasn’t been deigned with the publication of his poems in English (not that I believe a poet’s worth is determined by the number of translations he has, but for better or for worse to be available in English is to be known, so it pains this reader that Alexandre O’Neill’s name isn’t as well known as the names of Adam Zagajewski, Adonis or Zbigniew Herbert). But he was funny when grim, drab Portugal needed a sarcastic poet to shake things up a bit. And yes, he was very good.
Born in Lisbon in 1924, of Irish ancestry, he was the son of a banker. Due to myopia he never fulfilled his childhood dream of becoming a pilot. He married twice (the novelist Antonio Tabucchi, who’s translated his poems into Italian, attended one of the weddings) but it was his love for the French surrealist writer and sociologist Nora Mitrani that inspired him to compose some of the most beautiful love poems of the Portuguese language, for instance:
Streets and streets of lovers
Without a room for love
Lovers are always extravagant
And even the cold feels heat
Poor lovers thrown out
From a loveless time
Poor things so entangled
That being two seem one
Standing up immovable transported
Like a statue raised in a
Garden devoted to neglect
Covered in love and autumn.
In 1948, together with the artist António Pedro (born in Cape Verde, he was part of the English surrealist group when he lived in London between 1944-1945), António Maria Lisboa, Pedro Oom, the poet Mário Cesariny (with his contacts with André Breton, he was one of the great figures of Portuguese surrealism), and other writers and artists, he founded the Lisbon Surrealist Group, in order to put an end to “the Lusitanian indolence” reigning in the country. Portugal was then a right-wing dictatorship and our literature, driven by left-wing ideology and of proletarian nature, wasn’t exactly setting the world on fire with the imagination, creativity and experimentation O’Neill admired and craved. He objected to the politicization of art and rejected the sentimental idolization of the working class. In his poetry he frequently wrestled with external forces – fear, conformity – trying to coerce his conscience:
What did you want to turn me into?
A word, an obscene groan
A night without any way out.
A heart that could barely
Defend itself from death,
A comma trembling with fear
In a blue requirement, blue,
A night spent in a brothel
Resembling life, brutally
Summing up life!
(from “Now I Write”)
His reply is brief: “But I defended myself and now I write/Furiously, now I write/For someone.” In another poem he addresses his own objectification:
THE THIRD-RATE REVOLVER
They want to turn me into a third-rate revolver,
They've already turned me into a third-rate revolver,
The type everyone, once, twice in their lifetime,
Theatrically rests against an ear
That closes up in shame.
A good domesticated revolver:
Some pre-suicidal notions, but no more,
For life is too expensive and adventure
Not always returns the ship they send it.
Whoever waits for me isn’t waiting for me
And perhaps finds me on a distracted occasion.
But in my obscene display case of gestures,
I keep the most obscene
For when the illusion occurs...
At the Lisbon Surrealist Group Exhibition, in 1949, he exhibited collages alongside other artists of the movement. Around this time he also lived an amour fou with Nora Mitrani, who had arrived from the French surrealist group to attend a conference. Their romance was short-lived, though, since she returned to France (where she later became novelist Julien Gracq’s companion). O’Neill tried to leave for France to live with her, but a relative who opposed the relationship used his influence to make the political police (PIDE) refuse him a visa to travel abroad (he was also arrested a few times in his lifetime). O’Neill turned his grief into the superb poem “A Portuguese Goodbye,” which he considered his best:
In your highly dangerous eyes
still thrives the most rigorous love
the shadow of pure shoulders and the shadow
of an already purified anguish
No you couldn't stay trapped with me
to the wheel in which I rot
to this bloodied paw that vacillates
and advances mooing through the tunnel
of an old pain
You couldn't stay in this chair
where I spend the bureaucratic day
the everyday of misery
that climbs the eyes reaches the hands
the poorly spelled love
the stupidity the despair without mouth
the straightened up fear
the somnambulist joy the maniac comma
of the functionary way of living
You couldn't stay in this bed with me
in mortal transit until the sordid
day until the day that comes not from dawn's
but from the misery of a night created
by an identical day
You couldn't stay trapped with me
to the small pain that each one of us
gently holds by hand
to this little Portuguese pain
so docile almost vegetable
No you don't deserve this city don't deserve
this wheel of nausea in which we spin
this small death
and its meticulous and filthy ritual
this absurd reason of ours of being
No you're from the adventurous city
from the city where love finds its streets
and the burning cemetery
of its death
you're from the city where you live by a thread
of pure chance
where you die or live not of asphyxiation
but at the hands of an adventure of pure commerce
without the false currency of good and evil
In this bend so tender and harrowing
which will be which already is your disappearance
I bid you farewell
and like an adolescent
I trip in tenderness
Years later he made her the subject of another poem, “Six Poems In Memory Of Nora Mitrani,” which was informed by her suicide in 1961 (she was dying of cancer).
The Portuguese surrealist adventure didn’t last long. O’Neill left the group in 1949 and the group disbanded shortly after. O’Neill opposed any form of creed and even surrealism seemed like a doctrine to him, stifling his critical, sardonic spirit (in spite of his individualism, he had a good relationship with most poets, and signed the letter Sophia de Mello Breyner sent the Swedish Academy in 1960, recommending the poet Miguel Torga for the Nobel Prize – if it sounds like Portugal has too many poets, it does: I read somewhere it annually publishes as many poetry books as the United States). However, his poetry continued to reflect surrealist qualities throughout his poetic career. In fact he devoted a poem to the surrealist poet Paul Éluard:
A LESSON IN POETRY, A LESSON IN MORALITY
In memory of Paul Éluard
You studied kindness you learned joy
You illuminated the night with the star
And desire with necessity
Communicative good intelligent
You knew how to suffer without destroying life
Without calling for death
You knew how to defeat the intimate leisure
The absurd habits that solitude installs
In the upset heart in the lost head
You knew how to show the most secret love
In a ferocious perfect public joy
Capable of inciting hatred and tenderness
In all fronts that passed through you
You fought back repelling evil
With heavy casualties for the enemy
And in the misery that crawled up faces
You laid bare resistance hope
And a future smile
While old wounds healed
Your poetry opened up and today is common
And transparent like children’s eyes
Today it is bread blood and the right to hope
To a hope that is an "ox ploughing a field"
And "a torch plowing the eyesight"
You were sad but you weren't sadness
You suffered a lot but you weren't pain
You loved immensely and you were love
You sung beauty uttered the truth
You found not one but the one reason of being
You understood the word happiness
And in an extreme youth and under the precious
Weight of simplicity
You said everything
You said what you had to say.
(I wonder if O’Neill ever learned Éluard publicly approved of the hanging of the Czechoslovakian writer Záviš Kalandra?)
His first book of poems came out in 1951 and already exhibited many of the characteristics he’s famous for: colloquial vocabulary, the use of free verse, frequent wordplay (which makes translations hard, truth be said), sardonic pessimism, a fine eye for details of the mundane, and a knack for saying things as they are. To O’Neill, a natural-born non-conformist, saying things as they were meant being unsettling, unpleasant, disenchanting and uncovering the inescapable truths of the human condition. For him poetry that put the reader in a state of stupor, instead of wresting him out of his dull routine and pre-conceived values, failed to accomplish its objective. For him Portugal’s malaises had less to do with politics and more to do with a timeless national spirit that permeates everyone and everything and promotes mediocrity, conformity, submission and tedium. For that reason he often made his country's foibles the main subject of his poetry:
SUNDAYS IN LISBON
Sundays in Lisbon are Sundays
Horrible to go by – and I’ll say!
In the morning you attend the St. Domingos mass
And in the afternoon we catch a few drops
Of rain or scratch our bellies.
The crosswords, the cinema or a cake,
And the day closes with a final burp.
Another hour or two and night is
Over, and clinging to me like a limpet,
You take me to bed where I arrive already dead.
And then your demands begin, the worst ones!
You want me to follow by force your whims!
What the hell! Aren’t we even masters of ourselves?
Are we like the gold in pawn-shops
Or the irrational critters in the Zoological Garden?
But are you my “dear wife,”
The one who offered herself to me as a girl?
Oh! Stay your kisses of poisonous spider!
Shut that white eye that mocks me
And let me dream like a building in ruins!...
Poetry, however, didn’t pay bills and O’Neill worked for many years in advertising, an easy job for a poet who saw writing as a ludic activity, and invented slogans and jingles that have become part of popular culture. “I live on poetry and subsist on advertising,” he once said. In spite of his ease with words, he was critical of the pretty but hollow verse, a matter he addressed in “Nice and Expressive:”
Finish your verse badly,
but do it with a purpose:
it’s a wrong that isn’t wrong,
it’s fighting against the pretty.
For the rule is there’s no rule,
Except that each person,
With his rhyme, his rhythm,
Do it not nice and pretty,
But nice and expressive…
Although his poetry entered, in my opinion, a steep decline in the 1970s, a poem he wrote shortly before his death, in 1986, concisely illustrates his life’s mission:
Give us, God, whatever possible small quotidian absurd,
For the absurd, even in small doses,
Defends us from melancholy and we’re so prone to it!
(from “Give us, God, whatever possible small quotidian absurd”)
All the poems were translated by me. I don’t presume to be a professional translator. If you want to read some Alexandre O’Neill poems translated by a professional, Richard Zenith has translated a few.