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).


  1. Fantastic, if exhausting. You should gather these up into a separate section of the website - the St. Orberose Translation Library. Invaluable.

  2. I agree with Tom, this is some fantastic verse that you have put up.

    Some of these poems bear further contemplation. I am initially struck most with "Glory", but that may be because it seems one of that requires a little less time to appreciate.

    1600 poems is such an impressive body of work.

  3. Tom and Brian, thanks for the kind words; it's always good to know that someone cares about my translations.