Saturday, 14 September 2013

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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


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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


  1. When it comes to Portuguese literature I am mostly only familiar with Saramago whose novels I am very impressed with.

    However you have inspired me to take a closer look at several Portuguese poets which I will be doing soon.

    It is kind of interesting that Saramago was not very skilled in this art form.

  2. Miguel - I'm with Brian - you manage to inspire me to have a closer look at Portuguese literature, for which this site has become a go-to resource. I had no idea Saramago had attempted poetry, and I'm grateful for the few translated here (by you, I assume). It appears this book, like many, has been translated into French but not yet into English.

  3. It is kind of interesting that Saramago was not very skilled in this art form.

    Brian, I think there's nothing interesting in it; from personal experience, few writers manage to be skillful at both poetry and narrative.

    I had no idea Saramago had attempted poetry,

    Ah, at last we start discovering who was paying attention during José Saramago Month!

    Kidding aside, I'm glad to know I've made both you more interested in Portuguese poetry.

  4. The fact that no book-length translation of his poems come out so far really tells something about the marketability of his poetry, even for a Nobel Prize winner. Still, you explored well the connection between the short-lined poems and his closely packed "anti-poetry" prose.

    1. Nobel Prize or not, poetry is not very marketable. But I'd rather see his newspaper articles translated than his poetry, I think it has more to offer to his fans.