Friday, 4 October 2013

If you knew how much I still love the roses, perhaps you wouldn’t fill the hours with nightmares: poetry by Eugénio de Andrade

For a while I feared this series of posts would not happen. By the time of his death Eugénio de Andrade (1923-2005), who received the Camões Prize in 2001, no other Portuguese poet had such a good standing with the public. His poetry, unusually for poetry, sold well and new editions of his old books regularly came out. Still, just a few years after his death it had become literally impossible to find his books in bookshops. I think the cause of this bleak situation originated in the deep financial problems the Eugénio de Andrade Foundation, which managed his oeuvre, found itself in and which led to its extinction in 2011. From which I developed the belief that, although lofty talks about beauty and transcendence make for pretty speeches, perhaps writers should just leave the matter of selling books to the materialistic, money-loving, experienced publishers: the publishers win because they make profits; the dead writer wins because his work remains available for posterity; and I win because I can buy, read and write about it on my blog. So imagine my joy when in 2011 I read news that José da Cruz Santos, the poet’s editor for forty-five years, had published through a small independent publisher the collected poetry of Eugénio de Andrade, in a beautiful, hardbound, yellow-covered brick of a volume, some 700 pages. But in my exhilaration I kept postponing the actual buying of the book, thinking it wouldn’t disappear before I got around to buying it; I kept myself busy in the following two years, bought some Jorge de Sena here, some Miguel Torga there, lots of Fernando Pessoa, of course, oblivious to a vast conspiracy to deprive me of my copy, for when the moment came to buy it I discovered, on a scorching afternoon across Lisbon’s bookshops, that, through uncouth forces and for unknown purposes, all the copies had disappeared from the shelves. The resources and ambition involved immediately led me to suspecte the Templars’ hand in this affair, even though I had in mind Umberto Eco’s reductive definition of madmen. "The lunatic is all idée fixe, and whatever he comes across confirms his lunacy. You can tell him by the liberties he takes with common sense, by his flashes of inspiration, and by the fact that sooner or later he brings up the Templars." Well, what if I tell you the Templars helped King Afonso I create Portugal in 1143? Still feeling clever, semiotician? My suspicions have historical bases, I won’t have you treating me like a crackpot. Nevertheless I concede I may have exaggerated what perhaps just resulted from the conjunction of my inertia, the poet’s popularity and the book’s small print run. But like in a comedy all ended well, thanks to a little bookshop standing in for the dolosus servus.

Eugénio de Andrade belongs to the same generation of poets as Jorge de Sena and Sophia de Mello Breyner. I don’t have much more to add by way of biographical information. At the age of 8 he moved to Lisbon with his mother, separated from his father. He started writing poetry at the age of 13. He abandoned a course in philosophy to dedicate himself to poetry. He participated in important literary and poetry magazines of the time like Cadernos de Poesia and Seara Nova. He worked as a civil servant for thirty-five years. He also translated Federico García Lorca, Sappho, Yannis Ritsos and Jorge Luis Borges. From what I’ve read about him, he prized his privacy and didn’t make many public appearances. Revered at home but also internationally famous, translations of his poetry exist in Spanish, French, Italian, German, Yugoslavian, Russian, and a respectable amount in English too: Another Name for Earth, Forbidden Words, Solar Matter, Inhabited Heart, Memory of Another River

Influences include Rimbaud, Lorca, Chinese and Japanese poetry, the ancient Greeks, and Walt Whitman. I don’t know these poets and traditions well enough to do more than point out that critics see connections to them in Andrade’s poetry. As for me, in his poetry I see the exaltation of nature, remembrances of childhood, the evocation of the figure of the mother, eroticism, and the omnipresence of birds. In his short, compact poems, as one reads them, one witnesses an obsession with a small personal lexicon: birds, dunes, night, September (the poet loves this month), mother, water, trees, lime, white, moon, light. The poem labours incessantly at the same poem and crafts variations and variations. His concentration and devotion to his poetic mission mean his poetry lacks, to me, variety, and feels dull in more than small doses. Although memory obsesses him, I think forgetting does help in appreciating his poetry, for his poetry will feel a lot fresher every time we return to it if we retain a rather vague recollection of what we read of it in the past.

For this first post I’ll start with what I think constitutes his ‘standard’ poetry before moving on to poems that challenge the pattern. Eugénio de Andrade reneged his first two books, Adolescente (Adolescent, 1942) and Pureza (Purity, 1945) but edited the best poems together in Primeiros Poemas (First Poems, 1977):


I had a carnation in my balcony;
   a boy came ask me for it
   “mother, do I give it or not?”

Seated, she embroidered a handkerchief;
   a boy came ask me for it
   “mother, do I give it or not?”

I gave a carnation and a handkerchief,
   Just not my heart;
   But if the boy asks it
   Mother, do I give it or not?

The mother, a perennial figure in his poetry. By the way, he wrote of the most famous poems of the Portuguese language about mothers, but more on that later. We continue with one of his first poems:


Between the pines three houses.
A stopped watermill.
A tower erected
From forest to forest
Against the lime sky.
And a silence hewn
For the flight of a buzzard
Spreads from house to house,
Rises to the abandoned tower
And over the stopped watermill
It falls hapless.

I find this poem remarkable for its concreteness and delineation of a razor-sharp image. I can not not visualize the flight of the buzzard and the opposition between stillness and movement.


This is autumn –
The rotting of a fruit
Forgotten amidst foliage.
Water running,
From who knows where,
Sporadic and cold
And meaningless.


Open night.
The moon
Trips in the reeds.
What does the moon search?
Blood’s root?
A river to sleep in?
The delirious voice
In the olive garden, bloodless?
What does the moon search?
The lime face
That in the river floats?

But his real breakthrough comes with As Mãos e os Frutos (Hands and Fruits, 1948), not a book I found particularly strong. In fact I can’t think of a single book that towers over the others in his oeuvre, I think his great poems find themselves distributed rather equally through all his books, which also means each book contains a lot of duds. Or in the immortal words of the great David Brent, “If you want the rainbow, you got to put up with the rain.”


Today I stole all the roses in the garden
And came to you empty-handed.


Shelley without angels and purity,
Here I am waiting for you in this piazza,
Where there are no docile pigeons but sadness
And a fountain through which waters runs no longer.

Of the trees I won’t tell for they’re naked;
Of the houses there’s no point because they’re
Worn out by the clocks and by the moons
And by the eyes of who waits in vain.

Of myself I could tell you, but I don’t know
What to tell you of this story in a way that
My voice sounds natural to you.

I only know I spend the whole afternoon here
Weaving these verses and the night
That will bring you and will leave us alone.

Next Os Amantes sem Dinheiro (The Moneyless Lovers, 1950), a book I prefer more:


Their face was open to passers-by.
They had legends and myths
And cold in the heart.
They had gardens where the moon walked
Hand in hand with water
And a stone angel for brother.

They had like everybody
The miracle of each day
Dripping from the roofs;
And golden eyes
Where the most
Wayward dreams burned.

They had hunger and thirst like animals,
And silence
Around their steps.
But at every gesture they made
A bird was born from their fingers
And penetrated enchanted in the spaces.

This book contains the famous “Mother” poem:


In your deepest self,
I know I betrayed you, mother.

All because I’m no longer
The sleeping boy
At the bottom of your eyes.

All because you ignore
There are riverbeds where cold dallies not
And windy nights of morning waters.

Therefore, sometimes, the words I tell you
Are harsh, mother,
And our love is unhappy.

All because I lost the white roses
I clutched close to my heart
In the framed picture.

If you knew how much I still love the roses,
Perhaps you wouldn’t fill the hours with nightmares.

But you forgot many things;
You forgot my legs grew longer,
That all my body grew,
And even my heart
Grew huge, mother!

Look – will you listen to me? –
Sometimes I’m still the boy
Who fell asleep in your eyes;

I still clutch against my heart
Roses as white
As the ones you have in the frame;

I still hear your voice:
   Once upon a time a princess
   In the middle of an orange garden…

But – you know – the night is immense,
And all my body has grown.
I left the frame,
I gave the birds my eyes to drink.

I haven’t forgotten anything, mother.
I keep your voice inside me.
And I leave you the roses.

Good night. I go with the birds.

We have here an archetypical Eugénio de Andrade poem, it has everything: the birds, the mother, memories of childhood, nature, melancholy. I like this poem because of its subversive discourse; the reader hears mother and thinks of a panegyric, and gets surprised by the harshness of the language and feelings. Andrade actually uses the poem to write about the violent process of severing oneself from childhood and creating one’s own space.

As Palavras Interditas (Forbidden Words, 1951) also has a few favourites:


Like in the past, it falls from the stars
A cold that spreads in the city.
It’s neither night nor day, it’s the burning time
Of the memory of ageless things.

What I dreamt fits in your hands
Worn out weaving melancholy:
A country growing up in freedom,
Amidst bales of wheat and of joy.

Death however walks in the rooms,
Probes the corners, enters the ships,
It’s stare is green, its dress white,
Its cold fingers smell of ash.

Between a colourless sky and coal piles
The ardour of seasons falls rotten;
The masts and the houses drip shadow,
Only the blood shines hardened.

It’s not true so many perfume shops,
It’s not true so many decapitated roses,
So many smoke bridges, so many dark clothes,
So many clocks, so many murdered doves.

I don’t want for myself so much poison,
So many dawns swept by the ice,
Nor painted eyes where day dies,
Nor tearful kisses in my hair.

It dawns.
            A cock slashes the silence
Drawing your face in the rooftops.
I speak of the garden where a day
Starts bright with tangled lovers.


From that time when one remains a child
For thousands of years,
I brought with me a smell of resin;
I also brought the red reeds
That flank silence’s border,
In this room, now inhabited by the wind;
I also brought a wet look
Where birds perpetuate the sky.

Hardly do I forget the street where I found
Your immense eyes, fascinated by the
Secret glimmer of the swords,
The house where I found you, hands trembling,
The parable of the bread and the wine
Giving each word a new face.

The city where I loved you was decapitated
And I can’t abolish the sentries of fear,
But I also can’t stop wanting you
With kisses and lightning,
With dreams that trip in the walls
And feed on terror and on joy,
While time persists in hiccupping.

What do you want green moon shadows
In my bed where cold falls asleep?
Here I am, taller than wheat,
Bleeding on the day’s petals,
And without fear that our screams
May be called breeze.

Coração do Dia (Day’s Heart, 1958) contains the first poem I remember reading from Eugénio de Andrade:


They’re like a crystal,
Some a dagger,
A fire,
Just dew.

Secretly they come, full of memory,
Insecure they sail:
Boats or kisses,
The waters shudder.

Hapless, innocent,
Woven from light
And they’re night.
And even pale
Green paradises they recall still.

Who hears them? Who
Gathers, thus,
Cruel, broken,
In their pure shells?


I don’t know how you came,
But there must be a way
To come back from death.

You’re seated in the garden,
The hands in the bosom full of sweetness,
The eyes resting on the last roses
Of the great and calm September days.

What music do you hear so attentively
That you don’t mind me?
What woods, or river, or sea?
Or is it inside you
That everything sings still?

I wanted to talk to you,
Just tell you I’m here,
But I’m afraid,
Afraid all the music will cease,
And you can no longer look at the roses.
Afraid to break the thread
With which you weave the memoryless days.

With what words
Or kisses or tears
Are the dead wakened without hurting them,
Without bringing them to this black foam
Where bodies and bodies repeat themselves,
Parsimoniously, in the middle of shadows?

Stay like that,
O full of sweetness,
Seated, staring at the roses,
And so aloof
You don’t even mind me.

We jump a handful of books to Obscuro Domínio (Obscure Dominion, 1971):


Step by step
The house will return.
Already on my shoulders I
Feel the ardour of its sailing.

The silence with the harps
Will return.
The harps with the bees.

In the summer one dies
So slowly under the elm trees’ shadows!

I’ll say then:
 A friend
Is the place on earth
Where white apples are sweeter.

Or I’ll say perhaps:
Autumn ripens in mirrors.
Already on my shoulders I feel
Its breathing.
There’s no return: everything is labyrinth.

I single out one from O Outro Nome da Terra (Another Name for Earth, 1988) because he addresses Portugal, something rare in his poetry:


My country tastes like mulberries
In the summer.
No one ignores it’s not big,
Nor intelligent, not elegant, my country,
But it has this sweet voice
Of one wakening early to sing in the shrubs.
Seldom have I spoken of my country, maybe
I don’t even like it, but when a friend
Brings me wild berries
My walls seem white to me,
I notice that also in my country the sky is blue.

And a final poem from O Sal da Língua (Tongue’s Salt, 1995); it’s a cat poem, an imperfect cat poem because it’s not an elegy to a dead cat, and it doesn’t try to redeem its thematic flaws in its uncomfortable ambivalence about cats, which casts a shadow of suspicious upon the poet’s worth, of course, but nevertheless:


In April the cats arrive: first
The oldest one, I was
Ten or not even that,
A small tiger that never got used
To the litter box’s sands, but was
Who first won my heart.
Then came, already in Coimbra, a cat
Who didn’t stop at home: she fornicated
And gave birth in the pines, I didn’t have
A lasting affection for him, nor did she deserve it,
Such a slut. Only many years
Later did he enter home, to be
Its master, the little blue
Persian. Beauty turns the soul
Inside out and leaves us.
For that reason, the one licking the
Open wound his death left me
Is now a black and stray pussycat
With three or four stains of lime
On the belly. By the sun of her eyes
Maybe I’ll warm my hands, and share
The reading of the Público on Sunday.

The misogyny here is of course glaring. Notice how the male cats get all the praise and the female cats are harshly described. Clearly we’re in dire need of a study of Eugénio de Andrade’s poetry from the perspective of gender studies. But not from me. Next time poems from his least favourite book, strangely my favourite one.

I jest, by the way; he loved cats, he was a great poet, look - evidence!


  1. Great post Miguel.

    I am particularly struck by Poem to Mother. I think that you really hit in on the add in your commentary. It is not what one initially expects of it. It is indeed poignant reflection upon change.