Sunday, 5 February 2017

Portuguese Poetry: Manuel António Pina

Manuel António Pina was born in 1943 and passed away in 2012 in the city of Porto, where he lived a good portion of his life and for whose daily newspaper Jornal de Notícias he wrote for three decades. He wrote thousands of what we call crónicas, short, informal texts on the quotidian to be read in a couple of minutes, perfect for train rides, for which reason they’re popular amongst our readers; hundreds made their way into collections over the years, and at the time of his death he was considered one of Portugal’s best practitioners of this genre. He also wrote for magazines on music and cinema. However, he never always downplayed the value of this kind of writing, treating journalism as a job rather than a vocation.

In 1973 he published his first book, a children’s book in fact, another genre he achieved popularity in, publishing more than twenty children’s books in his lifetime. His true vocation, however, was his poetry, not that he published an enormous amount of it. His first poetry book came out in 1974, but although he continued to publish them regularly since then, his complete poetry forms a volume just shy of 500 pages. Under the title Todas as Palavras (All the Words, which also gives a name to a poem), it was published just months before he died.

A cat lover, of course (the only poet I know who didn’t like cats was his friend Mário Cesariny, to whom António Pina wrote a poem), readers remember him for his informality, good disposition, humility and sense of humor, qualities he brought to his poetry. In 2011 he received the Camões Prize, the greatest honor a Portuguese-language writer can receive. His reaction: “If I were a juryman I wouldn’t award myself the Camões Prize.” And he would be probably correct; I myself put him in the “great minor poet” category. But his poetry possesses many pleasures nonetheless. He made his debut when Portugal was going through a convulsion in poetry, wallowing in empty, obfuscating formalism, you know: killing punctuation, mangling grammar, inflating ambiguity, fracturing words randomly, all the legerdemain poetasters hide their mediocrity behind when the Muse has not shared with them the gift to recombine words in unique ways.

António Pina’s journalism and poetry fed off each other, so that he brought the quotidian back to poetry when it threatened to dissolve into misty abstraction. Going against the grain, he wrapped philosophical meditation in a colloquial register, and tempered his melancholy with irony, making him perhaps the fourth or fifth 20th century Portuguese poet who didn’t consider it a capital offense and a disgrace to Art to make a reader laugh. Working in a newspaper for all his adult life, dealing with language at its most fleeting, published one day, wrapping cod the other, also shaped the way he faced the artist’s activity. “Sometimes I get very sad when I see some artists working for posterity. Posterity doesn’t give a damn.” Although artists should not believe this, lest they lose ambition, it’s probably true.

A congenial man, a raconteur, he enjoyed granting interviews, several of which have been collected; he eschewed the pompous aspect attached to the live of poets still so passionately pursued by his peers, who avoid interviewers and shun photos. Of his interviews I remember above all his overt pleasure in ridiculing poets for pretentious behavior. “I don’t understand how one can value poetry more than family, friends, love, friendship.” As such he tended to voids other writers and the publishing world in general, calling it a “world of intrigues.”

Some people have called the elegiac tone of his poetry suitable to our times, although he contested that assertion. “It’s natural that we think thus, but all times are elegiac. These are so, they’re times of ending. But all of them are. The thing is that we’re too close to them and it’s  natural that they impress us, for a question of perspective.”

In Alberto Carneiro’s atelier

The tree of life grows from the bottom up
Illuminated by the sun
(From the Zohar)


In Alberto Carneiro’s forest
trees grow towards the past,
the first, towards the uncreated,
they’re fragile beings built with

ascending matter
seeking the dirt,
a ground-loving
noisy and pagan people.

The sculptor is their shepherd;
lo, take it, eat it, this is his body:
roots, arms, torax,
knowledge, passion, resurrection.


The hand touching the paper
touches tact itself,
as if paper were the pelt
of a less-than-body body, intact,

which the hand gently brushed
awakening landscapes that are
thought rather than imagination,
where, imagining itself, thought tarried.

A tree – so too is the hand one
growing inwards,
and the drawing the tool
for clarifying the landscape.

Alberto Carneiro sculpture

Letter to Mário Cesariny on the day of his death

Today an extraordinary thing was learned,
that you died; maybe they’ve told you already,
although in truth the case do not
concern you, and be our own matter, our own, alive.

Something, in fact, must have happened,
because nothing happens, except the usual,
love and manure, as for the rest
everything goes in accordance to the Plan.

There’s only a hole here now,
I don’t know where, a sort of
lack of some insolent and loveable thing,
anyway, by the way, highly unlikely.

Besides, from cat downwards, dead
(I just remembered this all of a sudden,
now that you’ve malevolently returned to yourself)
– that’s all of us. We’ll be seeing one another eventually Somewhere.

Perhaps at night

Around me everything has aged
as if it were me, and yet
a house, or a space in white
between the words, or a possibility of meaning.

For nothing
appears with its own form.

I say ‘house’, but I mean moons and thresholds,
extenuated recollections,
the body’s darkness, lucid,
throbbing in the obscurity of interior rooms.

And I say ‘words’ because
I don’t know what thing to call
the world’s muteness.

And I say ‘meaning’ choked
by the thought
trying to breathe
as the heart punches me,
now that the house crumbles
on all possible words.


Soon I’ll leave again
and walk through deserts and disasters
and through exasperated readings and citations,
between words, without anyone real to await me or open me the door.

Dinner will go cold on the table,
my books will despair
and there will be no meaning that comfort them
and my name, if it have a name, will not answer me.

And yet a trickle of time or a trickle of blood,
or else something even less palpable,
what broke and what remained returning each to the other
through endless galleries and disfigured dreams,
absent one from the other, disappearing one into another
the way water spends itself at a well’s bottom.


There is in this a sleepless meaning, a silent inhabitant
walking ahead of our steps,
sleeping in bed next to us,
we eat its food, our own words do not belong to us,

a house inside a house,
a living and palpable thing like a blind man’s home address
touching us gently with fear of waking us up.

One day he’ll be the one giving us his hand
and leading us through interior passageways
into the house,
where we tiredly wait for so long.


Don’t open the door,
if it’s the sublime say I’m not home,
we already have too many words, too many feelings.

The wisteria did not bloom this year,
it used to bloom around
all the remains of blue around us,
it wizened, it’s animated only by the wish of returning home, of being a home.


There’s a unique and secret god
in every indefinite cat
governing a fleeting world
where we’re passing through

A god who shelters us
in his vast chambers
of nerves, absences, presentiments,
and who from afar observes us

We’re intruders, amicable barbarians,
and compassionate the god
permits us to serve him
and the illusion that we touch him


So is this a book,
this, how to say it?, murmur,
this face turned into some
dark thing that doesn’t yet exist
that, if a suddenly
Innocent hand touches it,
opens up helplessly
like a mouth
speaking with our voice?
Is this a book,
this sort of heart (our own heart)
saying ‘I’ between us and us?


It’s a small world,
inhabited by small animals
– doubt, the possibility of death –
and illuminated by the hesitant light of

small stars – the rumor of books,
your steps climbing the stairs,
the cat chasing across the room
the afternoon’s last sunray.

A house – that’s a better name for it,
a bit higher than an empire,
and a bit more indecipherable
than the word house; it doesn’t glitter.

Some nights, though,
it comes out of itself and of me
and stays suspended outside
between memory and the remorse of another life.

Then, with the lights out,
I hear voices calling,
dead words never uttered,
and the endless agony of finished things.

The second cat

In each cat, another cat
a bit less exact
and a bit less opaque.

A cat incoincidental
with the cat, iridescent,
walking in front of it

or by its side,
winged spirit
of what is earthly in the cat.

It’s the second cat
who remained awaken
with the cat sunk

in abstract sleep,
coiled up by its feet,
a sort of cat’s cat.

Or which, lazy,
ambles about the room
while the cat cleans itself up,
sometimes surging
in the cat’s eyes
something of an immobile and

jailed past.
The cat itself
doesn’t know

that something there
walks around that fits
neither inside nor outside itself.

Pining with pain for prose

Poetry, pinning with pain for prose;
I wrote ‘you’, I wrote ‘rose’,
but nothing to me pertained,

neither the world past my nose
nor memory,
what it ignored or what it had attained.

And if I returned
through the same path
I learned

nothing but words,
and empty places:
symbols, metaphors,

the river was not the river
nor did it flow and death itself
was a matter of style.

Where had I already read
what I felt, even
my alien melancholy?

To a young poet

Seek the rose.
Wherever it be
you’re outside
yourself. Seek it in prose, it may be

that in prose it flourish
still, under so many a
metaphor; it may be, and that when
you see yourself in it you recognize

yourself as if before an initial
childhood by no word
and by no memory

You may perhaps then
write without why
– a renewed evidence of Reason
and a passageway into what is not seen.

String theory

That’s not what I meant to say,
I meant to say that in the soul
(you’re the one who mentioned the soul),
down in the soul and down
in the idea of the soul, there’s perhaps
some vibrating physical music
that only Mathematics listens to,
the same symmetric music danced by
the room, silence,
memory, my waking voice,
your hand that let the book fall
on the bed, your dream, the dreamt thing;
and the meaning that all of this may have
- is being thusly and not differently,
an emptiness in the emptiness, vaguely aware
of itself, neither answer
nor secret existing.

All the Words

The ones that I searched for in vain,
especially the ones that were really close,
like a breathing,
and I didn’t recognize,
or that gave up and
left forever,
leaving in the poem a sort of sorrow
like an unpresent watermark;
the ones (do you remember?) I wasn’t able to tell you
nor were they able to tell me;
the ones I shut for being too soon,
and the ones I shut for being too late,
and now, without time, burning in me;
the ones I replaced with others (how can I
forget them untangling themselves slowly from me?);
the ones I lost, verbs and
nouns by which
the world for a moment was made,
and away they went taking with them the world.
And also those that stayed,
out of exhaustion, inertia, chance,
and with which, like old lovers without
desire, I now unravel memories,
my final words.

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