Thursday, 2 March 2017

Portuguese Poetry: Armando Silva Carvalho

The digital world doesn’t store many interviews with Armando Silva Carvalho; I had to scavenge in old newspapers from the 1960s and 1970s to find out two. In fact I owe my discovery of him to those old newspapers. Like so many Portuguese poets, he leads a quiet life far from the media hoopla, except when someone remembers to award him. To the best of my knowledge, he spends his time translating; the list includes: Vicente Aleixandre, Aimé Cesaire, Jean Genet, Yasunari Kawabata, Marguerite Duras, Patrick McGrath, Nikos Kazantzaki, Ingmar Bergman, Blaise Cendrars, Charles Péguy, and the poems of Samuel Beckett. Although an iconoclast in some ways, he still takes seriously our poets’ old habit of keeping the world at bay. He claims his poetry first became known because his friends shopped it around, and I believe that.

Born in 1938 in a small village, like most Portuguese were wont to be born in the 1930s, when the country was mostly countryside, he moved to Lisbon at the age of 18. There he got a job and enrolled at the University of Lisbon’s Faculty of Letters. His academic years got him in touch with other figures that would dominate poetry for decades to come: Ruy Belo, Luiza Neto Jorge, Gastão Cruz, and Fiama Hasse Pais Brandão, all of whom published in the 1959 Antologia de Poesia Universitária, a volume that revealed a new generation of poets. Having concluded his degree in Letters, he next enrolled in Law. In 1964, when he was interviewed after winning a poetry prize for his debut collection, he said that, if he weren’t nearly finishing his degree in Law, he would have enrolled in Sciences instead.

The ill-fated Portuguese Society of Authors (a fascist mob would destroy its facilities the following year) had kept itself busy creating and multiplying prize categories in order to upset the dictatorship’s hold on literary prizes, and I suppose because real writers of talent were tired of declining fascist awards in the rare occasions the authorities had the oversight to choose them.

The jury that handed out the award to the 25-year-old Silva Carvalho embodied the opposing currents that made up Portuguese poetry at the time: neo-realismo, Portugal’s social realism rebranded, hobbled on thanks to João José Cochofel, a militant poet whose poems upheld Marxist tenets; my beloved Alexandre O’Neill represented Portugal’s first wave of surrealists, and, for me at least, had been its brightest star, brighter than Mário Cesariny; finally, Salette Tavares, a relative newcomer to poetry, publishing since 1957, showed influences from concrete poetry and would play a seminal in our experimental poetry movement.  

As it turned out, Silva Carvalho veered closer to O’Neill in his flight from ideology. He claimed not to be worried about the “experimentalist frenzy” sweeping Portugal at the time, and didn’t follow the more radical youngsters in abandoning expression, content, intelligibility, sometimes even language. He showed up at a time when an avant-garde onslaught rocked the traditions and certainties of Portuguese poetry, much to the disapproval and incomprehension of venerable figures like José Régio, who bemoaned the new trends for creating deserts without planting anything new. Like his peers, Silva Carvalho got rid of meter, rhyme and other poetic commonplaces. However, he seemed more like an heir to the surrealists, an apprentice of their lessons, without going totally unhinged like some of his peers. In the 1964 interview he revealed a few influences: Mário de Sá-Carneiro, a major figure of Portugal’s first Modernism; Mário Cesariny; and O’Neill, with whom I do see many similarities in humor, sarcasm, attitudes towards sex and scatology, and the way he milks Portugal’s small absurdities for poetic material.

Afonso Lopes Vieira, a bygone bulwark of poetic tradition, had once said that poetry was the most serious thing in Portugal. Silva Carvalho disagreed; his horsed around, mocked, didn’t take itself seriously. The title of his winning book, Lírica Consumível, means Consumable Lyricism. The cheekiness started right on the cover. The idea that poetry was just another good to be consumed would have provoked a paroxysm in the giants who still considered poetry sacred. Silva Carvalho, of course, belonged to the first generation of Portuguese poets aware that the world was moving towards a global consumerist society, medieval Portugal included.

Like the 1940s surrealists who paved the way for him, Silva Carvalho uses his poetry to demystify ingrained ideas and attitudes. His poetry is anti-lyrical, anti-rhetorical, anti-transcendental, and uncompromised except with its own individuality. Like he’d say in 1970, “The individual always ends up being his own ideology.” Described by a newspaper in 1964 as “an original and energetically defined personality,” his debut book exhibited an unusual lack of metaphysical contemplation.“In literature, I run away from philosophizing,” he said. As a would-be science student, his early views did share with science a way of looking at things beyond their surface. “I prefer thorough observation: particular-general-particular.” His disenchanted look, as I’ve said, demystified ideas and clichés, undressed them of the layers of awe that obscured their truth. For poets like the Christian Régio, António Quadros and Miguel Torga, always wrestling with the big questions about the soul and God, casting doubt about the possibility of poetry finding the Truth and transcendence was sacrilege. Whereas those saw poetry as a way of inquire into the human condition, as a means of personal salvation even, Silva Carvalho said poetry could not save. Even the poet had fallen from his pedestal, no longer a medium with special powers tuning into God or the muses. “Talking about inspiration is ridiculous. The ‘magic instant’ is false,” he declared in 1970.

Silva Carvalho even downplayed his craft: “I understand little of literature,” he said, seeing it less as a means to reach a major truth than a science of observation. The gaze, for him, using reason, stripped things of false clothes, revealing them in a less noble light. In 1970, apropos of his third book of poems, Os Ovos d’Oiro, he attacked folkloric notion of rural Portugal. This was understandable in a country whose self-image had been created and propagated by the ministry of propaganda. But his beef extended to communists too, who had created their own myths about the proletariats and innocent peasants. As the son of actual peasants, he had misgivings about the idealized ones littering social realist fiction.

Silva Carvalho sees poetry as the means of humanizing things through the gaze of the poet. Throughout the 1960s, the French école du regard had bewitched many writers here, leading to a tiresome dehumanization that relieved art of human figures and shrunk it to mere verbal games. One of the major culprits had been Alain Robbe-Grillet, whose nouveau roman aesthetics had led to awful imitators describing the world in terms of mere surfaces, in an objective, dispassionate way, avoiding characters, and, whenever they were present, denying them any interiority. Unlike several of his peers, I guess what ultimately saved Silva Carvalho was his sense of humour. I personally find him rather hit and miss, but that quality almost always redeems him.


In this country where nobody knows
how the muses toils,
as somebody once said,
doing verses actual verses,
that follow the spasm of the ancient anus
of those futile, exalted creatures,
is and will continue to be very hard.

There’s always an ethereal arm
that pulls the toilet
in the exact moment of defecation.
A noise is heard,
somebody asks his pal what’s the matter:
“It’s the sound of the waters hitting the throat.”
Relieved, the hearts then rest
in the visitors room of the scrutinized house
they call soul.


There’s no time. There’s space. The sun and our turns.
The moon’s yawns, the star’s clan.
Black holes.
O mother! Where did the living beings from
Just now go in all their splendor?
Dead like you, nature receives them.
Earth, that awful child, destroys its toys
In a mechanical routine.
How many nights do I have left? How many kisses in the dark?
How much light in my pupils yet?
The years don’t kill me, the months don’t harm me,
The hours don’t guillotine me.
Cells go on burning in their maps
Of nerves, blood always take a while longer
To reach its organic destiny.
Slowly, slowly, the head goes soft.
Slowly on sleep’s bosom.
O mother. A nest. A soft bed in your womb.
An exhibition of signs. A geometry
That connects me to accumulated knowledge.


In a short poem the blood stream ran
like a planet carrying on its back
the public philosophy of the time,
and the naked and direct light fell on the body,
real, absolute.

today the poem always insists in being bigger,
and history, time, memory, and verse, because it’s old,
hide from it its true age in the unrecognizable curves
of a figure.

The marathon keeps growing longer,
and the insistent words
seem to give up as they move on.


Here hell kills professions
That have access to air.
It’s said that god abstained
From creating servants for those sentenced
To tedium.

You die in the job
With your throat crushed by a hand
Without bones.

Here the years hardly grow, or not at all.
The days and days dry in the root.
There are no happy hours.

The sun has always got along with these people
Who sprinkle their small business
With rain.
To stay home.

People with total power
To tear apart the party that goes on
Beyond the head.

Says one: I’m Sunday’s wise man.
Now I don’t deal with work days, with soul mending,
With fragilities.
Wait for me but only after

Says another: ethics is Greek-born.
We move by numbers, Pythagoras already claimed.
We didn’t mint coins, we didn’t sully our hands
In the shipwreck’s improvised oars.
Our duty is to ask.

It seems god didn’t want the work to rise.
As for rising, let the sun rise
And that’s enough.
Who’ll ask dream about the man
On duty?

In the fields nettles flourish again.
It’s agricultural repairs,
Role models, orders from on high,
In the banquet hall.

The sea plays old dog and just lies there
Waiting on the porch of myths.
Nobody can stand it
Nor its howling at the feet
Of history.

We’re moved, with an I know not what,
A much, a how, a pain
That flaps its wings
And goes from the valley to the mountain
Like the knightly monks go
To television.

Here the city opens up beyond the night
And it’s always beautiful to watch dawn
Crying over its idols.

Here those with a heart
Have a discount


Even dawn itself is hard to figure out.
It’s as if somebody cut my head off in the middle of the night
and the hours made a faux pas around my neck.

It’s easy to portray a poetic decapitation
in times of technological

I woke up after all amidst people with heads still on
and I’m that grandpa the media
always teach us about.

Wretched be they
dressed in yellow in order to be better seen
with the living knife resting on their throat.

I began with the imprecise morning
half blind looking for a verse of mine in the middle of the mist
with the delicate nervous paper knife.

The world is a globe of kneeling people,
of suspended heads. And I, leaving the dream alone,
decapitate the poem.


With both hands in a conch I arrest the water.
I hold the water severed
from the wall.
I’m bent towards the water, picky and diary,
me just awake and alone.

What labyrinthine speech
flows out from this domestic water,
so young and so old in the heart’s tubes, in time’s so cold fingers,
water that flourished in my wet eyes
from another water
that drop by drop like an obedient and liquid bread
now floods
memory’s thousand blind ants?

Slowly I go on kissing this water that spangles in my arched veins,
fire tips in my hands,
reliefs of other volcanic luxuries,
today stone brooks, testaments, in the silent awakening
of the sleeping house.

I exist only between these hands, water and my past.
I wish my age were the mirror
that converted water in a recovered film
and the silent-laughter actors ran
towards Heraclitus’ understanding.

In the hands of gods
is placed the strict creature who uses water.
A rancor exists that springs itself from the prose
and from the toilet.
The body’s poverty and its relief are the sermon on the mount,
the ridiculous rat of its small world.


Today I heard that the poet mr. Fernando
Pessoa carried out a rupture
with traditional lyricism.
They also said that he thought in nirvanic British
and made of his Lusitanian vocabulary
his fatherland.
All of that strikes me as the perfidy
of one who knew not how to see his voice in the street.
The poet has always known how to be the maximum cannibal
amidst all men.
Sometimes, mr. Pessoa sat down in the armchairs
of impotence and let the glass burn
in his eyeglasses.
In the blazing light he succumbed.
And all the words tremble in a corner of the world
tired from his masquerade ball.
The catastrophe’s splendor
did not yet obfuscate the wise myopia
of that strange – person.
Say and publicize this in his memory.
That I never made anything
into my fatherland.

(Notes: 1) “Pessoa” means “person” in English; 2) In The Book of Disquiet, Bernardo Soares famously says somewhere that the Portuguese (Lusitanian is just a pompous synonym) language is his fatherland. It has become a stock phrase in Portugal, overused by public figures, and I for one wouldn’t mind banning its usage for the next 50 years at least.)


He walked into what is called God’s realm
without being his guest,
without even being the dust speck that infiltrates the mind
in deserted exaltation.

Without the young feathers they say belong to angels
the blade of his insect lips.

He had heard the compassionate recitals of housemaids,
the theologians’ embarrassed sermon,
he had never denied himself the beauty of defenseless sunflowers
in his fields of industry and mysticism.

He walked into God’s realm
a bit unsheltered but with clean nails
and ready for come what may.
From God, for so his friends had told him,
since it wasn’t just the silence’s leftovers,
the floor so derelict, the work tidied up in a corner.

It was his head atop a board
its life by its side,
a small indefinite package.

Signaling its presence in those labyrinths opposed
to the honest, direct air holes
of death.

Some of these things we say may be eternal,
the authors tell him,
the flower itself, opened up by the sun’s hand,
ennobles his eyesight.

Now, still, in these rooms for statues,
ideas and sumptuous speeches, for rodent crises like iniquitous animals
that feed on fear,
the lover halts, feels the weight of eons,
and prays whatever is left of his sex, thick,
with the solitary, mechanical, closed


We set out in the afternoon looking for god.
After the has failed us with its promises,
we’re left only with everything from here to the sea.

I carry in my heart the counting of steps
and in my head the tongue that attaches
itself by mistake to the mouth’s ceiling.

Land navigation will always be necessary,
grabbing by the waist what’s left and disguising the naked
body amidst the rocks.

Each word is an oar, each lost hug
one less buoy in the ship.
The speech utensils, seagull excrements.

The afternoon has collected the divinity’s last signs.
We go on searching for the promised

We confuse the waves with the throat’s limes,
the caves with the many home addresses, destiny
with one more precipice before the night.

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