Friday, 31 March 2017

Portuguese Poetry: Luiza Neto Jorge

Luiza Neto Jorge was born in Lisbon in 1939 and in this city she died in 1989.

She lived her childhood’s earlier years with her father, after he divorced her mother. Their house was nearby Saint George’s Castle which commands Lisbon’s landscape. Her father passed away and she went to live with her mother and sister.

In 1957 she enrolled at the University of Lisbon to study French Literature, although her friend Gastão Cruz remembers her being also interested visual arts at the time. There she met the poet António Barahona da Fonseca, with whom she married. Both were 20. “A poet, whom we both loved, united us: Garcia Llorca,” Barahona later wrote. In 1961, she moved down South to teach in Faro. Barahona at the time worked as an itinerant librarian, taking books in a truck to towns and villages deprived of libraries, and they made the journey in his book truck. They lodged at the house of Gastão Cruz’s mom. In Faro they mingled with other poets, including Carlos Loures, an avant-garde editor, and António Ramos Rosa, by then a renowned figure in avant-garde circles for his tireless defense of innovative and experimentation. Neto Jorge had already published her first poems in 1960, a rudimentary chapbook called A Noite Vertebrada (The Vertebrate Night), having designed the cover herself. A former classmate of hers, Casimiro de Brito, who meanwhile had become an editor, split the publishing costs with her, but he recalls that it became a success.

Still, in a small country that annually produces thousands of poetry books, and where everyone thinks himself a poet, this one could have faded into oblivion like so many do. However, in 1961 her name made the newspapers thanks to an anthology called Poesia 61, one of the many anthology books popping up in Portugal revealing the voices of new poets. Poesia 61 proved seminal and introduced Portugal to 5 poets who went on to have lasting importance: Gastão Cruz, Casimiro de Brito, Fiama Hasse Pais Brandão, Maria Teresa Horta, and Luiza Neto Jorge. They had all met at the university. Several of them had began making names for themselves earlier, in ephemeral but influential avant-garde poetry magazines. A magazine where they all published, at one time or another, was the short-lived Cadernos do Meio-Dia; Neto Jorge was also slated to publish poems in the 6th and final number, but the Censorship didn’t allow it to hit the streets.

It also helped that in the early sixties Portugal suddenly saw itself infatuated with literary experimentation, seeing a new generation replace the old one; the young artists were not just frantic with trying out new things, for once the media didn’t try to silence. From week to week newspapers seemed to compete to see which one could interview more of those newcomers. Speaking to Lisbon's major newspaper at the time, Diário de Lisboa, Neto Jorge grounded her poetry in Surrealism. Although in decline in France since World War II, for her Surrealism was still valuable in Portugal given the political situation: a right-wing, nationalistic, Catholic, patriarchal regime ruled the nation, which made Surrealism’s rebellious nature all the more appealing to young poets wanting to shake up the establishment. (Furthermore, Surrealism in the 1960s still retained a new-ish aura in Portugal since it had only arrived at the end of the 1940s.) “It seems to me,” said Neto Jorge to the newspaper, “that among us, surrealism still has its raison d'etre – as total destruction of musty cannons, as reaction to a rigid social environment. Then, total rebuilding, forms and new ideas will be perhaps easier, more possible.”

Her marriage to Barahona came to a close around this time, and after divorce that didn’t end their friendship, she moved to Paris, making sporadic returns to Lisbon. In Paris she took several jobs, having even worked in a bookshop. A productive era for her, she published 3 books throughout the sixties. (She was never productive in terms of quantity, though, since her complete poetry fits in 300 pages.) In 1970 she returned from Paris and settled back in Lisbon, beginning a typical Portuguese poet’s life. At the time that meant spending the afternoons after work in esplanades, and the nights at cafés, usually with dozens of men and women, sitting around tables, smoking, eating, boozing, chatting, reading poetry, discussing politics, gossiping, badmouthing rivals, telling jokes, lambasting Portugal’s mediocrity, revealing the literary news from France, trying to gain control over a group as its coryphée, and soaking up memories for eventual diaries and autobiographies to be published at a later date. Jorge Silva Melo, evoking his meetings with her, left a candid portrait of this environment: “If I remember those long conversations, it’s mostly their endless and repetitive unraveling than sentences worthy of citation, it’s mostly the malice with which one looked at our artistic world and at the common life of friends than positions, it’s mostly work and fees than the poet’s noble duty.” Neto Jorge used to stop at A Parisiense and A Brasileira, made popular by Fernando Pessoa.

From her return until her death she supported herself with translations and film scripts. Although she published her collected poems in 1973, new poetry moved down the ladder of her concerns: in the final 16 years of her life she didn’t publish another book, although Cruz, writing in an issue of Relâmpago poetry magazine dedicated to her, states that she privately published a chapbook containing 11 new poems, offered to close friends. In the meantime, other poems by her continued to appear sporadically in magazines.

Shortly after her death a new poetry book did come out, and in 1993 her collected poetry saw the light of day in single slim volume.

I confess her career as a translator fascinates me more than her poetry. I used to think of her mostly as a mousy figure, alone in a corner, turning out a poem here and there, away from the brouhaha, doing her translations. When I finally checked her translations, I was flabbergasted at the importance of her work. Several of her translations continue to be reedited given their high quality, and the range of writers is staggering. A short list includes Alfred Jarry (The Supermale), Céline (Death on Credit); Goethe (Faust), Verlaine, Marguerite Yourcenar (The Abyss), Jean Genet, Witold Gombrowicz (Cosmos), Apollinaire, Karl Valentim, Federico Garcia Lorca, Ionesco, Boris Vian (Haertsnatcher), Oscar Panizza, Anaïs Nin, Georges Bataille, Victor Hugo, Raymond Russell (Impressions of Africa), André Breton (Mad Love), Raymond Queneau (We Always Treat Women Too Well), and more, lots of more. She adapted Diderot’s Jacques and his master to theater. And in 1973, when Breton’s Anthology of Black Humor was translated into Portuguese, a collective project involving several translators, Neto Jorge was assigned the texts by the Count Lautréamont, Jean Pierre Brisset Jarry, Roussel, Marcel Duchamp and Benjamin Pérert. I had no idea that many books I’ve read over the years had been translated by her. Although she translated for a living, these names also had a strong relationship with her personal literary world. A friend of her remembers her lending him French symbolists and surrealists; those were the figures she most admired, and in turn she played a crucial role in bringing them to Portugal.

The cover for Neto Jorge's translation of Jarry's The Supermale
My own translations of her poems are not particularly good; although her language seems simple, its meaning is ambiguous, which makes it hard for me to decide the “right” way of translating. Others have done a much better job, though, and more poems by her can be found, as usual, at Poetry International. I avoided duplicating the poems already there.


This year grew up on its knees
The night kept the four moons
Children have their hair
Their non-transmissible cries of peace


in thickness of time made infinite
in love it hurt  dilated me

the mouth was a bed an organ of lava


The tongue
which is sacred
doesn’t overflow

a finger
that has touched

the word
doesn’t reach it


The eyes could have lived

They can tell their mother’s
they saw birth

They’re atrocious
they saw themselves

They continue the inner idleness


infinite invention
of scalding petals
unhinge the phallus

the sublimed word
which he is moving
through my body into me

the rotating door
that swaps me
for a man and, to him,

gives the fértile vest
that adds more breasts
through his body


I recognize the mother
she ate lettuce
she spent her time nibbling
amidst a herbivore
“I eat lettuce
out of habit”

My other mother
gentle came
from the polar womb
of her mother
out of her I saw electric
under solar light

The third mother
either because hungry
or because she had a saintly vertigo
falls from where she lives
from a rented skyscraper


Being with its gold, auriferous,
the body is rebellious.

It burns itself up, combustible,
in the sex, mouth and rectum.

Even before the flame
spreads to the five senses,
through a lit aperture
of the imagination
they touch the bed
or some other place torch-like,
a no man’s land,
(it’s space that slides,
for the upcoming body),

such flames
that, heat, they crackle
in the outermost cycles,
in the most intimate leftovers,
the glands, sponges
that the bodies sustain,
aquatic zones
where the organs float.

In love, meaning a sacralizing act,
the newly-born’s body squeezed
tightly in the solar egg, there’s yet another
body included,
but a body beyond
being healthy or rotten,
a geyser, a magma,
a loose substance,
with lungs.

In this mistaken love
(or breathing),
being a human body,
being another higher one,
free from death,
mortally intense,
higher and denser,

how much deeper the cut
when they put it in operation
with disquiet in its breathing
and the raw quiet of one who,
having his body naked,
his flesh burning,
the thief asks
for his purse or his life.



Clarifying that the poem
is a very sharp duel
I mean a very sharp
finger of course
aimed straight at man’s heart

I speak
with a needle of blood
sewing my body entire
at the throat

and to that still land
where already my shadow
is a trace of distress


Poem storey
sand floor

I say it in the
rawest and most intense

of measuring the poem
by the whole measure

the poem in wood

either the poem rots
or it burns

or the atheistic hand
falls apart

or five six stars
are traveled over

before the desert
kills the hunger


Now minding the trace,
I correct matter’s superfluous,
I lift my art from the well
where it floats.

Since the glint unhinges itself
from the bravest metal,
in each one’s lining
there’s so much wear and tear

that I, artificer, take
what’s nurturing from me,
I speak of what I’m being,
of his disorderly hand,
of the steps, the low tears
that go on coalescing.

Violently alone
ripped apart into lunacy
-not even a lunar cat
scratches you a bit

In your family
older brothers have died
You’re left with glass portraits
and mirrors still

Among females the blessed one
Did not want you
The others you killed
(there’s not enough blood to sate you)

Your country’s ground
Gave you water and a root
Many roots but prisons

- Lord demon of the lonely
When he dies
where will you put him?

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