Saturday, January 14, 2006


Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen

Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen (1919 - 2004) was one of the dominant poets of Portugal in the second half of the 20th century, publishing 20 volumes of poetry (as well as other work, including several children's novels) and winning 11 prizes and awards, including the most prestigious of Portugal's literary awards, the Camoens Prize in 1999 for the body of her work. She also served as a deputy in the National Assembly of Portugal.

Her work is deeply rooted in the the real, the immediate, the actual, which is experienced mostly intensely through the imaginative transformation of poetry:

"Day of Sea"

Day of sea in the sky, made
From shadows and horses and plumes.

Day of sea in my room -- cube
Where my sleepwalker's movements slide
Between animal and flower, like medusas.

Day of sea in the sea, high day
Where my gestures are seagulls who lose themselves
Spiralling over the clouds, over the spume.

(Translated by Ruth Fainlight)

We are constantly being separated from the world, from each other, and from life; it is the role of poetry to attempt to overcome this constant separation and loss:


Muse teach me the song
Revered and Primordial
The song of everyone
Believed by all

Muse teach me the song
The true brother of each thing
Incendiary of night
And evening's secret

Muse teach me the song
That takes me home
Without delay or haste
Changed to plant or stone

Or changed into the wall
Of the first house
Or become the murmur
Of sea all around

(I remember the floor
Of well-scrubbed planks
Its soapy smell
Keeps coming back)

Muse teach me the song
Of the sea's breath
Heaving with brilliants
Muse teach me the song
Of the white room
And the square windom

So I can say
How evening there
Touched door and table
Cup and mirror
How it embraced

Because time pierces
Time divides
And time thwarts
Tears me alive
From the walls and floor
Of the first house

Muse teach me the song
Revered and primordial
To fix the brilliance
Of the polished morning

That rested its fingers
Gently on the dunes
And whitewashed the walls
Of those simple rooms

Muse teach me the song
That chokes my throat

(Translated by Ruth Fainlight)

Poetry becomes the only defense against the ultimate loss, death:

"The Small Square"

My life had taken the form of a small square
That autumn when you death was being meticulously organized
I clung to the square because you loved
The humble and nostalgic humanity of small shops
Where shopkeepers fold and unfold ribbons and cloth
I tried to become you because you were going to die
And all my life there would cease to be mine
I tried to smile as you smiled
At the newspaper seller at the tobacco seller
At the woman without legs who sold violets
I asked the woman without legs to pray to you
I lit candles at all the altars
Of the churches standing in the corner of that square
Hardly had I opened my eyes when I saw and read
The vocation of eternity written on your face
I summoned up the streets places people
Who were the witnesses of your face
So they would call you so they would unweave
The tissue that death was binding around you

(Translated by Ruth Fainlight)

Ancient Greek culture was one of the most important influences on her, and became one of her most frequent subjects for poetry, as in this piece which praises the Greeks for having invested the ordinary with significance:

"The Greeks"

To the gods we attributed a dazzling existence
Consubstantial with the sea the clouds trees and light
In them the waves’ glinting the foam’s long white frieze
The woods’ secret and soft green the wheat’s tall gold
The river’s meandering the mountain’s solemn fire
And the great dome of resonant weightless free air
Emerged as self-aware consciousness
With no loss of the first day’s marriage-and-feast oneness

Anxious to have this experience for ourselves
We humans repeated the ritual gestures that re-establish
The initial whole presence of things –
This made us attentive to all forms known by the light of day
As well as to the darkness which lives within us
And in which the ineffable shimmer travels

(Translated by Richard Zenith)

But she doesn't simply value Greek ideas; she herself transforms them, reinvests them with significance for the present day:


Banished from sin and the sacred
Now they inhabit the humble intimacy
Of daily life. They are
The leaky faucet the late bus
The soup that boils over
The lost pen the vacuum that doesn’t vacuum
The taxi that doesn’t come the mislaid receipt
Shoving pushing waiting
Bureaucratic madness

Without shouting or staring
Without bristly serpent hair
With the meticulous hands of the day-to-day
They undo us

They’re the peculiar wonder of the modern world
Faceless and maskless
Nameless and breathless
The thousand-headed hydras of efficiency gone haywire

They no longer pursue desecrators and parricides
They prefer innocent victims
Who did nothing to provoke them
Thanks to them the day loses its smooth expanses
Its juice of ripe fruits
Its fragrance of flowers
Its high-sea passion
And time is transformed
Into toil and the rush
Against time

(Translated by Richard Zenith)

But this loss, this separation, represented by the presence of the Furies in everyday life, is such an inherent part of life that the final separation -- death -- shouldn't be unfamiliar or frightening:

"I Feel the Dead"

I feel the dead in the cold of violets
And that great vagueness in the moon.

The earth is doomed to be a ghost,
She who rocks all death in herself.

I know I sing at the edge of silence,
I know I dance around suspension,
Possess around dispossession.

I know I pass around the mute dead
And hold within myself my own death.

But I have lost my being in so many beings,
Died my life so many times,Kissed my ghosts so many times,
Known nothing of my acts so many times,
That death sill be simply like going
From the inside of the house into the street.

(Translated by Ruth Fainlight)

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