Thursday, October 20, 2011

Your manly body so brown - The rest is literature - the Songs of António Botto

António Botto was a Portuguese poet, his poems collected, Whitman-like, in a series of continually revised books titled Songs, the first published in 1920.  The 1932 version is available in English, published by the University of Minnesota Press in 2010, but actually translated long ago by, I am amazed to say, Portugal’s greatest poet, Fernando Pessoa.

Botto is a fine example of the French-styled decadent aesthete:

The most important thing in life
Is to create – to create beauty. (“Curiosity” 1)

In your last letter
You called me decadent
How funny!
Your letter
Made me laugh.  (“Dandyism” 10)

I’m always glad to make people laugh.  Botto’s great distinction is a series of poems about a sexual relationship with another man.  They lead the collection:

No, let us kiss, only kiss
In this evening’s agony.
For some better moment
Your manly body so brown.  (“Boy” 1)

Who is it that clasps me to him
In the half-light of my bed?
Who is it that kisses me
And bit my breast till it bled?  (“Boy” 6)

And so on like that, the poet overwrought perhaps – or convincingly passionate – but straightforward in his desire, jealousy, and regret.  Other than a poem about Salomé the placement of which I did not understand, the clusters of openly homosexual poems – the sequences “Boy,” “Curiosity,” and “Olympiads” – do not strike me as decadent at all, actually, but earthily romantic, or even realistic.  The decadent pose is reserved for other parts of the poet’s life.

I am informed that the open homosexuality of the poems was scandalous, but that can mean anything.  Pessoa wrote an obfuscatory defense of them, emphasizing the artifice of Botto's persona, in other words transforming Botto into another heteronym of Pessoa's, another imaginary poet.

Because I am so often befuddled by the way people use the word “beauty,” I found this amusing:

Was always
Just a secondary thing
In the body that we love.
There is no beauty at all.
Anyhow, it can’t endure.
Is no more than the desire
That makes our weary heart move.
The rest is literature.  (“Boy” 10)

That’s just what I have been saying!  Or maybe not.  Now I am not sure.  The contradictions within the passage give it whatever interest it might have.

Botto’s poems, or Pessoa’s version of them, do occasionally rhyme or employ a more formal structure or bounce off of a more complex image, but the excerpts I have given here are typical – the stance of the poet, the intensity of the voice, is what Botto has to offer.  My favorite poem is told by an ostrich who endures being plucked for ladies’ hats:

They tear off my feathers
But no complaint of mine is heard.
I am a very
Well-bred bird.

“The Gray Ostrich” is not remotely typical of Botto.

I seem to have assembled a little Minor Portuguese Literature week.  Let’s do something else tomorrow.


  1. No, no - the week's nearly over - keep going with Portugal (and thanks especially for this post - Botto's book will make a great present for a friend whose birthday is next week and who happens to love Lisbon, poetry, and boys).

  2. It would make a nice gift. It's an attractive book. The introduction is good, the notes are minimal but well-chosen. The paper and cover are nice.