Monday, February 6, 2012

Eugénio de Andrade: The black-eyed squirrels seek me out at night; or That's how a poem is made

I want to spend some time writing about some Portuguese poets I do not understand well and do not know much about.  Always a step ahead of myself, I am.

Eugénio de Andrade has come up at Wuthering Expectations before, in the context of my nearly fruitless attempt to study Portuguese.* His vocabulary is basic, the units with which he builds short, his aims modest, although also impossible.

The Art of Poetry

All the art is here,
in the way this woman
from the outskirts of Canton
or the fields of Alpedrindha
waters her four or five rows
of cabbages: the sure hand,
intimacy with the earth,
the heart’s commitment.
That’s how a poem is made. (1994)

Writing a poem is like watering cabbage; a poem is then, logically, like a cabbage.  Perhaps what Andrade does is a bit more rare than growing a nice cabbage.

Putting one of the cabbage-growers near Canton (Cantão) invokes** one of Andrade’s models, the classical poetry of China.  Haiku and other quiet, compressed forms are also suggested by different poems.  How much can a poet do with twenty or thirty words?  What can he capture?


The croaking of frogs is all the melody
the night has in its breast –
a song of marshes
and of rotting reeds,
at times with moonlight in its midst.

Andrade often seems to be trying to fix some precise moment or sensation or experience – something from nature, or thought, or a moment, often erotic, with a person – with as much linguistic music as possible.  The problem of translation is not to recreate the original melody of stresses and vowel sounds, but to write a poem that keeps the sense of the original while having any music at all of its own.

Upon a Body

I fall upon your body
just the way the summer spreads its hair
on the scattered waters of the days
and makes of peonies a golden rain
or gives the most incestuous caress.  (1971)

The translator I have been reading, Alexis Levitin, has been translating and working with Andrade for many years, so this will be as good as it gets.

My textbook is Forbidden Words: Selected Poetry of Eugénio de Andrade (New Directions, 2003), which includes selections dating from 1948 to 1998, crossing 24 books of poems.  The translator, Alexis Levitin, has a nice little biography of Andrade, the introduction to the book, and ten more poems, all at the Poetry International site.

I do not plan to write more about Andrade.  I am not sure I have written anything yet.  He defies me, however useful I might have found his book.  There are the squirrels, though.  Late in life he becomes fascinated by American squirrels.

Washington Square

Wherever I go, since Washington
Square, squirrels
pursue me.  Even in Camden,
next to Whitman’s tomb,
they come with the fall
to eat from my hand,  but it’s at night
that they seek me most: black eyes,
gleaming beads.
Now I shall lie down in the shade of the river
till one of them enters this poem
and makes his nest.  (1992)

  * The “nearly,” though, is worth it. Minimal knowledge gives high rewards with translated poetry.  Prof. Mayhew suggests that Spanish learners can use Antonio Machado like I have been using Andrade.

** Unless Cantão is a town in Portugal.  Or Andrade is thinking of Ohio.


  1. I'm sure it's Canton in China.

    Looks like we both chose this day to write a bit about Portuguese poets. I get the impression, though, your experience wasn't very enjoyable :(

  2. Not enjoyable - really? Why? I should change that part.

  3. Oops, apologies. The tone seemed one of disappointment to me. Glad to be wrong :)

  4. What I am shooting for is more skepticism than disappointment. And the skepticism is about translation, not the quality of these translations, but the possibility of translation of poems like these where voice and sound is so essential.

    Perhaps you are hearing my disappointment at not being able to really read the Portuguese! That disappointment is real. Levitin's book includes the Portuguese, and what I can piece together looks - and sounds, yes sounds - so good.

  5. Or disappointment in my limited ability to write about such compressed poems.

    Which reminds me - I will link to your pieces tomorrow. They are so useful. The new one, but more importantly the one about women poets. I want to write about Mello Breyner myself. Wish me luck. Her translator keeps babbling about Heidegger.

  6. Heidegger? Hm, I've read Sophia's poems from cover to cover, but I don't know anything about Heidegger. Maybe he's on to something, I don't know. I think critics are prone to turn poetry into an extension of philosophy.

    She's a fine poet, a lovely mix of Christian humanism, paganism and Hellenic erudition. Can't wait to read your thoughts about her.

  7. Mello Breyner should be a pleasure to write about. I will probably just politely avoid the Heidegger business.