Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Jorge de Sena: Even your skeletons will be looted for bones to pass for mine; or The shape of a god lounging where sand and water meet

In a nice coincidence, Miguel at St. Orberose just put up a long, action-packed piece about a Portuguese poet I did not know, Alexandre O’Neill.  Miguel provides generous evidence of O’Neill’s quality.  He has a spikier feel than Eugénio de Andrade or the other writers I have been reading, Jorge de Sena and Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen.  They are all from the same generation, born around 1920 – what a cohort of poets. Miguel writes “if it sounds like Portugal has too many poets, it does: I read somewhere it annually publishes as many poetry books as the United States.”  May your country have too many poets.

With Andrade and Mello Breyner, I read career-spanning selected volumes, as one does and often should do, but with Jorge de Sena I tried a couple of short individual books, The Evidences, a sequence of twenty-one sonnets from 1955 and Metamorphoses, a 1963 book of poems that respond directly to images – paintings, sculptures, the “forest” of the Cordova Mosque, a photograph of the Sputnik I satellite.

The Evidences was completely incomprehensible.  Metamorphoses was immediately pleasing.  Easier, I guess.  The images are helpful, giving the reader something on which to knock the poem.   When a statue of Demeter in the British Museum is described as:

Monster in vast pleats, no head,
no legs, no arms.  A mountain
of hips and trunk.  Cliffs
 for breasts.

the monster and the mountain are immediately visible, and when the poet plunges into the volcano to form the marble (“slowly pushed, pushed up \ through gaping crust”), the change is only logical, as is the statue’s final transformation into “immaculate flesh” at the end of the poem.  Yes, I see it, even though the reproductions of the photographs in the 1991 Copper Beech Press edition are kinda crummy.  Who cares – the poems brighten the photos.

Poets sneak into the images.  A stone bust of Camoens inspires “Camoens Addresses His Contemporaries,” in which the touchy epic poet curses his plagiarists with:

and everything, everything you studiously pilfer,
will be reclaimed in my name.  Even
the miserable particle of invention
that you squeezed out on your own, without theft,
even that will be mine, considered mine, counted mine.
You will have nothing upon nothing:
even your skeletons will be looted for bones
to pass for mine,  so that other thieves,
like you, on their knees, can put flowers on my tomb.

Now there’s a scary curse, to be pillaged by scholars and critics.  Sena himself was a distinguished thief, I mean critic.

The book’s final two poems are not paired with images, but instead evoke Ovid.  A stone caryatid comes to life, or might, and the gods frolic on the shore – “frolic” is my G-rated description:

Only echoes of laughter
remain and, in our memory, the shape
of a god lounging where sand and water meet.

Translations by Francisco Cota Fagundes and James Houlihan.  A little biography of Sena along with several of the poems from Metamorphoses are on display at the Poetry International site – the one about Goya is especially good, and the rest of the Camoens poem is there, too.


  1. Thanks for the nice words.

    Sena's a fine poet. I hope one day I'm well-read enough on his poetry to write about it. I'm still waiting for a big collected edition.

    He was also a brilliant literary critic, and, unusually for a Portuguese, an anglophile. His knowledge of 20th century English literature humbles me every time I read his essays.

    He also spent some sad years in America, where he taught literature in California. He was very disappointed that after the 1974 revolution, no Portuguese university invited him to teach. He left a series of texts about his experiences in the USA, and they're hilarious in his contempt for the specialised methods of his academic peers, everyday culture, and the ignorant discrimination his family endured there. I'll have to translate and post a few passages one day. They're really great.

  2. Sena does seem enormously interesting, as a person and poet. Not that I knew most of what you wrote here - those American sketches sound great.

    If there is no big collected edition in Portuguese, I guess I do not feel so bad about not having one in English.

  3. Things have been getting better with collected editions in Portugal: nowadays several come out every year. For a few years after Eugénio de Andrade passed away you couldn't buy any of his books because they were all out of print, presumably because the foundation that managed his ouevre was bankrupt. Then last year a massive tome came out. Still haven't bought it :(

    Sena used to have his poetry in three volumes, but they've algo gone out of print. Fortunately there is a publisher gradually reprinting his entire work, but they're focusing on the prose first - thanks to which those American texts were published for the first time. So I keep waiting.

  4. Even in a more poetry-centered literary culture than the US has, the collected editions, like the translations, must be labors of love (or prestige). There can't be any real money in them.

    So the impressive thing is that anyone bothers.

  5. Hey, in case you're interested, I've finally written about Sena in America in my blog:


  6. I'm very interested. That's a great piece. What the internet is for.