Friday, February 10, 2012

Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen: Our attention to the world is the observance they claim, or Writing insists on solitudes and deserts

Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen is a poet of the sea, but which sea?  She is a dedicated Hellenist, and a characteristic poetic effect is a blurring of the difference between Portugal’s ocean and Greece’s Mediterranean.  When Sophia, a dedicated Catholic, discovers the gods in the landscape, which gods does she mean?

She shares her interest in Greece and its gods with an earlier Portuguese poet, an imaginary one, the sad Epicurean Ricardo Reis.  Reis insisted that he was a true pagan, and that his encounter with the shepherd poet Alberto Caeiro showed him how to turn his beliefs into poetry.  Reis perhaps taught Sophia something similar:

Homage to Ricardo Reis III

The gods are absent yet they preside.
    We inhabit this
    Ambiguous transparency.

Their thought emerges when everything
    Suddenly becomes
    Solemnly exact.

Their gaze guides ours:
    Our attention to the world
    Is the observance they claim.

I cannot tell if Sophia is speaking to Reis or as Reis.  The poem is meaningful either way; the poets share their purpose, even if the absent gods are less metaphorical for Reis than for Sophia.

Our world is transparent yet ambiguous - an obscure enough adjective.  The transparent becomes visible, the ambiguous fixed, when we direct attention to the things of the world, to their exactness.  Or the confused invisibility then becomes “exact” as the result of our attention.  “Lord, free us from the dangerous game of transparency” she writes in “On Transparency.”  Sophia is positing a corollary to Heisenberg’s much-abused Uncertainty Principle: we can observe either the position or momentum of a particle with precision, but not both; but without “attention to the world” we know nothing at all.  The poet is the operator of the electron microscope.  Like Coral the cat, the poet asks each thing its name.

Lest Sophia de Mello Breyner seem too mystical,  the editor of the Marine Rose collection sets beside the pair (only two, unfortunately) of Homage to Ricardo Reis poems an alternative description of the poet’s vocation.  What can Sophia share with Lord Byron, a writer of satire and long narrative poems about pirates and lady-killers?  The title is the first clue:


In Palazzo Mocenigo where he had lived alone
Lord Byron used every grand room
To watch solitude mirror by mirror
And the beauty of doors no one passed through

He heard the marine murmurs of silence
The lost echoes of steps in far corridors
He loved the smooth shine on polished floors
Shadows unrolling under high ceilings
And though he sat in just one chair
Was glad to see the other chairs were empty

The empty chairs imply full ones, and in fact Byron’s life in Venice at this time was manically social:

By the end of the year 1818, in which he had begun his greatest poem, Don Juan, he was to be discovered morosely climbing the balcony of an 18-year-old Italian heiress at midnight.  He afterwards told Medwin that he was indifferent to the outcome of the affair, and did not care whether the police officer had come to have him shot or married. (Richard Holmes, Shelley: The Pursuit, 420)

Sophia is interested in the first part of that passage, the writing, amidst chaos, of the great poem, as her poem concludes:

Of course no one needs so much space to live
But writing insists on solitudes and deserts
Things to look at as if seeing something else

We can imagine him seated at his table
Imagine the full long throat
The open white shirt
The white paper the spidery writing
And the light of a candle – as in certain paintings –
Focussing all attention

Byron, too, if guided by the gaze of the gods and giving them the observance they claim.  He is a poet.

Translations are again from Ruth Fairlight's Marine Rose.

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