Thursday, February 9, 2012

Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen: Fantastic sea gods stroll at the edge of the world, or She asked each thing its name

Three collections of Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen exist in English, I think, all miniscule.  Their titles help place the poet:  Log Book; Shores, Horizons, Voyages; and Marine Rose.  I have read that last one (tr. Ruth Fairlight, Black Swan Books, 1988).  Portuguese literature from its roots is a literature of the sea; Sophia* is a poet of the sea.


The pines moan when the wind passes
The sun beats on the earth and the stones burn.

Fantastic sea gods stroll at the edge of the world
Crusted with salt and brilliant as fishes.

Sudden wild birds hurled
Against the light into the sky like stones
Mount and die vertically
Their bodies taken by space.

The waves butt as if to smash the light
Their brows ornate with columns.

And an ancient nostalgia of being a mast
Sways in the pines.

Just taken as a bundle of imagery I find a lot to like here.  The first two lines may be ordinary scene-setting, but the salt-crusted sea gods are excellent.  Are they purely imaginary, or is Sophia transforming Speedo-clad bathers into deities?  The lines about the birds are all about motion, about moving faster than the eye.  The waves I do not quite see – are the columns the rays of the sun (the light that is being smashed)?  The pines return with added weight, the brilliantly paradoxical addition of the fate they might have had back in the time of the sea gods, who are as likely to be Portuguese explorers as Neptune and his court.

Marine Rose ends with an essay by Kenneth Krabbenhoft that makes as much use of Heidegger as I can take.  Such philosophical firepower is hardly necessary, but the connection is not fanciful.  Besides a common interest in ancient Greece, Sophia is, like Andrade, a poet of the moment, of something like Heidegger’s Being (Dasein).  How that helps me more than this, I do not understand:

In the Poem

To bring the picture the wall the wind
The flower the glass the shine on wood
And the cold chaste severe world of water
To the clean severe world of the poem

To save from death decay and ruin
The actual moment of vision and surprise
And keep in the real world
The real gesture of a hand touching the table.

In a short talk included in Marine Rose, Sophia says “For me, poetry has always been the pursuit of what is real.”  The creation of the poem, an act of imagination, is what “keeps” the gesture of the hand “real.”  Or so the poet argues.  Prove her wrong!

One last tiny sea poem:


He went and came
And asked each thing
Its name.

No, that’s a trick.  It’s not a sea poem at all – Coral, a note tells me, is a cat.

The Poetry International site has a number of Richard Zenith’s translations of Sophia, plus a sweet personal essay about her which inventories the art in her apartment.  And do not miss St. Orberose, where one can enjoy Sophia alongside three other tantalizing contemporary female poets.  Marvel at the way Adília Lopes can write a good poem which includes the line "I need a hug."  I would not have thought it possible.  The poem is called "I don't like books."

*  How nice to discover that the poet with the multi-part name is typically just called Sophia.


  1. Writing about poetry in translation might be the highest degree of difficulty blog dive of all, Tom. Please keep up the interesting--and risky--work.

  2. Just taken as a bundle of imagery I find a lot to like here.

    Yes, a lot. And perhaps the good of the Heidegger is some reassurance that this is (all of?) what we should be looking for.

  3. In the end, it is all just a text. I resort to shorthand more. "When the poet writes C, she means..." is a more compact way of saying "When the poet writes something like C, which is translated as C~, she may well mean..."

    Plus, I can avoid the hard word of interpretation by fussing about the translation. Sophia herself claims that translating poetry is easier than translating prose "because it has rhythm." The quote is from Richard Zenith.

    I'm glad Heidegger is good for something.

  4. That's an interesting way of connecting Sophia to Heidegger. But I think her 'poetry of the moment' has more to do with her pagan mysticism. She exalts nature and think Man needs to become one with it again - many of her poems focus on this - and so every aspect of life, every moment is special.

    I think it's something like that, anyway.

  5. The problem with linking Heidegger to Sophia specifically is that Heidegger seems to argue that all poets, all real ones, are doing what Sophia does. Maybe she is a particularly stark example. That cat is actually doing what H. says poets do: they are the people who name things.

    Sophia's pagan mysticism is fascinating. Catholic pagan mysticism. Man should become one with nature, but nature is very broadly defined. No need to go live in the woods.

    I mention some of this shallowly, when I write about Sophia and Ricardo Reis, in a piece that should go up 45 seconds from now.

  6. I was thinking of Heidegger's move in "Building, Dwelling, Thinking" in Poetry, Language, Thought that language provides a sort of structure in which we dwell, but through dwelling, speech falls away and we are left with silent (but still active) thought. I think I'm paraphrasing and perhaps misrepresenting Heidegger; forgive me, it is early in the day. But it seems to me that Sophia's "In the Poem" is achieving precisely this same move.

    I agree that Heidegger lends himself too easily to poetic readings as to almost render his poetic theory useless. But there is something particularly interesting about these poems that remind me of Hoderlin (or even Coleridge).

    Gaston Bachelard's Poetics of Space might provide a more useful critical framework than Heidegger. I will have to think about this more.

  7. Paraphrase and misrepresentation - a fair description of how philosophy works! That is not meant as a criticism of philosophy.

    You are describing with uncanny accuracy the poem Sophia wrote about Lord Byron that I discuss today. So you must be on the right track.

    Hölderlin, yes, yes! Another poet for whom the gods were real. Pessoa must not have known him - Reis would have loved Hölderlin.

    I don't know Bachelard - sounds interesting.

  8. I cannot tell if Sophia is speaking to Reis or as Reis.

    After having re-read the poems in question, I think she's clearly emulating his voice. She wrote seven poems in homage to him, published in the book 'Dual' (1972), and they were clearly made to look like Ricardo Reis poems - they're numbered by Roman numerals like his, they address women like Lydia and Neera too, they're about the pagan gods and enjoying life before it's over. You could read them and think Reis wrote them. I think she did a great job with them.

  9. That seems clear enough. I wish the collection I read had included all seven of the Reis poems.

    Your post on Sophia is outstanding, although I have not given it a fifth of the attention it deserves.