Author of the Week / 11 April 2023

Wings of Cesariny

Author of the Week: Portugal

The hand that moves us

No one writes alone. One can even write for nobody, but nobody writes from nothing. And the place where one writes is not empty: an invisible inheritance moves our hand and drives us. That hand bears many names and drives us in what we write and in what we read. Because in order to write, one must read. Or, better still, one must read to refrain from writing, since writing involves, to a great extent, knowing what not to write. Many others have written before us, and others are writing now at the same time (or in the same space, to better serve the almost physical notion of contemporaneity), so one should ask: is it worth repeating what has already been said, even without knowing that it has been said? Do we really have something to say? Well, time, conscience and a good editor will tell. But what we cannot do is stop writing ‘with’. Because in the act of writing, the hand that moves us may (and should) be invisible, but it has to be present. And the true heritage that shapes this gesture are our contemporaries (and we are in fact all contemporaries of one another, as Helder Macedo said, from Camões onwards). And there is no doubt that by reading them, relentlessly, enjoying some more than others, we come closer to that which will be (or may be) our true voice. Even if that voice turns out to be, in the end, one of silence, that original language of the poem, as Leonard Cohen suggested.[1] From that point of view, it can be said that when we have reached (our) silence, we will finally be at the beginning of everything. And what other path to take than the one that Mário Cesariny pointed out to us: love as the beginning of the road.[2]

So, let us start by mentioning Mário Cesariny, the most significant poet of Portuguese Surrealism, based on no other criteria than personal experience. One of the first poems I wrote after so many that were thrown away embodies my amazement and transformation, which always implies destruction, upon learning his poetry: There is a giant Man inside the stairs / There is a giant Man behind the door / There is a giant Man made of nothing / and there is a giant Nothing made of man / building time / Of the poem a man was born / tired of always being inside / the same flesh.[3] I speak of Cesariny as I could also speak of other Portuguese poets like António José Forte, Herberto Helder, Almada Negreiros, Natália Correia, Rui Caeiro, Cláudia R. Sampaio, Valério Romão, and many others, many of them unknown, many of them the authors of the most beautiful poems of my life without even knowing it, without even being aware of themselves as poets. Because beyond a cultural and literary heritage, there is an effective heritage that inspires and builds the poem to discover us at the right time: while we are still alive.

It is impossible to be a poet, or an artist in general, without reflecting on the times in which we live. And that implies looking not only at what surrounds us, the problems, the faults and failings of humanity, but also at others who inhabit the same space of creative responsibility, our contemporaries, in the sense that they are alive at the same time as we are. Looking at what they write, what they create and what anguishes them is also a way of looking at reality, perhaps in a way that we would never be able to look at it through our own eyes. We need to recognise and attend to contemporary poets, the up-and-coming poets, before they shoulder the random yoke of recognition, which so often comes too late. We need the eyes of those close to us to see beyond the mountains of our intimate landscape. And this link is so often reciprocal and fruitful.

Praise among living poets is rare, although it is the greatest courtesy a poet can receive from another, especially considering that poets so often tend to ravage each other’s work in order to protect some sort of sacred space and canon that should be observed as if it were the law. We should come to accept that there is always room inside of us for more poets, that we can grow with them and learn from their work. This kind of spirit is a possible definition – or expression – of contemporaneity.

And there is nothing more contemporary than affections, those that we do not always understand, like a mystery that cannot be explained, just inhabited. One ought to write to see the voice of things, but beware, the voice of things is lightning: it may even kill us. And dare I say that sometimes it needs to kill us. The poem is pointless in its intention but irreversible in its effect. It is impossible to close the door a poem unlocks, even if it self-destructs after the first reading. In a way, the poem, beyond its intrinsic aesthetic concerns, has a denunciatory effect that can never be separated from the contemporaneity of the reader and the poem, no matter how long the time that stands between them. There is an echo that persists even without the cry that created it.[4] That echo denounces the walls and the content of the chambers within us. It denounces what has always been there but which only now becomes clear and sharply contoured, to the point where it can no longer be ignored, neither by us nor by other people close to us. This denounced clarity calls – and can only call – for a creative, concrete and directed action towards another place where we are expected to be, and where we expect ourselves to be. That, for me, constitutes the poem’s transformative capacity to shift the inner place, create a new space in the abyss, without letting it win. Then we move on to the next day, as if for the first time. And, may I repeat, we are not alone.

There is an indoor swimming pool in the space opened by the poem which at that moment is empty. It then becomes necessary to explore the multiple possible interpretations of the poem as being part of the same house, linked together by the intertextuality of the rooms and their functions and memories which in turn extend to the inner limits of the city. Here the poet (or the reader) plunges into the paradoxical metaphor of an empty pool where there is no danger of drowning, but where it is also not possible to swim. It is in this constant struggle to find a surface – other than the walls and the floor of the pool – that the poem creates itself, repeatedly and successively, until it manifests the narrative and the meanings of an intrinsically infinite life, where all the possibilities still fit, that path between two tombs, of which Vinicius de Moraes spoke in ‘Poema de Natal’ (Antologia Poética).[5] Again, we are born out of a poem, tired of always being within the same flesh. And that is the path we follow, the one that the poem opened up, whether was written by us or by someone else.

In fact, the more I read the less I write, and the less I write the better I understand that there is no real difference between reading and writing a poem. Only the gesture differs, and the gesture, like all gestures, does not go beyond its effect and intent. Like a stone that someone picks up to knock on a gate and reveal their presence to someone who comes out to open it: once we enter, the gesture and the stone are left behind, for others to pick up.

But the transmission of poetic heritage is not only about reading in silence. Much of the legacy of poetry bequeathed to us was and continues to be transmitted orally, often in places where there is little silence, like bars and cafés. Today I can say that reading and listening to poetry in bars (as happened with Poetas do Povo, promoted by Alexandre Cortez in Cais do Sodré for more than eight years) allowed me to learn about almost all the authors, living and dead, who are now inescapable literary and affective references for me, and helped me not only to understand and make clearer what I write but also to reject false texts and to know how to say no to myself. The poem contains infinite possibilities in suspension – like a quantum field – which materialise and present themselves when one reads it, whether silently or aloud. The act of reading is in itself an interpretative observation and a necessary interference that creates a reality so intimate that we do not know if it was there before the collapse the reading precipitated. An example of this is the fact that the text is subject to different readings and interpretations depending on the person who reads or translates it, which only demonstrates the fact that the text is a living organism.

Now, I see the writing process as a proposal for an investigation of all things that organise themselves – and the way they organise themselves – according to our perception. Writing is the result of a passive act of contemplation, during which we never stop moving. Reading a poem, in turn, implies a gesture identical to that of opening a door at a given moment, behind which the poem becomes a place where only a single person can fit. To read a poem aloud, especially before an audience that does not know it, is to multiply the fabrication of places or, ultimately, of no place at all. Absolute privacy in a place of no privacy. On the other hand, the gesture of reading out loud, however rewarding it may be, is an undeniable and almost inexplicable pleasure, but not without risks: one can always blow up a poem by excess or defect in its formal interpretation and intention. Neither the poet nor the person who reads it can have a better emotional experience than the person who hears it, however much one wishes to make it seem so. In this respect, one must absolutely agree with Leonard Cohen: the poem is nothing but information. It is the constitution of the inner country (...). You are among the people. Then be modest. Speak the words, convey the data, step aside. Be by yourself. Be in your own room. Do not put yourself on. This is an interior landscape. It is inside. It is private. Respect the privacy of the material. These pieces were written in silence. The courage of the play is to speak to them. The discipline of the play is not to violate them.[6]

Finally, contemporaneity (now in the sense in which we are alive at the same time and in the same space) sometimes allows us to contemplate one of the most beautiful phenomena of the poem: its creation, not ours, but by poets who are close enough and generous enough to let us into their workshop, the source of the poem which springs not only from a place of affection, as I said, but also from a place that does not really exist, due to being in constant motion. The constancy of movement is needed because where everything is still there is no need for language. Only the unbearable movement of things can clear the path that is then lit by language. It is there that I seek its impossible permanence, the denied tryst of things in the apocryphal bed of a roadside motel, where one never stays more than one night, but no one ever goes to sleep alone.

The poem exists as an amazed electron sitting in two places at the same time: before virtue and in the oblivion of shelves, both holding infinite probabilities of destiny. It is as elusive as Schrödinger’s cat that still lives in transgression of its intrinsic curse: in one book it is dead and in another it is alive or merely pretends to be. Perhaps such is its purest and cruellest craft: if the poem must die, let it not be of doubt, but of guilt, sentenced by whoever reads it.

[1] ‘How to Speak Poetry’ in Death of a Ladies’ Man, 1979.

[2] Mário Cesariny: ‘Estado Segundo XXI’. Pena Capital, 3rd ed., Lisbon: Assírio & Alvim, 2004, p. 119. Translated by José Anjos.

[3] ‘Wings of Cesariny’ in Instructions on How to Disappear. Abysmo, 2015. Translated by José Anjos.

[4] Gastão Cruz: ‘Na poesia’ in Rua de Portugal e outros lugares, in Os poemas (1960–2006). Lisboa: Assírio & Alvim, 2009. Translated by José Anjos.

[5] ‘Birth Poem’ in Poetic Anthology.

[6] ‘How to Speak Poetry’ in Death of a Ladies’ Man, 1979.


José Anjos

José Anjos (Lisbon, 1978) is a lawyer, poet and musician. He has published the books Instructions for disappearing (Abysmo, 2015), We are contemporaries of the impossible (Abysmo, 2017), A photograph aimed at the head (Abysmo, 2019) and The sculptor of free birds (Nova Mymosa, 2021). Also participates in various projects as drummer (não simão, A Favola da Medusa), guitarist (Poetry Ensemble and mao-mao) and spokenword artist (Lisbon Poetry Orchestra, No Precipício era o Verbo, Navio dos Loucos, O Gajo, Janela). Lives with his cat Zorba.


Photo by Valério Romão