Music is the central concern of Andrade’s poetry, discovered his translator Alexis Levitin after he “had learned the most essential lesson for a translator of poetry – to listen.” Andrade, he finds, “has consciously intensified his focus on language and its sensual music, the pleasure that flows from within towards the outside world.”
“All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.”
Eugénio de Andrade is Portugal’s best-known and best-loved living poet. He has won all of his country’s literary honors, including the Portuguese language’s most prestigious award, the Camões Prize. He has also won major awards from Brazil, Yugoslavia, Romania, France, and Spain. His first book, Hands and Fruit, is now in its twenty-first edition. Whenever a new collection of his poetry appears in Portugal, the first printing sells out within a few weeks.
The secret of Eugénio’s extraordinary appeal lies, I think, in his apparent simplicity. Though highly cultured, Eugénio avoids bookishness and intellectualization. His foremost allegiance is to the earth, to the tangible world of the senses, to what he calls “the rough or sweet skin of things.” He was born in 1923 in the small village of Póvoa de Atalaia, close to the Spanish border. Till the age of nine, he lived alone with his adored mother in relative poverty, taking solace from the goats, sheep, birds, and cicadas of the surrounding countryside. These creatures, along with poplars, mulberries, sunflowers, and grassy fields beneath a hot sun, reappear throughout his poetry. They embody the eloquent simplicity at the core of the poet’s vision and voice. Always distrustful of abstractions, he proclaims his love for “words smooth as pebbles, rough as rye bread. Words that smell of clover and dust, loam and lemon, resin and sun.” He is happy to say, like the American poet William Carlos Williams: “No ideas but in things.”
When I first began to read Eugénio’s poetry, I was charmed by the imagery, but the greatness eluded me. Something seemed missing from the printed page. But later, as we worked together, a new awareness began to dawn on me. Often, when I inquired why he had chosen one word rather than another, he would seek in vain for a rational explanation. After various false starts, he would come to a halt, stare at the text, read it aloud, and then exclaim: “Because it sounds better!” After this happened several times, we both realized that the questions I had been asking had been irrelevant.
From that time onwards, our collaboration changed. I would arrive, he would give me a snack and a cold drink, we would both admire the svelte cat insinuating himself throughout our papers, and then Eugénio would pick up the text of his poems and begin to read. He would read with great care, with utter dedication to every syllable. His left hand held the book, his right moved through the air, like that of a conductor drawing forth music. And I would watch him and listen, absorbing the movement and melody of his language.
At times he would take a pencil and draw lines from vowel to vowel, consonant to consonant, till the entire poem was crisscrossed by a thick web of connections. And I came to understand that my real task was to translate his voice into another tongue. Images would take care of themselves. My dedication had to be to sound itself. For in Eugénio’s poetry, more than any other I can think of, the sound is the sense. I had intuitively been attentive to sound all along, but now I was consciously aware that music had to be my central concern. This discovery changed how Eugénio and I worked together. It stripped away unnecessary complexities, a tangle of inessentials. I had learned for myself why Marguerite Yourcenar had referred to “the well-tempered clavier” of Eugénio’s poems and why the Portuguese critic Oscar Lopes had called his study of Eugénio de Andrade’s poetry A Kind of Music.
The conviction that I was a translator of a voice deepened during our six-week reading tour of The United States and Canada in 1989. From California to the Northeast, I had the recurring experience of an intimate confrontation with the living creature that is his poetry. Always he would read first. A serious man of diminutive and fine proportions, he would stride to the podium, often reject the microphone and simply confront the audience with his naked, powerful voice. In New York, at Barnard College’s Sixth International Conference on Translation, as Eugénio finished reciting his last poem, the organizer, Serge Gavronsky, leaped to his feel and exctaimed “Fantastique! Fantastique! Et quelle voix!” And after each poem, I would have to follow that voice with my own. But as the tour went on, the echo of my translations grew closer and closer to the resonance of the original. Finally, towards the end of our tour, at the New York State Writer’s Institute in Albany, as we finished one of our best readings, Eugénio leaned towards me on the stage and whispered: “If you continue to read like that, pretty soon you will sound like Eugénio de Andrade.” What more could I have hoped for? I had learned the most essential lesson for a translator of poetry – to listen.
But what about content? Clearly nature is central to Eugénio de Andrade’s poetry. The four classical elements of earth, water, air, and fire permeate his poems, and he is pleased when critics find his work Hellenistic or pagan. His attachment to the fundamentals of the classical vision of life is made overt in a poem such as ‘The Fruit,” where he declares:
This is how I want the poem to be:
trembling with light, coarse with earth,
murmuring with waters and with wind.
Yet, as it was for the ancient Greeks, the human body is as precious to the poet as the world around him, for he sees it as a “metaphor for the universe.” It receives the caresses of the sun, but it also produces its own inner flame of desire. During our American reading tour, Eugénio described himself in fiercely affirmative terms as a man who “says YES to life, YES to the body, YES to all experience!” Speaking of de Andrade’s poetic vision, the late Portuguese poet and critic Luis Miguel Nava discerned three essential strands, when he observed that “nature, the body, and the word meet on the same plane and in some way intermingle or merge.”
It is not surprising to discover that in Eugénio’s poetry the tongue, the lips, and especially the mouth are recurring images of the body’s sensuality. For it is through the mouth that the sweet fruit of the ambient world is taken in, and it is through the mouth that the poet’s gift of words is given back to life. Although a passionate attachment to the things of this world and the joys of the senses gives vigor to all of Eugénio’s work, in the last decade he has consciously intensified his focus on language and its sensual music, the pleasure that flows from within towards the outside world. This love of “language received lip to lip; kiss or syllable,” is as erotic for him as any love of the flesh. He is a man who loves “The pulsing of syllables”, and he often feels that his lifelong task has been a search for just a syllable, “a single syllable./Salvation.” His deep allegiance to words is reaffirmed in a recent poem in which he declares that they “are my home, salt of my tongue.”
The abiding eros, then, for this poet of desire, the body, and nature, is the eros of language. The heart of his genius is woven into the delicate, minutely wrought balance of sound in his words. Le mot juste is not enough. Each syllable must find its place, its fit. This musical apotheosis lies in the Portuguese, of course. But during my twenty-five years as Eugénio de Andrade’s English translator, my greatest challenge—and greatest joy—has been the effort to reproduce, in our rough and elegant tongue descended from Angles, Saxons, and Normans, a musical response as kin to the song of his words as possible.
This is a slightly adapted version of the Translator’s Introduction to Forbidden Words: Selected Poetry of Eugénio de Andrade (New York: New Directions, 2003).