José Miguel Silva was born in 1969 in Northern Portugal, in the coastal city of Vila Nova de Gaia. He studied philosophy, but never completed his university course. Today he works as a translator. Along with novels by authors such as Virginia Woolf, Iris Murdoch, Alice Munro, Don DeLillo and Lorrie Moore, he has translated Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus and Macbeth into Portuguese, as well as Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology. In 1999, he published his first book of poetry, O Sino de Areia (The Sand Bell), a quite extraordinary first volume that already contains characteristics that would come to mark his later work. These include a confident sense of prosody, a refined sense of humor and, above all, a powerful capacity for invention, uncommon in a declaredly realist poet, who strives for clarity and communicability and who, sometimes, doesn’t hesitate even in venturing down the dangerous byways of political poetry. Among Portuguese poets who have appeared in recent years, perhaps no other has his talent for surprising the reader.
Already present in O Sino de Areia are the domestic scenes, the episodes of everyday urban life and small commerce, as well as evocations of the poet’s past, all of which will return in other books, such as Vista para Um Pátio, seguido de Desordem (View of a Patio, followed by Disorder), and yet the childhood and adolescence that José Miguel portrays is hardly idyllic, and the view he now takes of them, if not one of resentment, also has little to do with the nostalgia so typical of a good deal of contemporary Portuguese poetry.
Like other poets of his generation, such as Rui Pires Cabral or Manuel de Freitas – with whom he collaborated on his latest book, Walkmen – José Miguel Silva was influenced by pop music and by the experiences associated with it, but also by cinema. Already in his first book, there are poems that take some of their references from Japanese films. In the second, Ulisses Já Não Mora Aqui, (Ulysses Doesn’t Live Here Anymore), whose title itself plays off Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, we find a poem inspired by Tarkovski’s Stalker. And, finally, in Movimentos no Escuro (Movements in the Dark), all of the poems, with the exception of one, take their titles from the names of films. But if in some of these poems the author maintains a fundamental relation with the works evoked, in others he uses them as a springboard to narrate small personal incidents – “The boy with green hair was me, in the late 70s” – or even to criticize the murky political and moral corruption of today’s Western world, drawing an analogy, for example, between Ettore Scola’s Ugly, Dirty and Bad and the cynical professional politicians of our time.
In recent Portuguese poetry, this disillusioned view of contemporary society is far from being the exclusive property of José Miguel Silva, but it is only the rare poet who, like him, dares to adopt a tone of open indignation. He does, and he pulls off something even rarer, he avoids the most obvious pitfalls of ‘engaged’ poetry.
Poetry in Portuguese
O Sino de Areia, Gilgamesh, Oporto, 1999
Ulisses Já Não Mora Aqui, & etc., Lisbon, 2002
Vista para Um Pátio seguido de Desordem, Relógio d’Água, Lisbon, 2003
24 de Março, Gilgamesh, Porto, 2004
Movimentos no Escuro, Relógio d’Água, Lisbon, 2005
Walkmen (with Manuel de Freitas), & etc., Lisbon, 2007
El Arte de la Pobreza. Diez Poetas Portugueses Contemporâneos, Diputación Provincial Málaga, 2007. Tr. José Ángel Cilleruelo