Daniel Jonas’ eruption onto the Portuguese literary scene was delayed by the fact that his first two books were published by small presses. Recognition of his work only came with the publication of Os fantasmas inquilinos (Tenant Ghosts) in 2005. Although his first two collections (and Moça formosa, lençóis de veludo (Beautiful Girl, Velvet Sheets; 2002) in particular) may not therefore have received the attention they deserved, Jonas’ delayed entrance into the Portuguese literary world did at least enable him to present himself to the public with a body of work, even if his poetry is not particularly compatible with the general drift of recent Portuguese poetry and has caused some surprise and resistance.
The defamiliarising aspect of his poetry begins with his name, which reminds us of the prophet, and Jonas’ work consciously echoes with theological resonances – not at all Catholic but rather those arising from the universe of Milton and Blake, or, where they are Roman and Greek, seeming to be filtered by those English poets.
Jonas is in the lineage of poets for whom the poetic word “lends unlikeness/ to the common usage”. He returns to this issue again and again, always with his rare mastery of theory, in poems like ‘Tenant Ghosts’, from the collection of the same name, in which it is said of reality, “The idea is to deform it, after an interval/ of time, and to pass to generalize/ or, like an escape capsule, to deform/ what was uttered, speech”. There is no illusion of mimesis, no desire for the programmatic avoidance of the sublime that the majority of Portuguese poets have shown in recent decades.
Instead there is diction in which the epic seems to co-exist with the experience of disillusionment, in moments such as “I am so sad that not even a Punic war would lift my spirits” in Jonas’ second book. In addition, the envoi often adds a layer of literary memory over contemporary diction. For example, we are reminded of the poet Camões in Jonas’ appeal to his watch in ‘Moça Formosa, Lençóis de Veludo’: “Get going, my watch, make haste./ Why do you dawdle in this bed of hours/ when in the other bed of her delays/ absence makes me late and low-spirited?”
The defamiliarisation of this poetry extends over a vast chromatic spectrum, tending often towards saturation point, in moments when Romantic visions (always rare in Portuguese poetry) hypertrophy in an often parodic revisitation of Gothic themes.
The notable self-control with which the poet navigates the high-poetic, visionary tradition reveals what a monster of poetry technique Daniel Jonas is – probably the most impressive master of forms and metres in contemporary Portuguese poetry. We are dealing with a rhetorical art for which the practice of translation (Jonas translated Milton’s Paradise Lost) has clearly been beneficial; in addition, it is a poetry that intermediates between languages (above all, Portuguese and English), between forms and between images, as if Jonas really lived in the belly of the whale of Western poetry. From this point of view, Sonótono (Somnotonous) is one of the most extraordinary books of Portuguese poetry published in the past decade, amazing the reader with how the sonnet form is, under the influence of Jonas’ talent and deep reading of poetry, remodelled into unexpected new shapes.
It is easy, in a poetic culture such as that present in Portugal today, to reject or denigrate such poetry, precisely because of its merits and achievements. For in Jonas’ work, links are renewed between poetry and vision, poetry and culture, and poetry and versification. The highly demanding nature of Jonas’ poetry and its anti-mimetic attitude have a critical sharpness for which perhaps the best description is the ugly name that people have hastily given it: ‘anachronistic’. Indeed, in the sense in which we are dealing with a poetry that does not want to be of its time, and which inhabits all eras of poetry, Jonas’ poetry has a temporal and aesthetic profundity which cannot be read without recourse to the notion of ‘late style’: a style that shows us, as Adorno would say, that the truth of harmony is in dissonance. This dissonance is present in all Jonas’ poems, even when they are rhetorically perfect (and for good reason), but most importantly, his poetry has achieved this dissonance, despite the harmony of ruling consensus, simply by being what it is: an absolutely singular presence in Portuguese poetry today – singular because it is non-contemporary.
Poetry in Portuguese
O corpo está com o rei, AEFLUP, Oporto, 1997
Moça formosa, lençóis de veludo, Cadernos do Campo Alegre, Oporto, 2002
Os fantasmas inquilinos, Cotovia, Lisbon, 2005
Sonótono, Cotovia, Lisbon, 2007
Nenhures, Cotovia, Lisbon, 2008
Links in Portuguese
Poems by Daniel Jonas
Daniel Jonas reading his poetry on YouTube