Born in a small town in central Portugal, Ruy Belo received a law degree at the University of Lisbon, in 1956, and a PhD in Canonical Law at the St. Thomas Aquinas University in Rome, in 1958. A devout Roman Catholic as a young man, he was a member of Opus Dei for ten years, quitting the organization in 1961. In that same year he published his first collection of poems and began studying Romance Languages and Literature at the University of Lisbon. He finished the course in 1967 and worked in Madrid as a Lecturer in Portuguese from 1971 to 1977. Ruy Belo also wrote literary criticism and translated: Montesquieu, Saint-Exupéry, Cendrars, Lorca and Borges. He died at his home in Queluz, outside Lisbon.
Although some of his statements and subsequent poems suggest he became an agnostic, Ruy Belo’s first book (from which Anniversary Mass is taken) reflects the Catholicism of his early adulthood. It earned him the title of ‘religious poet’, a designation he tried to shake off with only partial success, so that it lingers on a bit even today. Perhaps it’s just as well. Far from being literary expressions of a doctrinaire creed, those initial poems already revealed a man for whom faith in God was a complex position accompanied by metaphysical reflection and self-examination. Although the faith disappeared, the reflection and examination persisted. So did the melancholy, quasi-religious tone of the poems, as if the poet were still searching for the Adamically lost paradise – now doubly lost, since he had lost his faith.
Ruy Belo treats with a certain reverence the themes he takes up, and those themes are universal, or he makes them so: impermanence, childhood, ocean, woman, death. They are all inextricably tied together, ocean and woman embodying the infinite embrace sought by the poet who mourns the lost omnipotence of his infant imagination (see And Everything was Possible) and the lostness of all his rapidly passing life, which will ultimately embrace, or be embraced, by death. The awareness of death – not merely as an inevitable conclusion but as a gradual existential expropriation (“in everything we die a little,” he writes in the last verse of Flower of Solitude) – runs throughout Belo’s poetry, which attempts to confer transcendence and immortality on at least some of that life which is draining away. I don’t mean immortality by way of posthumous fame but by the Proustian method of objectifying a life’s critical, intimately richest moments so as to rescue them from oblivion.
In a poem published in 1970 Ruy Belo revealed that “Pessoa is the living poet who interests me most”, and certain of Belo’s verses recall those of Fernando Pessoa’s liveliest heteronym, Álvaro de Campos. The thematic influence is not especially great, but Belo clearly learned his run-on, breathless rhythmic style from the poems of Campos – a style dubbed ‘paragraphic rhythm’ by Pessoa, who in turn received lessons in prosody from Walt Whitman.
As for the excruciating awareness, in Pessoa as well as in Belo, of death’s real presence in life, this was surely a matter of affinity rather than of influence, and the two poets responded to it in different ways. “When I write,” wrote Ruy Belo in a preface to one of his books, “I give to the earth, which for me is everything, a little of what belongs to the earth. In that sense, writing for me is to die a little, to anticipate a definitive return to the earth. I write the way I live, the way I love, destroying myself. I commit suicide in words.” This recalls, curiously, a passage from The Book of Disquiet published for the first time in 1982, four years after Belo’s death (Text 193 in the Portuguese Assírio & Alvim edition). After stating “I am, in large measure, the selfsame prose I write”, Pessoa’s alter ego elaborates further on in the passage: “Whatever I think is promptly put into words, mixed with images that undo it, cast into rhythms that are something else altogether. From so much self-revising, I’ve destroyed myself.” For Pessoa, who abhorred death, that slow suicide in words was connected to “the gradual collapse of my life”. Ruy Belo, in contrast, wistfully but peacefully accepted that he was restoring to the earth what rightfully belonged to it. It was as if he did after all have some sort of faith or assurance that Pessoa was lacking. As if, after having seen as much as one can see of the universe and his own small place in it, he had arrived at the conviction that it was all good.
Aquele Grande Rio Eufrates, 1961.
O Problema da Habitação, 1962.
Boca Bilingue, 1966.
Homem de Palavra[s], 1970.
Transporte no Tempo, 1973.
A Margem da Alegria, 1974.
Toda a Terra, 1976.
Despeço-me da Terra da Alegria, 1977.
Une façon de dire adieu. Tr. José Terra, Bordeaux, 1995.
Verde vittima del vento. Tr. Giulia Lanciani and Ettore Finazzi-Agro, Rome, 1986.
País Posible. Tr. Ángel Campos Pámpano, 1992.
Na Senda da Poesia, 1969.
Bio- and bibliographical notes, images, poem excerpts.
A critical appreciation.