Like Herberto Helder, but 35 years later, José Tolentino Mendonça was born in Madeira. The very first poem of his first published book is titled ‘The Childhood of Herberto Helder’, and the homage suggests that the senior poet has managed, in his verses, to conserve a child’s direct understanding. The poem is also a homage to their common homeland, with its first verse affirming: “In the beginning was the island”. The island is Madeira, but it is also Herberto Helder, and José Tolentino Mendonça, and I who write and you who read. Contrary to the old dictum, every man and every woman is an island.
Poetry, for Mendonça, is a vehicle for leaving the island of himself — or it would be, if it were possible to leave. His poetry continually reaches out to the Other, who will always remain ineluctably other, even if they can share certain things: a language, for instance, and the experience of being islands and of attempting to transcend that condition and also to accept it. Love is described, in a poem such as ‘Friends’, as a sheer delight in associating with others without regard to time, in a fleeting state of grace, but the beloved others are “always adolescents / afraid and alone”. No matter how close they are to us or we to them, they will always remain “those strangers”.
Some of Mendonça’s poetry reminds me of passages from the works of the Jewish philosophers Martin Buber and Emmanuel Levinas, both of whom (with all their significant differences) insisted on the inalienable otherness of the You — not as an opposite term that dualistically gives the I its identity, but as the possibility of love, as the recognition of mystery, of something beyond the insularity and solipsism of an individual human consciousness. For them as for Mendonça, who is a Roman Catholic priest, ethics (which means respect and responsibility for the Other) is the foundation of knowledge. And for the I-You encounter not to collapse into a new form of egoism — with the You appropriated into the I, becoming its mere alter ego — there must be an eternal or divine You. (May students of philosophy forgive my simplifications here!)
“What separates one form from another / has always escaped me,” admits Mendonça (in ‘A Strand of Hair’), who does not draw clear lines between his solitary condition and his celebration of love and his awareness of God. The three motifs are interwoven in his poetry. Love is not a cure for solitude but is its expression and counterpart. And God is perhaps more a search than a certainty, doubt being a kind of raw material of faith. And since knowledge is founded on ethics, which is love, which is a real encounter with the other, or the Other, the poet opts for the plain directness of common speech (see ‘The Purest Presence’).
One of Mendonça’s admirers, the late and great poet Eugénio de Andrade, wrote: “This is a poetry that prefers poverty to luxury, simplicity to complication, a poetry that I feel is close to me and my aesthetic (if I really have one). I remember two lines of Montale: ‘We who are poor also have certain riches: the scent of lemons’.” Andrade’s poetry is rife with smells and sensuousness, and these enter some of Mendonça’s poems (‘Freesias’, for instance), but his aesthetic, it seems to me, is starker, more ascetic — a story of lostness and redemptive encounters on a vast and empty (is it empty?) stage.
Mendonça’s seven titles of poetry were recently issued in a collected edition. He has also published a play, various translations and two books on theological subjects. He is a professor of Biblical Studies at the Catholic University in Lisbon.
Poetry in Portuguese
Os Dias Contados, Ed. SREC, Funchal, 1990.
Longe Não Sabia, Ed. Presença, Lisbon, 1997.
A Que Distância Deixaste o Coração, Assírio & Alvim, Lisbon, 1998.
Baldios, Assírio & Alvim, Lisbon, 1999.
De Igual para Igual, Assírio & Alvim, Lisbon, 2001.
A Estrada Branca, Assírio & Alvim, Lisbon, 2005.
Tábuas de Pedra (with art work by Ilda David’), Assírio & Alvim, Lisbon, 2005.
A Noite Abre Meus Olhos, Assírio & Alvim, Lisbon, 2006.
Poetry in Italian
La notte apre i miei occhi, tr. Manuele Masini, Ed. ETS, Pisa, 2006.
Perdoar Helena, Assírio & Alvim, Lisbon, 2005.
As Estratégias do Desejo – Uma Reflexão Bíblica sobre a Sexualidade, Ed. Cotovia, Lisbon, 1995 (2nd, enlarged ed. 2003).
A Construção de Jesus. Uma Leitura Narrativa de Lc 7,36-50, Assírio & Alvim, Lisbon, 2004.
Um Buraco na Sombra
Biographical note & poemas