Bust of Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen from Miradouro Sophia de Mello, Lisboa.
(Photo by SEA)

Today, 25 April, marks the 45th Anniversary of Portugal’s “Carnation Revolution,” when a military coup toppled the fascist, authoritarian government, leading to a period of freedom and democracy after 48 years. 

In addition to ridding the country of the “Estado Novo” regime, the revolution of 25 April 1974, led to the end of Portuguese colonization and its attendant wars in Africa. Decolonization began shortly after the Carnation Revolution and, by the end of 1975, the former colonies of Angola, Cape Verde, São Tomé, and Mozambique gained independence.

Dubbed the Carnation Revolution because the flowers were offered to military personnel by civilians on the streets of Lisbon as a symbol of the peaceful transition of power, an action initiative by activist Celeste Caeiro. The coup itself was apparently triggered by a Portuguese song featured in the 1974 “Eurovision” song contest—the same contest that launched the Swedish band ABBA, which won that year with “Waterloo.”

Portugal’s entry, a fairly innocuous love-ballad called “E depois do adeus” (“And after the farewell”) by Paulo de Carvalho, was used to signal the rebels, who launched the coup when it was broadcast by a Lisbon radio station at 22:50 on 24 April. A second song, “Grândola Vila Morena” by Zeca Afonso, announced when the coup leaders had seized control. A 2000 film by Maria de Madeiros, Capitães de Abril, dramatizes the story.

Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen (1919-2004) is one of the most important Portuguese poets of the 20th century and, in 1999, became the first Portuguese woman to receive the Camões Prize, the most prestigious award in Portuguese literature. 

In 2014, ten years after her death—and on the 40th anniversary of the Carnation Revolution—Andresen’s remains were transferred to the Panteão Nacional, in the Church of Santa Engrácia, only the second Portuguese woman to receive this honor. (The other was fado singer Amália Rodrigues.)

“Poetry is my understanding of the universe,” Andresen once said. “My way of relating to things, my participation in reality, my encounter with voices and images.” 

Her poem, “25 de Abril,” is the most famous poem of the Carnation Revolution, simple and elegant in its observation of the morning when the country emerged from “the night and the silence” of almost fifty years of authoritarian rule.

Here is Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen’s “25 de Abril” in the original Portuguese and in my English translation:

“25 de Abril”

Esta é a madrugada que eu esperava
O dia inicial inteiro e limpo
Onde emergimos da noite e do silêncio
E livres habitamos a substância do tempo

—-

“25th of April”

This is the dawn I expected—

the first day, whole and clean,

where we emerge from the night and the silence.

And free, we inhabit the substance of time

(Translation by Scott Edward Anderson)


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InOurTranslatedWorldIN OUR TRANSLATED WORLD: Contemporary Global Tamil Poetry, edited by Chelva Kanaganayakam (TSAR Publications, Toronto, Canada)

 

 

 

 

My first encounter with Tamil poetry came in the form of a short poem by Auvaiyar, written two millennium ago:

 

Bless you, earth:

 

field,
forest,
valley,
or hill,

you are only as good

as the good young men

in each place.

This poem appeared in a book of classical Tamil poetry called Poems of Love and War from the Eight Anthologies and the Ten Long Poems of Classical Tamil, selected and translated by A.K. Ramanujan, which featured poems from around 100 BC to AD 250, and late classical poems from the 5th and 6th centuries.

The poems were divided into two distinct sections, “Akam” (pronounced “aham”) which were love poems, and “Puram,” which were about heroes and battles. Akam means heart or household, and the poems are distinguished by the landscape each poem evokes and, in turn, the particular experience of love each landscape connotes. The Tamil called this “Tinai” in their poetics.

The subtropical climate of Tamil Nadu in southern India ranges from seaside to mountains, agricultural fields to forests, and desert. Each landscape is associated with a certain mood and the poems typically feature a flower, tree or plant of the corresponding biome. For example, as Ramanujan points out in his translator’s note, “Kurinci, a mountain flower; neytal, blue lily; mullai, jasmine; maratam, queen’s flower; palai, a desert tree.”

The poems are distinguished by straight-forward emotions and plain language (at least in translation), with a simplicity rivaling Chinese and Japanese poetry.

Take Kapilar’s poem of longing, “What She Said to her friend” (p. 13):

 

You ask me to forget him,

 

How can I?

 

His mountain,

 

wearing its dark raincloud

 

white-crested

 

as a bean flower

 

the east wind opens,

 

his mountain,

 

that blue sapphire,

 

is never out of sight.

 

We know from the Tinai that each landscape corresponds to a phase or experience of love: union/mountains; separation/desert; patience waiting/forest; anxious waiting/seaside; and infidelity and resentment/lowland farms. In the poem above, the speaker is clearly longing for the union or reunion with her lover on his mountain, which she keeps in her memory.

Tamils have a strong attachment to their language, which is central to their identity. Many refer to it as Tamil̲an̲n̲ai, “the Tamil mother.” It is one of the oldest surviving classical languages in the world, and written Tamil is a beautiful Brahmic script. Thankfully, this anthology is bilingual, which allows the reader to see the poems (if not read them) in their original form.

Poets such as Mahakavi Bharathiyar and Bharathidasan — the latter a kind of Tamil Fernando Pessoa who wrote many of his poems in various pseudonyms — brought Tamil poetry into the modern era. Their work gave Tamil poets freedom from the constraints of traditional Tamil poetics and expanded the subject matter available to Tamil poets.

In Our Translated World: Contemporary Global Tamil Poetry  is a recent anthology of contemporary global Tamil poetry, published by the Tamil Literary Garden of Canada and TSAR Publications in Toronto. The work of the Tamil poets in this anthology clearly bears the mark of its modern predecessors, but also the influence of modern and contemporary poetry from Europe and Asia.

Not surprising, given the book is a selection of recent poems from Tamils around the world. Indeed, the anthology, edited by Chelva Kanaganayakam, features around 80 poems from Tamil Nadu, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Singapore, and the Tamil diaspora in England, Canada, and elsewhere.

As Chelva writes in the introduction, “for Tamils, particularly in the last three decades, the experiences have been one of displacement, trauma, nostalgia, and despair.” This is especially true of Sri Lankan Tamils, as many tried to escape ethnic conflicts on that island nation.

For some Sri Lankans, such conflict breeds a conflicting nature. For example, Chandra Bose Sudhakar, who defends his choosing a life of books,

 

Life began with some books:

 

that the words in books

 

produce no rice became

 

the problem of our lives.

 

For Sudhakar, “books swallow the howls/ of my tormented heart” and offer the Sri Lankan poet, who was killed by armed men in his house in 2007, a kind of acknowledgment he couldn’t find elsewhere.

Some poems in the collection have echoes, intentional or not, of classical Akam poems, such as this one by Majeed, which sounds to me like a desert or separation poem:

 

You live on

 

in the empty spaces

 

that cannot be filled

 

with anything else.

 

Or consider the seaside imagery of another poem by Auzhiyaal, which could be in the voice of an anxious lover trying to find solace in the littoral environment:

 

At the end of each day

 

our minute secrets

 

rise again

 

a pregnant silver fish

 

a sea weed

 

a pink sea rock.

 

The freedom afforded by contemporary poetics may bely an ignorance of Tamil classical themes and symbolism, as some of the poets freely mix landscapes, emotions, and place, such as in this poem by Rashmy,

 

Parting is always bitter;

 

everywhere, eventually brackish;

 

trembling flesh,

 

nerves starved with lust,

 

the soul’s love

 

draining, filled to the brim.

 

From our paddy fields

 

gold-hued grains

 

we will harvest

 

the day after yesterday.

 

Others call out the connection, such as Anar does in her poem “Marutham,” with its rich depiction of the farm fields and rice paddies indicative of the agricultural landscape and a hint of possible infidelity in the lines,

 

The fragrant smell of

 

ripe paddy in the fields,

 

offers a giddy sense of joy.

 

As much as the poets in this collection have deep memories of their Tamil past and poetry, the poems in this collection are, as the editor writes in his introduction, “a form of transformation, a gesture about the future. Whether the poems are ostensibly realistic or self-consciously fantastic, the poems move beyond ethnographic detail to offer an imaginative sense of the Tamil experience.”

And for poetry readers, the Tamil experience is a rich and rewarding one in the hands of the poets, translators, and editor of In Our Translated World.

 

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Image

The author’s Portuguese grandfather, Ed Perry.

My Portuguese grandfather was part of a generation of immigrants who wanted to be completely American.

On that path, he became the first Portuguese member of the Metacomet Country Club in Providence, Rhode Island, and was later two-term president of the club.

He served as secretary of the Rhode Island Golf Association, overseeing thirty years of Rhode Island Championship events.  He was chiefly responsible for the establishment of the Northeast Amateur Tournament.

He married into a family that had been in America since 1637, the Burgesses of Sandwich, MA, and made a successful career as a celebrity underwriter for New England Life Insurance Company.

In his striving to assimilate, however, much of what was Portuguese about him was kept under wraps.  He embraced America as a nation rather than hyphenation.  I favored my mother’s side; my father’s side was Scotch-Irish.  I looked more “Portagee” than most of my family. Too often this fact manifested itself in jokes not worth repeating here.

Throughout my childhood, there was little mention of the great Portuguese achievers: the explorers (Henry the Navigator, Magellan, De Gama), painters (Nuno Goncalves, Josefa de Obidos, Viera da Silva, Paula Rego), or writers (Camoes, Pessoa, Saramago).  Even if I knew of them, I never thought of them as Portuguese.

Only much later did I understand how rich my heritage was.  My grandfather seemed to take pride when, shortly before his death, I pursued him about the family history from his side of the Atlantic.  He came from the Azores, the tiny archipelago in the middle of the ocean, which is still a place of myth and magic to me.  He called me “amigo – one of us.”

In the search for my “lost” heritage, I discovered the poetry of Fernando Pessoa, Portugal’s great poet of the 20th Century.  Pessoa, like his hero Walt Whitman, “contained multitudes.”  Only in Pessoa’s case, this was quite literally true.  Pessoa took on what he called “heteronyms”: pseudonyms that were more than noms de plume.  For each persona, Pessoa created a unique personality, creative style, and body of work.

The most successful of Pessoa’s heteronyms was the shepherd-poet, Alberto Caeiro. Caeiro, like Robert Burns and John Clare before him, was a genius plucked straight from the fields.  Whereas Burns and Clare were truly of the fields, Alberto Caeiro sprung from the field of Pessoa’s imagination.  Pessoa wrote the poems of Alberto Caeiro from the top of his dresser in a Lisbon apartment.

In many ways, Caeiro in Pessoa’s invention is a pure nature poet.  Perhaps only poet Gary Snyder achieves greater reconciliation with nature in his work.  One of my favorite Pessoa-Caeiro poems is “Só a Natureza é Divina” (Only Nature is divine…) Here it is in the original Portuguese and in my translation:

Só a natureza é divina, e ela não é divina…Se falo dela como de um ente
É que para falar dela preciso usar da linguagem dos homens
Que dá personalidade às cousas,
E impõe nome às cousas.

Mas as cousas não têm nome nem personalidade:
Existem, e o céu é grande a terra larga,
E o nosso coração do tamanho de um punho fechado…

Bendito seja eu por tudo quanto sei.
Gozo tudo isso como quem sabe que há o sol.

*

Only Nature is divine, and she is not divine…

If I speak of her as of an entity

It is for to speak of her it is necessary to use the language of men,

Which gives personality to things,

And imposes names on things.

But things have neither name nor personality:

They exist, just as the sky is big and the land is wide,

And our hearts are the size of a closed fist…

I am blessed by everything as far as I know.

I enjoy everything as one who knows the sun is always there.

–Fernando Pessoa (writing as Alberto Caeiro) translated from the Portuguese by Scott Edward Anderson