Deixo que venha
se aproxime ao de leve
pé ante pé até ao meu ouvido
Enquanto no peito o coração
e se apressa no sangue enfebrecido
Primeiro a floresta e em seguida
mais bruma do que neve no tecido
Do poema que cresce e o papel absorve
verso a verso primeiro
em cada desabrigo
Toca então a torpeza e agacha-se
um lobo faminto e recolhido
Ele trepa de manso e logo tão voraz
que da luz é a noz
e depois o ruído
Toma ágil o caminho
e em seguida o atalho
corre em alcateia ou fugindo sozinho
Na calada da noite desloca-se e traz
consigo o luar
com vestido de arminho
Sinto-o quando chega no arrepio
da pele, na vertigem selada
do pulso recolhido
À medida que escrevo
e o entorno no sonho
o dispo sem pressa e o deito comigo
I let him come.
He sneaks on tiptoe
right up to my ear;
under its ribs my heart
as the excitement mounts:
first the forest appears,
then the woodland-sequel,
more mist than snow to the touch –
from the new poem’s
very first line the paper sucks up
and an ugliness steals in,
a cunning hungry thing
crouching there incognito,
pretending to be tame and yet so wolfish
that he’s the kernel of light
and then the noise of its cracking;
he’s lithe on the path,
doubling back on himself,
running with the pack, loping alone;
pussy-footing through the night
he trails moonlight behind him
like a mink coat.
I feel him when the hairs on my skin
lift, and in the delicious dizziness
of my private pulse –
in the midst of my writing, in my dream-life,
I slip all his clothes slowly off
and slide him down beside me
The translation by Lesley Saunders of Poema, by the Portuguese writer and activist Maria Teresa Horta, recently took first prize in the Open category of the Stephen Spender prize for poetry in translation. (Horta’s Portuguese language original is reproduced at the foot of this column and all the prize’s winning entries can be seen here.)
Readers of a certain age may remember Horta from an admired, and sometimes maligned, radical feminist text of the early 1970s, New Portuguese Letters (Novas Cartas Portuguesas). With Maria Velho da Costa and Maria Isabel Barreno, Maria Teresa Horta formed the trio of writer friends who came to be dubbed “the Three Marias”. Their collaborative volume, known in English as The Three Marias: New Portuguese Letters, was a multi-genre response to a 17th-century collection of letters allegedly written by a young nun, Mariana Alcoforado, to her absconding “chevalier” lover. Horta had already received adverse criticism for her poetry, and the New Letters were no sooner published than banned by the Portuguese government. A prosecution ensued, and the women faced jail sentences until, with the 1974 “carnation revolution”, all charges were dropped.
Alcoforado had recovered her psychological independence through writing. The 20th-century authors, with their collage of poems, fiction, letters and erotica, each work dated but unsigned, set out to assert their female authenticity through solidarity. Lesley Saunders traces the source of her interest in Portuguese poetry to her first acquaintance with the New Letters, noting that it renewed her sense of “what literature could accomplish, formally, as well as psychologically and politically”. Saunders was delighted to finally meet Horta in Lisbon in 2015.
Her translation of Horta’s new poem, Poema, combines narrative clarity and an erotically charged, fairytale atmosphere. Saunders writes that she tried to reproduce the “abbreviated, even dislocated, diction that disguises itself as something direct and uncomplicated”. By introducing punctuation into the English version, she underlines Horta’s control of phrasing and tempo, and adds to the musical interest of our melody-resistant language.
The lineation has an excited tension in the first two stanzas. The wolf’s presence is registered at once, but he quickly becomes elusive. It’s in the third that the mystery fully registers: “first the forest appears, / then the woodland-sequel, / more mist than snow to the touch –”. The word “sequel” contributes to the idea of the poem as storytelling, while the soft, crisp, tactile evocation of mist-damp forest and woodland suggests body hair in different thicknesses and distribution. With the next stanza we go deeper into metaphor land. The new poem has arrived, stealthy and “incognito”, and instantly “the paper / sucks up every waif-word”. It’s an unfamiliar, maternal kind of animation: few poets see the language of their emergent poem as a vulnerable orphan.
Saunders finds similarities between Horta’s Poema and Ted Hughes’s The Thought Fox: the difference is that “Hughes’s fox turns out to be the poet’s poem; Horta’s wolf emerges as the poem’s poet”. Whoever “he” is, I like the shifts in his character, and the general craftiness of his approach, “pretending to be tame, and yet so wolfish”. It’s recognised that the intimately known body – of man, woman or poem – may fall short of the ideal and even reveal a sudden “ugliness” – a quality that, in the original poem, is a moral grossness, depravity (torpeza). To receive the muse, the artist may have to overcome revulsion. But perhaps what is most special about this wolf-muse is that he resists banal transformation. Saunders uses a wonderful, almost punning, feline metaphor, “pussy-footing”, in the eighth stanza, and darkens the trailed cape of moonlight, which is compared to ermine in the original, mink in the translation. This being is sometimes magical but he is always an animal.
The narrative rises to a sensuous and role-reversing climax when the speaker undresses the newly passive creature: “I slip all his clothes slowly off / and slide him down beside me”. At first seductive, finally seduced, the poem-wolf lies down with the poet-lamb. Saunders’s translation reveals Horta’s mature voice to have an easy, fearless, unapologetic authority. Poema seems an important culmination and assertion of her status as an artist and radical thinker.
Horta has continued to add to her output of poetry and novels and her work has gained some recognition. But the groundbreaking early achievement is often underestimated, or marginalised by what Saunders describes as “a general wish to forget all of that”. It’s to be hoped that this prize will help more of Horta’s poems and fiction, and those of the other Marias, to become visible to a new, international generation of readers.The Guardian