Herberto Helder is a writer with two novels and 19 books of poetry to his name. He is to Portugal what Heaney was to Ireland, but — unlike Heaney — he is as omnipresent as hearing a noise around the corner, taking a look, and seeing no one there — nothing but an empty street — and that is what makes Helder striking, too. He is the Pynchon of Portugal. The Salinger of Setúbal. He is there and gone. They may know him in Brazil, sure, but we should know more about him, too, especially if we want to badger Horace Engdahl’s shrug of 2009 when he called the U.S. “too insular and ignorant to challenge Europe as the center of the literary world” off the goddamn rat-fink textual map. So we’ll begin with one poem — a poem about a poem (“Sobre Un Poema”) — and we’ll start here, with the narrator saying —
Um poema cresce inseguramente
na confusão da carne,
sobe ainda sem palavras, só ferocidade e gosto,
talvez como sangue
ou sombra de sangue pelos canais do ser.
Fora existe o mundo. Fora, a esplêndida violência
ou os bagos de uva de onde nascem
as raízes minúsculas do sol.
Fora, os corpos genuínos e inalteráveis
do nosso amor,
os rios, a grande paz exterior das coisas,
as folhas dormindo o silêncio,
as sementes à beira do vento,
– a hora teatral da posse.
E o poema cresce tomando tudo em seu regaço.
E já nenhum poder destrói o poema.
invade as órbitas, a face amorfa das paredes,
a miséria dos minutos,
a força sustida das coisas,
a redonda e livre harmonia do mundo.
– Em baixo o instrumento perplexo ignora
a espinha do mistério.
– E o poema faz-se contra o tempo e a carne.
— which becomes a tale of how —
A poem grows without security
out of a confusion of flesh,
no words, just ferocity and taste,
perhaps like blood,
or … a shade of blood passing through
channels of being.
The world exists out there. Out there: the splendid violence,
where the grapes are born,
the roots pequeñio in the sun.
Out there, the bodies are genuine, unalterable,
of our love,
the rivers, a grand peace exuding out of all things,
the leaves, who sleep in silence,
seeds surfing the breaking crests of the wind —
the theatrical hour of possession,
and how the poem grows,
taking everything in her lap.
And since there is no power to destroy the poem —
a thing that invades orbits and becomes the amorphous face in the wall,
an outright misery of minutes,
the force sustaining all things,
the grandiloquent and free harmony of the world.
And below, the instrument perplexedly ignores
the spine of mystery.
And the poem is up against time and flesh.
The boy-are-you-telling-me! thing worth emphasizing here is that I’m not a translator. I’m a writer, and it shows: I took “beira” — as in, the border — and substituted it with the idea of beira-mar and the (fairly literal) idea of a breaking wave and got lost in research about fluid dynamics before a friend set to travel to India in January sent me a text reminding me where we’d be going for lunch tomorrow and I snapped out of my elsewhere.
Then there is the idea of polyhedral chemical compounds drifting along, these ‘pequeñio roots,’ or perhaps they’re timid dendrites drifting along beneath a storm of lightning, or perhaps the idea of ‘reading into’ the visual notion of stems that hold the grapes isn’t much of a thing at all. I remember reacting with horror years ago when fellow classmates decided it was deeply important to try and figure out whether or not the walls in “In The Waiting Room” were painted green or blue — and don’t get me started on the kid who once asked if Falstaff was supposed to symbolize the American Dream and what I started saying as a result — so that kind of guide post is worth keeping in mind.
There is an old LP of Helder reading his poetry floating around the ether of the internet, and I can’t help but wonder if anyone has ever opened it up on their phone and walked by Helder seated in a cafe without their knowing, and whether or not when Helder hears his own voice, he imagines his poetry walking into a photo booth, putting change into the machine, raising the receiver, and making a call.