António Gedeão and Jorge de Sena – Myth, Tradition, and the Poetics of Diaspora

Em nova abordagem do diálogo entre António Gedeão e Jorge de Sena, o ensaísta Christopher Auretta revisita textos de ambos os poetas para rastrear facetas do mito, da tradição, da metamorfose. 

On a new approach to the dialogue between António Gedeão and Jorge de Sena, the essayist Christopher Auretta revisits texts from both poets, tracing the facets of myth, tradition, Metamorphosis.


“Minotauro, bebedor y mujeres” (detalhe), de Picasso, 1933


Points of Departure

 To tell a story is to retell the world. To retell the world is to renew the world, or at least to renew a world. To be able to renew a world in which we participate in that heightened fashion that we define as storytelling is to overthrow every discourse once considered to be final or irremediably written in stone. We are perhaps most human when we mediate, by way of narrative, the world that storytelling reveals to be both open-ended and conflictual, both menacingly story-barren and promisingly story-ready, both under the governance of enforced or imposed silence and before the imminence of fertile, explosive verbal magma.

Through storytelling, life begins to write itself; life begins to resemble that master plot of humanity we commonly call consciousness. As storytellers embedded in a history, then, finding ourselves in various states of cultural and linguistic diaspora, historical displacement, and political exile, we are acknowledged and/or unacknowledged storytellers embedded in a complex textuality of multiple histories. It is the poet and the creator of narrative who is particularly called to conceive and project meanings in and through this experience of diaspora; it is the poets and narrator who are compelled to name the world that the experience of diaspora perpetually threatens to turn opaque. It is poets such as António Gedeão (1906-1997) and Jorge de Sena (1919-1978) who compel silence to disclose the still-to-be-discerned moments of revelation.

In turn, they promote a pregnant unfolding of the given. To tell a story, then, to organize language into the representation of events conveyed by narrative discourse, means to release the world from resigned or imposed silence; storytelling reminds us that silence, our silence, which is so often infected by private loss and historical chaos is the point of departure for fresh recognition and understanding, sometime even reconciliation.

In the context of the Portuguese literary tradition, both António Gedeão and Jorge de Sena write in accord with a four-fold literary architecture that underpins their literary production. Thus, they address as poets, dramatists, and cultural historians and critics, first, questions of polity, or, as the great Portuguese modernist poet Fernando Pessoa wrote at the beginning of the twentieth century, questions that seek to promote a “remodeling of the nation subconscious” by way of a now highly speculative lyricism, now complex conceptual irony, second, the nature of eros and the themes of erotic longing, loss and self-transformation; third, the urgency of ever-renewed poetic perception, that is, the pursuit of language stretched to the breaking point of meaning; and, finally, fourth, the exploration of myth and its modern-day transfiguration of collective memory and biographical contingency within the now specifically nation, now more broadly European cultural context.


Partial Homelands

The work of these two poets encompasses the condition of exile, whether it entails the actual experience of geographical displacement and its ensuing cultural discontinuity, as seen in the poetry of Jorge de Sena, or, alternatively, the awareness of the decay of a particular historical consciousness whose ideological underpinnings are in their final stage of dogmatic fixity and historical obsolescence. This dynamic emerges in the poetry of António Gedeão with respect to eighteenth-century Enlightenment ideals, which had until recently articulated an almost unquestioned meta-historical program for the European imagination. We will first address elements of Gedeão’s contribution to the understanding of diaspora, considered here metaphorically as the experience of crises within a particular intellectual traditional and cultural paradigm, namely, the Enlightenment tradition as it is undermined and subverted by twentieth-century historical circumstance and subsequent critical reappraisal. Is should be noted that Gedeão both identifies with and ironically subverts the Enlightenment as a powerful intellectual paradigm. In fact he understands it as a specific cognitive territory, experiential framework, interpretative domain, conceptual crucible, and presents time in terms of a specific historical consciousness. The diasporic experience for Gedeão, therefore, is more temporal than spatial, more conceptual than geographical; he witnesses and partakes in the poetic and critical conceptualization of an emerging post-Enlightenment consciousness. The poet writes on the outskirts, then, of a centuries-long intellectual tradition, at the moment when conceptual discontinuity occurs and imposes a dysphoria of impermanence, a sense of lost futurity, the discursive upheaval of alienated hope. In poems such as “Homem” [Man, or better, Mankind] or “Calçada de Carriche” [Carriche Street][1] and in his dramatic work R. T. X. 78/24 (1963), Gedeão writes as one exiled from the temporal axis of tomorrow. The image of history present in his poetry and aforementioned dramatic work strains toward a redemptive present horizon that present historical consciousness itself almost completely denies. For Gedeão, such a horizon cannot exist owing to the nature of modern reason itself: instrumentalized, reifying, in service not to the emancipation of the human subject but rather to its evermore implacable enslavement. A poem, such as the aforementioned “Calçada de Carriche”, reveals in the pentasyllabic structure and repletion of verses referring to “Luísa”, the hapless, poverty-stricken, psychically bruised and abused subject of the poem, who is oppressed by the quasi-maniacal implacability of modem life operating under the reign of (perverted) Enlightenment reason. Rational order and “Luísa’s” hopeless fate converge here at the behest of a social order of barely masked servitude: Enlightenment ideals have here become a rationale for salaried enslavement, the very opposite of Kant’s philosophical vision of humanity’s emancipatory progress. In the aftermath of the twentieth century’s highly destructive (mis)reading and (some would aver) misconception of Enlightenment reason, history dissolves under the pressure of slowed temporal impetus, and growth of consciousness must be expressed nor by the light of a shared (and ultimately unfounded) optimism concerning Enlightenment’s cultural ideal of humanity’s perfective universalism but rather by virtue of the eternal return of celestial orbits and cosmic cycles, as seen in the poem “Poema de andar à roda” (Poem of Going Round in Circles), which closes the anthology Obra Poética (Poetic Works) organized by the poet himself in 1996. This cosmology, however, lies forever, and, telling, outside the reach of human intervention. Gedeão thereby destabilizes the Promethean wilfulness of modernity: Humanity achieves a state of poetic self-consciousness as a result of a profound reappraisal of the meaning of history. Such a poetic reappraisal reminds us that time (and the sense of temporal diaspora) is inscribed within a language, language itself is conditioned by eschatological concerns, and finally, the eschatological dimension of human endeavor underpins and propels a philosophy of history. Storytelling in such a conditional of late modernity, occurring on the outskirts of a powerful intellectual and cultural traditional, persists albeit under significant conceptual malaise and interpretative stress.

Walter Benjamin had previously written about the breakdown of the traditional nature of experience, which led to the death of storytelling following the First World War. Twentieth-century warfare had destroyed the communicative link between soldier and the wider human community, between the soldier and his ability to gather traumatic experience into mature narrative truth, between the tradition of storytelling itself and the emergence of new media of social cohesion:


Familiar though his name may be to us, the storyteller in his living immediacy is by no means a present force… [T]he art of storytelling is coming to an end. Was it not noticeable at the end of the war that men returned from the battlefield grown silent – not richer, but poorer in communicable experience?… For never has experience been contradicted more thoroughly than strategic experience by tactical warfare, economic experience by inflation, bodily experience by mechanical warfare, moral experience by those in power. (83-84)


Thus, storytelling henceforth requires the creation of new strategies, innovative perspectives, and novel narrative frameworks. Gedeão’s invention and recurrent use of the recurrent metaphor of the posthumous, wich appear in the title of this two final collections, possesses in this context an almost archetypal significance: the metaphor of the posthumous element in human culture, i. e., modernity’s increasing reflexivity, which questions and transforms tradition, the erosion of meta-narratives, and the reappraisal of fundamental concepts underlying modernity itself. Thus, while the posthumous represents death in its organic dimension as the irrevocable verdict that nature imposes on flesh and consciousness, on the one hand, in its discursive representation as text, the posthumous represents death as ever-unfinished business on the other. Instead of representing an absolute moment of closure, it marks an opening which is infinitely inscribable. The posthumous is neither stasis nor immobility: As metaphor, it is essentially an act of discourse whose meaning is more anticipatory than valedictory, a drama of becoming rather than the reference to a “once upon a time,” an affirmation of continuity rather than the acceptance of an unsurpassable limit. The posthumous in Gedeão’s poetry represents what cannot be reduced to the horizon of the knowable. Furthermore, the poet challenges the identification of truth with a specific historical consciousness. By fashioning a counter-pressure vis-à-vis the idea of certainty, or irrefutability, in rational discourse, the poet undermines the existence of an unbroken narration of truth.

Gedeão’s poetry defers the sense of cognitive completion. Language in his poetry represents aspects of the boundary conditions of signification: It undermines the common understanding of discourse as being capable of furnishing, or being endowed with, complete meanings. In their place, Gedeão’s poetry conveys the urgent need to create fresh acts of signification. Ironically, the metaphor of the posthumous neither imposes an ending nor does it endorse semantic immobility. The metaphor of the posthumous represents a strategy of continuity within a radical historical experience of discontinuity. It opens up fresh discursive territory by encouraging the potential for symbolic states of grace occurring at the crossroads of historical critique and poetic innovation: poetic territory mediates the experience of cultural dissonance. In the poetry of António Gedeão, every ending necessarily precedes the experience of cognitive fullness. History renews itself in the partial homeland of the text.


R.T.X. 78124 and the Condition of I nternal Exile

 Gedeão’s world, then, is one emerging from post-Enlightenment thought and in the wake of twentieth-century history. Late modernity denies (he literal reading

of those foundational truths dear to so many of the philosophes and encyclopaedists as evident, for example, in the Marquis of Condorcet’s belief in the unidirectional, progressive, and perfective advance of humanity. Nonetheless, Kant’s call for spiritual and intellectual autonomy, his critique of the hitherto generalized state of

heteronomy or personal subjection to external authority afflicting the greater part of humankind “dare to know,” continue to illuminate the way out of this inferior state and illuminate a way toward humanity’s ultimate self-fulfilment. Its supreme vocation is, then, the orientation of rationality towards ever more thoughtful and ever more cosmopolitan values. Kant’s critique expresses an enduring hunger and metaphysical reach. Indeed, it is from within this intricate universe of thought that António Gedeão and Rómulo de Carvalho together – the poet and the historian of science, which are one and the same person – deeply engage us, their readers, owing to the erudition of the latter’s historical studies and the complex lens of irony present in the poetry of the former.

Forty years into the Portuguese Estado Novo (New State), an authoritarian regime, with an established network of covert and explicit censorship, as well as a European colonizing power in the early stage of an ultimately regime-toppling, series of military confrontations in its African and Indian colonies, Rómulo de Carvalho, historian of science, teacher of the physical and chemical sciences, published the dramatic work R.T.X. 78/24[2] Appearing in print in 1963, it is signed by the autor literary pseudonym Amónio Gedeão. Since its publication, this work has unjustly fallen from the Portuguese literary canon’s radar screen despite the fact that his poetry continues to attract critical attention. A literary work, however, possess its own inner clock, its own life-cycle within a particular literary tradition. It also possess a quality that supersedes individual and collective amnesia: largely unread today, rarely performed on stage, menaced by critical silence, a literary work, and in particular the dramatic work in question here, possess nonetheless a capacity for re-engagement with the real, a capacity to symbolically re-appropriate contemporary language and bestow on it hitherto unsuspected conceptual and expressive power.

R.T.X. 78/24’s protagonist, António is a young man who seeks precisely what his world, a dose portrait of Portuguese society in the 1960s, refuses, i.e., the ability to posit questions beyond the accepted script of ready-made answers, to feel dissatisfaction vis-à-vis the historical cul-de-sac in which Portugal then found itself to imagine a language of eros that transcends the egotistical and the self-serving, the formulaic and the superficial; to speak beyond the constraints of an all-encompassing discursive huis clos in which much of the language enacted in the play is portrayed. For the majority of personages in this dramatic work, words are born helmeted and armed.

António, the protagonist, has a father, Sr. Castanheira, who defends the status quo, who is the master of tautological arguments that always prove his infallible points of view, thus entitling him to bully all, those born (and therefore predestined) to live and die under the weight of a highly hierarchical social order. This order is further predicated upon exploitation and punishment for all those who express discontent with, paraphrasing Foucault, the omnipresent gaze of the Norm. Language with the father, then, here exemplifies the suffocation of discourse, imposed enclosure and, of course, a vacuum of critical thinking. The number of positions available on the political, social, and linguistic game board in António’s world is both limited and predetermined: the personal search out of the social labyrinth is therefore forbidden, epistemological innovation is inconceivable, and open-ended modernity, in Karl Poppers’ sense of the open society, is thwarted by compulsory consensus and dogmatic habits of thought. Thus, modernity can be fuelled by way of scientific and technological advancement. Bereft, however, of epistemological openness, the transition from a traditional, organic framework of society to more modern forms of social arrangement may in fact become a new form of dogmatic closedness. Furthermore, this closedness can masquerade as a self-proclaimed utopia, i.e., a perfect world of final forms and, ultimately, symbolic impasse. Gedeão portrays in effect such a mutated form of social and political growth in Portugal’s own engagement with Enlightenment thought.

Later in the play, António visits two elderly, sainted aunts: Serafina and Angélica. They spend their days in blessed spinsterhood while splitting scholastic hairs with respect to the number of female-gendered saints to whom they may pray without transgressing the divine order. They hide machine guns in the living-room, ever ready to safeguard the past from, he onslaught of the present, lest the present displace the enthroned and mystified past of a moribund colonial empire. António arrives seeking maternal solace from them. However, this twin-headed Cerberus, standing at the gates of Hell, better defined here as dogmatic changelessness, combating all un-regimented thought, refusing history in its innovative unpredictability, condemn António inability to assimilate the political litany of one-dimensional thinking.

António has yet to confront the technology of power called discipline, as understood by Michel Foucault in his seminal work Discipline and Punish. As Foucault writes:


In addition to the major technological advances which comprise the history of science and technology since the seventeenth-century, the philosopher focuses upon the exercise or discipline…  a mechanism that coerces by means of observation; an apparatus in which the techniques that make it possible to see induce effects of power and in which, conversely, the means of coercion make those on whom they are applied clearly visible. Slowly, in the course of the classical age, we see the construction of those ‘observatories’ of human multiplicity for which the history of the sciences has so little good to say. Side by side with the major technology of the telescope, the lens, and the light beam, which were an integral part of the new physics and cosmology, there were the minor techniques of multiple and intersecting observations, of eyes that must see without being seen; using techniques of subjection and methods of exploitation, an obscure art of light and the visible was secretly preparing a new knowledge of man. (189)


Though he has yet to experience the full efficacy of this visibility beneath the omnipresent gaze, the grid of power relations and criss-crossing connections that determine the social field and the fate of the individual, António’s nonconformity with respect to the ever vigilant Norm, his erotic longings beyond the permitted code of coupling, which functions at the behest of a self-perpetuating war machinery, is nonetheless, and already in the opening scene of the play, the thematic core of this drama.

His non-observance of the disciplinary procedures of surveillance and control that have led his compatriots to a state of quiescent, albeit war-ready, normalization has doomed him from the start to his final condition as R.T.X 78/24, in fact the designation given to all citizens who imagine outside dogmatic embed-dedness. In the penultimate scene of the play, the author creates the most Kafkaesque text in Portuguese letters: Standing “before the law,” so to speak, to borrow from Kafka’s fable of nightmarish positivity crushing the human person, António is told to wait for the Director of the National Agency responsible for the classification of citizen in accord with his or her individual “genica” (fitness, vigor). The guard orders him to wait. Thus, António waits, importunes the guard, waits again, and gradually comes to recognize the direness of this unenviable condition as one who will ultimately be classified as non-individual. António, we recall, is driven by a search for epistemological open-endedness, a search therefore occurring outside this disciplinary mode of being. António later beseeches the guard in a crescendo of anguish, and, when the Director finally arrives while conversing with one of his henchmen, António approaches him and begs to be heard. He will never be heard, however, and António will finally dissolve into the nether world of the irrevocably excluded: the penitentiary cell is foreseeable. Indeed, social death has already occurred. As is Kafka’s world, in the very architecture of Gregor Samsa’s family home, as described in The Metamorphosis, there are many doors and entry ways into this fictional world bur very few exits. The truth is, António exists in a radically interdictory world: there are no liberating rites of passage, no ritual propitiations available to the individual in his or her opacity. There remains only the recurrent pattern: the pure, crushing letter of the law without space or grace, the absolute literalness of the body as implacably annotated functionality)

Finally, at the end of the work in question, António awakes, after a presumptive paranoid break at the end of the previous scene, as well as after a worldwide atomic conflagration. He is accompanied by Georgina, the new Eve in this post-cataclysmic Eden. Here traditional myth and the technology of disciplinary power, which, as Foucault has shown, emerged in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries of Enlightenment Europe, converge in a novel vision. What Eden is this? Like the scriptural Eden, the couple seems to mark a beginning, the beginning of mythic timelessness, placed within the perfect enclosure of Paradise. Even so, no such infallibility of the soul or of polity – within the heart or within the bod – could ever exist there, we sense, and therein lies the persuasive power and imaginative reach of this new Eden.

In the final pages of the play, António, now known, or re-baptized, as R.T.X. 78/24, seeks, along with Georgina, new paths of being opening outward toward greater life albeit from within the scheme of physical and chemical pattern, paths that might restore the aura of an historical and conceptual grace within the letter of irrefutable cosmic law. At last it is no longer a question of intractable power of oppressive transparency. António seeks a renewed humanity capable of imagining, and in keeping with the aforementioned four-fold verbal architecture, the commonality of incommensurable difference where each self attains full singularity in dialogue with the singularity of others.

We are, as George Soros has written, living in the Age of Fallibility, if only we were sufficiently attentive to see it. Unlike the scriptural Eden, then, the couple will not fall out of Paradise into History; the will not live as exiles outside the broken perimeters of Paradise, but rather, at least potentially, they will rise into a new History. More precisely, in a sense closer to Karl Popper’s thought, the will rise into an open history, a world where words are not born helmeted and armed, where questions ripen on the trees of knowledge rather than forbidden fruit, where the flow of discourse replaces the machinery of disciplinary power, a world that is neither flat nor round, neither cyclical nor uni-linear, but is rather a field of choices matured both in and through dialogue.

António Gedeáo, the poet of late modernity, not yet that “liquid modernity” Zygmunt Bauman speaks about with respect to the condition of postmodernity, works from within the Enlightenment tradition of thought.  Nonetheless, he himself is not embedded within its more orthodox doctrine: the impact of reflexivity on a changing world pre-empts the illusion of permanence and endless, guaranteed advancement.


Jorge de Sena and the Metamorphic Powers of Discourse

 For the former, such discontinuities (both geographical and cultural) and their concomitant threat to the communicability and continuity of cultural memory gives rise to a complex act of symbolic mediation: Sena’s experience of (politically motivated) exile in Brazil (1959-1965), and subsequent “peregrinatio” to the United States (1965-1978) for political, professional, and family reasons informs his poetic meditations on the experience of personal diaspora. The potentially incommensurable and untranslatable elements pertaining to the diasporic experience that threaten to silence the exile become in his poetry the verbal magma of transformed identity; the poet develops complex rhetorical and symbolic strategies that facilitate his appropriating cultural discontinuity under an all-encompassing visionary and speculative imaginative arc.

Two excerpts from the poem, “Em Creta, com o minotauro” (In Crete, with the Minotaur) from the volume Peregrinatio ad loca infecta:

Nascido em Portugal, de pais portugueses,
e pai de brasileiros no Brasil.
serei talvez norte-americano quando lá estiver.
Coleccionarei nacionalidades como camisas se despem,
se usam e se deitam fora, com todo o respeito
necessário à roupa que se veste e que prestou serviço.
Eu sou eu mesmo a minha pátria. A pátria
de que escrevo é a língua em que por acaso de gerações
nasci. E a do que faço e de que vivo é esta
raiva que tenho de pouca humanidade neste mundo
quando não acredito em outro, e só outro quereria que
este mesmo fosse. Mas, se um dia me esquecer de tudo,
espero envelhecer
tomando café em Creta
com o Minotauro,
sob o olhar de deuses sem vergonha.

Em Creta, com o Minotauro
sem versos e sem vida
sem pátrias e sem espírito,
sem nada, nem ninguém,
que não o dedo sujo,
hei-de tomar em paz o meu café [3]

(Sena, Poesia III, 76-77).


 Of Monstrous Births and the Location of Identity

 Sena proclaims his exile in the Minotaur’s Minoan homeland. The Minotaur, mythical hybrid of human and bull, bastard child of the god Zeus and the human Pasiphai, the progeny, therefore, of transgressive desire (the mythological embodiment of monstrous creaturehood) becomes Sena’s silent twin and accomplice. Sena tells their story, as they sir together in a Cretan café, the café ostensibly representing the quiescent center barely masking the poem’s li underlying fury. Why this twinning of destinies of Minotaur and Poet? Why does Sena tell this story if not to found a symbolic order more radical than the historical and political circumstances of exile that both define and foment Jorge de Sena’s epic journey first from Portugal to Brazil, then from Brazil to the United States, and there, from Madison, Wisconsin, finally to Santa Barbara, California? Could it be that Jorge de Sena, by way of this usage of a deeper narrative time, i.e., the time of myth (that hybrid language of imagination and geography, empirical experience and rational implausibility, historical context and symbolic density) comes to appropriate and name his exile, and by so doing, creates a personal and poetic identity deeper than the caprices of birth and national origin? By choosing exile, by provisionally eschewing the sovereignty of the autobiographical self, Sena’s self-chosen exile in fact negates the primacy of autobiographical attributes. These are now considered by the poet as limiting and ultimately false. Language, and birth are, as the poet affirms in the poem, the result of “chance.” Consequently, the autobiographic sources, of identity, subject as they are, to the vicissitudes of external judgment are repudiated as being, paradoxically, a form of exile. Furthermore, the poet locates a more essential, albeit utterly dispossessed, identity outside the contingencies of birth, nationality, and language. Crete (insular, mythic, and yet geographically peripheral) becomes the chosen site of exile by the poet. By choosing this site, the poet, in the company of the Minotaur, transcends the experience of exile as fragmented or alienated consciousness; instead, Crete becomes the territory of self-chosen, self-named, and self-claimed rebirth. On Crete, poet and Minotaur can finally celebrate the catharsis of the liberated self.

Thus, together with the unjustly judged and much-maligned Minotaur, condemned as he was to endure as prisoner in Daedalus’s famous labyrinth, the poet redeems the historical circumstance of personal exile and ongoing experience of censorship into a deeper genealogy of time and space. The poem in question represents a complex strategy of narrative appropriation of experience: it represents the textual space where the invisibility and the inaudibility imposed upon all those who experience exile, diaspora, and silence are effectively overcome. To narrate, then, is to reinvent the rules of our residence on earth: Sena’s own poetic micro-narrative of diaspora in this poem, now internalized and henceforth informed as well as transformed by the depth of his cultural and philosophical references, demonstrates that we are always both the object and subject of diaspora; we are situated both at the extreme edge of displacement and the center of the continually conquered terrain of fresh cultural-poetic vision. The diasporic experience permits the poet to be both prisoner of a memory formed and subsequently wrested from its origins. He becomes the author of his own imaginary family tree. At the etymological center of the word diaspora – the Greek term, we recall, for dispersion – a diaspora of meanings also takes place. To tell a story is to retell the world, but it also rewrites the rules of storytelling itself.

Thus, the experience of incommunicability – of which the reference to the abandoned universal language of “volapuque” [Volapuk] is the ironic symbol – expresses the plight of those who live in exile, i.e., all those who experience cultural, linguistic, and historical displacement. Even so, for the poet, at the level of symbolic strategy and narrative appropriation of the real, such irony and such self-proclaimed exile become the very source of Sena’s poetic potency. Sena is the poet who transforms the finality of exile into the infinitely metamorphic powers of language. Sena moves at the same time from a national to a mythic master plot; the mythical amplification of exile, which permits the Portuguese poet to include his newly-discovered monstrous twin, also permits a change of perspective. The poetic act unleashed by the poem “Em Creta, com o Minotauro” transforms his Cretan exile – the very exile of exiles – into visionary poetic territory. Fresh poetic meaning redeems diaspora into a homecoming. Diaspora no longer denies but rather affirms and confirms the identity-renewing experience of poetic selfhood, now in service to a deeper order of memory and being.

Exile consequently becomes deeply resonant with fundamental narratives of Western civilization. Privately experienced exile becomes the essential framework for the expression of essential aspects of the human condition. Sena’s voice metamorphoses historical fatality into poetic renewal; exile metamorphoses into a both self-chosen and self-fashioned experience. If, on the one hand, the Minotaur – the illegitimate of Zeus and Pasiphai – reveals a muteness, sitting silently as he does beside the now exiled, now nomadic Poet a muteness that represents the poet, on the other hand, discovers, invents, and reveals the authentically legitimate idioms of being. All diaspora ends therefore in poetry; exile is a verse away from home. Indeed, these legitimate idioms of existence arrest – at least momentarily, by way of their narrative power, insofar as narrative dwells close to the very rhetoric of the real – the very machinery of exclusion. They deafen the din of ideological distortion and expose to criticism the polished, poisonous language of censorship ever flourishing under the guise of law and order. Storytelling, told from within, and revelatory of, the experience of diaspora, reinvents the rules of seeing in Sena’s poetry. The rules of seeing, once poetically transformed, permit in turn – in a way reminiscent of Paul Ricoeur’s profound study of metaphor – the reinvention of the rules of being. In poetry, if monster and poet sit and drink coffee, then also exile and homecoming can occur in a single act of self-renewal.

What, then, is the result of the great reserves of storytelling in Sena’s “Crete”? His exile, now self-chosen, and self-forged, lets the poet have the “last word.” Moreover, by getting the “last word,” the poet gets all the words, i.e., all the metamorphic power of words, the same metamorphic power that transforms exile into fresh territories of understanding, seeing and being. National history becomes the locale, the locality, the “loca infecta” and also the moment of deeper temporal and spatial web of meaning. Sena uses myth to elevate history into the universality of human experience, the master plot of death (whether discursive, erotic, historical, or political) and its subsequent transformation into self-forged, Promethean-like regeneration. What do we perceive, or rather, receive at this moment of reading the poem? What can we as readers reasonably extrapolate? Poetry for Sena is the master plot of being. Narrative is me master plot of all imaginary homelands which the experience of diaspora does not ultimately destroy but rather invents.


“Amátia” and the Meta-Language of Eros


Timbórica, morfia, ó persefessa,
meláina, andrófona, repitimbídia,
ó basilissa, ó scótia, masturlídia,
amata cíprea, calipígea, tressa


de jardinatas ingras, pasifessa,
luni-rosácea, lambidando erídia,
erínea, erítica, erótica, erânia, egída,
eurínoma, ambológera, donlessa


Áreas, Hefáistos, Adonísio, tutos
alipgmaios, atilícios, futos
da lívia damitada, organissanta,


agonimais se esforem morituros,
necrotentavos de escancárias duros,
tantisqua abradimembra a tela canta

(Sena, Poesia-II 152-53)


Of the many volumes of poetry published during his lifetime as well as posthumously in collections organized his widow. Mécia de Sena, we have chosen one the most challenging, and from this volume we have chosen one of the most enigmatic poems. We present “Amátia,” un-translated, in the belief that reader from any linguistic background and cultural framework will be able to apprehend essential aspects of eh is highly experimental poem, one of a group of four poems dedicated to the Greek goddess Aphrodite Anadiómena (the epithet Anadyomene translates “she who emerges from the sea”). This group of four poems are partly composed of words of Greek origin and usage, partly composed of innovative units of meaning of the poet’s invention, albeit rooted in the rich European soil of etymological and morphological resonance. So, are these poems in fact translatable, or, instead, do they represent aspects of the signifying powers of language occurring beyond the confines of a specific linguistic norm and semantic convention? Might these poems, of which “Amátia” is the final sonnet of the series, express the essentially experimental nature of all language, that is, the ability of language to approach the real and at the same rime transfigure it? If we accept this conjecture, we are led to the following provisional conclusion: poetry exists to remind us that language is neither unchanging nor transparent. Language, especially as language operates in poetry, grasps the world while simultaneously participating in the dynamic, dialectical character of human history: language undergoes continual metamorphosis. To write is to recall and to invent; to write is also to recollect what history has given us in term of significant cultural forms (for example, the four poems are in fact written in a sonnet structure and therefore deeply linked to a profoundly influential European literary form) and at the same time transfigure what has been given into fresh meaning and horizons of discovery. History, in fact, is never entirely given, the poet suggests; historical time does not, cannot follow a pre-determined script. The world is reinvented one verse at a time. Sena’s poetry struggles for meaning on the problematic horizon of (self-)understanding. Outside routine thought and repressive reason, the poem “Amátia” allows past and future to momentarily converge. Poetry, for Sena, is the verbal analogue of truly mediated, truly witnessed historical time and experience; it gives birth to an ecstatic experience of cognitive fullness and presence.

“Amátia,” which completes his collection entitled Metamorfoses, seguidas de quatro sonetos a Afrodite Anadiómena (Metamorphoses, Followed by Four Sonnets to Aphrodite Anadyomene), published in 1963, represents, according to the poet who received the prestigious Etna-Taormina Prize for Poetry in 1977, his attempt to create a “supra-metamorphosis”:


uma experiência…para sugerir mais amplamente do que a própria metáfora ambígua, com as suas fixações de sentido, o poderia fazer…O que eu pretendo é que as palavras deixem de significar semanticamente, para representarem um complexo de imagens suscitadas à consciência liminar pelas associações sonoras que as compõem. Eu não quero ampliar a linguagem corrente da poesia quero destruí-la como significação, retirando-lhe o carácter mítico-semântico, que é transferido para a sobreposição de imagens (no sentido psíquico e não estilístico), compondo um sentido global, em que o gesto imaginado valha­ mais que a sua mesma designação…[Crio] uma atmosfera erótica, concreta cuja concretização não depende do sentido das palavras, mas da fragmentação delas integrada num sentido mais vasto, evocativo o obsessivo. E creio, assim, é possível dizer tudo em linguagem poética…(Sena, Poesia-II 164-65).[4]


 Herbert Marcuse, the sociologist and disciple of the Frankfurt School, suggests in his work One-Dimensional Man that a different rationality could in fact be forged o outside the present mode of authoritarian, repressive reason as it is now organized and driven by contemporary technoscience. This technoscience seeks to master the universe, according to a logic of domination, both of nature and of man by man. Could there be a different rationality available to us? Could we act and reason outside such a logic without abandoning technological and scientific innovation? Marcuse believes that it is indeed possible to transform our knowledge-producing and political practice:


I have pointed out that the elements of this subversion, the notions of another rationality, were present in the history of thought from its beginning. The ancient idea of a state where Being attains fulfilment, where the tension between “is” and “ought” is resolved in the cycle of an eternal return, partakes of the metaphysics of domination. But it also pertains to the metaphysics of liberation – to the reconciliation of  Logos and Eros. This idea envisages the coming-to-rest of the repressive productivity of Reason, the end of domination in gratification. (Marcuse 170-71)


Likewise, Sena’s poem “Amátia,” seeks to reconcile eros with logos, to fuse both in a new idiom of enlivened and liberated presence. It is equally significant that the sonnet blooms into present-day Portuguese syntax and morphology in the final verse, following a dense etymological score of eroticized etymologies. The final words of the poem: “a teia canta,” are readily familiar to the Portuguese speaker for whom these words signify: “the web sings.” We are in the presence, then presence, then, of a complex web of images which, like Aphrodite herself, signifies the richness of form underlying all phenomena. We are “impregnated” by form. We are “impregnated” by the inexhaustible inventiveness of the real. History, like the world that shapes and witnesses it, is both womb and desire.


Points of Arrival

 Our species possesses no indelible autobiography: it can profess no essentialist vision. In the great communicative web, whether in electronic forms of intimacy or in face-to-face confession, we continually renegotiate the distance between word and symbol, symbol and myth, myth and abstract reason. In addition, we enliven this web by resting its weave. We are perhaps never more human than when we make that web vibrate into new configuration of insight and desire. Humanity loses itself every time it sacrifice a fundamental self-creativity to supposed final forms of discourse and thinking. Ironically, we seem to become more fragile the more vociferously we profess the potency of our unquestioned beliefs. Our destiny as a highly sentient species and our education as thoughtful individuals are compromised when sacrificed to the monolithic script of uncritical authority. Such unquestioned authority, whether in political, ideological or symbolic guise, tends to degrade into forms of authoritarian governance, i.e., the domination of the many by those who claim immunity to critical review. History has taught us again and again that all ironclad contracts binding the world to a truth are signed in blood.

Perhaps the diasporic experience is not only historically determined, but rather al the root of our ontological origins and future: we are travelers, nomads, subject to unjust silences, displaced by and within our traditions, hungry for answers yet fed by our questions, fed by a dream of homecoming yet spending long seasons in internal and/or external exile, The creator of metaphor and native knows that language is the source and substance both of exile and home.




Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Trans. Harry Zohn. London: Fantana/Collins, 1972.

Foucault, Michel. The Foucault Reader. Ed. Paul Rabinow. New York: Pantheon Books, 1984.

Gedeão, António. Poemas Escolhidos, Antologia organizada pelo autor. Lisboa: Edições João Sá da


__________. R.T. X. 78/24. Lisboa: Guimarães Editores, n. d.

Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man. London and New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 2007·

Sena, Jorge de. Poesia-II. Lisboa: Moraes Editores, 1978

___________. Poesia-III. Lisboa: Moraes Editores, 1978

Williams, Frederick, G., trans. and ed. The Poetry of Jorge de Sena. Santa Barbara, Ca.: Mudborn Press, 1980.




[1] Both poems, “Homem” and “Calçada de Carriche” are available in the anthology organized by the poet toward the end of this life. In António Gedeão, Poemas Escolhido, Lisboa: Edições João Sá da Costa, 1998, 9, 34.

[2] We use the edition published by Guimaráes Editores, Lisboa, n/d.

[3] Several English translations of the poem, “In Create, with the Minotaur,” have been published. We use that of Frederick G. William, the poet’s former student and subsequent colleague at the University of California, Santa Barbara:

Born in Portugal, of Portuguese parents,
and father of Brazilians in Brazil,
perhaps I’ll be a North-American when I’m there.
I’ll collect nationalities like doffed shirts,
used and then discarded, with all the respect
due to a garment we’ve worn that has served us well.
I myself am my own country. The country
I write of is the language in which by chance of generations
I was born. And the one I make and by which I live is this
rage I feel for the lack of humanity in this world
since I don’t believe in any other, and would that this same one
were another. But if one day I should forget everything
I’d wish to grow old.
sipping the Minotaur
under the gaze of shameless gods,

In Crete, with the Minotaur,
without verses and without life,
without countries and without spirit,
without anything or anyone,
except the dirty finger,
I’ll sip my coffee in peace. (196, 200)


[4] We offer an English translation of this passage:

…an experiment [meant to] suggest more fully than ambiguous metaphor with its fixed meanings could ever do…. What I seek to do is permit words to cease signifying semantically in order for them to represent a complex of images brought to our liminal consciousness by the sonorous associations of which they are comprised. I do not want to amplify the commonly used forms of language; I want to destroy language as signification by denying to it its mythico-semantic character, which is consequently supplanted by the overlapping of images (in the psychical – not stylist sense of the word), and which in turn create a global meaning whose imagined content is more important than any specific designation… [I create] an erotic, concrete atmosphere whose manifestation does not depend on the meanings of words but rather on their fragmentation, fragments which are later integrated into a vaster, more evocative and more obsessive meaningfulness. I believe in fact that it is possible to say everything in poetic language … (Sena, Poesia-II: 164-65).


In:  Francisco Cota Fagundes, Irene Maria F. Blayer, Teresa F. A. Alves, Teresa Cid (eds.), Narrating the Portuguese Diaspora: Piecing Things Together, New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2011, pp. 3-18. (Currents in Comparative Romance Languages and Literatures – Volume 194).