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Poets, whether by design or accident, capture and preserve a moment in time with every poem. This is particularly true of poets whose work has a particular historical resonance—Anne Sexton exploring women’s experiences on the cusp of second-wave feminism, for instance, or Anna Akhmatova writing about Soviet oppression. António Botto likewise preserves in his lyrics the essence of queer life in early 20th century Portugal.
Botto, born in 1897, made some appearance of living the normal, heterosexual life; he would marry a woman and serve nearly two decades in government service. And yet, he is said to have never denied being gay to his friends and acquaintances, and he certainly did not do so in his poetry, which appeared in print during his lifetime. The translations in Blackmore’s edition, done by fellow Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, were also completed and published (in a limited run) during Botto’s lifetime. Despite the controversy that surrounded his work—alternately praised as the work of an aesthete and reviled as degenerate—Botto’s spark went out with his death in 1959.
Both the book jacket and editor’s introduction hail the rediscovery of this work, describing Botto’s level of importance to modernist gay and lesbian poetry as equaling that of C.P. Cavafy. Certainly, he spoke for his place and time. More telling is the manner in which he captures certain sentiments universal to the queer experience. He laments, “Now I have become the man//Everyone wants me to be…I have left my love forever./I have done what the world wants” (72), and “There is a sign in my life/Which at each step makes me know/The distance that separates/What I say from what I do” (132). Forsaking, pretending, and passing are all too familiar to many in the LGBT community, sadly.
The book’s appeal to LGBT and language scholars is evident, but its broader appeal to readers of poetry is debatable. Botto writes in a manner specific to his time and place—one that just isn’t terribly fresh or engaging by contemporary standards. The poems in “Boy,” “Curiosity,” and “Small Sculptures” rely on a cache of slightly clichéd motifs: wine, kisses, clasping, shadows. They are, overall, short on imagery and big on “telling.” It is hard to fault either the poet or the translator, however, as for the intended readership, these turns of phrase challenged poetic and social norms.
There’s also the age-old dilemma of translating poetry: how can something that relies on language not simply for sense but for meaning, nuance, and implication be lifted from one language and set down neatly into another? Critics and scholars suggest that poetry is essentially untranslatable, and that the poem in its new language will be a wonderful, but significantly different piece. More often than not, translators have to choose between allegiance to meaning or to structure—not that one is completely neglected in favor of the other, but that one will be compromised more to make the other work. Pessoa explains up front that though of course he aimed to preserve both, he gave more weight to keeping Botto’s stanza structure. To that end, he bridges the gap of form and meaning with relatively uninspired end rhymes, such as again/when, keep/weep, shows/those (33, 90).
An occasional striking moment can be found: “Sordid hands tearing out music/From the strings of a guitar” (13), “There comes the moon/Like clean linen for a wound” (58), and “Your mouth/Has the scent of carnations/When the night is coming in” (95). For the most part, though, Botto writes in truths broken into lines: “Really, there are such things/In the useless life we keep/That it is best to accept them/This way,/Silently, indifferently,/Just as if we were asleep” (22).
The five-poem sequence “Olympiads” is easily the strongest writing in the collection. Using the conceit of Olympic athletes in ancient Greece allows Botto to speak about male bodies, his favorite subject, without editorializing on life and love. The drama of the competition enacts a richer struggle of ecstatic, fleeting success and inevitable failure than any of the preceding poems. Also of interest is a mysterious trio of persona poems written as birds living around a Scottish lake.
As with any collection of translations, considerable supplemental material bookends the poetry: a note on the text, the editor’s introduction, and the translator’s foreword prior to the work, and translator’s notes following it. The introduction may put off some readers with its length and the depth of close readings that would be better placed at the end of the text, after the reader has had the chance to make discoveries about the poems. It does, however, provide historical background critical to reader appreciation of Botto’s work.
The final line of the collection elegizes both Botto and the condition of the LGBT populace at the time, confined to enjoy what pleasure they could grasp amid the struggle for legitimacy: “Let us remain for a few moments in song!”
THE SONGS OF ANTONIO BOTTO
By António Botto
Translated by Fernando Pessoa
Edited by Josiah Blackmore
University of Minnesota Press
Paperback, 9780816671014, 232pp