The following interview originally appeared in the Portuguese American Journal.
One of today’s most admired Portuguese-language poets, Rosa Alice Branco, with ten collections of poetry published around the world, has recently been introduced to readers in the United States. Branco’s first bilingual collection, Cattle of the Lord in English and Portuguese, was translated by renowned translator Alexis Levitin (whose works include Clarice Lispector’s Soulstorm and Eugénio de Andrade’s Forbidden Words).
Originally from Aveiro, she now lives in Porto, where she is a Professor of the Theory of Perception at the city’s College of Arts and Design. An organizer of the annual poetry festival in her hometown, she also has been featured at international poetry festivals all over the world and received the prestigious Espiral Maior Poetry Prize for Best Collection in Brazil, Portugal, Angola, and Galicia (15,000 Euros).
Literary critic Nicky Beer proclaims Branco to be a “poet of immense spiritual, as well as intellectual, curiosity.” A recent reviewer compliments Cattle of the Lord, for its stunning themes, such as “Love. Sex. Death. Meat. Traffic. Pets,” and because Branco “offers a stunning poetic vision at once sacred and profane, a rich evocation of daily life troubled by uneasy sacramentality. . . Cows moo at the heavens. And chickens are lessons on the resurrection.”
Other full-length collections by Branco include The World Does Not End in the Cold of Your Bones (she tells herself) and Live Concert (published in Portugal, Spain, Tunisia, Switzerland, France, Luxembourg, Brazil, Venezuela, and Francophone Canada).
Q and A
Millicent Borges Accardi: How does living in Porto influence your work? How do you bring Portuguese culture into your poetry?
Rosa Alice Branco: When I think that I’m only talking about my feelings, I am at the same time saying something about Porto. When I think I’m describing any city, I am also saying something about Porto.
Like all the other cities, the mood of Porto is never the same: it depends mainly on the sun and the rain. If the sun is absent, the grey granite dyes the city with sadness. Each day I wear the color of Porto. When there is sun, Porto awakens so tender and full of joy! In those days the light of Porto is a warm yellow glow that penetrates my body together with its smell. I was born and still live close to the sea. I know no different. At present, I’m living at the mouth of the river, near the decks open all year around the sea.
My life is made of rocks, sand, and sea. My words are made by the waves that bathe the old city. Deliberately or not, my poems allow me to hear the soundscape of Porto, the walk of those who pass the street, their intimate yearnings. All poems are born from mother earth, and they become vagabonds, forgotten of the roots in order to better fly. Even in their flight, the roots are, somewhere, written in invisible ink.
MBA: Every writer has something that is special to them, that only they can do. What do you think makes your work unique?
RAB: Writing is the way that the body inscribes itself on the page, or the computer screen. My body is tattooed with the stories I’ve lived, read and wanted to experience, as in a Ray Bradbury story. Who else could have these words imprinted on the arm, head, or kidney? Having had my trajectories and my drifts, everything that was lived, learned, forgotten, or even repressed, shows up at the front door of the poem.
Sometimes [things] that do not exist in the “corpus” of my own tongue appear to me and I accept them, when they have a meaning so pregnant as a living metaphor, newly born. And I feel myself being born with this new word. What I write is necessarily unique, because it is born of an inner need, as Kandinsky would say.
MBA: You teach classes in the psychology of perception. How does the theory of perception influence your poetry?
RAB: Researching and teaching perception is a way to inhabit the world.
It’s to allow the world to come inside by all our senses, to feel our balance, and the motion of every single part of our body, the pressure to pick objects, the body temperature of people close to us, the flavor of life, the vibration that reaches our ears, the way things and other living beings look at us and the empathy which we open ourselves to one another, the way the brain orchestrates all that symphony of feelings. So much more, so unbounded!
Perception influences me in more than a thousand ways that catches me off guard in my unconsciousness, or in a very purposely ludicrous manner. This last case, I have immensely enjoyed writing a poem entitled “Masterpiece” in which I have used the technical language of perception for the narration of the sensual staging. The masterpiece is the caress, because one of the most difficult problems for the brain is how to move our muscular mass. So, the caress – the sliding along the body in a way we can fell but not get hurt – is a true miracle.
The deliberated use between the game of the extreme characteristics of language – from the scope of technical to the passionate – originates a constant surprise in the reader, the same surprise I was feeling when I was writing this poem.
MBA: The term “spatial empathy” describes the awareness of an individual to the proximity, activities and comfort of people surrounding them. It is related to the notion of “personal space,” the concept that an individual has ownership of their immediate surroundings. Many of your poems take place under a close focus. How do you address this “empathy” across cultural lines?
RAB: This is a particularly interesting question, since lately I’ve been writing on empathy; inclusively, I’ve dedicated a whole chapter to the subject in a book of essays, soon to be released. Even more interesting is the idea of “spatial empathy,” since one of the theorists of empathy – Alain Berthoz, demonstrates that practical empathy always has a spatial quality, more precisely a movement towards the other.
So, empathy is defined as the ability of placing ourselves in place of the other, or as we say, of inhabiting another’s skin. This empathy is based on the ability of recognizing that the other is just like us, equally able to have feelings such as pain, suffering and joy. However, even if the other is our equal, in the most literal sense, empathy requires, as well, the distinction between the I and the other who is like me, a distinction which takes place in the pre-frontal and in the parietal cortex, presupposing the adoption of the other’s point of view, by assimilating his experiences.
Many other cerebral areas are activated with empathy, like those related to the emotional system, till we can speak of empathy as a symphony where all these variables are orchestrated. I would add that empathy doesn’t reside only in the ability of mentally simulating another’s actions, or of feeling his emotions. At the root of “spatial empathy” is still the ability of changing one’s point of view, but yet maintaining one’s feeling of the self, or one’s ego-reception.
Now it’s easy to see that if there was a concept which would approach the essence of my book, Cattle of the Lord, that would be, exactly, “empathy.” That’s why your question made me very happy. The poetic narrative starts with those that suffer at the hands of the mightiest, feels for them, gives them voice. So, it asks questions, shows its astonishment, calls for responsibility of the Lord for his creatures.
MBA: Do you write in English and Portuguese? Or primarily in Portuguese?
RAB: In me, poetry writes itself, always in Portuguese. It is true that I can’t write it in English, since it is an idiom I’m not proficient enough. But my answer would be completely irrelevant for the truth. I write my conference papers directly in French, as well as some fictional prose, but I had translators for my three books published in the French language. So, I could ask myself: if I know how to write in a particular language, why do I only write poems in Portuguese?
For me, writing poetry requires a particular self-intimacy that allows me to travel from the words to the collective breath of the world. In the poem, the meaning has sound. But the visceral sound which will overflow into the poem springs from us and extends itself along the words we hear, say and write, from the emotion of each intonation, from the fabric of the joyful and anguished cry. A poem is our language adrift which encounters the indivisible home of sound and meaning.
And here opens the answer to your next question:
MBA: To you, what is the importance or definition of Mother Tongue?
RAB: That’s what our language is, a way of being, a vertical stance in the world, here where we plunge into the interior of the house. In the writing storm the house is all ceiling, it whispers in the mother’s voice that calms us, takes us into her arms, protects us with solid walls. But it’s always a house with a view, with the windows and doorways open to transparency to refresh the breath and allow the written sounds to stroll around till they are syntonized to the resonances of my body, to its flexible and fluid metrics.
I once wrote about my language and called it “the most primitive heart of the brain”: each auricle and ventricle make me feel at home when I write and speak my language and the valves open a passage to the novelty of other languages, the straits dilate themselves towards languages with a familiar sonority, or a sweet strangeness. And, as in all voyages, I savour the return home.
The mother tongue is imminently cardiacal with its waves inscribing themselves in the graphics weaving our life. It is in her that we live and build our identity, the sounds that tinge us with meaning.
MBA: In your new book Cattle of the Lord, your poems feature images of meat whether cattle, human or sacramental, and an under-tone of meat used as a sacrifice, both animal and human. What unifying thought brings these images together? What is the connection?
RAB: The connection is in the amazing uselessness of suffering and the hypocrisy of salvation.
The epigraph on this book Cattle of the Lord is a quote from Alexandre Kojève: “L’homme est la maladie mortelle de l’animal.” [Man is the deadly sickness of the animal.]
Also, religious practices and some of the great sacred texts make of god the deadly sickness of man. It’s not death that is in question but the constituent illness and the expiatory suffering the guilt, that obscene and unproductive invention that leaves no room for the emergence of responsibility. The book professes an active nihilism, in accordance with the ideas of Nietzsche. These poems give voice to the dead, the suffering inflicted in the name of god, the animals that are victims of a cruelty that increases each day in its refinement. Instead of scorn and slander, it is a book of compassion and scorn for us all.
MBA: It is said that per capita there are more Catholics living in Portugal than any other country: religion seems to infuse your words. As a writer, how do you get beyond a Biblical interpretation to the poetic interpretation?
RAB: My writing has nothing to do with the religious customs of the Portuguese, though your question makes much sense. Religion is present in my book, but as criticism of a religion that removes the soul from animals and so is able to make them suffer without guilt or compassion. And it sows suffering with the base of maximum guilt(less) that god died to save us.
I’ve written before that I could have believed in a god that had laughed or danced to save us. But not in one that was tortured and killed. As I said before, here I give voice to those who suffer at the hands of the strongest. In that sense, it is a political book, a book wherein compassion for all of us can only be dressed up in irony. Religion is satirized in its practices and some beliefs, to better demonstrate its uterine contradictions. It’s a book of love for everything that breathes or exists in any state: mineral, plant or animal.
Regarding the relationship between biblical and poetical interpretations, you are very shrewd in thinking that there is in this book a type of hermeneutics that is in its essence, a pathway. I did write a book of poems entitled Monadologia Breve (A Brief Monadology) that attempts to translate to poetry the wondrous book by Leibniz: Monadology. That was the background for my book, so the words were born naturally, in my monadological way of being written.
The same thing happened with Cattle of the Lord. In one way, my poems unveil my humor, the irony with which I face the absurdities of life. In another, before I begin the book I always have a horizon of questions. Then, I embark…
MBA: Hay, grass, water, stone, stars, pigs: reading this book is like rolling down a grass-covered hill – the images juxtaposed between senses of smell and touch and prayer. How do you compose your poems? For example, in a trance or from dreams?
RAB: I can’t imagine what I dream and what ideas may be transmitted through a dream. But I can say that Cattle of the Lord lines up with my way of being in the world. Firstly, I see the rocks, the trees, the animals as beings. Secondly, everything coexists in us, there’s a synergy between the senses, we are the crossroads on a web of feelings, instincts, intuitions, reasons, beliefs and emotions. These crossroads aren’t always peaceful and it’s from this fabric of contradictions that we give birth to a marvelous accomplice complexity. The same brilliant Leibniz said: “in the universe all conspire.” And Pedro Almodôvar in his film Habla con Ella (Talk to Her) “repeats” in the end: speak with everyone and everything. He’s teaching us to dialogue permanently with everything that exists. That’s why this book is like a choral tragedy with a Dionysian slant.
MBA: Your work is powerful, close up. It takes its strength from your magnifying glass, showing a scene. How do you decide which elements of the narrative to bring to light?
RAB: Close up? Scene? Fine! You have understood everything even before my answer.
I decide nothing. It’s true that there is narrative in my poems, but it’s a cinematographic narrative, which I only discovered much later after I began to write. My dad was a filmmaker and a writer, among other things, and I grew up amidst books and films: cinema theaters, film festivals, and in my parent’s home cinema. In my poems, one can see the shots, the zooms, the panoramas, the close-ups, but I don’t even choose that. I’m only a flux of drawing words, out of time and space.
My decision happens earlier. It goes to the theme of the book and the epigraph that underlines and makes up the theme’s synopsis. As for the rest, I am literally written. As Lacan would say: ça écrit. After the writing, I reenter the scene to work the poem, and I also adore this part when the poem resists on one side, and I on the other. It’s a happy game of words and this film must not have any shaky or futile shots. Each word has to make you feel its need on being present in the poem.
The most essential element I bring to light when I’m working on the poem is the rhythm which must be in rigorous accord with the rhythm of my body. This is one of the reasons why Alexis Levitin is such a good translator. He has a precise notion of the poetic rhythm of each poet and of my rhythm, of course, when he’s translating me. He enters the rhythm of the poems, which leaves me euphoric. Each language gives a rhythm to my poems that creates a diapason with the poem in the original language. But this miracle only occurs with excellent translations.
The narrative is me “on the road” of the writing. In passing, it gives a glimpse of the doubts which nurture me, my beliefs, the things that make me lose sleep: all of this under the cover of a dark humor which is my way of being and perhaps my survival kit.
MBA: Is there a message or a hope that your readers in America might learn from your book?
RAB: Yes, without a doubt. If you look at Cattle of the Lord with a filigree eye, you’ll see that it’s, above all, a book of love. Perhaps this component is clearer in my other books, but for example the poem “Carícia divina/Divine Caress” which is like a prayer, ends with “e dai-nos um ao outro cada dia/And give us to each other daily.”
Humor is the most benign form of loving, even when it appears to be acting in reverse. That reminds me of a precious comment by Nietzsche: “The hero is happy, this is what has been missed by most authors of tragedies.”
By taking the form as “savage” criticism, Cattle of the Lord ends up soliciting an amoral ethics, where, as Francisco Varela would say, “solidarity once again becomes enchantment.” Thus, the solidary love-humor always ends up discharging in hope.
MBA: What is it about Portuguese culture that feeds your creativity?
RAB: The sea!
Interviewer: Millicent Borges Accardi is the author of three books, most recent, Only More So (Salmon Poetry). She is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), Fulbright, CantoMundo, California Arts Council, Fundação Luso-Americana (FLAD), and Barbara Deming. She organizes Kale Soup for the Soul: Portuguese-American writers reading work about family, food and culture. Follow her @TopangaHippie (on Twitter).
Translator: Elisabeth Figueiredo Kastin is Portuguese-American, born in Vila do Porto, Azores. She is a former Acquisitions Technician at Southern Oregon University Hannon Library. Previously Kastin worked at Casa da Saudade Library, in New Bedford, MA. In 1990, her poems were included in Vozes Submersas, an anthology of immigrant poets writing in Portuguese, published in New England. She currently assists her husband, writer Darrell Kastin in researching and editing his books, some of which are set in the Azores.