True Poems and Available Reality

During this torrid summer I’ve found refuge in the poetry of Geoffrey Hill, a writer who celebrates an elusive reality of mythical dimensions. The ‘marked / visible absences’ at the centre of Tenebrae share common ground with Samuel Beckett’s failed attempts to express the inexpressible and Maria Gabriela Llansol’s deliberate move away from narrativity into metaphor and figure.

Hill’s meticulous use of language renders stark the impoverishment of the vocabulary of much contemporary writing, contaminated by the sound-bites of social media and journalism. To strive against this impoverishment and in search of a particular clarity Hill is indebted to the OED, the ‘rock out of which my present discourse is hewn, the quarry of my distinctions and definitions’.

Language reveals itself though Hill’s voice. This restorative character, distinct from quotidian discourse, is what draws me to writers like Beckett, Llansol and Friederike Mayröcker. It is where, to paraphrase Wallace Stevens, I find an hour of inexpressible bliss.

I’m a mere dilettante reader of poetry with a desire to apprehend better, sceptical that a non-poet can write about a poem penetratingly. I would however like to feel less inadequate. The following request yielded some good suggestions and may provide new ways to engage with and appreciate poetry’s unique powers.

A Text that is a River: An Interview with Maria Gabriela Llansol

This interview first aired on Radiodifusão Portuguesa (RDP 1), on February 18, 1997, and was later published in Entrevistas (Editora Autêntica, 2011). The interviewer was Graça Vasconcelos. It has been edited and condensed and appears here courtesy of Espaço Llansol. The translation is by Audrey Young, who also translated Llansol’s Geography of Rebels trilogy. I thank Audrey, João Barrento, and Will Evans for permitting me to post the first appearance in English of this interview.

Although the pretext for our conversation is your most recent book, Inquérito às Quatro Confidências: Diary III, we are going to speak about your writing, your way of being in the world, of living writing.

[In your introduction,] you said I wrote books of fiction. I don’t see them that way. Because they are really books based on a reality that is lived, that is an intimate observation of my journey as a body, as a person. So even though they usually call it fiction, I think this writing isn’t fiction. It is the product of an experience that deepens, a textual conveyance of the worlds I traverse.

There are, perhaps, in what I write, different questions that are posed, and which it’s only natural to also pose to oneself. I would call it an autobiographical writing as if it were a writing that was explaining the visible phenomena of a person’s life. So she was born here [in Portugal], she went to Belgium, she came back, she writes, she translates a few poets. But it actually isn’t about any of that. It’s about the parallel and mirror creation of certain realities that express my inner mutations of energy.

For example, The Book of Communities was born in Belgium, and it was a book that I began to write after I had been there for some time, and in which I began to undertake a kind of depuration of my life in Portugal because this was back in ’65 and it wasn’t easy to be a feminine being in Portugal—and for me, the idea of existing goes far beyond what I can say about the feminine. And so, once I arrived in Belgium, I began to feel that there was a community of living beings who could exchange affection among themselves, who could exchange peace, knowledge, intelligence among themselves. And when I began to feel this extremely deeply, The Book of Communities was born. The Book of Communities begins precisely like this: “in that place, there was a woman who did not want to have children from her womb.” In fact, that decision was made because I had chosen to write. And for me, me with my text, having carnal children seemed incompatible. But I began to write that book in which certain characters appeared. For example: “characters,” which later evolved, is also not the right word for figures. I consider them something else. So that woman who didn’t want to have children from her womb appeared, precisely because there were different compelling realities for the being, and they were multiple, and they had touched that being, who was myself, and I was
giving them a certain response.

That’s why I say these texts aren’t fiction, insofar as they correspond to inner earthquakes, to extremely strong shocks of energy, in which I feel that this Earth where we are can be used another way, the relationships between people, plants, animals, can be another way. That’s why I don’t call them fiction, but rather a drive to deepen the sources of the joy of living.

You say at one point in this book that writing is a play of words. But it isn’t only that, obviously.

I think we need to contextualize. A play of words. . . I have an extremely high regard for the word “play,” and in Belgium, with a group of people, we had a school for children where play was the activity that determined knowledge. I consider play the activity that determines knowledge because it is through that pleasure—which is, at the same time, a calculated pleasure because it is movable, because it is mutable, because places change—that knowledge can find a foundation. I think as it’s written there, it is effectively play. And the search for words is not in the sense of searching for one word there, another over there, another there. No. It’s more in the sense of. . . I felt as though I set off on a quest, and the quest led me to a territory where reality was depicted in words. So it was in a text that this reality was depicted, and it was depicted in a tongue and in a language. The language was actually Portuguese because I remember very well, when I arrived in Belgium, there was something I feared and feared immensely: it was losing my old language. And my old language was the Portuguese language… Actually, ever since I was a child since I was three or four years old, I have felt that I’m surrounded by it. . .

But weren’t you still writing, weren’t you still reading and speaking? You didn’t lose it.

No. I’ll explain. It may seem that way, but the fact is that I was plunged into another country, into another culture, and I was continuously listening to another tonality.

Another language, of course.

And so, as that was happening, it was as if the globe representing the Portuguese language suddenly replenished itself from within and became something else. I felt that it was among other languages that this Portuguese language became capable of expressing other realities. Because my thinking was becoming capable of expressing other realities, it was the coexistence. . . I was a very solitary child and even a very solitary woman in Portugal. In Belgium, that became a bit different because there was a network of conviviality. Then, there were authors I began reading, and those authors gradually came into my text…

Authors of what nationality?

They were authors… It might be Camões-Comuns, it might be Fernando Pessoa, it might be Nietzsche, it might be Eckhart, it might be Spinoza, it might be Hadewijch, who was a beguine, and I, admiring those women, who had had a life of service—service of text and poetry—but at the same time service to the ill, I began to create and to think there could be an open group of women, who might be called beguines, precisely because they had a different experience of femininity and the human, of humanity and the libido, and of sex. Because it has often been said that my books have a strong erotic current. I think what runs through them is a libidinal current.

Your writing is a fragmented narrative; at times, it is a kind of collage of texts. Is it always like that, or only in the diaries?

For reality to be profound, it has to be fragmented. It is impossible to bear the intensity continuously, so there are continuous breaks in the intensity. I think the novel is the narrativity of something, but what the subject of that story is can change. I deeply want it to change because the stories being told are stories that do not fulfil, as I once said, the happy ending I desire for human beings and for the Earth, with all it contains. And so I think it will be necessary to give this narrativity another story, other events, for there to be an irruption of different realities.

You yourself say in this book, at a certain point: “I thought feeling.” I would like you to explain this idea a little more.

I don’t differentiate. To be real and to really say how I apprehend—I apprehend being there. I believe that I feel, I see, I think, everything is simultaneous.

But you think a lot about what you feel.

I don’t think a lot about what I feel; I feel thinking. It is simultaneous. I am looking at you, and I am already thinking.

With regard to the author Vergílio Ferreira, who is one of your privileged interlocutors in this diary… At one point, you say that, with him, you are often almost certain that you use thinking against what you feel.

Exactly. It’s because there can often be a dichotomy. There are those who rationalise without receiving all the sensations that are truly the next stage of thinking. Because thinking is done with the body. This is my experience. I cannot only think because I do not consider that thinking; I consider it more rationalising, reaching conclusions or making inferences, etc. Thinking is trying not to leave behind any detail, any experience, any awareness of the body itself. Because the body is a reality that we bring with us, and perhaps that’s what often appears in my writing and gives it a distinctive character because I myself say, in a certain place, that I am a bodywriting.

I think it’s bitter to exist in a world where there are certain cataclysms because we live in a current, and we cannot detach ourselves from anything that exists. We feel the ebb and flow of the entire existing reality, and it is precisely for this reason that I think this body writing is extremely vibrant, powerful, and at the same time, extremely fragile.

You ask, at a certain point in your book, once again in dialogue with Vergílio Ferreira: “Why were we born with Fernando Pessoa in this country?” What leads you to ask that question?

Because I think that Fernando Pessoa also, despite the heteronyms, demanded a unification of his own body, and there was a kind of wonder towards writing, not in the sense of remoteness or gazing at something remote, but it was as if the body had anchored in that reality. And I think that countries, so long as countries exist, have a long road ahead of them, and the road ahead of them is precisely to take possession of that body, to take seriously that body and what is given to it and put within our reach. So I think in Fernando Pessoa, there was a quality that seems fundamental to me, which was sincerity. Through his writing, or rather, so that he could actually express what he felt and offer it, and give it, because anyone who writes is making an offering, and an offering that is to be received; and at the same time, the readers who receive it also become those who write. I believe Fernando Pessoa had that quality in spades, as I believe Vergílio Ferreira had it. That’s the reason why I felt, and feel, so good among them.

Now, the animals… I am reminded of my dogs, for example, the horse … And even a gecko . . .

And even a gecko!


The much-beloved gecko!

And nature, of course, trees, plants, a lime tree that has been chopped down, they are always very present in this book and probably in all your books. In other words, is this universe, this nature, fundamental for you?

I think we wouldn’t be able to remove the existence of these beings because they give us— from life and thought—forms that are extremely their own. But I don’t speak about them in the sense of them being useful to us because I don’t think there are hierarchies like that between me and animals.

You talk about them as beings who are very, very close to us.

Yes, utterly close to us, who have and share life with us. An assault on their lives is an assault on our life. And these beings are extremely diverse. Having already had the experience of animals that lived with me and which I felt evolved through being within a certain vibratory circle because I believe that the beings respond to this—we give a stimulus, and the beings give the response… I think that even within these animals and this nature, there is an exchange of existence and that we, cut off from them, are cut off, I wouldn’t say from the libidinal moonlight, but from the earthly moonlight.

This book gives a paramount important to the text, to writing, correct?

Yes, yes. It’s true.

This in a time when, ultimately, the text seems to be less and less important…

But it isn’t the same text. Because not all text presented on a page is text.

What is this text, then?

This text is the place where this new, incandescent world is perceived and recorded. For example, in my books, there are very few brutal events, very few of those extremely difficult tragedies that are trivialised through their repetition and bring so much suffering to human beings. It isn’t because they don’t exist. I know they exist, but the text I want to weave, that I feel the compulsion to weave, is a world, an Edenic Space, in which that violence, that aggression, that animosity have no place. That’s why this text is very important because it’s the place where I am able to do that, which for me is precious because it’s a different existence, an existence where there is an irruption of other values, other feelings, other attitudes and, more than anything, another kind of knowledge and gaze—because, deep down, I think I am guided by the gaze. For me, speech begins in the intensity of the gaze.

Is writing vital for you?

Beyond a doubt. It is what I know how to do and what I think I know how to do best and what I think I can leave as a testimony and a purpose. It is a purpose I have received from others, from other thinkers, other writers, other people who have intervened in my life, and so I try to sew the fabric so that this stitching is unbroken.

Do you think this is the role of the writer to make this testimony?

Oh, I couldn’t say. . . I prefer not to say, writer. “Writer” is a very dubious word.

Why? What is a writer, ultimately, for you?

Well. “Writer” is a word that can span immense realities because there are immense written realities, and there are immense kinds of people and human beings who are foundations for writing. So I would prefer not to be a “writer” but rather someone who places her experience in text so that it remains on this Earth and can be connected to the experience of others.

And is there a word that gives us that idea?

Let me see, let me think. . .

It isn’t easy.

. . .someone who writes. A writing being.

You prefer writing being to writer?

Yes, I think so.

A writing being, then. You won the Critics Prize for the first time in 1990. What do you think about criticism in Portugal today? Does you give any importance to what critics might say about you?

You’re asking me a question about something I have no relationship to. I feel happy when someone reads what I write, understands it and passes it on, and circulates it. But really, thinking broadly about criticism isn’t something I’m very concerned with. Perhaps because I’m so focused on writing, and that makes me go so far to my own place that I really think very little about it. I do, however, think that the more we all, broadly, move toward knowledge and toward that world permeable to creation, where the creation of each and every one of us is a reason for joy, the closer we will all be as readers, and that more than anything is what I think we should be.

Do you feel okay in this type of society, in the world in which we live, almost at the end of this century?

I can’t say yes, and I can’t say no. I should say that to write this way, I am trying to vibrate in the direction of a new world, and looking around me, I know I should want my energy to remain intact for me to perceive this new world, even though I am on the edge of a world that is extremely painful, and that I would very much like to be able to transform. And I think I make my contribution with the text because this reality is truly extremely burdensome and it’s a reality we can only leave through movement outside it.

You translate, so you do translations and read other writers, of course.

Yes, of course.

Could it be that in these translations and readings of other writers, there is some kind of intrusion? Do they intrude in any way on your writing?

Oh, yes! They intrude.

How do they intrude?

When I translate—Rilke or Verlaine, and now I’m translating Rimbaud, O Rapaz Raro, which will be published soon—I come closer to them, and they astonish me. They astonish me because they have a world that is distinctly their own, and they usually appear to me as figures, as someone who, having lost a bit of that very human pesanteur, acquires the shape of its textuality and is like a vibrant lamp. And so when I read certain authors whom I consider my companions or my kin, I am clothed in their energy. I am on my path, they are on theirs, but there is an exchange of potency that exists among creators, which is real, beautiful, and penetrates into the most human world. Because I think ethics and beauty are very close.

What authors do you consider your companions and kin?

I consider many who are still to come, I consider the Poor. . . the Poor is my companion because he has already existed as a figure in one of my books, and truly the poor, the destitute, those living in poverty, they are my companions. I think great authors are beings who have laid themselves bare in order to surrender to the reality they practice. I speak of Spinoza, I speak of Nietzsche, I speak of Hölderlin, I speak of Rilke, I speak of Fernando Pessoa, I speak of Vergílio Ferreira.

Does a writer always write the same book?

It’s a book that is different from book to book, that draws on an earlier book, that draws on an earlier moment in life—and after I leave here today, I’ll draw on the conversation I had with you. But there’s something else. I think there is a perpetual incorporation of a new reality. But since it isn’t a reality that suddenly appears out of nowhere—it is a reality that has continuity—this makes it possible to write a text that is a river, that is a parallel river, running through those who write it. And I think it’s magnificent that the banks are populated by those beings I spoke to you about.

A Meditation on the Experience of Reading

Since the beginning of 2020, when for two months I was unable to concentrate on any reading unrelated to the latest news—I think of it as my fallows: a temporary but necessary restorative hiatus—I’ve thought a great deal about the experience of reading and particularly the feelings that arise when reading successfully, that is so deeply that time’s flow is stemmed, so vividly that we forget that we are reading, but instead fully enter into a world conjured up somewhere between the mind of the writer and a reader.

What makes an impression when I open the first pages of the book in my hand is what essayist Philip Lopate describes as ‘a voice in the ear’. When encountering a writer for the first time, hearing this voice through the texture of sentences and paragraphs, getting a sense of the world unfolding in our imagination, following a line of thought, takes a little time. Sometimes, if fortunate, the words on the page quickly reveal the blast-furnace of brilliance, that open flame that is evident from the first pages of Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. On other occasions, Sebald’s The Emigrants comes to mind, as does Lispector’s Near to the Wild Heart, the whispering heat becomes evident as the world of the book reveals itself. Some such books become tutelary spirits taking us somewhere we wouldn’t have found alone, others become companions for years or decades.

Once satisfied that that I will allow a writer’s voice to remain in my mind, this isn’t always fully under my control—once I abandoned a book three times, only to be convinced of its disruptive magnificence on the fourth attempt—then reason can lower its guard and allow the world of the book to fully unfold. If the voice in the ear has wielded its key, the door opens to make clearer the atmosphere of a particular book. That elusive combination of voice and atmosphere, similar I think to the German Stimmung, is, for me, what remains long after I have forgotten particular sentences, plots and characters.

Literary atmosphere is not fact, but possibility, a sensory experience closely related to a third element that often defines how central a book will become to my reading life: the spirit of place (genius loci) or world created by a writer, distinctive in all the writers that make up my necklace of tutelary companions, particularly so in the writing of Gerald Murnane, Marguerite Duras, Maria Gabriela Llansol and Thomas Mann.

When I look at the shelves of those books that endure as a personal canon, it is not the characters, or the story, or a plot that unite them; each and all of these can get in the way of what makes a book come alive to me. Nor is it style, which if evident can be too much, or too short a thrill: literary fireworks that dazzle and disappear just as quickly.

That point of encounter between the writer and the reader, in the example of this amateur reader, that allows a book to become an imperfect conduit to what feels like my soul, or at least somewhere greater than just mind or body (and the body is always involved), is always some fine and subtle layering of the voice in the ear, the spirit of a conjured world and that invisible but authoritative atmosphere. When these layers are in perfect balance, those few indispensable books, to borrow from Augustine, are deeper in me than I am in me.

Lars Norén, Diaries and Stories

When you love the work of a great writer, chances are high that you’ll be moved by his or her notebooks and journals. How about when a writer is described as “Sweden’s greatest living writer”, which you read on the same day that his death is announced? You then read an article about said writer, watch an interview on YouTube, and arrive at the thought that this writer may very likely join the small pantheon of writers of particular importance to you.

Something tells me though that Lars Norén’s diaries are unlikely candidates for translation into English. The last published recently is a breeze-block of an edition with 1500 unnumbered pages. There are, I think, two previous diaries published in Sweden of similar length. How whimsical a reader I must be to dream about reading four to five thousand pages of a writer’s diary when, to date, I’ve read nothing of his work. I am however assured by a reader of impeccable taste that Norén’s plays are ‘delicious punches to the heart and [his] intellect carried by sharp, sharp language.’

Virginia Woolf’s diaries are rare and perfect blooms, equally—but differently—divine, whether savoured in extracted form, or in all five volumes. As much as I love each of her novels, the minor and the major, it is the diaries, both funny and ravishingly sad, that I would preserve given one of those difficult and thankfully hypothetical choices.

Nor could I part with Ricardo Piglia’s trilogy of diaries that follow his alter ego, Emilio Renzi, a recent discovery that precedes my reading of any of his novels. Kafka’s diaries and notebooks are every part as essential as his stories, and we owe a debt to his friend for not consigning them to flames as Kafka purportedly wished. Christa Wolf’s One Day a Year experiments are beautiful, sad, and taciturn, as are, but with little else in common, Denton Welch’s exuberant Journals. How much richer their oeuvre if we had Beckett’s, Lispector’s or Murnane’s diaries?

With Lars Norén, it was this comment that provided the fiendish spark:

“I hate stories. I can’t even read stories any more. Whenever I see a story is developing, I stop and go back. What fascinates me is the material, and stories get in the way of that. I want to look at this point, like in music, when you can feel the material coming alive so that it brings with it a way of seeing. I’m interested in individual moments, pictures or fragments, which suddenly bring something into view.”

To Norén’s manifest of interests I would add atmosphere, though I suppose his comment is at least partly mischievous and more, as it is for me, a question of form, and an attraction toward forms of narrative that somehow destabilise the reader. My patience for the dominant narrative discourse, changed only a little since the nineteenth century, is mostly exhausted and only to be indulged when exploring works from that specific time. Maria Gabriela Llansol, in her Geography of Rebels trilogy shows just how far a writer can stretch the form, with no narrative structure, no psychology, just figures and glimpses into what she describes as “inner earthquakes”. Although Llansol’s work is singular, her ambition is not new, in fact rather old.

Dickinson’s ‘Enigmatic Presence’ (Maria Gabriela Llansol)


‘I can only sense that Emily Dickinson has just arrived, without being an intruder (. . .). I turned to Emily Dickinson, then — to speak is not inevitable; she worked without talking, and, by the end of the day, they had almost forgotten she existed; there could only be seen, rootless, the result of her work.’

Maria Gabriela Llansol, from Um Falcão no Punho, (1985)

‘Llansol also links Emily Dickinson to the Brontë sisters: the American poet appears in her room after Anne, Emily and Charlotte have sent her an invitation letter to confirm their common interest in menageries.’

From The International Reception of Emily Dickinson, (2009)

‘It is no wonder that you are there, half-naked, leaning over what I write. You make a triangle with your legs, you stand on your foot, but not as a ballerina. (. . .) But if you lay down a foot on my breast and raise your arms, letting your hair fall down, I think it is a writing foot split into fingers, searching for my emotion. Provoking me. In the end, I bit it. This is my retribution as a living writer.’

Maria Gabriela Llansol, from Onde Vais, Drama-Poesia, (2000)