quarta-feira, 5 de maio de 2010

CATHARIEN HAMERSLAG - THE POSITION OF THE BODY IN THE POETRY OF ISABEL DE SÁ

CATHARIEN HAMERSLAG
Universiteit Utrecht
THE POSITION OF THE BODY IN THE POETRY OF
ISABEL DE SÁ
“Só o lume dos teus beijos rompe
a treva onde a solidão nos mata”
O Brilho da Lama, 1999: 29


Introduction
Taking into consideration some of the comments made across the years
concerning the poetry of Isabel de Sá, a critical review by Eduardo Pitta asks for renewed
attention: “Fazendo nossas as palavras de Fernando Guimarães, podemos incluir I. de Sá
naquele núcleo de autores que propiciam o entendimento de ‘algumas das novas
direcções da nossa poesia actual’”. Eduardo Pitta’s citation of Guimarães’ remark in his
review (Pitta 1989) of Escrevo para Desistir (1988) raises the question of what new
direction Isabel de Sá was leading contemporary Portuguese poetry intoto. And whether
this remark now, more than two decennia later, still holds value.
Although it is not the aim of this essay to evaluate the effect of Isabel de Sá’s
poetry, written during the past 28 years, on Portuguese poetry as a whole, I would like to
examine the possible value of the quoted remark today. In order to do so, I will
concentrate on the poems of Isabel de Sá that were published in O Brilho da Lama (1999).
A work that has recently been collected, together with Isabel de Sá’s former poetry since
1979, in Repetir o Poema (2005). In order to justify the relevance of the subject of this
article, I will first indicate the actual position of her poetry in relation to contemporary
Portuguese poetry. Secondly, I will point out which problem de Sá’s poetry confronts, in
my opinion, in the context of the problem of representation. As I will argue, the visibility
of the subject of her poetry forms the main challenge de Sá confronts. This will bring me
to the main subject of the article: the struggle for representation. In this light I will
demonstrate this struggle in Isabel de Sá’s poetry and consequently show the innovative
character of the poems analyzed.
The context of contemporary Portuguese poetry
In an attempt to position the poetry of de Sá in the context of Portuguese
contemporary literature, I will consult three authoritative resources on the field of
Portuguese Literature and that of Portuguese poetry in particular: António José Saraiva e
Óscar Lopes’, História da Literatura Portuguesa (2000), Fernando Martinho’s, Literatura
Portuguesa do Século XX (2004) and Nuno Júdice’s, As Máscaras do Poema (1998).
In the first, História da Literatura Portuguesa, de Sá is mentioned, logically, as part of
the generation of poets that writing in the years 1970 -1990. As one of the characteristics
of Portuguese poetry in this period, Saraiva and Lopes mention “[a] convicção de
comunicabilidade humana através de meros actos de linguagem” (2000, 1081). This
conviction to communicate life, and even more, to need poetry to communicate life, can
especially be found in the poetry of de Sá. As Saraiva and Lopes notice analyzing the
latter works of de Sá (2000, 1086): “uma reflexão já quase descritiva ou narrativa (…) em
que assoma a conscientificação verbalizada (…), que é o próprio poema.” In other
words, de Sá doesn’t only need poetry to communicate life, but poetry forms a part of
life itself.
In the second authoritative work mentioned, Literatura Portuguesa do Século XX
(2004), Isabel de Sá is mentioned as one of the poets of the last three decades of the
twentieth century worth mentioning. But Martinho unfortunately doesn’t go into a
further description of the position of her work in the context of contemporary
Portuguese literature.
In the third work As Máscaras do Poema, de Sá is placed with other poets as being
one of the new voices of poetry in Portugal. She is mentioned among others such as
Adília Lopes and Ana Luísa Amaral to name just two other well-known Portuguese
women poets of this period. Describing some of the characteristics of the poetry of the
authors in this period, Júdice underlines that this poetry contains a philosophical
development that takes the poem to a high reflective level (1998, 236). Comparing this
remark to the description of the poetry of de Sá by Saraiva and Lopes (2000), de Sá’s
work takes a logical place among the poetry of her time, as being highly reflective. The
second conclusion we can abstract from the above, concerns the relevance of the poetry
of de Sá to contemporary Portuguese poetry, as we can conclude from the descriptions
in the authoritative works mentioned. This second conclusion offers a justification to
return to the question formulated in the beginning of this article, namely to investigate
the new direction in which de Sá’s poetry is (or would be) leading contemporary poetry
to.
Having mentioned self-reflection is an important characteristic of the style of
Portuguese poetry in the last decades of the twentieth century, I would like to pose the
question: what is it that is being reflected on in the poetry of de Sá in particular? As I will
demonstrate in the analyses of her poems, the reflection on Portuguese society plays an
important role in de Sá’s works. Before going further into the problems de Sá confronts
in her reflections on Portuguese society, it might be useful to (re)read one of her poems,
in which society is reflected on in O Brilho da Lama (1999). The work of poetry is divided
in two parts: “Das trevas para a luz” and “Na escuridão do espelho”. The following
poem is the last poem of the first part and recapitulates the presented vision of the
described world/society of de Sá:

Juventude e beleza, também
decadência e devassidão. Tudo
é possível por ser interdito.
Homens de fogo, mulheres de lama.
Saíram do mundo para a minha pasta
forrada a papel de fantasia.
Usam ligueiros, pénis
e soutiens. Máscaras e luvas.
Há zonas no corpo enegrecidas
pelo chicote. Amam-se, fornicam.
Exibem o ódio, a quase demência
de um mundo maldito.

This poem doesn’t only illustrate the reflective style of de Sá’s work quite explicitly,
but it also demonstrates some key-characteristics in her texts. In order to point these out,
I will first make some particular observations.
An important first observation concerns the relation between the presented world
(“um mundo maldito”) on the one hand and the textual world of the poem itself (“a
minha pasta forrada a papel de fantasia”) on the other. The personages (Homens de
fogo, mulheres de lama) exit reality and enter the textual world. So we find in the cited
poem an attempt to reshape reality into a textual world. An attempt that is essential for
de Sá’s poetry. In the analyses of other poems I will come back to this point. What is
striking about the poem in the second place is the critical tone of voice in which society
is being reflected upon. (Please note that the poem doesn’t attempt to describe a certain,
explicitly marked part of society. On the contrary, we find the generalization “um mundo
maldito”, blaming the world as being a place of hatred, almost of dementia.) In the third
place I would like to draw attention to the explicit mention of (certain parts of) the body.
This corporeal focus and awareness calls for further investigation.
The reflective style of the poem on the described world/society confirms the
“highly reflective level” that Júdice refers to (1998), or the “descriptive reflection”
Saraiva and Lopes (2000) observe as typical of Portuguese poetry written in the last three
decades of the twentieth century. To come back to the critical review quoted in the first
paragraph of this article, Eduardo Pitta points out the direct and nothing concealing style
of de Sá’s poetry: “Esta verdade “disfarçada”…aplica-se a toda a sua poesia” (Pitta
1989,152). As I hope to demonstrate in this essay, the revealing style of de Sá’s poetry
makes her able to demonstrate the ‘weaknesses’ she finds in society. And her creation of
an alternative textual world offers, as I will argue, an option to revise society in a
different light.
The problem of representation
As already mentioned, I would like to draw attention to the problematic issues that
de Sá’s poetry confronts. As I will argue, this is the struggle against underrepresentation.
Before going further into the work of de Sá, I will comment on some studies related
concerning the subject of representation.
One of the leading principles in the discussion on the problem of representation is
the controversy nature of the very notion of “representation”. As Judith Butler in her
philosophical essay on gender and sexuality (Butler 1990, 1-34) points out, representation
is on the one hand a key-term in a political process that can be used to give women
visibility. But on the other hand it simplifies what can be said about the represented
subject and deforms what can be called truth. Taking the first part of this duality into
consideration, it is useful to consider the discussion on representation of the lesbian
body in specific. In Space, Time, and Perversion (1995) Grosz examines, among many other
questions, the issues that concern representation of the lesbian body. As Grosz explains
– taking into consideration among others the studies of Foucault – the problem of
representation is closely related to the (understanding of) relations of power and
domination. As Grosz formulates: “Difference, alterity, otherness are difficult concepts
to incorporate into the humanist and phenomenological paradigm of oppression” (Grosz
1995, 211). So the problem of representation is embedded in the problem of defining
“the Other”, or defining the deviation of the norm. When it is difficult to name a subject,
its destiny to end up in the “arena of the pre, proto- or non-human”, seems to be
inescapable (Grosz 1995, 211). From the above can be concluded that in the struggle for
representation an important obstacle has to be confronted: the problem of defining
identity, or defining ‘the Other’. As Grosz specifies this problem in the representation of
the lesbian body, she comes to the conclusion “there is no representation of lesbians as
lesbians in certain key discourse deeply invested in power relations” (Grosz 1995, 220).
Exemplifying her point, Grosz mentions “the status of lesbianism in the eyes of the law”,
“discourses of medicine”, “discourses of the erotic” and the lack of “erotic language” to
represent lesbian sexuality.
Taking the issue of underrepresentation into consideration in my reading of the
poetry of de Sá, I want to demonstrate the awareness of the issue in the presented poems
and the explicit struggle for representation. This struggle calls, as I will argue, not only
for a definition of the represented subject, but in the first place for a definition of the
place for this subject in the world/society.
Representation in the poetry of Isabel de Sá
In the work of poetry O Brilho da Lama (1999) the struggle for representation is
made visible in different ways: explicitly and implicitly, in the title(s) and in the poems.
To start with the titles of the two parts of the book (“Das trevas para a luz” and “Na
escuridão do espelho”) it becomes clear that the visual effect, in the form of the
suggestion of light and shadow, plays an important role. As I will argue light plays an
important role in the enfolding of the problem of underrepresentation. The first title
suggests a journey towards the light. But it can also be read as a more implicit suggestion.
In this way the title suggests a journey towards visibility. The second title (“Na escuridão
do espelho”) suggests a lack of identity. This title can also be read as a more implicit
suggestion. The title also suggests a lack of representation of the self in reality. (I will
come back to this problem). Although this message is hidden quite implicitly in this title,
the reading of the first poem of this part will reaffirm the implicit message. This is the
following poem in the book, after “Juventude e beleza, também”:

Só o lume dos teus beijos rompe
a treva onde a solidão nos mata.
Enrolamos a vida no escuro,
na semente de um amor atribulado.
Conhecemos o ritmo e a sede,
a convulsão do desamparo.
No sentido do corpo, no acerto
desce a força pelos braços
na violenta festa do prazer.
Tudo o que disseste
no desaforo da paixão
só podia incendiar a vida inteira
e encher de esperança o universo.

In my analysis of the last poem of the first part of O Brilho da Lama (1999), I made three
major observations. In order to analyze this poem, I will outline the most important
characteristics of the poem in a similar sequence. To start with the first observation, the
relation between the presented world and the textual world, at the first sight the textual
world is not explicitly mentioned in this poem. The characters of this poem are simply
representations of people who exist in reality. But regarding the poem closer, it becomes
clear that there has been a shift. Whereas in the first poem reality (presented by the
characters) entered the poem, in this poem it is the (poetic) word that will enter reality.
The words spoken in the “scandal of love” will enflame life. And where in the first poem
reality is limited to the world, in this poem the power of the word will be broader and
reach the universe.
Secondly, I will make some observations concerning the criticism of society
presented in the poem. The contrast of light against shadow is (again) a demonstration of
the journey from darkness to light. Starting point of this journey is “a treva onde a
solidão nos mata”. The fact that again shadow is the starting point of a journey
corresponds with the thematic of the first part of the book (“Das trevas para a luz”). But
this time, criticism of society is formulated in a more personal and urging way. The
characters (the implicit “we” of this poem) will die from loneliness in the dark. The third
line of the poem positions the subject of the poem even more clearly, stating that the
characters live life in the dark. These dramatic expressions should be considered in the
context of the argumentation presented in this article, the context of
underrepresentation. In this sense the poem can be read as a call for recognition of the
existence of their “tormented love”. A love that is presumably not being recognized and
which cannot exist in clear daylight. In this context criticism of society is inevitable
because it is necessary for the described subject to claim its existence.
The third observation about this poem concerns the explicit role of the body in the
text. The search for light in this poem is explicitly illustrated by an implicit reference to a
kiss: “o lume dos teus beijos”. But the body proliferates even more in the second
strophe, where we can almost hear the body “breathe” in the rhythm and thirst, in the
convulsion and descending of a certain power that finally ends passionately. The second
strophe functions in this way as a body, directing the power of the poetic words into the
universe. In this way the poem successfully created a new space and facilitates the
representation of a “tormented love”.
The line of thought that is set out in poem quoted above can also be found in the
title of the work itself, O Brilho da Lama. The title shows a funny play with light and
representation. Clearly mud has a negative connotation, so the title of the work contains
a striking controversy: mud isn’t very brilliant. But the title can also be read in another
way, if mud is seen as a representation of reality, referring concretely to earthly reality.
The poetic word becomes in the quoted poem part of the world. The poetic word enters
reality. This can be seen as something brilliant (“Tudo o que disseste (…) só podia
incendiar a vida inteira”) that becomes mud (earthly reality). Then some of the brilliance of
the words is integrated into the mud. In other words: the world becomes a more brilliant
place.
As I demonstrated in the analyses of the poem “Só o lume dos teus beijos rompe”,
the problem of representation, and the lack of representation, forms an essential theme
in the poem. The invisibility of the represented subject has to be struggled against.
Society is referred to as a negative place, a place of darkness that has no space for the
representation of the subject. Consequently the poem criticizes society. And secondly the
poem explicitly describes the body of the seeking subject, a body that has the function to
direct passion into the world, and to enlighten the world.
Representation of the body in the poetry of Isabel de Sá
Although the problem of representation can be pointed out clearly in the quoted
poems, a relevant question still remains. Is the problem of the (in)visibility of the subject
related to his/her homosexuality? Or, with other words, does the poem attempt to
describe a lesbian body? This question cannot be answered unambiguously, because none
of the poems in O Brilho da Lama (1999) refer explicitly to a lesbian subject/body. In
order to demonstrate the involvement of de Sá’s poetry in this subject, it is necessary to
refer to another work of poetry (which was published earlier), namely Em nome do Corpo
(1986) in which homosexuality is referred to in a relatively more explicit way:

(…)
Um dedo tocara meus lábios numa carícia leve. Ela tomava-me o corpo num abraço voluptuoso,
feminino. Eu era a figura ambígua de encontro ao seio onde a palavra renascia.”

(Em nome do Corpo, “O Abraço”, 1986, 19)

An important sign in this fragment are the words “figura ambígua”. The I-figure in this
poem isn’t defined as either male or female: the I-figure is explicitly defined as
ambiguous.
A Dutch researcher, Maaike Meijer, confronted a similar problem. Analyzing early
poems of two well-know Dutch poets, Blaman and Haasse, Meijer comes to the
conclusion that both were pioneers writing lesbian Dutch literature in the beginning of
the second half of the twentieth century: “They found a language for ‘the lesbian’, which
had been criminalized by sexologists and psychiatrists for more than a half century to
“The love that dares not speak it’s name.” (Meijer 1988, 276, my translation). This silence
around ‘the lesbian’ leads the poets of their generation and those of the following,
according to Meijer, to a sex-neutral strategy. Among the poets who apply this strategy
Meijer names well-know writers as Iris Murdoch and Gertrude Stein. This strategy made
them able to avoid ‘the lesbian’ as it was constructed by sexologists: they wrote poetry in
which neither the ‘I’, nor the loved-one has a ‘gender’. And on the other hand this
strategy made it possible for these writers to be published and be respected, while at the
same time they created a world out of the traditional gender-divisions. And so, neutrality
that is explicitly present becomes in this way a sign (Meijer 1988, 277) for a lesbian
theme.
Taking the above seriously, the ‘darkness’ and ‘ambiguity’ around the subject in the
poetry of De Sá can indeed also be interpreted as a sign for the description of lesbian
love. Which leads me to a contradictory silence in her work. The poems in O Brilho da
Lama contain detailed descriptions of bodies in it. Moreover, almost each poem in the
second part (“Na escuridão do espelho”), contains the description of a part of a body
(some examples are: corpo, rosto, braço, curva da tua nuca, coração quebrado, a pele,
carne, lábios, pernas, boca). Even so, the gender of the personages isn’t mentioned in any
of the poems in this part of the book. This becomes even stranger when one realizes that
some of the poems contain a sexually related description (for example in the poem “Só o
lume dos teus beijos rompe”). Although it is not the object of this article to prove the
sexual orientation that may or may not be presented in the poetry of de Sá, the lack of
representation of the gendered body does underline an important point: the gender of
the subject is silenced. In this perspective the title of the second part “Na escuridão do
espelho” can indeed point towards the problem of representation: the lesbian body is and
cannot be represented in reality. Although it still exists, the lesbian body finds itself in “a
shadow where loneliness is killing it” (my translation). So the position of the body in the
poetry of de Sá is in the dark, undefined and not explicitly present. The body is
ambiguous, neither male nor female.
Rereading the poetry in “Na escuridão do espelho” the lack of a gendered identity
of the subjects, the exclusion of these subjects, and their consequential search for identity
becomes now clearer.

“(…)
As palavras e o desejo
no perigo do isolamento. Trazias
o coração quebrado,
corremos o risco da viagem
à procura do verdadeiro rosto”

(“Ofereceste-me o corpo”, O Brilho da Lama, 1999, 32)


P: PORTUGUESE CULTURAL STUDIES 2 Winter 58 2009 ISSN: 1874-6969

Conclusion
At the beginning of this essay I noted the revealing style of de Sá’s poetry and the
fact that it makes her able to demonstrate the ‘weaknesses’ in society. Indeed, the
sometimes implicit and sometimes explicit references to the lack of space in society for
‘the lesbian body’ indicate underrepresentation in a ‘dark’ society/world/universe. As I
demonstrated de Sá can be seen as a pioneer who struggles for attention to the subject of
her poetry, for attention for ‘the Other’. But this ‘other’ cannot be represented explicitly.
Further, the poetry of de Sá creates a textual alternative that brings light, brilliance, to the
world. In other words, her poetry makes a beginning and opens the way to a world in
which the lesbian body can be.
Does Isabel de Sá in this way indicate a new direction for Portuguese poetry of her
time? I would be inclined to answer the question positively, although it may not be a
direct answer to the question whether Pitta’s remark still holds value. Pitta, in the words
of Guimarães, indicated the reflective style of De Sá’s poetry. As I demonstrated, the
reflective style in her work plays an important role. But the work of de Sá developed in
the past decades. And in my opinion what became even more important, in her latter
works, is the reaction of de Sá to the reflections on society, that is, her struggle against
underrepresentation. A topic that necessarily requires further investigation. And it
requires comparison with other authors who examine the (lesbian) body in Portuguese
poetry as well. And, finally, it requires a more specific contextualization in (Portuguese)
contemporary poetry. Because if Isabel de Sá’s poetry indeed proves to be a light that
moves the lesbian body away from the shadow, it may well set out to be an innovative
development in an important part of West-European poetry.
Obras Citadas
Butler, Judith. “Subjects of Sex/Gender/Desire”. In Gender Trouble: Feminism and The
Subversion of Identity. New York and London: Routledge, 1990.
Grosz, Elizabeth. Space, Time, and Perversion.New York and London: Routledge, 1995.
Júdice, Nuno. As Máscaras do Poema. Lisboa: Aríon, 1998.
Martinho, Fernando. Literatura Portuguesa do Século XX. Lisboa: Instituto Camões, 2004.
Meijer, Maaike. De Lust tot Lezen. Amsterdam: Sara/Van Gennep, 1988.
Sá, Isabel de. Em nome do Corpo. Lisboa: Edições Rolim, 1986.
 Escrevo para Desistir. Lisboa: & etc., 1988.
 O Brilho da Lama. Lisboa: & etc., 1999.
 Repetir o Poema, Quasi Edições, Vila Nova de Familição, 2005.
Saraiva, António José and Lopes, Óscar. História da Literatura Portuguesa. 17th Ed. Porto:
Porto Editora, 2000. Pitta, Eduardo. “Recensão Crítica a Escrevo para Desistir de Isabel de Sá”. Colóquio Letras
110/111 (1989): 152.