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New poems

Filtering by Category: New poems

The Key

joana meirim

“The Key” was published in Jamie McKendrick’s 2007 book Crocodiles & Obelisks. Said key opens the door to a flat in Salerno, hence, it is, unlike the Roman’s puzzle locks, a key that opened what seemed to be a straightforward door, although we are told that it looked like the right key to open the gates of Dis.

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Rain on Tin

Maria S. Mendes

“Rain on Tin” is the final poem in Salvation Blues by Rodney Jones, the last poem we encounter in a collection where we first meet up with that provocative title. Why would salvation and the happy day it famously promises give anyone the blues? That title reminds me of the fortunes of bright-spirited stars in Shakespearean comedy—Beatrice, Rosalind, Portia—who must finally undergo that cultural form’s idea of a happy ending: condemned to redemption, so to speak, despite the best efforts of their wit and charm to educate their future husbands. 

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A Story of Stolen Salamis

Maria S. Mendes

But first: what is a ‘sausage’? Here, the word allows unwary speakers to shred away what a specific kind of sausage is. As a result, its meaning has become undifferentiated: an all-purpose mass of minced meat. The reporter was more interested in producing a quaint little story than in accurately describing what had actually happened: newsflash was more important than its factual content. The narrator’s son commiserated about the loss of something he failed to understand, his misplaced show of sentiment being made apparent by the misused word. What ‘salamis’ means was stolen along with the salamis, dissolved into sausageness.

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The first to die was PROTESILAUS

Maria S. Mendes

I like this poem because it is written through Homer, instead of being a translation. Like the rest of Memorial, this is a fragment of the Iliad and of a soldier’s life, prematurely cut short, like the half-built house and the lands which, left behind, are reduced here to a mere sequence of names with long spaces between them. The second part of the title of Alice Oswald’s book promises an excavation and the author does indeed rescue Protesilaus, the first to die in the war, from the Iliad’s interminable flux of action (and from the unpunctuated scriptio continua), digging up someone who has lain in the poem for millennia.

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There is a button on the remote control called FAV...

Maria S. Mendes

I like this poem because it is about preservation.

First, preservation from the outside world: one gets home, turns on the TV, and selects what one wants to watch. Rankine says this has to do with choosing a world closer to the one we live in; in her case, a world without the interference of news programs. We might assume she would be avoiding violent events, but considering the week the poem describes, Rankine’s favorite channels play movies and series as violent as any news program: “always someone gets shot or pierced through the heart with an arrow”.

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Fancy words

Maria S. Mendes


Fancy Words


In my house, we hated people well-

-spoken, fancy words. Once, Maria Lucília

appeared, the cousin, saying I still don’t know why:

                – I was very consternated.

We started to call her ‘the consternated’.

Each time someone appeared on TV to

read poetry or talk of poetry, we turned

off the TV. 

Adília Lopes, "Fancy words", translation Christina Chalmers. Published as “Palavras Caras”, Manhã. Lisboa: Assírio & Alvim, 2015. © Adília Lopes e Assírio & Alvim / Grupo Porto Editora.


I like this poem because, firstly, it forces me to confront linguistic doubts and to pick up the dictionary to find out the difference between “consternated” (confrangido) and “embarrassed” (constrangido), reminding me of the consternation I pass through as I hesitate to use the word. To avoid the embarrassment of the hesitation of not knowing which is the right word for the circumstance, I prefer to say, unlike the cousin in the poem, that “I was upset or distressed”. 

Secondly, I like this poem because, similar to the poet and her family, I have a strong aversion to the nonsensical use of fancy words, particularly when it signifies an attempt to exercise over others some type of intellectual superiority. In the poem, the family of the poet, in which she is also included, as becomes clear by the use of the first person plural (“we hated”), does not like well-spoken people nor fancy words. Well-spoken people seem to be those who use fancy words, often inappropriately. The disgust is not so much with fancy words as much as with people who simulate eloquence by employing fancier terms, instead of using everyday language. The cousin Maria Lucília, a double-barrelled name, just like the phrase “well-spoken”, personifies supposed eloquence through the line in direct speech, which is separated clearly from the rest of the poem: “ – I was very consternated”.

A progenitor of this poem is the column “Make Prose, Make Rose” (“Fazer Prosa, Fazer Rosa”), of 2001, published in Público. I summon it to this analysis, so that we can read this poem in it, but with a presentation of ideas in reverse order. Adília begins by speaking of the fact that the family does not like poetry and turns off the TV every time that anyone recites poems, to later refer to the mentioned aversion to fancy words, configured in the figure of a well-spoken cousin: “Whenever, on the TV, someone would appear to recite a poem, the sound would be turned off. […] In my house, we all were horrified by fancy words. My cousin Maria Lucinda, when she came here for tea, would say – in relation to what, I don’t know – ‘I was very consternated’. Aunt Paulina soon nicknamed her ‘the consternated’”.

Finally, perhaps the greatest reason to like this poem is the fact of making an association between well-spoken people and a certain type of poetry, not the one Adília practises in this poem. In the house of the poet, well-spoken people, those who declaim poetry or who speak of it on TV, don’t deserve airtime. What made the cousin feel “consternated” – and we will never know if the cousin of the poem and the column used the term correctly – is absolutely irrelevant. What’s interesting is rather the poem’s sarcasm. The three last lines – whose simplicity (see the repetition of words like “poetry” and “TV”) is the polar opposite of the style of well-spoken people – reject the pomposity that many often want to assign to poetry. I read in them an unpretentious poetic program, and an attempt to confer upon poetry a notion of truth. Fancy words which are used by well-spoken people are sometimes a form of cloaking the truth, and too much eloquence is the enemy of good poetry. In turn, to declaim poetry is a haughty gesture, and, better than reciting or speaking of it in a correct manner, is to do it speaking the truth. This poem illustrates, then, the ethical and aesthetic principles of Adília Lopes, which I synthesise in a shortened version of a phrase from the column already mentioned: to write poetry is to not tell lies.

Joana Meirim

Translation Christina Chalmers

Joana Meirim is a professor at the Catholic University of Portugal. When she was 18 or 19 years old, she wrote and published several poems, which she now regrets. She enjoys poems with a sense of humour, a characteristic that in her opinion defines good poetry.


Maria S. Mendes




If you have hit a deer on the road at dusk;

climbed, shivering, out of the car

with curses to investigate the damage

done, and found it split apart and steaming

far-flung in the nettle-bed, utterly beyond repair

then you have seen what is not meant to be seen

is packed in cannily, coiled, like parachute silk

but unputbackable, out for the world to witness

the looping, slicked-up clockspring

flesh’s pink, mauve, arterial red,

and there a still pulsing web of royal veins

bearing the bad news back to the heart;

something broken, something hard, black,

the burst bowel fouling the meat

exposed for what it is, found out – as Judas,

ripped from groin to gizzard, was found

at dawn, on the elder tree, still tethered to earth

by all the ropes and anchors of his life.


Frances Leviston, “Humbles”, Public Dream. London: Picador, 2007.

© Frances Leviston.

Frances Leviston's Poetry 


I like how this poem presents itself in a long, complex, sentence, which might be a lesson on how not to interpret poetry. T.S. Eliot once claimed that “comparison and analysis need only the cadaver on the table, but interpretation is always producing parts of the body from its pockets, and fixing them in place”. Eliot is favouring facts and the description of a poem’s technical characteristics over interpretation, i.e. over choosing a meaning for the poem. “Humbles” illustrates what happens when the cadaver is already on the table, describing a “What's done cannot be undone” type of situation, in which those “who have seen what is not meant to be seen” know that some things are “unputbackable”.

In Frances Leviston’s poem, someone hits a deer on the road, leaving the car to find out “the damage done.” From this moment on, the observer seems to be characterizing what happened to the deer and to his “flesh’s pink, mauve, arterial red” where there is “still pulsing web of royal veins”. Still, the language used is mechanical, as may be perceived in expressions such as “apart and steaming,” “utterly beyond repair,” “slicked-up clockspring,” which may refer to a clock, but also to a piece of a car’s motor. This is followed by an enumeration of the things that were once packed but, after being broken, are difficult to put into place again, such as a parachute silk. The line “but unputbackable” establishes a difference between the parachute silk and the deer’s bowel, between objects difficult to put back into place, and lives which cannot be replaced, thus causing certain moral guilt.

In a moment of pause, the observer sees the time it takes for blood to stop pulsing, the interval which is needed for the veins to bear “bad news back to the heart”. Everything changes and might not be repaired, “something broken, something hard, black”. In what is “out for the world to witness” lies the exteriorization of what is usually hidden and may now be “exposed for what it is”, thus leading unexpectedly to the biblical image of Judas, who, like the deer, was discovered at dawn “ripped from groin to gizzard”, his insides exposing the nature of his crime for all to see.

A piece of literary criticism might be willingly trying to reveal what is hidden, the formal technique of the poem, which, if exposed, may not be put into place again. One could, for example, describe Leviston’s brilliant use of consonantal repetition within lines or how the use of alliteration in “black / the burst bowel,” “from groin to gizzard,” “out of the car / with curses to investigate the damage/ done” is extremely skilful. One could also explain how her punctuation of the poem, which helps to delay meaning, places the reader in a similar position to those getting out of the car or observing Judas and pausing to make sense of what is happening.

Dissecting a poem’s internal organs, interpreting it to decipher its meaning affects irrevocably its reading. The exercise of “humbling” the reader (umbles names the insides of a deer, but “humbles” is also the way Judas is here doubly murdered, both hanged and ripped apart) should lead him to read the poem and nothing more, without showing its internal or external organs, as I’m afraid I might have done. 

Maria Sequeira Mendes

Maria Sequeira Mendes is a professor at the Faculty of Letras, University of Lisbon, and collaborates with Teatro Cão Solteiro. She wrote for the first time about poetry at primary school, but the composition had spelling mistakes. It was then she promised she would never write about poets who used difficult words to copy. This has proved to be a difficult oath to live by.


Maria S. Mendes




A stout bomb wrapped with a bow. With wear, you tear. It’s true you sour or rust. Some of us were sure you’re in a rut. We bore your somber rub and storm. You were true, but you rust. On our tour out, we tore, we two. You were to trust in us, and we in you. Terribly, you tear. You tear us. You tell us you’re true. Are you sure? Most of you bow to the mob. Strut with worms, strew your woe. So store your tears, tout your worst. Be a brute, if you must. You tear us most terribly. To the tomb, we rue our rust and rot. You tear. You wear us out. You try your best, but we’re bust. You tear out of us. We tear from stem to stem. You trouble, you butter me most. You tear, but you tell us, trust us to suture you.


Harryette Mullen, “Ectopia”, Sleeping with the Dictionary. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010. 

© 2010 by the Regents of the University of California. Published by the University of California Press.



I like this poem because it deceived me not once, but twice. At first, I thought it portrayed a relationship which falls apart after a betrayal. Lines such as “some of us were sure you’re in a rut,” in which “rut” has sexual connotations (to copulate, to be sexually excited) seemed to point to this direction, as did lines such as “You tear us. You tell us you’re true. Are you sure?,” which appeared to illustrate the case of someone who, despite his\her promises, tears the relationship apart. This explanation did not, however, seem very persuasive: why would betrayal be wrapped in a bow? Perhaps clarification of the poem lay in Mullen’s book, Sleeping with the Dictionary, in which the correspondence between words and poems appears to be problematic. This would explain lines such as “You were to trust in us, and we in you. Terribly, you tear. You tear us.” To a poet who, in a way, relies on language and needs to trust in it to be able to write, “tear” could refer to one’s (in)ability to tame the words in a poem, which would be why, despite the fact that the poet trusts the poem and vice versa, this would not be enough.

However, both these readings ignore the title, in which interpretation for the poem is only half-concealed, as if it were a riddle. “Ectopia” points to an ectopic pregnancy, a case in which the fertilized egg implants in the fallopian tube or somewhere in the abdomen, instead of heading up to the uterus. Such pregnancies require emergency treatment and are always terminated before reaching their end, which is why the first line is “a stout bomb wrapped with a bow,” to which follows “With wear, you tear,” alluding to the possibility that, if the pregnancy progresses, the fallopian tube may be ruptured. But “rut” is also a variation of “route” and, more importantly, according to the OED, it meant “to beget a child”, which further helps to prove this reading of the poem.

In “We bore your somber rub and storm”, the verb points to the bearing of a child, which was being bore through the child’s somber rub, a word which illustrates two things which move or cause to move to and fro against each other with a certain amount of friction, i.e. mother and child in conflict. In the line “It’s true you sour or rust,” sour alludes to something which has gone sour in taste, but which has also become disenchanted, while “rust” also points to a colour and to the degeneration of something, of the baby. The reader then discovers that on “our tour out, we tore, we two,” which could indicate the rupture of the fallopian tube or an early abortion. Notice how in this beautiful line “we” and “we two” are repeated, mother and child together, while “Terribly, you tear”. And this is unexpected, they were to trust one another, they existed as a single entity, but were also separated when the embryo tore both of them. The woman speaking asks the baby not to display his misery (“strew your woe”), to keep his tears, he can do his worst and be a brute, but he is leading them to the tomb, to rue and rot, being torn apart from cell to cell. He wears them out, and tries his best to persuade her, but they are bust. This extraordinary poem thus describes the conversation between a mother and her baby, not only an ectopic pregnancy, but also the baby's and the mother’s utopia in which all could go well, that for a moment they were not away from each other. 

Maria Sequeira Mendes

Maria Sequeira Mendes is a professor at the Faculty of Letras, University of Lisbon, and collaborates with Teatro Cão Solteiro. She wrote for the first time about poetry at primary school, but the composition had spelling mistakes. It was then she promised she would never write about poets who used difficult words to copy. This has proved to be a difficult oath to live by.

Sewing Lessons

Maria S. Mendes


Sewing Lessons


Despite your lessons,

I never learnt to sew.

I could never master the fluid

movement required to darn a tear,

sealing it tight.

Could never emulate the steady rhythm

of your hands as you thread

the faint stitch through the lip

of the ripped fabric.

Your casual flick of the wrist.

The simple knot you tie with a gentle twist,

a bow formed from loose ends

and dangling cotton wisps.

Even now I bring you clothes.

Garments with gashes of flesh missing,

torn out by careless tumbles.

Blazers with burnished buttons slack

from too much wear.

I know what you will say.

I should learn to sew,

to seal up this gasping gulf,

but I bless my ignorant hands.


Ellen Davies, “Sewing Lessons”, Popshot Magazine, n.º 13, The Outsider Issue, 2015, p.9.

© Ellen Davies. Reproduced with the author’s permission.

Ellen Davies Poetry


I like this poem because it offers up autobiographical references – childhood memories – a valid and honest reason for any reader to like a poem at first reading. I was an anachronism for my generation (I was born in the sixties of last century). I was brought up to be accomplished in the domestic arts – from my mother I learned to lower the hems of my dresses (and to read) at six; at fourteen I no longer told anyone that I could embroider, could knit and crochet. All of them embarrassing accomplishments for a teen girl in the eighties: I cursed my knowing hands.

Ellen Davies is young enough to be my daughter. This places me, as a reader, at the centre of the gulf that she speaks of here, and which at first seems to separate her from the person she addresses in the poem – her grandmother. The granddaughter never managed to learn how to sew; the grandmother laments this every time she is asked to mend the tears and mishaps in the granddaughter’s clothes. But, despite the setbacks that nowadays could be easily solved – here, but also in Wales (where Ellen Davies was born and still lives) – by a trip to any high street clothing store, “Even now I bring you clothes.” These tears and mishaps offer us, if we look at them, palpable wounds, visible and invisible, of a life: “Garments with gashes of flesh missing/torn out by careless tumbles”. The fabric like the skin are sewn together with words: deep cuts, the result of careless falls, tumbles, that leave her (like her clothes) raw; the wear and tear that reveals fatigue and discouragement: “Blazers with burnished buttons slack/ from too much wear.” This blazer is a proper jacket, professional and academic, whose burnished buttons are polished by the “productive” workday’s normalizing effect, but are also loose, almost about to fall off. These trips to grandmother’s house have, therefore, two readings: the mending of clothes (an alibi) and the need for consolation, which only the grandmother has the wisdom and the power to bestow.

Moreover, if the poet never learned to sew, it wasn’t for lack of observation skills or of memory. The description, from the third line on, of the sewing choreography, raises the suspicion that she could have done it after all, just as she reproduces it in the lines’ construction – the fluid movement decisively wound up in the fifth line, the sure and careful rhythm that follows (as you thread/the faint stitch trough the lip/ of the ripped fabric), the sudden gesture, unexpected, conjured in the tenth line: Your casual flick of the wrist. The very last lines of the poem – I should learn to sew, to seal up this gasping gulf / but I bless my ignorant hands – recreate the tying of loose ends that she is supposedly unable to perform: The simple knot you tie with a gentle twist,/a bow formed from loose ends/and dangling cotton wisps.

In truth, the loose threads remain – the granddaughter cannot sew (though she can stitch lines), and the gulf dug from such obstinacy, or strategy, continues (as do the wounds she should learn to avoid), but all of these threads can be tied off with a blessing to that real or fake inability, because it is with them that this relationship of love and intimacy is stitched and maintained, even now. And thanks to such ignorance there is material for her poem, bless her.

Ana Maria Pereirinha

Translation Isabel D'Avila Winter

Ana Maria Pereirinha has worked for the past 20 years as an editor of Portuguese contemporary fiction. She also works as a translator, and is a PhD student at the Program in Literary Theory (Faculty of Letras, University of Lisbon). Her relation with poetry began in kindergarten as a very successful slammer avant-la-lettre,  rhyming chocolate with marmalade. 

fridge magnet 

Maria S. Mendes


fridge magnet 


the recorded opera rising like schnitzelling nostalgia

all conversation sweats across de mousse, ibis squat

on backpacks in the postcard riddled park


archbishops sip cool beers on subliminal rooftops

police parade in six pack spraying cracks in the

paving: show us your passport kiddo you don’t smell


australian; the hospital seemed like a palace until

you’re forced to buy back your own blood served

in ice cubes; elbows need translating this january afternoon


Joanne Burns, “fridge magnet”, Brush. Artarmon: Giramondo Publishers, 2014.

@Joanne Burns. Reproduced with the author’s permission.


I like this poem because it encapsulates Australia’s colonial history and tears it open like a ripe fig. It sucks me smack into its messy middle.

The ‘recorded opera rising like schnitzelling nostalgia’ sends me immediately to the granite steps in front of the Sydney Opera House, among the crowd watching a free screening of opera. The tone is mordant, aligning schnitzel hammers and opera nostalgia. But the poem does not tear fully open until ‘january afternoon’.

Australia Day - or Invasion Day, as the Australian Aboriginal people call it - is on 26 of January. On that day in 1788 a fleet of British ships entered Sydney harbour, where the opera house stands. The police who patrol the poem’s middle stanza are not only checking passports, they are checking uprisings (already suggested in the ‘opera rising’ of the first line).

The opera house stands on Bennelong Point, named after an Aborigine who in 1789 was kidnapped by the colony’s first governor who needed an interpreter. The governor was under orders of the king of England, and to this day a figure titled Governor General of Australia represents the British monarch. Bennelong evaded capture (as he would evade the killings and the smallpox that decimated his people). He later became an interpreter of his own free will, and the governor allowed him to live where the opera house rises today.

The poem’s revolt bubbles like the beers the archbishops sip in their lofty indifference. Burns means archbishops like Peter Hollingworth, who protected paedophile priests, and who later became Governor General.

Yet another Governor General appears in another Burns’ poem (‘seed’). He sat near her at a cinema and ‘she was too / gutless to change seats and yell / traitor’. That particular Governor General had dismissed the then Prime Minister Gough Whitlam.

Before Whitlam was dismissed in 1975, he had put an end to the White Australia policy that limited immigration into Australia to white people. In the 1990s, in the days I worked at the opera house, Whitlam was still a formidable figure. I once observed him as he stood alone in the north foyer during a function celebrating a new dance company. Most guests were speaking among themselves, or were too young to know who Whitlam was. He had turned his back on them and stood looking at the vast mural that occupies the wall opposite the glass panes facing Sydney harbour. The mural is by Michael Nelson Tjakamarra, an Aboriginal artist who painted stylised landscapes seen from above.

The year before this poem was published Australia begun sending illegal refugees to camps in remote Pacific islands for ‘processing’. The lament ‘[Y]ou’re forced to buy your own blood served in / ice cubes’ speaks of the punishing logic of offering asylum as long as it is not in national territory.

Tjakamarra’s painting is - as Whitlam well knew, standing in front of it sipping his drink slowly - far more than a landscape. It is a territory map.

Isabel D'Avila Winter

Isabel D'Avila Winter, a Portuguese-australian writer, reads poems one at a time, and likes the ones that make her say wow! or even eheheh. She hates poems that make her say What?? or what about the maid?, like in one of those French films you don’t know what the hell is going on.

The Space of the Mandarin Duck

Maria S. Mendes


The Space of the Mandarin Duck


Apparently in Japan

One century and a half ago

The love-language of France

Was thought to be shocking.


So blatant, so presumptuous, so brutal                                 

Its violation of the atmosphere

Proper to every person.


I covet, they said in Japan,

The space of the mandarin duck,

There, at your side, beside you.                                   


The liminal duck took delight

Breezily as a go-between.

Tender obliquity saw it off.


A space with nothing there,

Dear old duck, even unaccompanied                          

And far, far away from others,

Still your space I covet.


Come the day when a volley of your quacks

Quells every twittering vandal of speech

And unspeaks the sweet-talker                                    

Whose voice curdles with money and hate.


Christopher Middleton, “The Space of the Mandarin Duck”Collected Later Poems. Carcanet: Manchester, 2014.

Reproduced with permission from Carcanet Press.


I like the deftness with which this poem evolves from its qualified appreciation of delicacy into an emphatically ungentle denunciation, humorously self-aware but full of prophetic menace. I admire its maintenance of a tension between the delicate-in-tone and its opposite; a tension handled so as to keep intellectual delicacy unhampered. The ‘tender obliquity’ with which the first part of the poem is evidently in sympathy is not really usurped by the contemptuous indignation to which it rises at its close. And neither is this indignation compromised by the ostensibly whimsical humour that accompanies it. Obliquity, of a certain sort, is a function of the poem as well as its theme.

I have not verified the claim made in the third stanza, i.e. that some phrase approximating to the English ‘I covet the space of the mandarin duck beside you’ was in popular currency in nineteenth-century Japan. But in both China and Japan it would appear that the mandarin duck, thanks to its habits of mating and companionship, has been emblematic of constancy and devotion in love. ‘The place of the mandarin duck’ might, by the way, be more idiomatic in English; but ‘space’ more strongly connotes emptiness, and this connotation is significant. It reminds us that the duck is imaginary. It also implies a spaciousness in which one might live and move.

One of the suggestions of the poem is apparently this: that poetry itself might be a kind of ‘tender obliquity’, tender perhaps in its dealing with language, and through language with things, even when its tone is not tender. Despite its theatrical anger, this poem too is oblique. Its obliquity is not like opacity, but a kind of sideways subtlety. It approaches its ultimate theme—language, including poetic language—from a self-consciously strange angle: almost frivolous, though by the time we reach ‘twittering vandal’ it is clear that the point is serious. Some measure of irony is necessary to temper the hatred audible in the last few lines, the derision of that ‘sweet-talk’ that ‘curdles’ the voice into lumps, like a poorly made custard. The noble hate of the Poet-Prophet must be shown to know itself, must be differentiated from the vandal’s hate. But the point is not undermined . . . .

The logic of the poem is not easy to re-articulate in paraphrase. It does not condemn the ‘love-language’ of nineteenth-century France; it does not say that it is ‘shocking’, but only that it seemed so in Japan. And I doubt that Middleton was repulsed by the way characters talk to their beloveds in Zola or Balzac. Instead, the idea of a lovers’ idiom is offered as an analogy or synecdoche for language as a whole; and the fact that the poet is speaking about an intercultural disparity of sensibility dating from ‘a century and a half ago’, and between two countries both more or less foreign to himself, helps to give the whole discussion a sense of anthropological distance, or relativism. The shock-value of Francophone flirtation is implicitly acknowledged to be determined by circumstance and perspective.

If this is true of one side of the analogy, is it true also on the other? The poem by its end is no longer dealing with sweet-talking lovers; it is concerned with ‘money and hate’. The poet advocating in favour of careful ‘obliquity’ (and a use of language respectful of the ‘atmosphere’ and dignity of individuals) may seem, in the eyes of most contemporaries, almost as exotic as the nineteenth-century Japanese did to the nineteenth-century French. His poem, then, by virtue of its basic analogy, seems ready to admit that its voice of protest belongs to a strange minority in the present culture. But its conviction is not weakened by that admission. Relativism yields a hint of irony as the conviction refuses to be mitigated. The duck that stood for ‘tender obliquity’—for speech that is courteously respectful and loving; for language antithetical, as poetry might be, to the ‘blatant’ and the ‘brutal’; for a rejection of coarseness—let this imaginary duck become real, and drown out with its quacking the debased, hate-fostering, money-minded pseudo-speech of political and commercial bullshit. Let the noble quacks in a ‘volley’, a ballistic attack, blow all this ignoble twittering away.

Until the day dawns when the duck shall come to quell these ‘vandals’, the duck-space is vacant: ‘A space with nothing there’. It is not even necessarily a space beside anyone; the poet may be solitary, ‘unaccompanied’. The invisible duck is no longer a means to an end, instrumental in the attainment of a preconceived purpose such as courtship or seduction would have been. It is an image, not of the poet writing, but for the poet writing. The space of the mandarin duck becomes a space to occupy for the sake of being there—for the sake of ‘tender obliquity’, which is connected (as earlier lines have informed us) with a respect for other people, even if they are ‘far, far away’; for people generally, even if you do not immediately want anything from them. It is a space, above all, of opposition to the twittering of specious, persuasive sweet-talk.

Is the unreality, or rather ideality, of the bird displaced by each visitor to that space, each person whose delicate attitude to language allows for the substitution, any invalidation of the process?

Alex Wong

Alex Wong is a Research Fellow in English Literature at St John's College, Cambridge. His poems are published in the UK by Carcanet Press. 

There is nothing wrong with my sister

Maria S. Mendes


There is nothing wrong with my sister


After you told my sister

that there was no one else

but you no longer wanted her,

she went to bed and tried to work out

what she had done

and what was wrong with her

and spent the night awake.


There is nothing wrong with my sister

but may there be something wrong

with the Ikea wardrobe

she helped you to build,

so that tonight it falls apart

and wakes you

from your unaccompanied sleep.

Lorraine Mariner, “There is Nothing Wrong with my sister”, Furniture. London: Picador, 2009.


I like this poem, as I always secretly wished my Ikea furniture punished the person who ended up staying with it, but also because it is an overt way of defending someone and of threatening another, making use of cuteness and formal simplicity to reenact long-term revenge, forever printed in the form of a poem. In fact, this poem seems to illustrate Sianne Ngai’s perspective, in Our Aesthetic Categories, according to which, in certain poems “Delightfulness offered by cuteness is violent”. In a chapter which relates cuteness with modern poetry, Ngai shows how some poems make use of characteristics such as “smallness, formal simplicity, softness or pliancy” (HUP, 2012, 64) to portray situations which are “neither precious, small or safe” (70).

“There is Nothing Wrong with my sister” is not a difficult poem to read or to understand, overtly refusing the notion that poetry should be understood as a riddle or as a text concealing a hidden message only to be comprehended by a clever few, nor could it, after all, we don’t know how good are the sister’s boyfriend hermeneutic skills. The poem is a message, in the likes of William Carlos Williams note about plums in “This is just to say”, which is why none of the vocabulary is complex.

The boyfriend’s choice of an Ikea wardrobe – the symbol of a type of furniture not meant to last – could say something of his relations, while placing him in the position of doubting whether it is safe to sleep near it, transforming this daily object into something potentially dangerous. At the same time, certain lines have a double meaning, in the sense that they portray the poet’s sister situation, but also the difficulties of those trying to assemble a piece of Ikea furniture. This may be perceived in the following lines: “she went to bed tried to work out /what she had done / and what was wrong with her / and spent the night awake”. Those of us who have faced Ikea’s apparently simple, yet difficult to follow, instructions, know the feeling of trying unsuccessfully to built a piece of furniture, giving it up for a few moments so as to resume the task, while thinking where it all went wrong and where we have failed.

The fact that the title of the poem is repeated in the first line of the second stanza also contributes to highlight the message being conveyed (and which is now an affirmation, but might also have been a form of advice conveyed to the sister during her sleepless night). At the same time, if the poem also describes the sorrows of those trying to assemble a piece of furniture, then the title, which is repeated in the second stanza, may equally allude to those trying to piece together Ikea’s furniture (and to the idea that there is nothing wrong with it, guilt lies always in those trying to assembly it wrongly).

The two stanzas have a similar dimension, but the clear and humorous message becomes slightly aggressive when the 3-beat pattern of the first lines is disrupted in the following lines, to be resumed in the initial lines of the second stanza and breaking-up again in the final lines of the poem. Even though the prosody is loose, thus, it does use form to produce tone. This implies that the tension between the pattern and the exceptions to it make the poem conversational, but also confrontational in the final lines, as if it is doing two things at the same time: repeating the pattern of the sister’s relation (and of those trying to assemble Ikea’s furniture), in which all goes well at the beginning, but is suddenly disrupted, and characterizing in a light way a situation which then becomes a warning (beware of the wardrobe) and a written form of revenge (everyone will know what you did to my sister). “There is nothing wrong with my sister” is, thus, a poem overtly clear, unlike the feelings of self-doubt which the boyfriend has left to the poet’s sister.

Maria Sequeira Mendes

Maria Sequeira Mendes is a professor at the Faculty of Letras, University of Lisbon, and collaborates with Teatro Cão Solteiro. She wrote for the first time about poetry at primary school, but the composition had spelling mistakes. It was then she promised she would never write about poets who used difficult words to copy. This has proved to be a difficult oath to live by.

The New Higher

Maria S. Mendes


The New Higher


You meant more than life to me. I lived through

you not knowing, not knowing I was living.

I learned that you called for me. I came to where

you were living, up a stair. There was no one there.

No one to appreciate me. The legality of it

upset a chair. Many times to celebrate

we were called together and where

we had been there was nothing there,

nothing that is anywhere. We passed obliquely,

leaving no stare. When the sun was done muttering,

in an optimistic way, it was time to leave that there.

Blithely passing in and out of where, blushing shyly

at the tag on the overcoat near the window where

the outside crept away, I put aside the there and now.

Now it was time to stumble anew,

blacking out when time came in the window.

There was not much of it left.

I laughed and put my hands shyly

across your eyes. Can you see now?

Yes I can see I am only in the where

where the blossoming stream takes off, under your window.

Go presently you said. Go from my window.

I am in love with your window I cannot undermine

it, I said.


John Ashbery, “The New Higher”, Where Shall I Wander. Manchester: Carcanet, 2005.


I like this poem's ambiguousness. "The New Higher" begins by suggesting a lively (‘life’, ‘lived’, ‘living’) relationship between an undefined ‘You’ and an equally undefined ‘I’, which find their place in the extremities of the first sentence of the first verse (‘You meant more than life you me’).[1] The separation between the two is deepened not only by the strong caesura of the poem’s opening line, but also by the tension created by the enjambment, as well as by the (softer) caesura in the second verse. These, in turn, contribute to the creation of at least three possible scenarios: an ‘I’ that has lived through something, in a suggestion of difficulty (‘I lived through’); an ‘I’ that has lived through a you that did not know it, i.e., was unaware (‘I lived through/ you not knowing’); an ‘I’ that has lived through a ‘you’, with one of them not knowing that the ‘I’ was living in the process (‘I lived through/ you not knowing, not knowing I was living’). The possible metric emphasis on the first syllable of ‘knowing’ further contributes to this dismantling effect, by compromising the ‘not’ that precedes it. The reading process is constantly being interrupted from the start, in sense and in syntax, therefore allowing for the separate-yet-connected hints to sink in before the line has time to ask for continuation. 

The ‘I’ and ‘You’ dynamics gives way to an equally undefined ‘we’ that is ‘together’. In fact, the object of the personal pronouns only makes its appearance in the tenth line of the first stanza (‘When the sun was done muttering’). The reader is then to pick up the loose ends: ‘passed obliquely’ most likely refers to the sun’s rays, with the most obvious pair being a window located ‘up a stair’. It is worth noting how ‘stair’ connects to the cluster of spatial description which had been formed by the internal rhyme with ‘chair’ and ‘there’, all of which setting the stage for a scene of voyeurism. Indeed, ‘There is no one’ in the room upstairs, but both the reader and the personified sun rays can see it all. As a matter of fact, the sun’s muttering points to a degree of secrecy, also hinted by the quietness of ‘leaving no stare’. Even the rays, free to come in and out, blush ‘shyly at the tag of the overcoat near the window’, in yet another intimation of too much seeing. ‘Can you see now?’.

Inês Rosa

Inês Rosa is a PhD student at the Program in Literary Theory (Faculty of Letras, University of Lisbon). Her interest in poetry started with Shakespeare’s sonnets (read by Helen Vendler’s), but it was in Cambridge, while eating cakes and drinking tea, she began to talk and write about poems. Focused mainly on the work by Wordswort, sonets, Smith and Philip Larkin are also part of her topics of interest in poetry.


[1] All emphasis is mine. 


Maria S. Mendes




No princípio era o ar.

Ricardo Tiago Moura,  Airspace / Espaço Aéreo. London: Carnaval Press, 2017.

Aqui publicado com a autorização do autor e da editora. 



One of the main reasons why I like this poem so much (it opens the brief book Espaço Aéreo/Air Space, published first in Brazil in 2014 and later, in 2017, in London, by Carnaval Press, on a bilingual edition) is the intuition that it will be very hard to explain in few words why I like it so much. And also because it is a poem that, though extremely short — six words and three punctuation marks in total, title included —, does everything but impose its brevity as a law, a program, an ideal or a speech model; quite the contrary, this abbreviation operation is like slightly opening a door that gives onto a seemingly infinite space, where each one is handed the freedom to speak for as long as they want and how they see fit to do, without limitations of any sort and without excluding or belittling the choice to remain silent.

To say that this poem chooses to say little is, therefore, saying very little. In fact, “:departures:” prefers to say almost nothing. A title that is no more than a common airport sign diverted to the space of poetry and a sentence that is a minute variation of the first assertion of the inaugural verse of the Gospel of John (“In the beginning was the Word, […]”). Two cuts, so to speak, are what Ricardo Tiago Moura needs to edit a poem. Between the title and the sentence, a white interval notoriously minor than the remaining white space below the isolated half-line that stands as the poem’s only “stanza”. This abundance of white points out that restraint and austerity of means are not what is at stake here: in fact, what the poem concerns itself with is luxury, the supremely ironic luxury of resorting to all the blankness that poetry may find more convenient.

Such luxury, like in all great poetry, stands as an affirmation of freedom. As are others that make me like this poem so much: that of using more than one idiom; that of not loosing sight of biographical circumstances [“Airspace (Espaço Aéreo) is a collection of poems written in airports by the Portuguese poet Ricardo Tiago Moura”, states the online page of Carnaval Press]; that of using punctuation according to unconventional rules (colons before and after the title word, in lieu of quotes, but yielding a totally different effect); that of correcting one of the founding texts of Western culture while eschewing its metaphysical and logocentric arrogance. Above all, the striking freedom — for me, who am no poet — of never acknowledging that everything has been written before without adding at once that all remains to be said, especially what is more elemental, simple, obvious.

This return to the beginning, now from the point of view of aviation, sets up a starting point leading to unforeseeable destinies. With it ends the era of the poets addicted to the weariness of poetry itself.

Gustavo Rubim

Translation João Brandão

Gustavo Rubim enjoys the rare poets who are also opium-eaters. He is a compulsive, though rather slow, reader, which is why he became a literature professor (Universidade Nova de Lisboa). He is also a slow writer and seldom do his essays have more than fifteen pages. He photographs Ibises and Black Redstarts, among others.

Head of a Dandelion

Maria S. Mendes


Head of a Dandelion 


This is the dandelion with its thousand faculties


like an old woman taken by the neck

and shaken to pieces.


This is the dust-flower flitting away.


This is the flower of amnesia.

It has opened its head to the wind,

all havoc and weakness, 


as if a wooden man should stroll through fire…


In this unequal trial, one thing

controls the invisible violence of the air,


the other gets smashed and will not give in.


One thing flexes its tail causing widespread devastation,

it takes hold of the trees, it blows their failings out of them,

it throws in sideways, it flashes the river upriver;


the other thing gives up its skin and bones,

goes up in smoke, lets go of its ashes…


and this is the flower of no property,

this is the wind-bitten dandelion

worn away to its one recalcitrant element


like when Osiris

blows his scales and weighs the soul with a feather.


Alice Oswald, “Head of a Dandelion”, Woods. London: Faber and Faber, 2008.


I like the fact that this poem has strong imageryAlmost every line forms an image that lingers for long, even when you have forgotten all other texts on the book.

I also like the fact that it is inspired by a spontaneous plant of fragile and unremarkable appearance – a dandelion. It is precisely the frailty of this flower, permanently on the brink of coming apart, but also of being taken by the wind or by the puff of a passer-by, that makes it an important referent. The dandelion is associated with the act of thinking and with the human brain, and it points to the way our poor heads are, too, so often close to crumbling.

Let us consider, like Oswald does, that thinking represents an “unequal trial,” depicted in the poem in the images of the old woman taken by the neck and shaken to pieces and the wooden man who strolls through fire, somewhat unheedingly. The relation between the dandelion and memory is made clear through the referencing of amnesia, in the head opening to the wind, “all havoc and weakness,” which underlines the vulnerabilities of the human mind and the consequences of its dwindling.

In the final couplet, Osiris weighs a soul with a feather. We are in the habit of valuing some things (precious metals, food, events, eventually literature) by their weight. Nevertheless, according to this Egyptian myth, bodies outbalancing a feather were to be devoured by a monster, whereas those lighter than a feather would be granted eternal life. In a similar way, the poem points to an apparently frail figure that unveils its strength throughout the lines: in the end we reckon that lightness might be more valuable than anything else.

Oswald leaves us with this unexpected inversion, with no explanation on what qualifies lighter souls – or what they have done to deserve their weightlessness. To figure this out, we might need to hold on to the dandelion’s lesson, a flower which simultaneously has “no property” and a “thousand faculties,” and that, when faced with the violence that jolts it, “worn away to its one recalcitrant element,” simply sheds what appeared important but was expendable after all.

Building from these simple, but visually and conceptually powerful images, Alice Oswald offers us a brief poem that, like the dandelion, sends its seeds to the wind. Some of them will stick to our clothes and hair, leaving us to ponder on the disproportion between our small thoughts and the powerful forces they meet; on the role memory plays in our relationship with the world and ourselves; and also on what’s essential or expendable. 

Alda Rodrigues

Translation Francisco Matos Moreira

Alda Rodrigues is a translator and proof-reader; she has also worked in publishing and lexicography. She co-authors Cinéfilo Preguiçoso. Her relationship with poetry is informal and carefree.

Songs of the unloved

Maria S. Mendes


Songs of the unloved.

Songs of the thrown away.

Of those buried without a name.

Of immured into the night.

Songs of the crossed out from the lists.

Songs of those made to kneel on ice.

The song of the wanted no more,

It goes on, it does not stop.


We are trained quite well –

To light fires from burning snakes;

To rip our hearts out,

So we can become angrier still.

To keep heads under the water,

So nobody can take a breath;

And to break off the blade after the blow,

Because “the God is with us”.


Step on the glass

If it is empty now;

Put your head into the loop,

Take your stuff and get out.

Lord, please tell me

The Secrets of Being;

Look me in the eye

And say that it’s Your will.


We could keep waiting for the sun,

Looking at the zenith with blind eyes;

We used to have a crystal bell

inside us,

Somebody stepped on it, and it does not chime any more.

This music is older than the world itself;

It is awkward and laugh-worthy;

But I will dance to it,

Even if we cannot hear it.


For a gentle soul –

An iron dress.

The words in blood on the sand –

“All people are brothers”.

I don’t need your Secrets of Being

any more.

Just look me in the eye

And say that it’s your Will.


Boris Grebenshchikov, Песни нелюбимых [Songs of the unloved], 2016. 


Click here | ver aqui


I like this song because I think it shows what Russia is in reality, and yet, manages to give us a hope for what Russia can be. It is written by a Russian singer Boris Grebenshikov and is performed by his band Akvarium. Akvarium started its career way back in the Soviet Russia, when the USSR begun the long run to its inevitable end. Among other members of the Leningrad Rock Club, they were rebels, never complacent and always asking uncomfortable questions. Several decades on, and they still do it through their music.

‘Songs of the unloved’ caught my ear last summer on one pleasant afternoon, when I was sitting in a cosy living room in Moscow with my friend, and having a chat with her. We were discussing, indeed, the ever so gloomy situation in the country – worsening economy, non-existent competition in politics, despotism of those in power and lack of active resistance from the people. ‘The protest is dead and we’re doomed’, said my friend. ‘Let’s listen to good old Boris and forget about this madness for a bit’. She switched on her Mac and the song began.

For me personally, who studied the 2011-2012 protests in Russia extensively, the firsts words of this song immediately brought back memories of the protesters I talked to; beautiful people, strong people, stubborn and understanding at the same time, resilient and believing in a better future for their country. The song resonated completely with what the people who took to the streets in 2011 and 2012 told me in my interviews. They were the ‘unloved’, the ones ‘thrown away’ and too often humiliated for their beliefs and actions. And yet, they were also the ones who marched on, who carried on even if at times it looked like their song was dying. I bet many of them would be overwhelmed with a strong emotion when they listen to this song.

That is partly because ‘Songs of the unloved’ diagnoses Russian society so well – the society with constant PTSD, as one interviewee called it. It addresses the recklessness and anger of its people – ‘we are trained quite well – to light fires from burning snakes/to rip our hearts out, so we can become angrier still’ – and characteristic all-or-nothing attitude that forces us to ‘step on the glass if it is empty now’. The song captures the brutal reality of today’s Russia, where it does not pay off to be kind (‘for a gentle soul – an iron dress’), where people keep waiting helplessly for a better future that never comes (‘waiting for the sun, looking at the zenith with blind eyes’) and where non-conformity is crushed easily, like a heavy army boot stepping on a tiny bell and cutting its chime. The protagonist of the song keeps asking the Lord for answers, imitating the mode of behaviour of many Russians who still look up to the ones in power to give them the answers. 

In this way, it reminds me of the society that I only remember through stories and books – the Soviet state. It was the country that also hid behind glorious slogans of equality, unity and righteousness (be it ‘the God is with us’ or ‘all people are brothers’), and yet did unspeakable things to its people. In it, the unloved were indeed crossed out from the lists and buried without a name. In it, everyone in a way was kept under water, in their own nice little aquarium and with little possibility of breathing with full chests. It is ironic, but also strangely fitting, that exactly 100 years since the October Revolution, Russia is becoming dangerously close to that type of dictatorship once again.  

But the lyrics also hint at the great potential for kindness and goodness of Russian people, that ‘crystal bell’ inside them still goes on and does not stop despite being crushed. This bell gives hope and fosters the will to keep dancing to the seemingly ‘awkward and laugh-worthy’ melody of ethics, compassion and truth. It is telling that in the end of the song, the protagonist refuses to listen to the Lord and (in my opinion) understands that we do not need someone else to tell us what to do, and that we do not need to comply with their will.

The Soviet state was the reality of my country just a few decades ago, but my fear is that it might very soon become the reality of today’s Russia too. But amongst this fear there is also a great hope, the hope that we will keep dancing to the melody of truths, goodness and compassion, even if at times it looks like it has disappeared. For this is the only way to free ourselves from the gloomy reality that entraps us on a pleasant summer afternoon.

Yulia Lukyanova

Yulia Lukyanova is a social psychologist who is fascinated by all things protest. She is Russian, but has lived in Edinburgh, Scotland for some time now. She completed her PhD dissertation ‘Manufacturing dissent in Russia: A discursive psychological analysis of protesters’ talk’ at the University of Edinburgh in 2016. At this point in her life, she teaches sociology and does research into Russian diaspora in the UK and social movements in Russia. 


Maria S. Mendes


Oh I just wanna go to work —

And get back home, and be something

I just wanna fall and lie —

And do my time, and be something

Well I just wanna prove my worth —

On the planet Earth, and be, something

I just wanna fall in love

Not fuck it up, and feel something


Well lately, don’t understand what I am

Treated as a fool

Not quite a woman or a man

Well I don’t know

I guess I don’t understand the plan


Colonized, and hypnotized, be something

Sterilized, dehumanized, be something

Well take your pay

And stay out the way, be something

Ah do your best

But fuck the rest, be something


Well lately, it’s been mighty hard to see

Just searching for my lost humanity

I look for you, my friend

But do you look for me?


Lately I’m not too afraid, to die

I wanna leave it all behind

I think about it sometimes

Lately all my time’s been movin slow

I don’t know where I’m gonna go

Just give me time, I’ll know


Oh, any day now


"All died dreaming hating and waiting


Dead Puerto Ricans

Who never knew they were Puerto Ricans

Who never took a coffee break

from the tenth commandment


the landlords of their cracked skulls

and communicate with their latin souls







From the nervous breakdown streets

where the mice live like millionaires

And the people do not live at all"


From el barrio to Arecibo, ¡Pa’lante!

From Marble Hill to the ghost of Emmett Till, ¡Pa’lante!

To Juan, Miguel, Milagros, Manuel, ¡Pa’lante!

To all who came before, we say, ¡Pa’lante!

To my mother and my father, I say, ¡Pa’lante!

To Julia, and Sylvia, ¡Pa’lante!

To all who had to hide, I say, ¡Pa’lante!

To all who lost their pride, I say, ¡Pa’lante!

To all who had to survive, I say, ¡Pa’lante!

To my brothers, and my sisters, I say, ¡Pa’lante!



To all came before, we say, ¡Pa’lante!


Hurray for the Riff Raff, “Pa’lante”, The Navigator, ATO Records. 2017.

I like this poem because its quality does not rely on the obvious things one might say about it. Now and then, good poetry is described as being honest, as an illustration of its author’s essence, which is why the more one gets to know the author through the poem, the better the poem’s quality is (or so it goes). Also now and then, but not necessarily concurrently, good poetry is described as unavoidably political: the more it says about the society in which it is created the better it is (or so it goes). This poem seemingly combines both aspects: a high degree of individualism and the necessary political innuendos.


The Navigator (2017), Hurray for the Riff Raff’s sixth album, is special because it breaks with the path Alynda Segarra, the singer and author, had been pursuing in previous albums: that of perfecting American folk’s structures. Here, contrariwise, the Latino sounds are blatant. In this poem particularly, the title immediately hints at Segarra’s Latin-American origins: “Pa’lante” is the contraction of “para adelante” (“forward”), a common expression in the Puerto Rican community. The Latino influences also come through the voice of poet Petro Pietri, who recites part of his most famous poem, “Puerto Rican Obituary,” in the song (the poem we hear is slightly different from the published version). As a bonus, the connection to the Latin-American roots is therefore guaranteed in the most dignified way: through poetry.

To start with, the Latino influences are thematic; but they are also aesthetical when they acknowledge the “broken english” of Segarra’s bilingual upbringing, an expression taken from Peitri’s poem. The explanation is given by Pietri’s poem: “They are dead / and will not return from the dead / until they stop neglecting / the art of their dialogue— / for broken english lessons / to impress the mister goldsteins— / who keep them employed.” Challenging what we usually assume about poetry and stylistic refinement, what is stated here is that any English linguistic refinement is not only politically demeaning, but also a way of compliance, as both Pietri and Segarra’s poems make use of Latin-American expressions as part of the speech. From a certain point of view, Segarra’s poem is nothing more than an inventory of commonplaces: the author’s plea to just be someone, the idea that death might be something good, Pietri’s poem as a connection to the Puerto Rican background, or the idea that without our cultural heritage we will never amount to anything. It only stops being a cliché when Segarra says “el barrio” and “Arecibo” and then accomplishes the internal rhyme in perfect English: “Marble Hill” and “Emmet Till”; when she pronounces the names “Julia” and “Sylvia.” Retrospectively, from that moment on, all that was said must be reappraised.

For this poem to be good it is necessary, on the one hand, to hear it in Segarra’s voice (just as Pietri’s poem requires the author’s voice); on the other hand, it is crucial to understand that the best poems might feature inaccuracies (in this case, because it struggles with bilingualism). The quality of this poem is latent not in the meaning, which seems obvious, but in the vocal nuances. Of all the things said about this album, my favorite continues to be Segarra’s claim that in order to make it she had to remember who she was as a teenager: a Puerto Rican girl and a punk growing in New York. Those who disregard this poem as a fusion of those two features clearly do not know much about either poetry or punk.

Telmo Rodrigues

Telmo Rodrigues completed his PhD in Literary Theory at Faculty of Letters, University of Lisbon, with a thesis entitled For a Lark: The Poetry of Songs. In his thesis he explores relations between popular music and poetry. Currently he is the director of the magazine Forma de Vida


Maria S. Mendes




Climbing in the mist I came to a terrace wall

and saw above it a small field of broad beans in flower

their white fragrance was flowing through the first light

of morning there a little way up the mountain

where I had made my way through the olive groves

and under the blossoming boughs of the almonds

above the old hut of the charcoal burner

where suddenly the scent of the bean flowers found me

and as I took the next step I heard

the creak of the harness and the mule’s shod hooves

striking stones in the furrow and then the low voice

of the man talking softly praising the mule

as he walked behind through the cloud in his white shirt

along the row and between his own words

he was singing under his breath a few phrases

at a time of the same song singing it

to his mule it seemed as I listened

watching their breaths and not understanding a word


W. S. Merwin“Alba”, The New Yorker, 2008.

I like this poem because apparently there is nothing going on in it. What first attracted me was the masterful naming of the flora — one of the “tricks” writers use, as someone said —, something that seduces and invites awe because it certifies specialized knowledge on a part of the world. This naming gives us the space and time coordinates of the moment the poem describes: “Alba”, the title, is neither just a reference to sunrise (already clearly stated in the third and fourth lines), nor does it point solely to the mist that frequently takes place at that time of the day, especially in higher grounds, as is the case here; “Alba” is also the name of a comune in Piedmont, in the north of Italy (which I found out in this sharp-tongued piece of writing). With this information in our possession, the beans, the olive groves, the charcoal burner’s hut, the almond trees, and even the appearance of the man with the mule become invested with an obvious and ordinary meaning. Because the broad beans and the almond trees are blossoming, we know when the events take place: almond trees only blossom in late January or early February. Regarding broad beans, the matters get trickier, if the beans were planted in the more favourable season, October/November, they can be harvested in May, but I was not able to gather whether it would be possible for the broad beans to blossom at the same time as the almond trees (the poem gives the illusion that some of the specialized knowledge the poet exhibits rubs off on us, but coming across these setbacks, we know it is not so).

There are other sets of tricks in this poem: the absence of punctuation, sentences that pour from one line to another (thus acquiring ambiguous meanings), giving colours to smells (the white fragrance of the broad beans in flower), conferring agency to things that have none (it was the scent of the broad beans in flower that found the poet, not the other way around), and finally, a crucial one, putting on airs of a factual description — in addition to the naming of the flora, there is the minute description of the mule’s shod hooves’s sounds, of the colour of the man’s shirt, and of both their breaths. The “there” in the fourth line reads almost inconspicuously, but it assures us that this promenade actually took place “there”, as if the poet was pointing to a real place and telling us what happened over there.

In the end, what we get is the picturesque image of a bucolic morning, which gives the impression of existing by itself due to the natural, common, elements that are a part of its composition — as if it all was already a poem only waiting to be put into words, one that Merwin caught. Nevertheless, that “there” is not just a marker of factuality. It also creates a distance between what was supposedly experienced and the written words, and assures us, together with the aforementioned tricks, that the moment is a fabrication because the poem is a fabrication. Poems are not waiting to be caught, what may well account for the fact that the poet cannot understand the words the man sings to the mule. Poems are made, using more or less tricks, even when it seems that nothing, or nothing much, is going on — this being the greatest trick of all.           

Helena Carneiro

Helena Carneiro completed her Master at the Program in Literary Theory (University of Lisbon). She works as a redactor and as an editorial assistant at Imprensa da Universidade de Lisboa. She is also the editor of the arts review’s section of the online magazine Forma de Vida. People in her life have explained poetry to her. And she does enjoy Phillip Larkin, who, in his tombstone, has described himself as a “writer”.