Interpreting a poem is a bit like talking to an old eccentric uncle. We all know this uncle is going to surprise us, as we can expect the same thing from a poem. Nevertheless, it is a weary surprise we are offered, or, to put it clearly, a surprise we know we can expect. On his visits to the family house, we are all accustomed to the idea of considering him eccentric, although he always uses ordinary language and claims to know us all inside out. He doesn’t, really, but tries to convince us on this point – bear in mind this eccentric uncle suffers from a very particular kind of blindness. To guarantee that nothing breaks the rhythm of his laughter, his good mood (albeit a rather devious one), it is important that he keeps looking after himself, always dazzled by the white of his teeth or by the twinkling of his cuff links, while remaining full of zeal for his way of gesturing, the way he talks, between gracious comments and caustic remarks, while all the time pretending that he looks us straight in the eyes (it is relevant that he never looks away from us, because that’s his only way of convincing us that he’s conversing with us, not with himself, which is what actually happens). We always tolerate our eccentric uncle’s company because he has a way of flattering us with his gift for words, and also because he knows how to convince us that he really wants to know how it is with us, when truly his most deep desire is to keep us informed on how it is with him, such a solitary man that he is, the most solitary relative in the family, notwithstanding the horrific spectacle that he makes when he walks in. Our eccentric uncle honors us with his presence simply because he’s always smartly dressed, polite and perfumed, although he’s really a desperate man. And listening to him is a bit like interpreting a poem, as he always talks with an expertise that he can’t claim for himself by any means, and when we question him on that he just shrugs and says “I’ve been like this for years, don’t you know...”, just like the poem and its inability to explain his raison d'être. Uncle and poem are always shrugging and are apparently incapable of carrying out a conversation from begining to end. Verse always impress us with a kind of excitement that is somewhat inappropriate or out of place (as with the uncle), apparently given to shouting when everyone else is quiet, and, in short, with the excessivequality of its character. With all the amount of talk they want us to hear, verse and uncle always end up by losing track with a smile that is both silly and sincere, with a sort of clumsy mimicry, with disjointed stories that go nowhere, with a sort of pretentiousness that can be quite moving once the failure to express has been proven. Anyone that tries to interpret a poem for the first time always ends up with an ideaof what he or she has just read, and this is what happens when we pass by some road where an actual accident took place minutes ago: we retain an overexcited idea of what happened. The same thing could be said after a conversation with our eccentric uncle, who visits the family house for a birthday party or some other festive occasion: that smart man and his convulsive speech always gets us a bit stunned, and meanwhile we can see him talking and making equally excited gestures in front of another relative, who in turn keeps listening with mixed feelings, amused and a also somewhat numbed. At the end of conversation, we feel ambivalent about the whole thing: did I just waste five minutes of my time listening to an eccentric man or it can be that probably it is him the only person who really understands me? During this brief encounter, we force ourselves into a swirling shift of associations, and we try to keep up with a certain kind of humor and tolerate unbridled manifestations of tragedy; however, as soon as we find ourselves at a safe distance from our eccentric uncle or the poem (which is basically the same), we do not remember them exactly as highlights in our sentimental education. What are they, after all? It would be of little use to summarize the whole thing as an amusement. Our uncle’s (or the poem’s) bulging eyes when he speaks wouldn't allow such folly. Maybe we are just lucky because we do not have to reply to the question “why would this poem matter to me?”, and this is because a poem is an eccentricity of language, and we say it with the same fondness and casualness that guide our words when in family we talk about our dear uncle as “that odd fish”. There he goes again, we say, hopefully he will come back some other time with less things to do: surely he will explain to me what he meant when he said this and that. But we know, even with all this wishful thinking, this is not going to happen. That’s the beauty of the thing: poem and uncle are very expansive, for sure, but they never explain much. Both are allowed to do that, yes: they know we regard them as eccentric.
Frederico Pedreira completed his PhD in Literary Theory at Faculty of Letters, University of Lisbon. He has translated, among others, works by G.K. Chesterton, Oscar Wilde, W. B. Yeats, Herman Melville and Charles Dickens. Won the INCM/Vasco Graça Moura Prize for Best Essay in the Humanities (2016). Has published, among others, Presa Comum (Poetry. Relógio D’Água, 2015), A Noite Inteira (Poetry. Relógio D’Água, 2017) and Uma Aproximação à Estranheza (Essays. INCM, 2017).