Jorge de Sena: I Belong to You, But You Are Not Mine


You can steal all that’s mine:
my ideas, words, images,
my metaphors, themes, motifs,
my symbols and pre-eminence
in suffering the pains of a new language,
in understanding others, in daring
to fight, to judge, to penetrate
recesses of love where you are impotent.
And then you can refuse to quote me,
you can suppress me, ignore me, and even
acclaim other thieves, luckier than you.
It doesn’t matter: your punishment
will be grim. For when your grandchildren
no longer know who you are
they’ll know me much better
than you pretend not to,
and all that you have painstakingly pillaged
will revert to my name. Even what little
you did not steal but achieved on your own
will be mine, counted as mine, credited to me.
You’ll have nothing at all, not even your bones,
for they’ll dig up one of your skeletons
and say it’s mine. So that other thieves, just
like you, can kneel and place flowers on my tomb.

Jorge de Sena, 1963
Translation by Richard Zenith

Today, as every Portuguese knows, is Dia de Portugal, de Camões e das Comunidades Portuguesas—but Luis de Camoes is not the subject of this piece.  Rather, I’m far more interested in a scholar of Camoes, the Portuguese writer Jorge de Sena.

A Portuguese poet, critic, essayist, novelist, playwright, translator, university professor and father of nine, Sena managed to publish over 100 titles before his early death at age 59.  He fled Portugal under Salazar’s regime, first emigrating to Brazil, and later to the United States where his academic career flourished despite a lack of recognition by his academic peers. In fact, he was shocked by the contempt his colleagues had of Portuguese literature, and wrote a series of brilliantly critical texts about the cultural ignorance and discrimination his family endured in the United States.  Sena, however, blamed Portuguese emigrants, and their descendants, for these deplorable attitudes, for not having a more active role in defending and championing their language and culture in the US.

But Sena also had a complicated relationship with Portugal, Portuguese culture and even the Portuguese intelligentsia, a relationship that was never resolved. Sena’s love for his homeland was tinged with bitterness and hate, adoration and pride. In the poem below, which is both a lament and a love song, he views his country as the mother who has thrown him out of his home into a life of wandering and exile amid the “belching of glories past.” His last words, “I belong to you, but you are not mine” are simply heartbreaking.

A Portugal

Esta é a ditosa pátria minha amada. Não.
Nem é ditosa, porque o não merece.
Nem minha amada, porque é só madrasta.
Nem pátria minha, porque eu não mereço
a pouca sorte de ter nascido nela.

Nada me prende ou liga a uma baixeza tanta
quanto esse arroto de passadas glórias.
Amigos meus mais caros tenho nela,
saudosamente nela, mas amigos são
por serem meus amigos, e mais nada.

Torpe dejecto de romano império;
babugem de invasões; salsugem porca
de esgoto atlântico; irrisória face
de lama, de cobiça, e de vileza,
de mesquinhez, de fátua ignorância;
terra de escravos, cu p’ró ar ouvindo
ranger no nevoeiro a nau do Encoberto;
terra de funcionários e de prostitutas,
devotos todos do milagre, castos
nas horas vagas de doença oculta;
terra de heróis a peso de ouro e sangue,
e santos com balcão de secos e molhados
no fundo da virtude; terra triste
à luz do sol caiada, arrebicada, pulha,
cheia de afáveis para os estrangeiros
que deixam moedas e transportam pulgas,
oh pulgas lusitanas, pela Europa;
terra de monumentos em que o povo
assina a merda o seu anonimato;
terra − museu em que se vive ainda,
com porcos pela rua, em casas celtiberas;
terra de poetas tão sentimentais
que o cheiro de um sovaco os põe em transe;
terra de pedras esburgadas, secas
como esses sentimentos de oito séculos
de roubos e patrões, barões ou condes;
ó terra de ninguém, ninguém, ninguém:

eu te pertenço. És cabra, és badalhoca,
és mais que cachorra pelo cio,
és peste e fome e guerra e dor de coração.
Eu te pertenço: mas ser’s minha, não.

Jorge de Sena, Dezembro de 1961

in «Quarenta Anos de Servidão» Lisboa, 1979

7 thoughts on “Jorge de Sena: I Belong to You, But You Are Not Mine

  1. Linda, Vancouver, BC June 10, 2013 — 10:19 pm

    I”m reading América América by de Sena. I”d highly recommend it to everyone!

  2. orge de Sena wanted nothing more than to be invited to RETURN to Portugal after the revolution in 1974 and this poem is a reflection of his own deep heartache. You might be interested in reading “Jorge de Sena’s Advice to his Fellow Exiles” which is available through the InterDISCIPLINARY Journal of Portuguese Diaspora Studies.

    1. Fernanda Viveiros June 14, 2013 — 6:29 am

      Tony, thank you for the recommendation.

  3. Sena’s, A Portugal, reads, in sentiment, like some elegiac poem; it also seems to be describing a lament over a love/hate frustrated relationship with a lost homeland. I am curious as to why he had, as Fernanda writes, “a complicated relationship with Portugal, Portuguese culture and even the Portuguese intelligentsia, a relationship that was never resolved.” I was even more intrigued to learn about his frustration with how Portuguese immigrants and their descendants did not care to promote their language and culture in the US. Sena’s criticism is still a timely concern which we have inherited, as demonstrated in the previous discussion on the Perils of ethnic comedy. We are still struggling to find meaningful ways of expressing our culture and language to the world. We strive to make ourselves noticed for the riches that our cultural heritage offers. But, like Sena, I wonder if most of us, in the duality that is the immigrant soul looking back to the “pátria minha amada”, still harbour similar sentiments toward the homeland: “Eu te pertenço; mas ser’s minha, não.”
    Thanks to Tony for the recommendation of “Jorge de Sena’s Advice to his fellow Exiles”, and to Fernanda for bringing this important writer and thinker to the forefront for discussion. I confess my ignorance of his works but must add him to the list of Portuguese writes to discover: now!

  4. George Reis, Brooklyn NY June 12, 2013 — 6:45 am

    This is not typical fare for Portugal Day, which is why it’s rather thrilling to read. I don’t recall who said it, but this reminds me that indifference is the opposite of love, not hatred. Love and hate are so close, as we see in this poem “A Portugal.” The lines about the Portuguese being slaves with their asses pointed to the sky waiting for the triumphant return of Dom Sebastiao….vicious! Though I find it a bit too unrelenting to be really great art. There’s a whiff of the spoiled child here. After all, this hateful country gave him the rich language he uses to vilify them. Nonetheless, it’s a very effective portrait of a person so fed up with the Old World that he no choice but to leave it for a place where he can breathe free. Kind of ironic then that de Sena is credited for creating much of the academic infrastructure of Portuguese Studies here in the US as a result of his work at UCSB…I need to read more of him. Thank you, Fernanda.

  5. Fernanda Viveiros June 14, 2013 — 6:49 am

    George, if he were alive today, I’d imagine he’d be surprised by the popularity of Portuguese language departments throughout North America and the many literary and publishing initiatives by Portuguese North Americans. In his book, América América, he writes of a colleague who tells him that a single semester should be enough for Sena to provide his students with an overview, “since there isn’t enough Portuguese literature to fill more than that.” Given that Portuguese literature has been around for nearly a thousand years, you can imagine his frustration. As for his bitterness toward Portugal, I believe it was due in part to his never being asked to return to Lisbon to teach.

  6. Reblogged this on Presence/Presença and commented:
    From DISQUIET 2011 alum Fernanda Viveiros.

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