Contributor’s Marginalia: Zachariah McVicker on “Saudades” by Tomás Q Morín
“When now fails,
Was is all there is;
Elsewhere we lose always.”
– Joe Bolton, “Little Testament”
Firstly, translation is always the issue, but more importantly, it doesn’t matter. After first consulting Google to research the titular and, as it happens, nearly untranslatable Portuguese word, “Saudades,” I was hooked more than I had already been. For a while now I’ve been somewhat obsessed with its closest English synonym: “nostalgia”, which can be etymologically reduced to the Greek, almost oxymoronic nostos and algos: “homecoming” and “pain,” respectively.
The poem begins by breaking down saudades into the speaker’s private, inventive understanding through homonym:
When that word, one part swine,
one part evasion, first wobbled into my life…
I too might parse the word this way, given no context. And just as I’ve never studied a day’s worth of Greek in my life, I couldn’t tell you without the aid of a Portuguese etymology whether this translation is accurate. It may in fact be literal, but that no longer matters – I am convinced by the strange, almost-too-easy logic of this enterprise, this seeking for the roots of the untranslatable with limited tools. By extension, I think Morín enacts in these first two lines the overarching logical scheme that dictates the rest of this delusion poem. This schematic is the attempt to translate not only spoken and written language but also the unknowable language of memory and dreams, which we attempt to translate far too often, the language of saudades,
My best understanding of the word “saudades” is something like this: a longing for what’s unattainable or lost, even impossible, in terms of space and not just time (which we seem to exclusively associate with nostalgia). What is compelling to me is that this poem takes this esoteric word and does not simply invoke its meaning but it more importantly enacts its emotional implications. Plenty of poems invoke, and invoke well, nostalgia and saudades and many a thing unrequited. However, to enact those expressions not only with but as language and imagery, such as in these first two lines, is not simply surprising but alive, breathing. Has not saudades, “that word….wobbled into [his] life…”? I think that I must attempt to withhold a line-by-line explication – it seems almost counterintuitive to the project of this poem. Like the memory or impossible dream one cannot completely explicate: it takes place elsewhere, either in history or fantasy, two not altogether different Thules.
But to echo the poem: in another play on the oxymoron, Morín (forget anonymity of author), daydream-like, revels in the agonizing homecoming of saudades: pigs flying while he’s eating pastrami; pigs dancing the Samba while he’s hiding from students during office hours; being wrapped in the wings of grief “which [are] warmer than one would expect.” The poem dances between the factual and fallacious present, and we find that saudades is not simply a torturous dance; it can also be an escape from the mundane, a thing perhaps more terrifying than loss. At this point, I don’t care to know the source of grief– all that matters is the palpability of the dual nature of longing, being both warm and smothering, both invigorating and embarrassing. Because imagination and memory paint such a fantastical scene here, while language nearly brings to reality what is not within the realm of possibility, I can’t spare the room to consider the details of the bringer-of-grief. Beyond that, with time, grief and memory often come untethered from their reference points, which is in part what I see happening here by means of omission. Thus, by positioning the advent of grief as secondary, I am not bogged in fact or drama; on the contrary, the poem forefronts the speaker’s revelry in the cathartically impossible:
it is to make the past present, and how
easily one can sleep dressed in feathers.
And then, when I read this terminus of the poem, I realized it was all one single moment, just one utterance. Deftly the poem has unwound itself across and down the page in a single sentence, ambling dream-like across its ample lines – nineteen of them – without a hitch. This enactment of meandering patience, which abruptly ends with the kind of finality unique to poetry with its terminal white space, is all too reminiscent of my own daydreams, my own nostalgia and saudades. You snap out of it; You return to the real.
To say that this poem kills silently is not entirely correct: “Saudades” does not slip the knife into your back, but rather, it twists the blades you may have forgotten were there. And the masochist, that walking oxymoron, is prince of its dreamland. This poem is a qualification of that immeasurable second we’ve all caught ourselves in: that almost-infinitely extended moment that must by necessity come to its end, where pigs dance and fly, where a word wobbles into the room, where you sleep soundly within delusion, tarred and feathered by a memory.
Zachariah McVicker is a first-year MFA candidate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Before graduate school, he received his BA in English Literature from the Ohio State University and worked as a line cook in Columbus. His poems have been published in the Birmingham Poetry Review and his reviews have appeared and are forthcoming online at thevoltablog.com. In June 2012, he was a fellow at the Bucknell Seminar for Younger Poets.