Martin Kratz reviews Point of Honour: Selected Poems of Maria Teresa Horta, translated by Lesley Saunders, Two Rivers Press, 2019.
In this current political moment, I reach (like many others) for poetries written under and against the rule of political authoritarianism: to find bearings, to draw on others’ experiences, to remember and cast that memory forwards. This translation of the works of Portuguese poet Maria Teresa Horta is a welcome addition to these writings. Like the translator, Lesley Saunders, I’m not a Portuguese speaker. Poet and translator used French as their language of communication throughout this project and were supported by the scholar Ana Raquel Fernandes (who provides an invaluable introduction which this article draws on) and Horta’s life-long companion, Luís Barros. It’s the kind of collaborative approach that seems entirely consistent with Saunders’s publication history and Horta’s own.
In the poem ‘Words’ from the 1963 collection Amor Habitado/Love Inhabited, Horta describes using ‘words | like weapons […] which I guess means | no longer using them | as accomplices’. Horta was not alone in thinking of her words as weapons. She was a significant figure in Portuguese literary feminism, and as one of The Three Marias, her work was banned by the fascist Estado Novo regime on grounds of being ‘an outrage to public morals’. From the elegy ‘Who?’ (‘For all the nameless women murdered, assassinated, wiped out day after day’) to her love poems, the work flies in the face of oppression. Horta’s work also demonstrates the weaponisation of language by the same forces she opposes. In ‘Sayings about Fear’ she asks:
Who dares utter
without making sure the door is locked?
(with lips white and clamped)
On the one hand, tyrant is positioned as a word that almost arrests language into silence. On the other hand, this point can’t be made without speaking the word (repeatedly as the poem does) in the first place.
The book spans a career of 60 years and as such is as much a challenge of anthologising as it is of translation – Horta chose the poems herself with Luís Barros. The way the book is set out means that reading it in English, it’s easy sometimes not to notice that you’re moving from one phase of writing to another – crossing into a new decade with the turn of a page – which I appreciated. It avoided making the book feel overly retrospective.
In fact, the translation of the collection’s title poem, ‘Point of Honour’ was first published in 2017 in a special edition of a journal themed around Women on Brexit. This emphasis felt like another good decision, for similar reasons. It can be easy for the reader presented with a life’s work to think of the author in question as being already somehow less contemporary than others – the bulk of their work behind them. But Horta is very much contemporary and consequential and her early warning not to use language as an accomplice in acts of literary bystanderism holds true; and in her most recent work, she continues to ‘flout their rules of delusion | float wherever I choose’. For readers new to the work, they could do worse than starting with ‘Poem’ / ‘Poema’ for which Saunders won first prize in the Stephen Spender Prize open category in 2016.
– Martin Kratz
Martin Kratz’s translations from the German have appeared in The Heart of a Stranger: An Anthology of Exile Literature (Pushkin Press, August 2019).