‘Mar Novo’ by Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen

My rating: 4 stars

Pessimism and despair loom large in the majority of the poems that are part of the collection Mar Novo by the Portuguese author Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen. Originally published in 1958, when Portugal was under a fascist dictatorship, they allude to a world of darkness and terror and to the need to build a new one. As in other of her collections, natural elements are used as metaphors for concepts that could have been censored.

The sea is constantly used as a symbol for freedom, a desirable right that at that point in time she didn’t believe could soon be attained. In ‘Marinheiro sem Mar’, one of my favourite poems in this collection, that symbolism is particularly noticeable. It mentions a sailor without sea, which can be interpreted as a metaphor for a people without freedom. In that world, where the sea had dried up, it was also impossible to find the truth. While this poem has a gloomy undertone, ‘Liberdade’ is more positive. There are references to beaches and waves, elements with no impurities.

One poem that stands out because of its sonority is ‘Porque’. It emphasises the reasons why a specific person, most certainly her husband, is different from the others. She lists what makes him a good man by juxtaposing what others do and he doesn’t. The repetition of “tu não” (“not you”) is powerful. He is brave, honest and stands up for his values, even though it’s dangerous to do so. Her husband, Francisco Sousa Tavares, was an opponent of the fascist regime. Her love and admiration for him is mentioned in other poems as well.

Sophia’s belief in God is also present in this collection. ‘Senhor se da Tua pura justiça’ is written from the perspective of a person who is a believer but that is starting to think that someone must have defeated God, as there are so many monsters around.

Other poems are built around more specific moments in time. ‘Noturno da Graça’, for example, is a portrayal of a city during a night of full moon. The descriptions of the sounds and lights are evocative.

This particular collection hasn’t been translated into English, but there are some anthologies of Sophia’s poems available. If you enjoy poetry, her work is a must-read.

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