Mário Cesariny de Vasconcelos
(Portugal, 1923–2006)   
Mário Cesariny de Vasconcelos

Mário Cesariny de Vasconcelos has remained, his whole life long, an ‘amateur’ of art and of life. A lover, not a professional. And so it seems like an accident that he stands out as one of Portugal’s major poets of the second half of the 20th century, as well as a notable painter. When I say ‘amateur’, I don’t mean that his literary and artistic activities were a sideline. They were, in fact, his full-time ‘profession’. But he didn’t pursue them with the care or ambition typical of a professional.

While studying Fine Arts as an adolescent in Lisbon, where he was born, Cesariny and several classmates began to frequent the Café Herminius. They and other young men who met at the café were initially adherents of Neo-Realism but soon came to feel that this doctrinaire aesthetic, in its orthodoxly Marxist opposition to Salazar’s oppressive regime, had itself become a source of oppression for nonconforming artists and writers. Cesariny invented a pseudonym called Nicolau Cansado [Weary Nicholas] whose verses parodied the relentlessly class-conscious productions of the Neo-Realists.

A short time later, in 1947, the Herminius group, joined by several others, founded Portuguese Surrealism, whose heroic phase lasted for about five years. One of the key players, António Maria Lisboa (1928-1953), died young, while others gradually dispersed (see the editorial for July 2005), leaving Cesariny to prolong the movement almost single-handedly, through his own creative output, his studies and theoretical texts, and the various anthologies he has compiled of Portuguese Surrealist writings. But I repeat: Cesariny has done all this as an amateur, in a spontaneous fashion rather than as the systematic defense of a cause, let alone the building of a career.

Surrealism, for this poet, was a lifestyle, one that constantly spat on conventions and pushed against the limits imposed by an autocratic political regime, by society at large, and by human reason itself. One of his most famous poems, ‘you are welcome to elsinore’, is a scathing indictment of Portugal under Salazar, whose small-minded and isolationist philosophy of government (“Proudly alone” was one of the dictator’s mottos for the nation) infected daily life itself, standing like an impassable wall “between us and words”, making communication, poetry and love’s free expression all but impossible.

For Cesariny, a homosexual, the open expression of love was especially problematic (he was occasionally arrested for ‘immoral’ behavior), such that love became almost a synonym for freedom. A number of his poems document both the liberating hope (‘poem that can serve as an afterword’) and liberating effect (‘de profundis amamus’) of love. Love and poetry, intimately related in this poet’s experience, were not only a means for asserting his freedom in the Elsinore that was Salazarist Portugal; they were also vehicles for going beyond the confines of reason. Poems such as ‘The ship of mirrors’ were written, says Cesariny, according to the ‘automatic’ principles propounded by the French Surrealists to reach the unconscious by circumventing the rational mind.

In the 1980s Cesariny stopped writing poetry altogether, dedicating himself exclusively to painting. This, like poetry before it, has been a vital activity – his way of living day to day –, not the building of a personal monument to resist mortality. The refusal to separate art from life seems to be the distinguishing mark of Surrealism as understood and practiced by this poet.

© Richard Zenith


In Portuguese
Manual de Prestidigitação, 1957; revised, 1981.
Pena Capital, 1957; revised, 2004.
Nobilíssima Visão, 1959; revised, 1991.
Planisfério e Outros Poemas, 1961.
A Cidade Queimada, 1965; revised, 1988.
O Virgem Negra, 1989.

In Spanish
Ortofrenia y otros poemas. Tr. Perfecto E. Cuadrado, Madrid, 1989.
Manual de Prestidigitación. Tr. X. Trigo, Barcelona, 1990.
De Profundis Amamus. Tr. Perfecto E. Cuadrado, Mérida, 2001.

In French
Labyrinthe du chant. Anthologie, tr. Isabel Meyrelles, Bordeaux, 1994.

Poetic Prose
In Italian
Titânia. Tr. Livia Apa, Naples, 1997.

Anthologies, Essays and other Prose
In Portuguese
Surrealismo/Abjeccionismo, 1963; revised, 1992.
A Intervenção Surrealista, 1966; revised,1997.
As Mãos na Água a Cabeça no Mar, 1972; revised, 1985.
Titânia (e a Cidade Queimada) , 1977.
Antologia do Cadáver Esquisito, 1989.

In Portuguese
Biographical and bibliographical information.

In Spanish
A critical appreciation.


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