The soothing spirituality of haiku

23 December 2022

José Tolentino de Mendonça (Machico, 1965) theologian and university professor, in 2014 he represented Portugal in the World Poetry Day, because he deals with poetry both critically and through an appreciated personal production. You spent your childhood in Angola, where your father was a fisherman in some port cities. The relationship with nature is among the main themes of her collections, together with the philosophical reflection on freedom and time as human and superhuman events, inserted in an openly ecumenical sphere of Christian thought. The last volume of her verse, The poppy and the monkdrew inspiration from a trip to Japan and from that country’s most traditional and well-known literary form, thehaiku. The haiku, which also has many admirers and followers in Italy (to the point that every year numerous competitions and conferences are dedicated to it, with a lively participation of enthusiasts) is, as we know, a poem in three lines without rhymes, which does not exceed 17 syllables, divided into 5/7/5 more per line. In his compositions, Tolentino does not strictly adhere to this metric scheme, but remains in any case faithful both to an extremely concise structure and to the spiritual dimension, to the evocative appeal, to the pictorial sensibility typical of this poetic figuration: in the premise, he claims to be indebted, for his compositions, to both Kerouac and Bashō.

Silenceas an intention to listen and inner devotion, is often the protagonist of the lines: “Silence is only rarely empty / it says something / it says what it is not”, “Silence is not a form / of rest or suspension / but of resistance” , “Silence: / contemplate the snow / until you get confused with it”, “Learn to give up / everything / even silence”, “Silence / is not the opposite / but the reverse”.

Prayer it is disposition of the soul, to an extent that does not belong only to Christianity, but to universal religious sentiment, whose primary expression is contemplative, of thanksgiving and wonder, and whose celebrants are the ancient pilgrims, the monks of all faiths: ” Want to know what I pray when I pray? / dry trunks, twigs / fences and red clay”, “Happy is he who kisses the icon / with total devotion / asking for nothing”, “Monastic life / is a form of nudity / that is not ashamed of itself”, “The true science of holiness / is to live / without why”, “Summer / teaches the same prayer / to the poppy and to the monk”, “The pilgrim / prefers shoes / repaired several times”.

The nature celebrates beauty in total gratuitousness: “Today the clouds seem / monks taking tea / in silence”, “Things that leave no trace: lightning in the night / the flight of herons against the snow”, “The begonia has returned to blossom / and the partridge has found / its nest intact”, “In the branch of the quince / I discover clouds / that I had not seen”, “Many times / I tell the dew / I am like you”.

Between colors of these poetic watercolors the white undoubtedly prevails, in the whiteness of the snow and cirrus clouds, in the emptiness of the page that welcomes the lean syllables written in black. But there are also the green of the grass and the woods, the blue of the sky and the lakes, the yellow and red of the flowers. Here we breathe the tranquil serenity of someone who knows himself as a creature similar to any other living being, animal or vegetable, recognizing himself as inessential to the world but still loved by God; of those who want to abandon themselves to the flow of time, giving up what weighs down the mind and heart: the torment of thought, the imposition of the will, the affliction of memory, the anxiety of the project. “Everything is ephemeral: / yesterday I listened to your voice / today only the wind”.

In his admired and intense preface, the Italianist Lina Bolzoni he comments on these pages as follows: “It is a fascinating and perturbing book. It takes us far away, among the rushes and chrysanthemums of Japan and at the same time digs into our interiority, it provokes us with its questions, with its reversals of perspective, it enchants us with the magic of the verse, with the swirling dance of points of view”.

Besides being a poet, José Tolentino de Mendonça he has been Cardinal of the Roman Curia since 2019.


Preface by Lina Bolzoni, translation by Teresa Bartolomei.

Portuguese text opposite, p. 170

The soothing spirituality of haiku