I read the new poetry collection by U.K. poet Nigel Kent, and I learned a new word: saudade. I read the poems before I looked up the definition, wondering if I might be able to define it simply by reading the poems. I sensed it had to do with love, longing, and loss, like losing something or someone you deeply loved. Even if you found what you had lost or regained the lost relationship, you somehow knew it would never be the same.
As it turns out, I nailed it. Or, actually, Kent’s poems nailed it. “Saudade” is from the Spanish or Portuguese, and some consider it untranslatable as an English word or short phrase. A story from NPR explains it this way: “The concept has many definitions, including a melancholy nostalgia for something that perhaps has not even happened. It often carries an assurance that this thing you feel nostalgic for will never happen again.”
You wander through the world of Saudade, and you discover that melancholy, a sweet melancholy. It may be lost relationships between a child and parents. It may be the suffering of a miscarriage. It may be a marriage breaking down into anger and mistrust. Or it may be bullying, an insensitive schoolteacher, an empty bird’s nest, an unfavorable comparison with a sibling, or a father’s unwelcome if accurate advice about a new girlfriend. Kent writes about all of these things, and slowly you come to realize that there is a kind of melancholy pleasure, or joy, even in painful circumstances.
In one of the two title poems, Kent combines this sense of pain and melancholy pleasure in describing the ending of a relationship, with both people feeling the pain and already the regret. For the man, regret is “already running down unshaven cheeks.” For the woman, the memory of this will last the rest of her life.
She takes them to be spots of light
reflected in the mirrors of her eyes,
like the specks of white a painter
knows sparks life into a subject’s face.
Until she looks again to find
familiar features reflected back
that make synapses flash,
to light a memory,
sunshine sharp and bright,
concealed too long beneath
the fabric of a mother’s lies.
A pale, drawn face
beneath the landing light,
lingering too long outside her open door,
as if he sensed were he to enter
one look would trip affection’s wire
and send him crashing to his knees.
She watches him retreat, grabbing
his belongings in the bin bags at his feet,
regret already running down unshaven cheeks.
A memory, so hot and so intense,
it scorches a shadow on her eyes
that she’ll see now at home, at work,
in every waking hour, in every room,
in every shop, in every crowded city street.
Kent is a member of the Poetry Society of Open University and has served as editor of its workshop magazine. He’s been shortlisted in several U.K. national poetry competitions, published in several anthologies and literary journals, and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. In 2019, he published two poetry conversation pamphlets (similar to chapbooks in the U.S.) with Sarah Thomason, A Hostile Environment and Thinking You Home. Saudade is his first collection, and he is currently writing a libretto for an opera with composer Gilbert Biberian. Kent lives in Worcestershire.
The poems of Saudade are poems to linger over, savor, and return to. You reread one and discover what you missed the first or second time. You’re reminded of events and people in your own life, and no matter how much you might regret a loss, you might find a submerged pleasure in that regret.
How to Read a Poem uses images like the mouse, the hive, the switch (from the Billy Collins poem)—to guide readers into new ways of understanding poems. Anthology included.
“I require all our incoming poetry students—in the MFA I direct—to buy and read this book.”
—Jeanetta Calhoun Mish