Ana Luísa Amaral, who has died aged 66 of cancer, was one of Portugal’s foremost poets. Her work, linguistically adventurous and playful, was widely translated, with three collections published in English: The Art of Being a Tiger (2018), What’s in a Name (2019) and World (forthcoming in 2023).
Ana Luísa began writing poems at the age of five; when she was 12, she would not go on holiday without her bag of poems; and when she was 14, she typed them all out on an old Singer typewriter. For many years, she taught English and American studies and comparative literature at the University of Porto, but she once said that, while her academic life was her career, poetry was what she did, the thing she simply had to do.
She wrote about everything from ants to Einstein, from whales to Lot’s wife; her work celebrates the ordinary and the everyday, and she wrote often about motherhood, as in this extract from her poem Testament, written for her daughter, Rita, which appeared in her first collection, Minha Senhora de Quê (Mistress of What), in 1990:
If I should die
I want my daughter always to remember me
for someone to sing to her even if they can’t hold a tune
to offer her pure dreams
rather than a fixed timetable
To give her love and the ability
to look inside things
to dream of blue suns and brilliant skies
instead of teaching her to add up
or how to peel potatoes
Let my daughter
and later on say to her own daughter
that I flew off into the sky
all dazzle and contentment
to see that in her house none of the sums added up
and the potatoes were still in their sack forgotten
Ana Luísa had a phenomenal memory and could recite by heart both her own poems and other people’s. Her rich, warm voice made her a wonderful reader of poetry, with a keen sense of the rhythm of each and every line. Fortunately, she can still be heard on recordings of O Som Que os Versos Fazem Ao Abrir (The Sound Poems Make When They Open), the radio programme for the Portuguese broadcaster RTP that she co-hosted with Luís Caetano from 2017, in which they discussed poets and poems from all over the world, often featuring Ana Luísa’s own translations. The last programme, broadcast on 29 July, was about love poems.
Ana Luísa was a very fine translator, and perhaps particularly drawn to “difficult” writers, notably Emily Dickinson and William Shakespeare – she translated 300 of Dickinson’s poems (published in two volumes), and 30 Shakespeare sonnets. I translated her poetry into English, and our collaboration was pure joy, her enthusiasm palpable, her generosity unstinting.
She was born in Lisbon, the only child of Maria José (nee Fidalgo Ribeiro) and José Aníbal de Moraes Barata do Amaral, a businessman. The family moved to Leça da Palmeira, near Porto, Portugal’s second largest city, when Ana Luísa was nine, a move she always described as “traumatic”, being uprooted from her home in Lisbon and getting mercilessly teased at school because she had a Lisbon accent. Nevertheless, she lived in Leça until her death and embraced Porto as “her” city.
After two years doing research on Dickinson at Brown University in the US, she completed a PhD and went on to become associate professor at Porto University, where she was a committed teacher, devoted to her students, and a very supportive colleague. She was also among the first to introduce queer studies into Portuguese universities.
After the publication of her first collection in 1990, she quickly became one of Portugal’s best-loved poets, with 19 books of poetry, a book of essays, a play, a novella, and several children’s books to her name.
She was in great demand to give readings and lectures at literary festivals around the world, which suited her perfectly because she loved to travel. Her work brought her many prizes, most recently the Premio Reina Sofia in 2021 for her entire body of work. Before her death, she had been named as the focus of this year’s Porto Book Fair, due to begin at the end of this month.
Her work drew on her knowledge of Portuguese and other literatures, but principally on her love of her own language and of the world. Who else could make a poem out of watching an old lady playing with the handle of her handbag, as she did with this 2021 poem from Mundo?
The woman sitting
plays with her handbag,
Is she distracted? Or the handbag?
elegant somersaults, brief dance steps,
with the sun lighting one side of her face,
the woman is almost pretty
with her absorbed child-like air
as she breathes life into that handbag,
in her lap
Ana Luísa is survived by Rita, her daughter from her marriage to Joaquim Ribeiro, which ended in divorce, and by her mother.
• Ana Luísa Amaral, poet, writer, translator and teacher, born 5 April 1956; died 5 August 2022