January 2001

Poetry Sorceress

'Inside me lives/ The peasant/ Grafted to the land,/
A little moody./ Hard worker./ Early riser./ Illiterate./
Barefoot./ Good midwife./ Good child raiser./
Her twelve children,/ Her twenty grandchildren."
Cora Coralina

Gilson P. Borges

In the heart of Brazil, in the heart of Goiás state, in the heart of the city of Goiás, in the heart of the Casa Velha da Ponte (Old Bridge House), still beats the heart of Cora Coralina. In her house we can feel the presence of this poet who immortalized stories and legends of Goiás in her poems. When we think about Cora Coralina, the image that comes to mind is one of a kind grandmother entertaining a hypnotized audience with her astonishing fairy tales. This idea, however, obscures the real life of this incredible woman.

Cora Coralina, or Ana Lins dos Guimarães Peixoto Brêtas, was born in the city of Goiás in 1889. Her parents were Jacintha Luíza do Couto Brandão Peixoto and Francisco de Paula Lins dos Guimarães. He was her second husband, 43 years older than her, and died two months after Cora's birth.

According to Cora's daughter, Vicência Brêtas Tahan, in her book Cora Coragem, Cora Poesia (Cora Courage, Cora Poetry), Cora's childhood was not a very pleasant one ("I have frustrated my mother's hopes since I was born./ She desired a son"). Everybody in the city considered her a clumsy girl, "sad, nervous and ugly," terribly slow to learn the lessons taught in Mestra Silvina's school ("Numbers were never/ part of my understanding./ Maybe because of the poverty that would mark/ my life forever./ I did not need numbers very much").

She also had the "strange" habit of reading books, instead of preparing herself to get a good husband ("I was never encouraged by my family to be literate./ There was always in the family, if not a/ certain hostility, at least a clear reserve/ toward this innate inclination of mine"). When she was 16 and started dating José, who studied medicine in Rio de Janeiro and was spending his vacations in Goiás, his parents decided to send him back to Rio earlier than usual, in order to avoid his union with a woman who could read, but could not handle domestic tasks.

After this, she felt increasingly lonely, because nobody seemed interested in dating her and all her old friends were now married and had children, topics that were not part of her world. So she found shelter in her books, and at 18, was considered a hopeless case: she was already a spinster.

Although she seemed destined to this sad fate, some months after her twentieth birthday her life changed when a new police chief, the lawyer Cantídio Tolentino de Figueiredo Brêtas, arrived in Goiás. Among all the pretty and talented girls of the city he chose Aninha, and they were soon in love. All her dreams of marriage could be fulfilled now. Everything seemed perfect until the day they found out that before going to Goiás, Cantídio had married in the state of São Paulo, where he had three children; he had then moved to the North of Brazil, where he had a daughter with another woman.

Cora's mother immediately forbade them to see each other, destroying the only hope of marriage for the young girl. However, Cora continued dating Cantídio secretly. As a result, she got pregnant. Since the city's conservative inhabitants would not accept her pregnancy and her marriage with a married man, Cora and Cantídio decided to run away to São Paulo state. This was the year 1911. They traveled some days by horse, took a train, arrived in the city of São Paulo, and some days later, moved to Jaboticabal, a small town 220 miles from São Paulo city.

In Jaboticabal, Cora worked for a charitable institution, whose main goals were to distribute milk to poor children, provide health treatment for old people, and find jobs for the beggars of the city. There, she also bought a small farm and started planting roses to sell to her friends and neighbors. After living together for fifteen years, Cantídio and Cora received a letter with the news that his first wife was dead, and they finally married.

Their marriage, however, did not last long, for in 1934 Cantídio died. After his death Cora decided to move to the city of São Paulo, where her children could continue their studies. In order to pay for their education, she opened an inn. She earned some money with this undertaking, but it also exhausted her, so she closed the inn and started selling books.

The next city Cora moved to was Penápolis, still in the state of São Paulo, where she opened a fabric shop. She then moved to Andradina, again in São Paulo, where she bought a farm and started planting corn and cotton. In Andradina she also had a big surprise: a deputy from Rio de Janeiro asked her to marry him. She felt very pleased, but did not intend to marry again and refused his request.

In 1956 Cora returned to Goiás and started making sweets to sell in the Casa Velha da Ponte. She was also thinking about publishing her poems and for this reason, decided to take a typing course. She was 70 years old, which made her the oldest student in the school, but also a symbol of courage and persistence for the younger students.

One day she fell down while cooking and broke a leg. Her doctor suggested that it would be better for her to go to Goiânia, where the hospitals were better equipped to treat her. Her friends sent her many flowers, which she decided to take with her in the ambulance to decorate her hospital bedroom. When they arrived in Goiânia, the doctor opened the ambulance's door, saw the flowers and asked: "If she was already dead, why did you bring her to the hospital?" Cora promptly answered: "Hold on, doctor. I'm not dead yet!" Operated on, she had to use a crutch to walk.

After the accident, Cora traveled throughout the country to give talks, interviews and publicize her books, and at 94, she received the title of Doctor Honoris Causa from the Federal University of Goiás. Her frequent trips were too much for her health. She also got a cold and was forced to return to Goiás. As her condition worsened, she was taken to Goiânia, where she died during the night, in 1985. She left four children, sixteen grandchildren and twenty-nine great-grandchildren. Her body was buried in her father's tomb, in the city of Goiás, and she left the following epitaph to posterity:

Morta… serei árvore
Serei tronco, serei fronde
E minhas raízes
Enlaçadas às pedras do meu berço
São as cordas quebradas de uma lira.

Enfeitai de folhas verdes
A pedra do meu túmulo
Num simbolismo
De vida vegetal.

Não morre aquele
Que deixou na terra
A melodia de seu cântico
Na música de seus versos

Dead… I will be tree
I will be trunk, I will be frond
And my roots
Tied to the stones of my cradle
Are the broken strings of a lyre.

Embellish with green leaves
My tombstone
As a symbol
Of vegetative life.

He will not die
Who left in the earth
The melody of his song
In the music of his verses.

Cora started writing her poems when she was 14. During her years in São Paulo she also published many articles on issues of social justice, showing herself to be a woman ahead of her time. She defines her poetry thus: "My poetry… was already alive when I was not even born./ It poured out in a distant gravel vein./ My cradle was made of stone./ My way was made of stone./ My verses:/ broken stones in the rolling and beating of so many stones." She also tried to define herself in the following poem:

Todas as vidas

Vive dentro de mim
Uma cabocla velha
De mau-olhado,
Acocorada ao pé do borralho,
Olhando para o fogo.
Benze quebranto.
Bota feitiço...
Ogum. Orixá.
Macumba, terreiro.
Ogã, pai-de-santo...

Vive dentro de mim
A lavadeira do
Rio Vermelho.
Seu cheiro gostoso
D'água e sabão.
Rodilha de pano.
Trouxa de roupa,
Pedra de anil.
Sua coroa verde
de são-caetano.

Vive dentro de mim
A mulher cozinheira.
Pimenta e cebola.
Quitute bem feito.
Panela de barro.
Taipa de lenha.
Cozinha antiga
Toda pretinha.
Bem cacheada de picumã.
Pedra pontuda.
Cumbuco de côco.
Pisando alho-sal.

Vive dentro de mim
A mulher do povo.
Bem proletária.
Bem linguaruda,
Desabusada, sem preconceitos,
De casca-grossa,
De chinelinha,
E filharada.

Vive dentro de mim
A mulher roceira.
—Enxerto da terra,
Meio casmurra.
De pé no chão.
Bem parideira.
Bem criadeira.
Seus doze filhos.
Seus vinte netos.

Vive dentro de mim
A mulher da vida.
Minha irmãzinha...
Tão desprezada,
Tão murmurada...
Fingindo alegre seu
triste fado.

Todas as vidas dentro de mim:
Na minha vida—
A vida mera das obscuras.

All Lives

Inside me lives
An old backwoodswoman
Of evil eye,
Crouched by the embers,
Looking at the fire.
She cures blights
Makes spells…
Ogum. Orixá.
Black magic, terreiro.
Ogã, pai-de-santo

Inside me lives
The washerwoman from the
Red River.
Its good smell
Of water and soap.
Small circle of clothes,
Clothes bag
Blue powder.
Its coroa verde
de são-caetano

Inside me lives
A cook.
Pepper and onion.
Well-done food.
Clay pan.
Old kitchen
All black.
Ringed with picumã bunches.
Sharp stone.
Coconut pot.
Crushing garlic-salt.

Inside me lives
The working-class woman.
So proletarian.
So gossipy,
Impudent, unprejudiced,
With little slippers,
And many children.

Inside me lives
The peasant
—Grafted to the land,
A little moody.
Hard worker.
Early riser.
Good midwife.
Good child raiser.
Her twelve children,
Her twenty grandchildren.

Inside me lives
The prostitute.
My little sister…
So despised
So maligned…
Disguising in happiness her
sad fate.

All lives inside me:
In my life—
The mere life of the obscure.

Her poems were praised by internationally renowned poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade, in a letter he sent her in 1979:

Dear Cora,

I don't have your address, but I blow these words in the wind, hoping that it will put them in your hands. I admire and love you as someone who lives in a state of grace with poetry. Your book is delightful, your verse is running water, your lyricism has the power and delicacy of natural things. Ah, You make me miss Minas, so close to your Goiás! It makes us happy to know that in the heart of Brazil there is a being called Cora Coralina.

With affection and admiration,

Carlos Drummond de Andrade.

As a poet she was also honored with diplomas, prizes, medals, trophies and plates. Libraries, schools, squares and streets were named after her, and she was elected to the Women's Academy of Letters of Goiás. Her poems and short stories were collected in books like Poemas dos Becos de Goiás e Estórias Mais, 1965 (Poems from the Alleys of Goiás and Other Stories); Meu Livro de Cordel, 1976 (My String Book); Vintém de Cobre, 1983 (Copper Penny); Estórias da Casa Velha da Ponte, 1986 (Stories from the Old Bridge House); Os Meninos Verdes, 1986 (The Green Boys); and O Tesouro da Casa Velha, 1989 (The Old House Treasure).

In all of them she revives memories of her childhood, including of her teacher, Mestra Silvina, who "is now in heaven/ has in her hands a big golden book/ and teaches the angels/ how to spell;" the alleys of Goiás, "alley of my hometown…/ I love your sad scenery, absent and dirty;" and the Old Bridge House, "centenary boat stranded in the Red River," which hides secrets from ancient times. The story of Thebas Ruiz is but one of its secrets. According to a local legend, Ruiz, a treasurer of the Portuguese kingdom, stole and buried gold in the basement of the house. He later poisoned himself and one of his slaves, in order to avoid being sent to jail in Portugal.

Nowadays, the Old Bridge House, built in 1890, is a museum called Casa de Cora Coralina (Cora Coralina's House), and in one of its rooms the visitors can meet the kind Mrs. Helena M. Lima, head of the PROLER project, which tries to encourage the habit of reading among the population. After listening to the objectives of the project, you can "try" some "poetic pills," which contain Cora's poems, and through them taste the poetry of "Cora Coralina, de Goiás", title conferred on her by Drummond in a 1980 Jornal do Brasil article.

In the same article, Drummond expressed his admiration for Cora: "In my opinion, Cora Coralina is the most important person of Goiás. She is more important than the Governor, Members of Parliament, rich and influential men of the state. However, she is a little old woman with no possessions, whose only wealth is her poetry and inventiveness, and who is identified with life like, for example, a road is". By reading her poetry you can dive deeper and deeper into the magic stories that still flow in the alleys of Goiás.

Gilson P. Borges is a graduate student at Indiana University, Bloomington, where he also teaches Portuguese. You can reach him at

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