By With Manuel Bandeira and Carlos Drummond de Andrade, João Cabral de
Mello Neto constituted the Holy Trinity of the Brazilian poetry. The poet was also
Brazil’s best hope for a Nobel Prize in literature.

He once took the time to explain that it was quite natural that he was terrified by the
idea of hell although he did not believe in God. Maybe it was also quite natural that
atheist poet João Cabral de Mello Neto ended up dying in Rio, on October 9, a few months
before turning 80, while holding hands with his wife Marly de Oliveira and praying to the
God he didn’t think existed.

According to Marly, after reciting Our Father, the head of João Cabral fell to one
side and she thought he had fallen asleep. "It was a moment of beatitude," she
commented later. "It was so serene that I wished at that moment that we could go
together. I believe it was his contact with religion that made his passage so peaceful. He
started having another vision of life."

João Cabral was better known for his long poem Morte e Vida Severina (Severino
Life and Death), but he considered this work made at the request of playwright Maria Clara
Machado as a Christmas play, a minor one. "I didn’t write Morte e Vida Severina for
intellectuals," he once told poet Vinicius de Moraes. "I wrote it for the
illiterate folks who listen to folk poems at the Santo Amaro open market in Recife."

He once complained against those who asked for more political commitment from him when
the play-poem was presented: "I think that some people would like me to go up there
on stage and scream at the end of every show: `Long live the agrarian reform.’"

A recluse for most of his life, the poet and diplomat had become even more of a hermit
after being struck by blindness in 1994. He rarely gave interviews and stayed in touch
only with close friends and family. Losing his sight also made him bitter and he refused
to dictate new poems.

The poet was born in Recife on January 9, 1920 in a wealthy family that owned a sugar
cane farm, but the contact while growing up with farm workers, drought-stricken folks, and
popular literatura de cordel (string literature) made him highly tuned to the
plight of the poor peasants. He was very popular among the workers at the farm since he
was a little boy. As nobody knew how to read, he became their main source of

When these men had some money left they would go to the city and bring little booklets
written by improvisers telling in verse stories of love and misadventure, tales of
miracles and dreams, the adventures of the heroes and villains of the Northeast. On these
occasions, João Cabral was more than happy to oblige and read to them this popular
literature_often from the top of an ox cart. Fifty years later he would remember those
sessions in "Descoberta da Literatura" (Discovery of Literature), a poem
included in the book A Escola das Facas (School of Knifes) from 1979:

No dia-a-dia do engenho,
toda a semana, durante,
cochichavam-me em segredo:
saiu um novo romance.
E da feira do domingo
me traziam conspirantes
para que os lesse e explicasse
um romance de barbante…

In the sugar-mill’s day-to-day,
the whole week, throughout,
they whispered to me in secrecy:
there is a new novel out.
And from the Sunday open market
they brought me conspiring
so I read them and explained
a novel of string…

He moved from Recife (capital of Pernambuco) to Rio in 1945. He was still 17 when he
started to work as a bureaucrat and continued doing this for eight more years. During this
time he wrote poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade an untitled poem that remained unpublished
for more than 50 years:

Difícil ser funcionário
nesta segunda-feira.
Eu te telefono, Carlos,
pedindo conselho.
Não é lá fora o dia
que me deixa assim…
É a dor das coisas,
o luto desta mesa;
é o regimento proibindo
assovios, versos, flores…

Hard to be a public servant
this Monday.
I call you on the phone, Carlos,
asking for advice.
It’s not the day outside
that makes me like that…
It’s the pain of things,
this table’s mourning;
it’s the regulation forbidding
whistling, verses, flowers…

He was 22 when his first book, A Pedra do Sono (The Sleep’s Stone), was
released. The work, a manifesto against the dominant poetry of the time_Parnasianism and
its adherence to metrical form_became a landmark and an inspiration for future poets.
Three years later, in 1945, he published O Engenheiro (The Engineer). By this time,
he had already become friends with the best poets of the day: Vinicius de Moraes, Murilo
Mendes, Jorge de Lima, and Carlos Drummond de Andrade. In 1946 he married Stella Maria
Barbosa de Oliveira_granddaughter of renowned writer Rui Barbosa (1849-1923).Together they
had five children.

Poetic Journeys

Having passed in 1945 the exam to the Instituto Rio Branco, which prepares Brazilian
diplomats, João Cabral would become another kind of bureaucrat traveling the world as a
representative of the Brazilian government. In 1947, he was sent to Barcelona, Spain, for
his first foreign mission. There he met and became a friend of painter Joan Miró and
created a printing shop to publish Spanish and Brazilian poetry, including two of his
books: Psicologia da Composição (Psychology of Composition), 1947, and O Cão
Sem Plumas (Featherless Dog), 1950. His Barcelona stint would change his life and
deeply influence his poetry.

It was also in 1950 that an unexplained headache struck the poet, a cross he would
carry for most of his life, getting only mild relief from drugs. The pain would inspire
him to write a hymn to aspirin, a product he avidly consumed for years, until he was given
other drugs by his doctors.

Monumento à Aspirina

Claramente: o mais prático dos sóis,
o sol de um comprimido de aspirina:
de emprego fácil, portátil e barato,
compacto de sol na lápide sucinta.
Principalmente porque, sol artificial,
que nada limita a funcionar de dia,
que a noite não expulsa, cada noite,
sol imune às leis de meteorologia,
a toda hora em que se necessita dele
levanta e vem (sempre num claro dia):
acende, para secar a aniagem da alma,
quará-la, em linhos de um meio-dia….

Monument to Aspirin

Obviously: the most practical of suns,
the sun of an aspirin tablet:
of easy usage, portable and cheap,
a sun compact in the succinct headstone.
Mainly because, artificial sun,
that nothing limits to work by day,
that at night, does not expel, each night,
sun immune to the meteorology laws,
any time you need it
gets up and come (always in a clear day):
turns on, to dry soul’s burlap,
whiten it under the sun, in linens of noon….

From the book A Educação pela Pedra(The Education by the Stone)

From 1950 to 1952 the poet stayed in London. Accused of being subversive and a
communist at the time McCarthyism was raging in the US, he had to return to Brazil. Placed
in a forced sabbatical in 1953 he worked for Rio’s newspaper A Vanguarda until
being reinstated to the diplomatic career in 1954. In 1955 he wrote the painful story of a
poor northeastern man who has no place to stay after losing his little piece of land to
the drought and a rich farmer. This was Vida e Morte Severina.

Maria Clara Machado, who had ordered the play, returned it to the sender explaining
that her O Tablado had no structure to stage it. The poet decided then to cut the stage
indications and publish the work as poem in Duas Águas (Two Waters), a book he was
publishing and had not enough material according to his publisher.

Finally in the ’60s, with music by Chico Buarque de Hollanda, Morte e Vida Severina
was shown on stage, first in Brazil and then in Europe, receiving awards and applause
wherever it was presented. In 1966, the show was presented by the Tuca troupe in France’s
Nancy Festival and Cabral received the Best Author Alive award.

An enquiry on his alleged leftist connections didn’t prove anything. He was back in
Barcelona in 1956. In 1972 he was sent to Senegal as ambassador. He would still work in
Ecuador (1979), Honduras (1981), ending his career in Porto, Portugal. He retired as
diplomat in 1987.

João Cabral had a dry way of writing verses. In an interview with Cadernos de
Literatura Brasileira, he said: "For me, poetry is a composition. When I say
composition, I mean something built, planned—from the outside in. No one imagines
that Picasso made the paintings he made because he was inspired. His problem was to take a
canvas, to study the spaces, the volumes. I only understand the poetic in this sense. I am
going to write a poem this size, which such and such elements, things I keep placing as
they were bricks. That’s why I can spend years creating a poem: because there is planning.
For me, poetry is a construction as a house. I learned this with Le Corbusier."

The Brazilian poetry has its Holy Trinity, which is comprised of Manuel Bandeira,
Carlos Drummond de Andrade, and João Cabral de Mello Neto. João Cabral was Brazil’s best
hope to get a Nobel Prize in literature. In the last five years every time the Swedish
Nobel Foundation asked for a Brazilian candidate for the Nobel, the ABL (Academia
Brasileira de Letras—Brazilian Academy of Letters) offered his name. He was himself a
distinguished member of that 40-member literary club. The poet was elected to the Academy
in 1968. He occupied seat 37, which belonged among others to President Getúlio Vargas and
media mogul Assis Chateaubriand.

Lições de Sevilha

Tenho Sevilha em minha cama
eis que Sevilha se faz carne,
eis-me habitando Sevilha
como é impossível de habitar-se
Nada em volta que me lembre
a Sevilha cartão-postal,
a que é turística-anedótica,
a que é museu e catedral
Esta Sevilha que é trianera,
Sevilha fundo de quintal,
Sevilha de lenço secando,
a que é corriqueira e normal
É a Sevilha que há nos seus poços,
se há poço ou não, pouco importa,
a Sevilha que dá às sevilhanas
lições de Sevilha, de fora.

Seville Lessons

I have Seville in my bed
Here’s Seville becoming flesh,
here’s myself inhabiting Seville
in a way it is impossible to inhabit
Nothing around that reminds me
of a postcard Seville
that is touristy-anecdotic
that is museum and cathedral
This Seville that is neoclassical
Backyard Seville,
Seville with drying kerchief,
which is ordinary and normal
It’s the Seville that exists in its wells,
if there’s a well or not, it doesn’t matter,
Seville which gives Sevillan women
Seville lessons, from the outside


Pedra do Sono (1942), published by the author
Os Três Mal-Amados (1943), Revista do Brasil
O Engenheiro (1945), paid for by poet Augusto Frederico Schmidt
Psicologia da Composição (1947),
O Livro Inconsútil (Barcelona, 1947)
O Cão sem Plumas (1950)
O Rio (1953), São Paulo’s Commission for the 4th Centennial
Poemas Reunidos (1954), Orfeu
Duas Águas (1956), containing "Morte e Vida Severina," "Paisagens
com Figuras" and "Uma Faca Só Lâmina," José Olympio
Quaderna (1960), Guimarães Editores (Portugal)
Dois Parlamentos (1960), published by the author
Terceira Feira (1961), published by the author
Educação pela Pedra (1966), published by the author
Poesias Completas (1968), José Olympio
Museu de Tudo (1975), José Olympio
A Escola das Facas (1979), José Olympio
Poesia Crítica (1981), Nova Fronteira
Auto do Frade (1982), Nova Fronteira
Agrestes (1985), Nova Fronteira
Poesias Completas _ 1940-1965 (1986), José Olympio
Crime na Calle Relator (1987), Nova Fronteira
Museu de Tudo e Depois (Poesia Completa 2) (1988), Nova Fronteira
Poemas Pernambucanos (1988), José Mariano Foundation and Nova Fronteira
Primeiros Poemas (1990), Faculdade de Letras of UFRJ
Sevilha Andando (1990), Nova Fronteira
Poemas Sevilhanos (1992), Foreign Ministry and Nova Fronteira
Obra Completa (1994), Nova Aguilar
Serial e Antes (1997), Nova Fronteira
Educação pela Pedra e Depois (1997), Nova Fronteira

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