Verse and Reverse





Verse and Reverse

It is so rare to see Portuguese-language poems translated into English
and published in the U. S. that the release of an anthology of Brazilian
poets should be enough reason for celebration. It is a shame though that
most of the poems gathered in Nothing the Sun Could Not Explain seem
bland and disconnected from the Brazilian soul.

 

Nothing the Sun Could Not Explain: 20 Contemporary
Brazilian Poets, edited by Michael Palmer, Régis Bonvicino,
and Nélson Ascher (Sun & Moon Classics, 312 pp., $15.95 paper) 

 

By
Bondo Wyszpolski

Anthologies of Brazilian poets published in English are few and far
between. Usually it’s the isolated poet who gets some attention, such as
Carlos Drummond de Andrade (Travelling in the Family, published
by Random House ten years ago) and Ferreira Gullar (Poema Sujo,
University Press of America, 1990). The paucity is all the more puzzling
when one considers, as João Almino points out in his foreword, that
world-wide some 200 million people speak Portuguese—more than those who
speak French.

All the more reason to welcome a collection that purports to be up-to-date,
whose 20 poets are mostly between 30 and 50 years old. Almino also points
out that the poetry we’re getting all set to read “is highly representative
of what has been produced in Brazil throughout the last 20 years, a period
during which the country witnessed, in the mid-eighties, the transition
from a military regime to a civil government.”

Two points of reference in which most contemporary Brazilian poetry
has its roots would be the modernist movement of the 1920s (a style which
broke with inflexible, outworn structures) and the concretism of the 1950s
(an approach to poetry which took into account the technological and industrial
advances of the era). The work gathered here, says Almino, focuses (for
want of a better term) on the post-concrete generation.

I’m not exactly sure what it means either, except to indicate, and here’s
Almino again, “the establishment of new parameters both in theory and in
the poetic tradition.”

Paulo Leminski and Ana Cristina César were apparently leading
figures, but both of them—despite their relative youth—are already dead.
The title of this book, it turns out, is from a short Leminski poem:

 
Nothing the sun 

could not explain 

everything the moon 

makes glamorous 

no rain 

fades this flower.

Of the many men and women whose works are gathered here, the images
in Waly Salomão’s poetry compelled me to read on, and to do so more
intently. Nélson Ascher also has engaging, and clever images. Arnaldo
Antunes, like Ascher, presents images that both intrigue and delight, for
example such adjacent lines as “Monkeys’ tails are used as arms. Dogs’
tails are used as smiles.” In particular I enjoyed Carlos Ávila’s
“The Sun,” about the backwoods sun bleaching the cover of Baudelaire’s
The Flowers of Evil.

One finds muscle in the short poems of Horácio Costa. “Natural
History” begins:

 
Behind the taxidermist, there’s the straw, 

behind the rhinoceros, the savannah, 

behind this writing only the night, 

night which gallops to the fore

The other poets not mentioned above include Torquato Neto, Francisco
Alvim, Duda Machado, Júlio Castañon Guimarães, Lenora
de Barros, Régis Bonvicino, Josely Vianna Baptista, Age de Carvalho,
Ângela de Campos, Carlito Azevedo, Frederico Tavares Bastos Barbosa,
Ruy Vasconcelos de Carvalho, and Cláudia Roquette-Pinto—names which
may never be familiar in this country except to those who avidly follow
Brazilian poetry.

Portuguese-language originals and English translations are printed on
facing pages, and although the `body’ seems to have been captured in most
cases, perhaps the spirit hasn’t. In few cases do the English versions
leap avidly from the page.

One might think that this can’t always be the fault of the translators.
To a large extent—the exceptions having been noted above—the poets and
their poetry give little sense of place (their lines could have been written
anywhere), nor do they address substantial issues or intriguing topics.
For a country with a rich, heady aroma of rhythms and sounds, most of the
poems gathered in Nothing the Sun Could Not Explain seem bland and
inconsequential (read the Drummond de Andrade volume and you’ll see what
I mean). Perhaps the best place to find Brazilian poetry (and the elusive
Brazilian spirit) remains the Brazilian pop song—from Gilberto Gil to Milton
Nascimento and Caetano Veloso.




Untitled poem

 

Paulo Leminski

once 

we were going to be homer 

the work an iliad no less



later 

things got tougher 

we could maybe manage a rimbaud 

an ungaretti some fernando pessoa 

a lorca a ginsberg an éluard



finally 

we ended up the minor provincial poet 

we always were 

hiding behind the many masks 

time treated as flowers

 
Trans. by Regina Alfarano, with revisions by Robert
Creeley

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