The State of Things in the Poetry of João Cabral de Melo Neto
Virtually every critic of João Cabral de Melo Neto’s poetry has noted the privileged status it accords to things, and one of the best panoramic studies of the poet’s work is simply and significantly titled Poesia com Coisas (Poetry with Things). Cabral’s things include obsessively recurring images—stone, knife, wind, water—and subject matter that proceeds from around the world (Cabral having served as a career diplomat on four continents) but especially from northeastern Brazil, where the poet was born, and from southern Spain, whose dryness and austerity he came to identify with his homeland. Pernambuco is the setting for poems about sugarcane, the drought, the city of Recife, the Capibaribe River, and the sea, whereas the Andalusian landscape features the bullfight, flamenco, Seville, and Seville’s women. These may strike us as cliche-ridden visions, and with good reason, for the poet seeks out the most stereotypical, the most ordinary, the most obvious. And transforms it. Or transcends it. So that when he writes a poem (“Toreadors”) describing the various techniques of famous toreadors—the “sweet precision” of Manolo Gonzales, the “spontaneous yet strict” style of Julio Aparicio, the “anguished and explosive” manner of Miguel Baez—he is speaking not only of bullfighting but of the act of making poetry and, by extension, of various stances one may assume before any kind of artistic endeavor. This becomes explicit in the poem’s final stanzas, which tell of Manuel Rodriguez, “the most mineral” of all toreadors,
the one who knew to calculate
the steely fluid of life,
who with the greatest precision
brushed with death on the fringe,
who gave a number to tragedy,
decimals to feelings,
to vertigo a geometry,
and height and weight to fear.
Yes I saw Manuel Rodriguez,
“Manolete,” the most ascetic,
not only nurture his flower
but demonstrate to poets:
how to tame the explosion
with a quiet, restrained hand,
being careful not to spill
the flower it holds fast,
and how, then, to fashion it
with sure hand, soft and remote,
without perfuming the flower,
without poetizing the poem.
But is this really a poetry of things? The second of the cited stanzas mentions tragedy, feelings, vertigo, and fear, all more or less abstract notions, but the toreador-poet brings them down to earth by giving them a mathematics and a height and weight. Bullfighting, meanwhile, which is the truly concrete thing at hand, is abstracted, becoming a metaphor for the creative process. A poetry of things, yes, but these may be emotions, ideas, and humanity itself, which the poetry forces into thing form, whereas if the things start out as physical entities, they risk being endowed with a philosophy, a psychology, and the tragic sense of life. Cabral’s project is to re-create the world, taking the things—both abstract and concrete—that are common to all men and turning them around, making them uncommon, conferring on them the dimension they lacked.
From early on Cabral called the poet an engineer and the poem a machine (in “The Lesson of Poetry”), and more recently he explained his motivation, writing (in “Renewed Homage to Marianne Moore”) “that poetry is not on the inside / but is a house in which to reside, / and before one lives inside it I it must be built—this something / one makes to make oneself able, / this crutch for the one who is lame.” The poem is a machine that turns out building blocks to construct the house in which the poet takes shelter, but the blocks are not mere clay. The machine gives form to what is ethereal and indefinite, but it also gives soul to what is (or has seemed to us) flat and lifeless. All kinds of “things” go into this poet’s machine, and all emerge as building blocks that are more than three-dimensional, for a house that is dynamic, super-real, made of doors and windows and no walls.
Cabral’s first professional ambition was to be a critic, and so it is not surprising that many of his poems comment on art and artists, literary works and writers. Marianne Moore and Francis Ponge are two twentieth-century poets by and large renowned for their parti pris on behalf of things, and both are important references for Cabral, who succinctly characterized their treatment of things in “Yes Against Yes” and in so doing revealed the essence of his own poetic practice. About the meticulous editor of The Dial he wrote:
Marianne Moore, refusing a pen,
writes her stanzas
with a cutting edge,
a common jackknife or scalpel.
She discovered that the clear side
of things is the obverse,
and therefore dissects them
to make texts read more honestly.
Moore’s cutting quality appears very literally in a poem such as “The Fish,” in which “shafts” of the
split like spun
glass, move themselves with spotlight swiftness
into the crevices—
in and out, illuminating
of bodies. The water drives a wedge
of iron through the iron edge
of the cliff; whereupon the stars
Three stanzas down we find “dynamite grooves, burns, and hatchet strokes.”
Knives and other cutting instruments, found often enough in Moore’s poetry (there is even an early poem titled “Those Various Scalpels”), are a commonplace in Cabral’s, the most conspicuous example being his long and poetically tense poem Uma Faca só Lamina (1956; Eng. A Knife All Blade). More important than these literal sharp edges for the present discussion, however, is the trenchant attitude both poets take toward their subjects. In “The Fish” Moore reports that the ocean-assailed cliff bears “all external marks of abuse” (namely, the “dynamite grooves, burns and hatchet strokes”) and that its “chasm-side is dead.” But it is a “defiant edifice,” which “can live on what cannot revive its youth. The sea grows old in it.”
A similarly wry optimism makes discreet but regular appearances in Cabral’s own work, particularly when the impoverished Brazilian Northeast is his theme. In the first stanza of O Cao sem Plumas (The Dog Without Feathers; 1950) the city of Recife is crossed by the Capibaribe River like “a fruit by a sword,” and this slicing image announces not only the harsh reality of the river but also the poet’s unrelenting objectivity, which will cut all the way through fifty stanzas, anthropologically describing the stark misery of those who live on the river’s shores, to arrive—in the final, fifty-first stanza—at “the life which is fought for / day by day, / the day which is won / hour by hour / (as a bird / which second by second / conquers its flight).”
Cabral’s mature poetry, like Moore’s, does not pile on images in the way of the surrealists (among others), preferring instead to plumb but a few wellchosen images to exhaustion. Dissection rather than accumulation. This approach implies the subjection of poetic material to a scientific method of investigation—hence the predominance of strict verse patterns. In the case of Moore, if preservation of the line length (which is determined syllabically in her early work) requires hyphenating a word, then she is happy to comply, so that dissection occurs even at the level of the individual word. Cabral, for his part, will discard the troublesome word and search for another: from the mid-fifties on, his poems’ metric and assonantal rhyme schemes (perfect rhymes being more rarely employed) are almost never violated. Dissection, in these poets, does not preclude intuition, but it demands formal procedure, so that once the poem is set in motion it carries itself forward like an independent organism, according to its own logic, with what would seem to be minimal intervention on the part of the poet.
This apparent absence of the poet becomes extreme in Cabral, who willingly “reduces” his role to that of a behind-the-scenes technician. Moore is more inclined to step into the poem with a direct quote of something she has read or heard, and she never regarded poetry as a machine. “Were not impersonal judgment in aesthetic matters, a metaphysical impossibility, you might fairly achieve it,” she wrote in the poem that mocks a steamroller for crushing “all the particles down into close conformity.” Cabral, on the other hand, extols the canefield for “the horizontal style of its verse” and the sea for “the meticulous spreading of water on land, / filling every hollow, wherever it passes” (in “The Canefield and the Sea”). This action sounds rather like that of the steamroller, and “impersonal judgment” is an ideal that Cabral would not necessarily eschew, though he knows perfect detachment is impossible. The poet is not, after all, dispensable, but when he or she is a Marianne Moore (we are told in “Yes Against Yes”), then the scar of the poem “is clean, sparse and straight,” so that “more than the surgeon / one admires the surgical blade.”
If Cabral’s description of Moore’s method is insightful, his sixteen lines about Ponge, the French poet of things, are astonishing, telling us more about his poetics than do many essays of sixteen pages or more.
Francis Ponge, also a surgeon,
uses a different technique, turning
in his fingers the things he operates
and turning himself around them.
He handles them with all ten
thousand fingers of language;
his is not a straight scalpel
but one with many branches.
With it he so wraps up
the thing, he almost winds it
into a ball and loses
himself, wound up inside it.
And just when it would seem
he can no longer penetrate,
he enters without cutting,
through a crack that went unseen.
Ponge’s method is meditative, firsthand observation, best exemplified by his long prose poems, which read like the notebooks of certain pre-twentieth-century scientists, who over the course of weeks and months would patiently record the identifying traits and developmental changes in the organism, mineral, or system under study.
In “Introduction to the Pebble,” probably his own best ars poetica, Ponge says his ambition is “to write a kind of De natura rerum... It is not poems I want to write, but one single cosmogony.” He realizes, however, that it would take many lives to study all the books of all the sciences that exist, and so “the best procedure is to consider all things as unknown, to stroll or stretch out among the shrubs or on the grass, and start all over again from the beginning.”
Another paragraph from the same “proem” (quoting still from Paul Bowles’s translation) points the way in this new science.
I suggest that every person open an interior trapdoor, that he negotiates a trip into the thickness of things, that he make an invasion of their characteristics, a revolution, a turning-over process comparable to that accomplished by the plough or the spade, when suddenly millions of particles of dead plants, bits of roots and straw, worms and tiny crawling creatures, all hitherto buried in the earth, are exposed to the light of day for the first time. O infinite resources of the thickness of things, restored to us by the infinite resources in the semantic thickness of words!
In “Rain,” “The Orange,” “Snails,” “Notes on a Shellfish,” “The Prawn,” “The Pebble,” “The Horse,” “The Goat,” and dozens of other essay poems, Ponge’s “ten thousand fingers of language” explore common objects as if they were strange, not by means of dissection but by a quiet inventory of their qualities and their relationships with other objects. And every now and then, as if (and perhaps truly) by accident, there is a revelation, a phrase in which the poet-scientist has touched the core of what we are tempted to call the object’s soul.
There is not space enough here to include an example that would do justice, but the following short piece (in Raymond Federman’s translation) will give some idea of Ponge’s method:
Night sometimes revives a curious plant whose light decomposes furnished rooms into clumps of shadows.
Its golden leaf, held by a very black peduncle, stands unconcerned in the hollow of a little column of alabaster.
Shabby moths attack it, preferably at highmoon which dissolves the woods. But quickly burnt or beaten in the scuffle, all of them shudder on the edge of a frenzy close to stupor.
Yet the candle, by the flickering of its brightness on the book with abrupt eruptions of original smoke, encourages the reader to go on—but then bends over its plate and drowns in its own nourishment.
The description is entirely original, with the candle being regarded as a nocturnally active plant, the candlestick as an alabaster column, and moths as attacking rather than merely being drawn to the candle. This is to see for the first time. And the decomposing effect of the flame, its frenzying effect on the moths, and its own drowning in the very wax that feeds it are all invitations to take a fresh look at ourselves, the readers, who depend on the candle for illumination and for the subject matter of the very text (i.e., “The Candle”) that lies before us and nourishes us.
Cabral employs the Pongean method in poems such as “The Egg,” “On a Monument to Aspirin,” and “The Word Silk,” but his use of strictly measured verses in these and most of his poems suggests the punctilious manner of Marianne Moore; in fact, much of his poetry is marked by the two techniques of “naïve” contemplation and exacting analysis. This is particularly evident in the forty-eight two-part poems of A Educação pela Pedra (Education by Stone; 1966). The first part of “For the Book Fair” seems to have been made by Moore’s scalpel and expert stitching, with the opening lines reading:
When leafed, the leaf of a book retrieves
the languid plantiness of green leaves,
and a book is leafed or loses its leaves
as in the wind the tree that made it;
when leafed, the leaf of a book repeats
fricatives and labials of ancient winds,
and nothing feigns wind on a tree leaf
as well as wind in the leaves of a book.
To relate the book leaf to its material origin (tree cellulose) and etymological origin (tree leaf) would be just as likely in Ponge as in Moore, but the tone and development of the stanza are much closer to her style. In the second part of the poem, however, the voice more nearly resembles Ponge’s.
Silent: whether closed or open,
what shouts inside included; anonymous:
it shows only its spine when on the shelf,
which annuls all the spines in a dull brown;
modest: it would never open itself—
as different from a hanging picture,
open all its life, as it is from music,
alive only while its lines are flying.
But despite this and despite its patience
(lets you read it wherever you like), severe:
requires that you dig in, interrogate it;
and even when open, closed: it never gives vent.
The rhythm has slowed, the tone is less tense, more contemplative, and the book is considered in relation to the reader, as was Ponge’s candle.
To identify influences (some of which may be no more than affinities or coincidences) is not to suggest that Cabral’s work is derivative. The shift in voice in “For the Book Fair,” for instance, is certainly not an intentional shift from Moore to Ponge mode; it occurs, rather, in function of the content. The relentless motion of the verses in the first part evokes the wind that moves through the tree and through the book’s pages; the more relaxed, quieter tone of the second part reflects the book’s fundamental silence and discretion.
The celebration and elevation of things, in poetry as in culture at large (and this is true not only for natural phenomena in primitive, animistic cultures, but also for the manufactured objects of our technological civilization), is often achieved through anthropomorphization. This is not especially frequent in Marianne Moore’s poetry, where objects and animals are more apt to be described in terms of other objects or animals, so that the mussel shells in “The Fish” are “crow-blue,” the sun is “split like spun glass,” and the crabs are “like green lilies,” whereas a reindeer in her poem titled “Rigorists” has “a neck like edelweiss or lion’s foot” and antlers described as a “candelabrum-headed ornament.” In Ponge’s writing, anthropomorphization tends to be indirect, by analogies that are suggested without being affirmed, as when a human reader appears in the last stanza of “The Candle.”
Cabral, on the other hand, freely humanizes many of the things presented in his poems. Sugarcane is variously seen as a shy Andalusian girl (“Sugarcane Girl”), as an encyclopedist (“Sugarcane and the Eighteenth Century”), and as a crowded public square (“The Wind in the Canefield”). The ocean, in “Cemetery in Alagoas,” is called a hospital scrubwoman. Other objects are assigned typically human traits or even body parts, so that the fortress in “Fort Orange, Itamaraca” possesses the “hard fingers” of cannons, whose rotting metal is called “widowed iron,” which is being overrun by “vegetable guerrillas.”
The second paragraph of this essay makes the point—and it seems to be one of the most original points of his poetry—that João Cabral de Melo Neto not only invests things with a psychology (if this word be allowed to mean something like “nonmaterial dimension”) but takes the psychological and gives it physical substance. This latter process is most flagrant in the Brazilian poet’s consistent dehumanization of people. A poetry of things? In fact people appear left and right in Cabral’s verses, certainly with much greater frequency than in Marianne Moore’s or Francis Ponge’s work, but the people are objectified, reified, treated as things. In the poem about bullfighters cited above, Manuel Rodriguez is introduced as “the most mineral of all toreadors, / the sharpest and most vigilant, // the one with wooden nerves, / whose fists are dry and fibrous, / with a figure like a stick, / a piece of dried-out brush.” This poem is taken from Paisagens com Figuras (Landscapes with Figures; 1955), a collection in which persons typically embody the landscapes they inhabit; and Miguel Hernandez, mysteriously present in a desert region of Castile (in “Encounter with a Poet”), has a voice “of tortured, beaten earth,” with “blades of stone, / like an amputated tree.”
Back in Cabral’s homeland, the poor of “The Dog Without Feathers” embody the landscape, or river scape, in rather less flattering ways. They have “painful hair of shrimp and hards” and become indiscernible from the mud of the Capibaribe River.
In the river landscape
it is hard to know
where the river begins,
where the mud
begins from the river,
where the land
begins from the mud,
where his skin
begins from the mud,
where man begins
in that man.
Cabral establishes a similar kind of physiological equivalence between the poor and their barren environment in two other long narrative poems: O Rio (The River; 1954) and Morte e Vida Severina (1956; Eng. “Death and Life of a Severino”). The central subject is again the Brazilian Northeasterner’s relation to the Capibaribe River, and in the former poem the river itself is the first-person narrator, man having lost even the right to state his own wretched case. In “Party at the Manor House,” on the other hand, it is the plantation owners who gather around to tell the morphology of the sugar-mill worker as if she or he were a lower species of animal, hardly distinguishable from the sugar which is the beginning, middle, and end of her or his exploited life. The sugar-mill worker “in child form” is “cane that is weak / from overharvesting, / —A degenerate breed / of the fourth or fifth cutting.” The female sugar-mill worker is “essentially a sack / —Of sugar without / any sugar inside.” The sugar-mill worker, when on the job, “has a heavy rhythm: / —Like the final molasses/ from the final vat.” There is no inner “spiritual man” that can remain untouched by the outer condition of “sugar-mill worker.” After the worker dies and the worms and dry earth have already gnawed his body away, finally the wind of the canefield arrives, to sweep away “the gases of his soul.”
Such a ruthlessly objective poetry—objective in the sense that all subjects receive equal consideration, humans being dealt with in the same terms as stones, coconuts, sugarcane, whatever—has some obvious advantages that may be summarized as follows: 1) it prompts reaction; 2) the ordinary and the abject are lifted to the status of poetry; 3) since there is no pity, there is no condescension; 4) to consider the world from radically new angles—things as if they were animate, people as if they were not—is to “make it new.”
There is yet another advantage which is closer to home, and perhaps for that reason less obvious. Ponge alluded to it in “Introduction to the Pebble,” affirming that the “entire secret of happiness for the contemplator lies in his refusal to object to the taking over of his personality by things,” and Moore acknowledged it in other terms when she wrote (in “What Are Years?”): “He sees and is glad, who accedes to mortality.” Cabral illustrates the thought and takes it a step further in the poem “The Sandbank at Sirinhaem.”
If you let go and you lie down
under the steady eastern wind
of a beach in Northeast Brazil,
more than letting go, you lie;
if you give yourself up to the sea,
your body closes in, isolates
itself inside of its own cage,
and less than existing, you are;
if furthermore the trade wind
stirred by the wind (or stirring it)
makes the coconut field
intone its single syllable,
you may be able to hear
in this way cut, and empty,
by merely being, the whistling
of time flowing, your flowing.
If you let go and you lie down
under the steady eastern wind
of a beach in Northeast Brazil,
more than lying, you let go,
you feel with your body that
the Earth turns round your axis,
and you can even feel
that your legs are lifting,
that the horizon is rising,
that higher than your mind
your body also rises,
covered by the furthest sea.
These beaches make it possible
for the body to feel its time,
space in its slow turning,
your life as revolution.
Giving in to things, and to our own humanity as a thing, allowing the body to rise higher than our mind (as occurs in the crucial penultimate stanza), we may be able to touch-at least in certain moments-the physics of time and space, feeling ourselves physically a part of the universal rotation. This is not mystical exhilaration but its contrary. It is the plain realization of an essential tranquility in our organic substantiality.
All translations from this poet’s work herein quoted were made by Richard Zenith. The following list includes poems collected in Poesias Completas, Rio de Janeiro, Olympio, 1968. From O Engenheiro (The Engineer), 1945: “A Lição de Poesia” (The Poetry Lesson). O Cão sem Plumas (The Dog Without Feathers), 1950. O Rio (The River), 1954. Morte e Vida Severina, 1956 (Eng. “Death and Life of a Severino,” excerpts translated by Elizabeth Bishop in her Complete Poems: 1927-1979, New York, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1983). From Paisagens com Figuras (Landscapes with Figures), 1956: “O Vento no Canavial” (Eng. “The Wind in the Canefield,” Modem Poetry in Translation, Spring 1992); “Encontro com um Poeta” (“Encounter with a Poet,” Partisan Review, Summer 1987); “Alguns Toureiros” (“Toreadors,” Modem Poetry in Translation, Spring 1992). Uma Faca so lamina (Eng. A Knife All Blade), 1956. From Quaderna (Four-Spot), 1960: “Cemiterio Alagoano (Trapiche da Barra)” (Eng. “Cemetery in Alagoas,” New Orleans Review, Summer 1988); “A Palavra Seda” (Eng. “The Word Silk,” Paris Review, Spring 1988). From Dois Parlamentos (Two Voices), 1961: “Festa na Casa-Grande” (Party at the Manor House). From Serial (Serial), 1961: “O Sim contra o Sim” (Yes Against Yes); “O Ovo de Galinha” (Eng. “The Egg,” Chelsea, Summer 1988). From A Educai;ao pela Pedra (Education by Stone), 1966: “O Canavial e o Mar” (Eng. “The Canefield and the Sea,” Webster Review, Fall 1988); “Num Monumento a Aspirina” (Eng. “On a Monument to Aspirin,” Modem Poetry in Translation, Spring 1992); “Para a Feira do Livro” (For the Book Fair).
——. A Esco/a das Facas. Rio de Janeiro. Jose Olympio. 1980. Includes “Forte de Orange, Itamaraca” (Fort Orange, Itamaraci); “Barra do Sirinhaem” (Eng. “The Sandbank at Sirinhaem,” New Orleans Review, Summer 1988); “A Cana-de Açucar Menina” (Sugarcane Girl); “A Cana e o Seculo Dezoito” (Sugarcane and the Eighteenth Century).
——. Agrestes. Rio de Janeiro. Nova Fronteira. 1985. Includes “Homenagem Renovada a Marianne Moore” (Eng. “Renewed Homage to Marianne Moore,” Translation, Fall 1987). Moore, Marianne. Collected Poems. New York. Macmillan. 1951.
Includes all poems cited.
Peixoto, Marta. Poesia com Coisas. São Paulo. Perspectiva. 1983. Ponge, Francis. Le parti pris des choses. Paris. Gallimard. 1942. Includes “Pluie” (Rain); “La bougie” (Eng. “The Candle,” tr. Raymond Federman, in The Random House Book of Twentieth Century French Poetry, ed. Paul Auster, New York, Vintage, 1984); “L’orange” (The Orange); “Escargots” (Snails); “Notes pour un coquillage” (Notes on a Shellfish); “La crevette” (The Prawn); “Le galet” (The Pebble).
——. Pieces. Paris. Gallimard. 1962. Includes “Le cheval” (The Horse); “La chevre” (The Goat).
——. Proemes. Paris. Gallimard. 1948. Includes “Introduction au galet” (Eng. “Introduction to the Pebble,” tr. Paul Bowles, in The Random House Book of Twentieth-Century French Poetry).
Richard Zenith is an acclaimed translator and literary critic. His translations include Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet and Fernando Pessoa and Co.: Selected Poems, which won the 1999 American PEN Award for Poetry in Translation, along with Galician-Portuguese troubadour poetry, novels by António Lobo Antunes, and poems by João Cabral de Melo Neto in World Literature Today. The recipient of Portugal’s Pessoa Prize, Zenith lives in Lisbon, Portugal.
In our eighteenth issue, we feature the work of beloved Cuban poet Reina María Rodríguez alongside that of João Cabral de Melo Neto, renowned Brazilian poet and third Latin American winner of the Neustadt Prize. We also highlight Latin American women poets, indigenous literature from Brazil, new works in translation, and a return to the essay through the words of Mariano Picón Salas.