Nothing the Sun Could Not Explain: Twenty Contemporary Brazilian Poets
Review by Deborah Meadows

An influence may lead one to turn away from aesthetic practices or revise tired gestures. In Brazil, the Campos brothers began to create a truly visual poetry tied to European concrete poetry that soon became a dead end for many of the poets represented in this anthology (the first collection of Brazilian poetry translated into English since the Elizabeth Bishop anthology) who broke with influences that had formed their early educations as poets.

Yet Pound, Michaux, Mallarmé and others explored Concretism, calligrams, and pictographs creating visual experiences through the materiality of the linguistic or typographic sign rather than disappearing as vehicle of “imagery”. According to João Almino’s Introduction to Nothing the Sun Could Not Explain: Twenty Contemporary Brazilian Poets many of the poets included come after, and are influenced by modernism, by Concretism, their work often: “postulates a rupture from narrative and the disappearance of the “self,” and favors atomized poetry across a graphic and visual surface.” And of their social and historic moment, he helpfully writes that “… this anthology is highly representative of what has been produced in Brazil throughout the last twenty years, a period during which the country witnessed, in the mid-eighties, the transition from a military regime to a civil government.”

The beautifully-designed anthology, expanded and re-printed by Douglas Messerli from an earlier version with Régis Bonvincino, Nelson Ascher and Michael Palmer allows for enough white space to have an experience of poetry rather than of stingily collected economy. Plus, not only is each of the twenty poets’ sections headed by a biography and bibliography, but most have a photo which creates immediacy. So much work here is fascinating and a great introduction to our contemporaries in Brazil, that first I will look at Carlito Azevedo, a writer who brings together and refreshes several tendencies in a spare poetic form. For example, “In Grey Night” creates a surreal tension of tigers (tropical as well as Blakean perhaps) in a pale night with a cigarette smoker, then the poem rises to an all-at-once moment of imagist tradition plus the nice stanza split for the adverbial ending “mente” or “ly” (excerpted from pgs. 50/51):

The shock of skins

against hair
(as in a dark
street doub-

ly enlace
the counterbeams
of two headlights)?

*

Choque de peles

a contra-pelo
(tal numa rua
escura mutual-

mente se enlaçam
as contra-luzes
de dois faróis)?

And without repeating its entirety, the masterful “(Real) Fable of the Lakes of Mexico” is a treat that works through the “real” myth of origins, the founding of the floating capital of Mexico, and somehow, magically, shifts from narration to, what I might call, narrative-movement through what is embedded in a linguistic field, the texture of language itself. The movement is toward the “fake” myth of faux zoology and salamanders that were supposed to survive fire. So it, like the next example “Woman” requires the reader to turn to the first language no matter your proficiencies in Portuguese in order to learn what poets can do. But how does Azevedo do this? Only a small, breathtaking excerpt from pages 52/53:

but from them

but from the larva dispensing
branchias and
flippers

will awaken adult
now the

salamander

ex-larva
axolotl tigrinum

that no sun
will dry up

*

mas deles

mas de larva dispensado
brânquias e
nadadeiras

despertará adulta
agora já a

salamandra

ex-larva
axolotl tigrinum

que nenhum sol
há de secar

The entire “Woman” is below, again setting a linguistic field through which this woman descends as all sex and death, actually more death than sex, through repeated involutions of hard vowel/consonant combinations (word openings as well as internal to the words nicely extending the meaning of the poem) resonating as a hard binary, counter-beat. No liquid loveliness here, and surely a work that anguished our genius translators (pages 60/61):

Woman

Rough calcerous
lacerates the fine
skin, of rice;

occult caress
corals, and gloves
change themselves into prongs;

crystal, kindling,
splinter, granite:
any word

wounds this body
(that meanwhile guards
and sharpens as

a new skeleton:
internal in edge,
external in scream).

*

Mulher

Rude calcário
lacera a pele
fina, de arroz;

carícia oculta
corais, e luvas
mudam-se em puas;

cristal, graveto,
farpa, granito:
qualquer palavra

fere este corpo
(que entanto a guarda
e afia como

novo esqueleto:
interno em gume,
externo em grito).

There are many gems here that poets will study for their mastery. Paulo Leminski’s poems of great concision, Carlos Avila’s linguistic fields in “Baudelaire’s Answer,” Leonora de Barros’s concrete poem “There is there is life life,” Nelson Ascher’s allusions to traditions such as “Basho in Paris” and “Snapshot” as well as his deceptively simple “Machines” (39):

If—precise machines
for dying that we are—
our function implies
unending memory,

why, then, do you bear
(lubriciously
contractile between your legs)
your wine-press of amnesia?

Régis Bonvincino’s “No Nothing” sets a most complex field combined with incantatory sound properties. Here tensions that create and annihilate corporeality, that add to and detract from subjectivity are in play as degrees of negation cross the propositional field (entire from pages 70/71):

No Nothing

No nothing still the other
similar still to the same
minimal still the other
he himself not yet the other
of the same dead another
secluded in his body

Traces still of the same
deep inside the other not yet
scars link
tattoos dissipate
bludgeoned antennas, in ink
shards of the other splinters of the other

A stilled butterfly screens
scars on a body

*

Não Nada

Não nada ainda do outro
semelhante ainda ao mesmo
mínimo ainda o outro
ele mesmo não ainda outro
de um mesmo morto outro
insulado em seu corpo

Vincos dos mesmo ainda
no íntimo do outro tampouco
cicatrizes unem
tatuagens dissipam
antenas clavadas, em tinta
cacos do outro estilhaços do outro

Uma borboleta fixa encobre
cicatrizes num corpo

Everyone will want this anthology: to be introduced to the quirky and inventive works by the Arnaldo Antunes, to read Horácio Costa’s serial poem “Song of the Wall” to experience poetic device as “built by chance on a corner of time” (121), to learn Antônio Moura’s neologisms where writing is “stre—papyrus—tched” (165) paper thin, to read Júlio Castañon Guimarães “Untitled, Oil on Canvas, 70 X 50 cm” that undoes “knots of representation” as well as “cynical or rhetorical inquiry” that may claim a false mastery over the poor little image. But, can that unknowable situation, in turn, be depicted in an image, the poem asks? A question central to Celan’s work. Or, to let Josely Vianna Baptista have the last word with “Florid Pores”, translated by Michael Palmer (204/205):

Late afternoon, the shadows spill
their tints over colors, extract
the contour of things from the light’s odd grain,
the grooves on a mollusk shell,
tracings, millenary scallops with salt
deposits, strange poem woven
among shreds of oleander
while bodies
dive in slow motion
and nothing is image
(your white body engulfed in seaweed)
nothing is mirage
on the eyelids’ shining screen.

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Nothing the Sun Could Not Explain: Twenty Contemporary Brazilian Poets, edited by Régis Bonvicino, Michael Palmer and Nelson Ascher, is available at Green Integer.

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Deborah Meadows is author of Itinerant Men (Krupskaya, 2004), Representing Absence (Green Integer, 2004) and The 60s and 70s, from The Theory of Subjectivity in Moby-Dick (Tinfish, 2003). Her reviews have appeared in Jacket, XCP and elsewhere. She teaches at Cal Poly Pomona.


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