Saturday, 25 April 2015

Paulo Leminski is a mad dog: poetry from Brazil

My current obsession concerns a Brazilian poet called Paulo Leminski. Virtually unknown in Portugal, I accidentally discovered him weeks ago and have engaged in unsuccessful attempts at acquiring at least one book by him. In the meantime I have the internet to educate me on this cult writer.

Details, until I get hold of his biography, remain diffuse: of Polish descent, in 1944 Paulo Leminski was born in Curitiba, also hometown of fictionist Dalton Trevisan (whom he admired more than I do.) In 1958, he entered a monastery and lived there for a year. We catch up with him again in 1963, when he attended the I Brazilian Congress on Vanguard Poetry: there he met Haroldo de Campos, an important poet, who became his friend and mentor. The same year he married Neiva Maria de Souza, a plastic artist; they split in 1968 and he married poet Alice Ruiz, who stayed with him until his death; for some time he and Ruiz lived in a hippie commune with Leminski’s ex-wife and her new boyfriend.

In 1964, Leminski published poems in Invenção, a magazine created by the founders of concrete poetry: Décio Pignatari, Haroldo and his brother, Augusto. He won a poetry prize in 1968 and continued to publish in magazines for almost a decade; his first collection of poetry didn’t come out until 1976. In 1975 he published an experimental novel called Catatau (which is what attracted me to him): eight years in the making, known inside a circle of friends, expectations were high; when it came out it was a small revolution. The plot, as far as I can tell, tells the fictional journey of Rene Descartes, aboard John Maurice of Nassau’s armada, to Brazil during the Dutch-Portuguese War, his getting lost and going crazy in the vast, anti-rational jungles of the New World. But that’s just the surface; from the online excerpts I’ve read what really matters is the word puns, the relationship between sounds, the invention of portmanteau words and other verbal resources he employs. A polyglot, Leminski spoke French, English, Spanish, Greek, Latin and Japanese, all of which he put in the novel, plus Tupi. James Joyce’s influence is often recognized, as is Haroldo’s Galáxias (an experimental book, a synthesis of poetry and prose without commas and punctuation, that he wrote between 1963 and 1976 but only published in 1984; however the work in progress circulated widely amongst other writers). It’s worth mentioning that Augusto de Campos translated Finnegans Wake to Portuguese.

Leminski worked as a History teacher, as a Judo teacher (he was a black belt), in advertising, wrote for magazines and newspapers, and composed lyrics for popular songs. He also translated James Joyce, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, John Fante, John Lennon, Yukio Mishima, Alfred Jarry, Petronius, and Samuel Beckett. He even translated ancient Egyptian poetry. On top of that he wrote four biographies on: Jesus Christ, Leon Trotsky, the 17th century Japanese poet Matsuo Bashō, and the Brazilian poet João da Cruz e Sousa.

He passed away in 1989. Being a poet, it goes without saying that the cause was cirrhosis of the liver. He has been subjected to a biography called Paulo Leminski: O bandido que sabia latim, which literally means Paulo Leminsky: The bandit who spoke Latin. I hope to read it one day.

Although no one knows Leminski in Portugal, he has had tremendous influence on contemporary Brazilian poetry. His poetry favoured word puns and the haiku, abhorred conventional punctuation and capital letters and tended to exude humour. He has shown up in some English-language Brazilian poetry anthologies, but I fear the challenges of translating his prose will always hold him back.

Leminski was a believer in experimentation and art for art’s sake, art as its own reason to be; and he manipulated words using the full resources of the Portuguese language, relishing in its particularities, eschewing what Breton called the “purely informative style”. Take a simple example:

vão é tudo
que não for prazer
repartido prazer
entre parceiros

todas as coisas que vão

A literal translation would be:

vain is everything
that isn’t pleasure
pleasure partaken
between partners

all things that go.

Now the poem’s fun is the fact that vão, which is the first and last word, has two meanings: in the first position it’s an adjective, in the last it’s the conjugation of the verb to go (ir). The joke comes from pointing out the semantic unity between both words: everything is in vain because everything goes, that is, disappears, what matters is enjoying life while it lasts, the now.

Then there’s a poem called “enchantagem,” which – I presume, but what do I know? –  is a pun on the English word enchant and the Portuguese word chantagem (blackmail). How do you capture that in translation?

You also have a poem that is all about sounds (but what poem isn’t?):

                        da tua prece

tua pressa
só teu pulso

você padece
                        te resta

            um belo dia

Which I may clumsily turn into:

                        your prayer

your hurry
just your pulse
                                   speed up

you wither
                        what’s left to you

                        one fine day

Most of the poem is about tonic syllable stresses, rhymes and words resounding into other words: Deus and indu, algum and ogum, indu and Vishnu. Then we have running sounds like the p in prece/pressa/pulso, or the sibilants in precisa/pessoa/padecer. Then prece echoes tenuously at padece and at the end with desaparece. For all its apparent anarchy across the page, it’s tightly weaved. And although it doesn’t look like much on the page, or even when read, it’s when it’s spoken out loud that it sounds so wonderful, that’s when you marvel at the quick rhythm of its short words; most have one or two syllables. The poem is about the rhythm of where the stress falls on the word: Deus, algum, indu, ogum, Vishnu, precisa, da tua prece, pessoa, , teu, pulso, acelera, vo, padece, padecer, te, resta, tudo, um, belo, dia, desaparece. We have an almost constant structure where a tonic syllable is followed by a toneless syllable, maintaining a steady rhythm from beginning to end. Don’t forget that where in some places it seems like two toneless syllables go together – pul(so, a)celera, or tu(do, um) – actually what we have here is what is known as a crasis, that is, a blending of two syllables into one. I just mention all this to show the difficulty of effectively translating Leminski into English.

Others are more straightforward, and I don’t think I’ve emphasized Leminski’s humour and irreverence yet:

um dia desses quero ser
um grande poeta inglês
do século passado
e dizer
ó céu ó mar ó clã ó destino
lutar na índia em 1866
e sumir num naufrágio clandestino

one of these days I want to be
a great English poet
from the previous century
and say
O sky o sea o clan o fate
Fight in India in 1866
And disappear in a clandestine shipwreck


entre a dívida externa
e a dúvida interna
meu coração

between the external debt
and the internal doubt
my commercial

Or even:

o pauloleminski
é um cachorro louco
que deve ser morto
a pau a pedra
a fogo a pique
senão é bem capaz
o filhodaputa
de fazer chover
em nosso piquenique

is a mad dog
who must be
clubbed and stoned
burnt and stabbed to death
or that sonofabitch
may just
on our picnic

And what about his prophetic powers?

moinho de versos
movido a vento
em noites de boemia

vai vir o dia
quando tudo que eu diga
seja poesia

verse windmill
on bohemian nights

the day will come
when everything I say
will be poetry

Who can say if that day hasn’t come already?

And then there’s stuff like this:

anti-Euclidean backlands

no book
had on learned Brazilian culture
the impact of the os sertões

with it
euclides da cunha
army man
like all republican officers
a positivist
a literature made by graduates
"society's smile"
second empire salon glow
reading for masters and misses
a surge of thorns in the beardless face
of Law students
idleness for retirees
domestic gift
by the elite of an illiterate country
with him
another brazil
a new brazil
the real hinterland brazil
jumped in the face of learned elites
gathered in the cities
in the rio-são paulo axis
producing a french literature in the tropics
for white men to see

canudos was a revelation
the awakening of the brazilian mind
the national satori
a historic event of many
of which the most important
a book called os sertões

from it descend
all our regionalist prose
even the maxium sertão
where the genius of guimarães rosa
gives the sertão a cosmic dimension
in a text as rich as Joyce's
closing with a golden key
brazilian literature's most fertile cycle

the text os sertões
has a history
an essential biography
for the book's comprehension

it was born from the annotations
of the military engineer euclides da cunha
war correspondent for o estado de são paulo
right on the spot of the military operations
jagunços and fanatics of antônio
against the republic's troops

from the annotations to reportage
and from these to the final text os sertões
a long textual journey
where euclides bet everything he had
scientific preparation
verbal skill
and mastery of the stylistic resources
of the language

the twisted
the tortuous
euclides' positivist baroque
liana style
is prose in drama
isomorphic with the drama it presentifies
speech deformed and informed by the topic

the impact canudos provoked on euclides
was not just historical
it was also semiotic/poetic
of language
in canudos
euclides discovered the sertão's natural talk
the popular language
a language
full of its own movements
sayings and expressions by jagunços
quite far from the capital's sermio nobilis

this impact
escape euclides' exegetes

the revelation of the sertões' language
is documented
in Euclide's field notebook
a pocket book recently published
by cultrix
birthplace of os sertões
where euclides joted down geography
military operations
war episodes and incidents

many pages from the notebook
are riddled with lists of words and
expressions that Euclides
heard in the carelessness
of the people
living poetry/language
exploding in his civilized eardrums

some of those expressions
true fossils
archaic words and sayings
kept in the sertão's isolation
a trip to the language's past

euclides joted down in the notebook
popular poems
like the abc of incredulity
war literature
by an anonymous man
where the rawness of the ideas and expressions
is expressed in barbarian orthography

the orthographic code
constitutes the first protective layer
of the dominant language
its first line of defenses
china wall against the invasion of
the popular
the poetic
the new

faced by social
linguistic torthographic
made a psychoanalytical trip to Brazil’s
and gives
a name to our malaise

it's called alienation

no brazilian paideuma
(selection from a cast of vital authors)
that leaves os sertões out
can consider itself complete
with it
the euclidean (mathematically speaking)
discovers the reverse

and discovers us.

Now this is a great book blurb! If they put this poem on the back of the Penguin edition of Backlands: The Canudos Campaign, copies would fly off the shelves. Maybe not, but at least it’d have Leminski’s poem on the back, and that’s not a bad thing.

Whenever I have the time, stuff from his essays.

Monday, 13 April 2015

But I think we’re straying from the topic, I have this digressive habit: Jorge Luis Borges talks about Russian literature

In the 1980s Jorge Luis Borges and poet Osvaldo Ferrari held weekly conversations over a radio program, in Radio Buenos Aires. Ferrari usually set the theme going, asked Borges a question and let the master wander through his memories and tastes. I’ve written the gist of many such conversations in the past, but English-speaking readers can finally purchase the first volume, an indispensable book for Borgs lovers. Eventually a second volume will come out. Meanwhile here’s a preview: Borges on Russian literature. Of course it’s not about Russian Literature; with Borges a conversation is never just about one topic; like in a real conversation he digresses, a lot, and there’s as much about the Russians as about Dickens, detective novels, poetry, his writing process, Hegel, and Kierkegaard.

It begins with Ferrari mentioning Tolstoy and Borges comparing him to Dostoevsky. “After reading Crime and Punishment, I thought for a long time that Dostoevsky was the preeminent novelist. Then I read The Possessed, which in Russian I think is called Demons; and then, well, I wanted to meet The Brothers Karamazov. Here I failed. And although I continued to revere Dostoevsky, at the same time I felt I had no interest whatsoever in seeing another one of his books. And I was cheated by The House of the Dead. However I read and reread, well, also a single book, hm: War and Peace, by Tolstoy; and it continues to seem admirable to me. Now I think that’s the general opinion: that Tolstoy is superior.” “To Dostoevsky?” asks Ferrari. “Yes, to Dostoevsky, no?” “It’s quite probable.”

What eerie similarities to my life: after reading Crime and Punishment, for a while I also considered Dostoevsky the greatest novelist ever; kind of what I felt after reading Garcia Márquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude. Like Borges, my second book was also Demons; he may have liked it, that one soured me a bit on the great Russian and although I’ve read shorter novels like The Gambler, Poor People and The Double, I continue wary of tackling another one of his big ones. Notes from the Underground is on a galaxy apart, a faraway galaxy full of mystery and wonder, populated by very strange aliens.

But moving on: Borges, in order to defend Tolstoy’s superiority over Dostoevsky, invokes the authority of – wait for it – “the author of Lolita…” “Nabokov,” adds Ferrari. Unfortunately, this is not the text that will reveal what Borges thought of Nabokov; I’m certain I’m not alone in wanting to know that, especially since the curmudgeon émigré admired the Argentinean. Borges only mentions this: “Nabokov said that he was compiling an anthology of Russian prose and that he couldn’t include a single page by Dostoevsky.” We know why Nabokov did that, the bastard, but Borges, always the kind dean of literature, has a gentler theory. “But that, although it looks like an admonishment, in fact isn’t, for it doesn’t befit a novel to include anthological pages. And I’m remembering what Momigliano said of D’Annuzio, when he stated that his most unforgivable sin, or let us says his biggest fault, was having written only anthological pages. Because, of course, a page is a unit and a novel isn’t reduced to any of its pages, and even less to any of its phrases, sentences; the novel must be read as a whole and is always remembered as a whole. So Nabokov’s sentence may not be an admonishment.” Borges is always a gentleman, and one must admire the way he twists reality to unite opposites, his reasoning can be as crafty as Saint Aquinas’; only he could dig up Gabriele D’Annuzio to obfuscate the simple fact that Nabokov excluded Dostoevsky because he hated his writing.

Since now they’re talking about novels per se, Borges remarks that “when one speaks of novels it’s inevitable to think of Quixote,” and he goes on to say that “in the Quixote most pages are not anthological: they seem written haphazardly, but the last chapter and the first, certainly unforgettable, are anthological, and excluding them would be a mere caprice of the anthologist. Now, of course in the past I used to have an anthological concept of literature; so I wrote a sentence, let’s say – usually they were long, as if a bit… well, they wanted to be eloquent, unforgettable – four or five lines. Then I reread it, corrected it, but when I corrected it guided by perverse reasons, it came out wrong. And then I moved on to the second sentence, and next to the third; and that made the whole article becoming unreadable because it was composed of isolated blocks. Nowadays I write in a fluid way, or I try to make it fluid, and then I correct what I write.”

Ferrari opines that Borges’ old method of writing was perhaps more adequate to poetry. “I think so,” says Borges, “because in a poem you presuppose that each verse must be right. Although there may be admirable poems without memorable verses, and terrible poems, well, solely composed of memorable verses. But I think we’re straying from the topic, I have this digressive habit…”

Borges next regrets that he can’t speak Russian, a language he finds extremely beautiful when he hears it spoken. He also reveals that “I tried to study Russian, in 1918, let’s say at the end of the First World War, when I was a communist. But, of course, communism at the time meant the friendship of all men, the forgetting of frontiers; and now I think it represents the new czarism.”

Returning to Dostoevsky, he tells Ferrari that this writer to him means Crime and Punishment above all. “And I read, although I don’t know if it’s true or not, that the true title was to be ‘Guilt and Atonement,’ and that the book as we know it would be the first part: the story of a murderer, the killing of the money-lender and the other woman. And then the whole part where the policeman chases him; those unforgettable dialogues, no doubt, between the inspector and the killer. And then the other part; I think in the last sentence it says that telling Raskolnikov’s experiences in Siberia would be telling how a soul mutates. I mean, it’d narrate the punishment, which doesn’t show up in the first part, or the atonement, which would be the same thing. There’s a terrible expression by Hegel, or it seems terrible, that says that punishment is the criminal’s right. It seems a cruel sentence, but it’s not; if the punishment redeems, the criminal has the right to be punished, that is, to be redeemed. The expression was considered cynical, but perhaps it’s not.”

The conversation turns to legal punishment, and Borges remarks that “personally I’d prefer death penalty because prison sounds terrible to me. Xul Solar told me that he wouldn’t mind being locked up for a year, so long as he were alone. But having to live with bad people must be horrible, don’t you think?” And then thinking about his blindness, he says, “during part of my time, in a certain sense, I’m in solitary confinement, isn’t that true?” Ferrari repeats the usual cliché that we’re all alone, and Borges replies, “Yes, but, perhaps we’re always alone… no, but I feel company in a very agreeable way, so long as it’s not excessive, so long as it’s not, well, a penitentiary, or a cocktail party, or maybe a meeting of the Academy. So long as it’s not lots of people, I enjoy it very much, yes, of being with one, two people, it’s very pleasant. But being with twenty people seems terrible, right?” And he continues: “It’s the downside of Heaven… no, but perhaps in Heaven there’s a reduced population, no? For many are called and few are chosen. And now I’m remembering that terrible sentence by Kierkegaard who says that if Judgement Day arrived and there were only a man condemned to hell, and that man were him, he’d sing the De Profundis, the praise of the Lord and His Justice. Except we may think that this sentence is a bribe made to God, that he wanted to please God, but I don’t think so.”

Trying to get back to Dostoevsky, Ferrari says that he agrees with Nabokov when he said he was more of a playwright than a novelist. “That’s true,” Borges agrees, “we remember the conversations.” But then he defends Dostoevsky’s use of melodrama. “I think it was Eliot who said that from time to time we must explore the possibilities of the melodramatic. Why, it’s clear Dostoevsky is melodramatic. And there’s no doubt the Russian novel exercised a huge influence on the world. But I think I read that Dostoevsky was Dickens’ reader, and it seems there was a time, according to Forster, Dickens’ friend and biographer, when he said that he couldn’t look anywhere, couldn’t think of any plot that didn’t have a murder in the end.” So now we jump to Dickens: “The murder of characters, the murders in Dickens rank amongst the best, no? You can see that he felt that intensely, I remember, there’s hardly a Dickens novel without a murder, except The Pickwick Papers; and those murders are, well, very convincing and very different one from another.” Ferrari argues that they’re even better than in some detective novels, which is Borges’ turf. “Yes, maybe better, yes; in the detective novel the murder is a pretext for investigation. You can make a good detective novel without a crime. For instance, one of the best detective tales, ‘The Purloined Letter,’ by Poe; well, in it the important thing is the fact that he hid the letter in an obvious place and for that reason the letter’s invisible, no?”

Ferrari makes a valiant effort at returning to Tolstoy; he mentions that for Nabokov in Tolstoy there was a struggle between the artist and the preacher. “Yes,” says Borges, “and sometimes the preacher won.” Remarking that Tolstoy was an ascetic who renounced his worldly possessions, Borges adds: “I read an article about Tolstoy and Dostoevsky that said that the strange thing was the fact that Dostoevsky knew poverty but Tolstoy went look for it to know it.” However he rejects the notion that poverty made Dostoevsky a more interesting writer. “Having renounced something and being an ascetic is more interesting than being poor, which isn’t that meritorious.” Reflecting that Tolstoy gave up writing to get closer to himself, Borges calls that “a praiseworthy mistake. I, well, modestly… of course when I was young I wanted to be Lugones, then I realized that Lugones was Lugones in a far more convincing way than me. And now I’ve resigned myself… to being Borges, that is, to be all the writers I read, and, amongst them, inevitably Lugones, isn’t that so?”

And so ended another weekly conversation, with Borges taking us through the meanders of his many book readings.