Wednesday, 8 May 2013

A needle instant with João Cabral de Melo Neto

I know next to nothing about Brazilian poetry. To date I’ve only read the poems of Carlos Drummond and João Cabral de Melo Neto. Today I’m writing about the latter.

João Cabral de Melo Neto was born in 1920 and in 1990 received the Camões Prize, the highest literary honour in the Portuguese language. By the time he died in 1999 he was considered one of the greatest and most influential Brazilian poets, but since I don’t know anything about Brazilian poetry, that’s meaningless to me. The only book I’ve read is A Educação Pela Pedra (which gives the name to the English-language anthology Education by Stone, translated by Richard Zenith). Although I don’t think it’s a strong book, it contains a handful of poems that I find very well constructed:

Weaving the morning:

A rooster alone doesn’t weave a morning:
he’ll always need other roosters.
Of a rooster to catch that scream he
and throw it to another; of another rooster
that catches the scream a rooster before
and throws it at another one; and other roosters
that with many other roosters cross
the sun strands from their rooster screams,
so that the morning, from a weak web,
weaves itself, between all roosters.


And gaining a body, amongst all,
rising as a tent, where all fit,
amusing itself for all, in the awning
(the morning) that soars free of frames.
The morning, awning of so ethereal a fabric
that, woven, lifts itself up: balloon light.

This is a poem that, purely from an architectural sense, is impressive. The first part is built on the repetition of the word rooster, its own form of weaving the verses together. The first part also treats morning like a physical object, and the second one just runs with this metaphor, before returning to its lightlessness in the final image: balloon light is a startling and amusing mental image, the idea that light just goes up like a balloon.

I also like the way he omits two verbs in verses three and five, because the reader can guess what they’d be anyway. This poem’s translation caused some difficulties because it’s extremely alliterative. Rooster and scream, or galo and grito, are highly unlikely to maintain unless with distant substitutes (roar, perhaps?, although a roaring rooster is even more bizarre than a screaming one.) I fared better with the two last verses of the first section. Originally I wrote tenuous web (from teia tênue), but then realized I could keep alliteration with web and weaving using a near synonym. In the second part, the t sound is dominant but I had more difficulties there, particularly because all (todos), awning (toldo), fabric (tecido), and woven (also tecido) don’t have the adequate replacements in English. Especially lost is the wordplay between tecido, in the sense of fabric, and the past participle of the verb tecer, to weave.

I think, however, that the translation maintains the strong images that make it so poignant. Here’s another poem that shows an ordinary concept from a new perspective:

Fable of an architect

Architecture as building doors,
for opening; or as building the open;
building, not as isolating and holding,
nor building as closing secrets;
building open doors, in doors;
house exclusively doors and ceiling.
The architect: the one who opens for man
(everything would heal with open houses)
doors through-where, never doors-against:
through where, free: air light true reason.


Until, so many free ones scaring him,
he abdicated to living in the clear and open.
Wherever openings, he started walling up
closing opaques; wherever glass, concrete;
until reclosing man: in the uterus chapel,
with matrix comforts, again foetus.

Clearly Melo Neto loves repetition. Here he keeps repeating door and open, and then he contrasts the first part’s sense of openness with the claustrophobic second one. It’s more basic than in the first poem, but I love how instead of expanding the theme he makes a 180 degree turn. This poem doesn’t make use of alliteration like the other one, but also has unusual images for the mind to take in. I particularly love house exclusively doors and ceiling. Like a penrose triangle or an Escher painting, it’s something hard to imagine in physical terms. I also like the general idea of turning architecture on its head, making it about ‘building the open’ instead of building walls, architecture as freedom and not enclosing. Also, uterus chapel, what are the chances of anyone actually using this in a normal conversation?

Inhabiting time

So as not to kill time, he imagined:
Living it while it happens, live;
In the very fine instant it happens in,
On the needle’s tip and thus accessible;
Living his time: to go living
In a literal desert, or of porches;
In nowheres, so as not to distract from living
The needle of a single instant, fully.
Fully: living it from inside it;
Inhabiting it, in the needle of each instant,
In each needle instant: and inhabiting in it
Everything inhabiting gives in to the inhabitant.


And coming back from inhabiting his time:
He runs empty, that live time;
And since beyond empty, transparent,
The instant to inhabit flows invisible.
Therefore: in order not to kill it, to kill it;
To kill time, filling it with things;
Instead of the desert, living in the streets
Where people fill him and kill him;
For as time passes transparent
And only gains body and colour with its inside
(what didn’t pass from what passed it),
To inhabit it: only in the past, dead.

Melo Neto’s poems are labyrinthine and his arguments torturous. His poems are really traps to ensnare the reader. And the way he puts words together: needle instant, who would have thought of that? But poetically it’s so just. It’s curious, I was going to write a single post on Melo Neto and Drummond. It was going to be about how I dislike Melo Neto and loved Drummond. But after re-reading some of the book’s poems I realised they were better and stronger than I imagined them. Perhaps I should continue to read him.

Carlos Drummond is coming next.


  1. I just heard of Melo Neto for the first time only about an hour ago (someone's apparently giving a talk about him soon). I really enjoyed this post - not only for the introduction to the poet, but also for your letting us into your translation wrestling matches. I'm very much looking forward to your Drummond de Andrade post.

    1. And where's that talk going to take place?

    2. I had to go back to find the flyer - my error - it's not a talk, it's a Stanford class on Brazilian poetry and song, and Melo Neto is one of the featured authors.

    3. Ah, yes, he'd be essential reading.

  2. Some good challenges for the translator here. Looking at the English options, I see that he has attracted good translators - Melo Neto must give them something interesting to do.

    I had plans to push into Brazilian poetry as well as Portuguese, but they fizzled. Someday.

    1. He's certainly challenging, not so much in the question of rhymes, but capturing the internal music of the poems is a haunting task, not to mention the rigid metric he uses. He's a very formal, rigorous poet in the classical tradition, I start to think I was too unfair on him the first time I read him.