Monday, 17 June 2013

Nothing looks more like the end of the world than a dead cat: some poetry by Vinícius de Moraes

Vinícius de Moraes (1913-1980) was one of the greatest songwriters and musicians Brazil had in the 20th century. A short list of his achievements includes: basically inventing Bossa Nova, the most popular Brazilian musical genre of the last century; composing with Tom Jobim the worldwide hit song "Girl from Ipanema;" and writing the play that was later adapted by Marcel Camus into Orfeu Negro, 1959 winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes and the Oscar for best foreign language film. So famous was he in the 1960s that Francis Lai, film composer extraordinaire, paid homage to him in the 1966 song ‘Samba Saravah’ in the score of the French movie A Man and a Woman. On top of that he was a diplomat who travelled all over the world giving concerts, a man who by all accounts was a pretty cool guy, who helped Ferreira Gullar publish his seminal poem Poema Sujo when the exiled poet was going through rough times, and who was a poet in his own right.

To get acquainted with his poetry I read O Operário em Construção, and I must admit it didn’t leave me strongly impressed. I felt, however, some mirth at reading the name of the person who organised this anthology. The book was put together by none other than Alexandre O’Neill, one of my favourite Portuguese poets. Vinícius’ poetry is right up his alley. It’s 1975 when the anthology is published in Portugal, one year after the restoration of democracy. Around the same time Vinícius was in Argentina, listening to Gullar recite Poema Sujo and recording it on tape for posterity. But this is a topic for another post.

O Operário em Construção, or The Worker Under Construction, contains sonnets and ballads, rhyming poems and free verse, homages to Brazilian short-story teller Rubem Braga and the poets Verlaine and João Cabral de Melo Neto, a beautiful elegy to his dead father, memories of his life in Brazil and impressions about Los Angeles, where he lived a few years, plus poems about topics as diverse as the atomic bomb, New York, Christmas, and sex. Although he’s not a poet I particularly enjoy, he was undoubtedly a poet, for he wrote a sonnet to a cat, the worthiest poetic theme next to love, and so I cannot help respect him. The finals poems form a group about cancer, and in spite of what you’d expect it’s not the best part of the book. The best poem is undeniably “The Worker Under Construction,” too long for me to translate more than a few passages:

It was he who built houses
Where before only ground.
Like a bird without wings
He rose with his houses
Which sprang from his hands.
But everything he ignored
Of his great mission:
He knew not, for instance
That the house of a man is a temple
A temple with no religion
As he hardly knew
That the house he made
Being his freedom
Was his slavery.

But the worker is under construction, that is, he’s learning to think about his worth as a human being. He’s becoming free thinking and learning to stand up against his boss, who first sends other workers to beat him and then tries to bribe him. But the worker refuses to live like a slave anymore, and so he’s arrested and tortured, but not in vain:

And the worker heard the
Voice of all his brothers
His brothers who had died
For others who’ll live.
A sincere hope
Grew in his heart
And in the tender noon
Towered the reason
Of a poor and forgotten man
Reason however which turned
Into constructed worker
The worker under construction.

But this is just me with my old lefty bias. Another fine poem is “Elegy at the death of Clodoaldo Pereira da Silva Moraes, Poet and Citizen,” a long poem celebrating the poet’s dead father:

Death arrived through a long-distance call in long metallic spirals.
It was dawn. I heard the voice of my mother, widow.
Suddenly I had no father.

In the dark of my house in Los Angeles I tried to compose your remembrance
After a long absence. Fragments of childhood
Floated in the sea of my tears. I saw myself a boy
Running to meet you. On the dark island
The gas lamps had just been lit, and Augusto’s
Clarinet usually delayed the afternoon.
It was beautiful waiting for you, citizen. The tram
Creaked on the rails many beaches far away
We said: “My dad is coming!” When the bend
Lit up with moving lights, ah, we ran
We ran to meet you. The big thing was to arrive before
But be the last in your arms, be the last to feel
The sweet thorns of your beard.
You had from then an ineffable expression of fidelity and patience
Your face had the fundamental furrows of kindness
Of one who let himself be. Your imposing shoulders
Bent with the weight of the enormous poetry
You didn’t accomplish. The string cut your fingers
Heavy with a thousand packages: meat, bread, objects
For the everyday (and frequently the binoculars
You kept buying and with which you spent whole hours
Watching the sea). Tell me, my father,
What did you see so many years through the glass
That you never revealed to no one?

And it goes on for another five pages, with the best verses saved for last:

You’re not, as you’ll never be for me
A corpse under a sheet.
You’re for me he who many said: “He’s a poet…”
Poet you were, and are, my father. To me you gave
My first verse for my girlfriend. I stole it
From amongst your papers: who knows where it is… I was also
Your verse: I still remember the sonnet you wrote celebrating me
In the motherly womb. And then, many times
I saw you in the street, without you noticing me, wanderer
With a look always more anxious than life. You were driven by ambition
To discover something exact to give us,
For everything you didn’t give us
Thank you, father.

And now, since I know this is what you’ve been waiting for, the cat poem:


A living cat is any beautiful thing
Nothing exists with more serenity
Even still he continues to walk in
The sinuous jungles of his nostalgia

Of having been ferocious. On his coming
Electric high voltages
Tear from the sky the ashen blades
In a silent storm.

So he’s always laughing at each
One of us, and on dying he loses his velvet
Becomes disgusting, inside-out, opaque, bent

He ends, he’s the anticat; because nothing
Nothing looks more like the end of the world
Than a dead cat.

These last two verses redeem the whole book for me. I know just what he means. Never before has poetry been so well employed at the service of the truth.


  1. Miguel, the end of the dead cat poem is indeed fine (even to this dog-lover). However, it was the elegy to his dad that got to me. Thanks for taking the time to translate and share (the day I'll try and translate poetry: never!).

    1. Yes, the elegy is quite beautiful, especially the final verses I didn't translate, when Vinícius starts talking about his own son.

      But you should try translating poetry; as my latest post shows, there's nothing to it.

  2. I had no idea that the composer of Girl from Ipanema was a poet of such renown.

    I know what you mean about Sonnet of the Dead Cat. It very much pulls at the dark side of my thinking.

    1. Yes, Vinícius is a beloved legend in Brazil. Still I think I'll stick to his music for now.

  3. Is there any other country where the fusion of serious poetry and popular song has been so spectacular? (And is there a version of the dead cat sonnet set to music?).

    1. Sadly I don't think so, not even a version of him declaiming it.