Friday, 23 May 2014

João Vário writes examplary poetry

João Vário (1937-2007) was a Cape Verdean poet and one of the most interesting authors I discovered for this project. He studied neuroscience in Portugal and Belgium and the bulk of his career consumed by a titanic endeavour called Exemplos, a nine-volume attempt at creating a poetic system that synthesised his ideas about art and man, life and death, time and God. T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound were strong influences, and there’s clearly a bit of The Cantos in these cantos and odes. Of all the African poets I’ve showcased so far, he’s one of the most cosmopolitan, in the sense that he’s conversant with world poetry and abstains from commenting directly on African history, colonialism and the post-independence period, favouring universal, more spiritual themes. At the time of his death, he was considered one of the greatest Portuguese-language African poets but he was also practically unknown in Portugal. Just by chance I discovered that the collected edition of Exemplos had been published in 2013, and I gave it a try; the poems, huge cantos and odes, are remarkable for their complexity and density, but not appropriate for a blog post. So I looked around in the National Library and discovered a 1958 book, perhaps from the time he studied at the University of Coimbra, called Horas sem Carne that had easier poems, and which the author repudiated. Nevertheless I find many of them extraordinary. Between these books very little by him was published here, but hopefully that will change. So this post is a collection of both books.

From Horas sem Carne (1958):


Don’t ask me to love you:
Love me
And break your nature
In the perverse voluptuousness of sex.
Don’t ask me to show you God:
See the flower
And wonder at the body’s mystical beauty
That its pollen envelopes.
Don’t ask me for mystery, nor truth, nor grace:
Look at our naked bodies
And relieve your parents,
Your grandparents,
Know your future children,
And lift on your thirsty fingers
The vital law
Of generations.
Why do you ask me your future days?
Why do you ask me the death of years?
Why do you ask me the promise of the wheat fields?
Why do you ask me moonlight,
A stream,
A forest,
A landscape?
No, don’t ask me anything!
You don’t need to ask me anything:
God is yours
The universe is yours,
It’s yours the birds’ voice,
The flower that springs in the moon’s silky hair
The sea’s necessary audacity
The peace of the lakes.
It’s yours the simplicity of authentic mornings,
The promise of the dew’s renovation,
The blue fantasy of the firmament,
The metaphysical root of the centuries,
The orison of the twilights.
It’s yours the rocks’ sleep,
The blood that drips from the sun’s torn fingers,
The rainbow.
It’s yours the flight of the shooting stars,
The poem that night writes upon silence’s body,
The wailing of the rain,
The glow of the stars.
All of this is for you,
It’s yours.


Where can one read
True love?
Where can one see
The written life?
Where can one utter the felt truth?
Where can one keep the secret of a being?
Where can one plead for eternal life?
Where can one discover the reversibility of life?
Where can one run away from the madness of hours?
Where to hide
From coming death?
Where? Where the voice is us,
We are the truth,
Light is us,
Are we Life?
Somewhere? No, in ourselves.


The wise man asked Nature
For the obscure logic of Chance,
And the complex intimacy of relationships,
He asked for profound things,
Secrets, distant formulas.

But the other man
Asked neither for hard logic,
Nor for complexity,
Nor for secrets.
He asked only happy chance,
The proximity of things
And the probability of life.
And he was sated.


I sometimes dream with transcendental things,
Frightful, from the deepest abysses,
With horrible, strange, immense beings,
Inhabitants, perhaps of uncouth worlds.

I dream… and, alert, I think on those people
Who, at night, followed me, irate,
And who seem to be monstrous creations
From fecund heavens, hands, brains.

I dream… and mediate afterwards on the lives
I saw in such fantastical visions.
- And in my spirit doubts emerge:

… In dreams I believe my soul is soaring
Towards worlds still redolent with aromas
From my previous days, from incarnations…

And if you didn’t think about Great Cthulhu on reading this, you’re lying!


Before me,
It was your bloodied womb, mother!
And before it,
It was your veins,
Your sap,
Your nerves,
The placenta!
- My biological roots,
Which already also grow
On other women’s nature,
And before you,
It was your parents,
The imprecise series of my forefathers,
Adam and Eve, the legend.
Yes, the beginning and the end
Of each man
Rests on the legend.
(The legend and then man:
Man and then the legend).
Only the poet lives with the legend,
The poet is the legend
The resurrection of the flower
Of fantasy
In the indecisive hands of being.
And through the eyelids
Of its sacred fire
Ivy tendrils climb
Snooping around its recondite dreams.


In each flower
A generation of pure realities
And a sure will
To create beauty;
In each leaf
A subtle world
Of living shapes and multiple revelations;
In each thicket
An advanced notion
Of an infinite space
Whereupon an
Entire creation fits;
In each stem
The firm conscience
Of a collective existence;
In each root
The conjugated strength
Of heterogeneous elements
But aware of the truth
That live contains;
In each fruit
A kind finality
A reason to be persistent
That is understood, felt and complete;
In each slice
The repetition of life
The affirmation of the world,
The Creator’s perennial word to the created beings.

In each vegetable cell,
In each animal cell
A constant struggle
And a variable that makes possible
That same struggle.

In many men
A shattered soul,
A broken heart
Fallen on the ground…

Finally, here are some excerpts from Exemplos. I had neither the courage nor the patience to translate an entire canto. Fom Exemplo Geral (1966):

First Canto (excerpt)


Because taking joy in our work
Is the role given to us,
For who will make us return
To see what will  be after us?
Dangerous connection of time to its own thing,
When it’s not time, but hermetic thing,
Or thing of immortal thing.
Because we dream, that’s why we know we die.
Soul or no soul, however in our soul and time of creatures.
And memories, memories
Like wages or sacrificial pitchers,
Human reasons for censorship and audience,
And help, the great deadline, the possibility.
Here we deal with the time when the task
Belongs neither to death nor time,
But the speech of errors, the clock and the blood not longer
Being instruments or routes or roundabouts.

Malice and rancour,
Waiting and promise.
Sin, pride, lust,
Sin, envy, sin,
Sweat and effort, conviction, success,
Calumny, lassitude, pity,
And fatigue, exaltation, compliment, fatigue and calumny.

And above all thirst, hunger, fullness or dissatisfaction,
The organs and the religion of intuiting ourselves:
Wines and the pacts we adopt
For the thirty monies of feast to fidelity.

From Exemplo Relativo (1968):

Second Canto (excerpt)

And night descend upon Europe, alters it,
And, between the train and the Simonstraat wall,
We’re bound, over the asphalt, to that picture of Bruegel,
With the snow, the blizzard, the rain and the dark
Scattered, like victims, across Flanders.

Venice was, in bygone days, less arduous.
What other pilgrims could we be
If we didn’t come to unknot
Those knots and know some others?

We abandoned, for sure, very early,
Our addresses, our feet we brought
For a dubious journey, oh who knows
If we didn’t demand from our eyes
An ecstasy useful only to Lazarus or Eutychus,
A lesser fervour than the one entering through our abodes’ doorposts?


And we remained caught over the asphalt,
Reflecting on Bruegel,
Because there’s nothing worst or better
Than the gravity of this evening or this neighbour’s tongues,
Since we don’t know our credit or debit
In all these things and only possess,
In difficult days, the digital numbers and the dead.


So here we are, then, between Europe and the night,
Bruegel and Flanders,
In light clothes, not around high or low places,
Walking ahead of our blood,
To make it our property
So it won’t examine us and judge us,
In high places, around
Bruegel and Flanders,
Between Europe and the night,
Searching for our debit and credit in all these things.


But we won’t love these dubious houses
Nor its proud inhabitants,
Oh prestigious dead of this deserted Europe
- Homer, Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky,
What to do about this time of ineptness and decline?

From Exemplo Dúbio (1975):

First Canto (excerpt)

He whom evil did not inhabit
What can he know about truth?
How shall he receive pity
Between its four limbs and this sinless land?
We say: these successes are real.
The years, privation, lust
Narrate man as thorn or the remnants,
But in truth, in truth,
What to do with so much oil?

Ah uselessness, uselessness,
How much longer will
You be by our bedside?

Straw, smoke, stucco, restless vestiges
Of permanence, like the hour or deceit,
The living house, the fate entire, the threads
-         what would we want to hear from god’s mouth?

I hope that was enough to give an idea of how complicated and inter-textual these poems are. I myself need to re-read them because I don’t think I understood a tenth of their meaning. But in terms of imagery, language and allusiveness, they’re tremendous. 

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