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.


  1. That Os Sertões poem is astounding. I love the line about Guimarães Rosa "closing with a golden key / brazilian literature's most fertile cycle." Pretty humorous stuff, given that he closed it with an infinity symbol!

    1. It is a remarkable poem, and it makes me want to give another shot at Grande Sertão. I think I read that book too impatiently and hurriedly; the experience of writing a novel has made me reconsider some books I previously scorned. Perhaps I'd like it more now. Unfortunately I put it in a box full of books and asked a friend to keep it for me. I'm literally out of room for books!

    2. I'd be interested in revisiting it too, so if your friend ever gives back your copy, let me know. I'm having the same problem, what with a limited, steady state of book space; I constantly have to relinquish some of those I've read in order to make room for those I haven't.

    3. Scott, certainly, one day I'll re-read it for sure.

  2. I'm looking forward to your finally getting hold of Catatau, so that I can read a decent review of this linguistic curiosity.

    1. Ha ha, you don't know what it's like to order books from Brazil. Between the shipping costs (the books themselves are cheap compared to Portugal's prices), the risk of mail getting lost (I can't confirm if they use registered mail or not) and the taxes customs will likely charge me, everything seems programmed to kill the buyer's enthusiasm.

      I'm just not sure my enthusiasm is strong enough to overcome all these snags. But don't worry, if by any chance I obtain a copy you'll know.

    2. Congrats on finally getting the book! I'm anticipating a meandering review with recondite vocabulary and arcane puns.

    3. Dear me, news travel quickly in the web.

      I'm not sure that's the register I'll use for my review; I was thinking of aping a Father António Vieira sermon this time. Of course first I'll have to learn Latin.

  3. I don't know. The poems that depend largely on puns or verbal effects, those are hopeless, but some of the others, like "anti-Euclidean backlands," seem feasible. Your quick version seems pretty good in English, pretty exciting, actually.

    Later this week, I think I'm going to write about some Cavafy translations. I do not think you are throwing away more than Cavafy's translators did.

    1. Well, I'll look around for Leminsky's more "ordinary" poems and translate those when I can. Someone needs to champion him in English!