João Cabral?

Carlos Eduardo Rebello crebello at
Mon Oct 25 00:24:39 MDT 1999

The article in NYT is surprisingly good, given the fact that it comments
on exactly the main issue about João Cabral de Melo Neto: the "concrete"
character of his poetry - ie his supposed refusal to ideologize reality
and to make any subjective comment about it, therefore making potery
devoid of any adjectives, made only of substantives.In one of his early
poems, João Cabral begins with the Greek myth of the refounding of
Thebes by Amphion,the son of Zeus who rebuilt Thebes by moving
construction stones to the sound of his lyre. In João Cabral's poem,
however, Anphion builts Thebes and hiscovers, distresses, that the city
he has built lacks the concrete simplicity of the surrounding desert:

I've long longed
For a smooth, all-white wall
Pure sun in itself
Like some orange;
I dreamt of a light slab
Loose in space

Later, however, in his poem about the river Capiberibe and its flow
across the great NE Brazil town of Recife (and across its shantytowns),
however, he comes to regard concrete reality as naturally varied and
unlimited as a dialectical totality - this poem, naturally, being
obviously related to the influence of Marxism in his poetry as, above
all, living praxis:

Because thicker is
Life that unfolds
In more life
Because thicker is
Life that struggles
the day that is seized
(as a bird that
in each second
conquers flight)

[My tranlation, without any pretensions]

(Elizabeth Bishop's transation, BTW, appears to me weak exactly because
it does not seems to grasp the concrete, dry, unprepossessing character
of Cabral's poetry, as Bishop, during her stay in Brazil, got in close
touch mostly with more lyrical modern poets as Carlos Drummond de
Andrade, whose proems she translated, BTW, superbly, as she was a past
master of such "adjective" poetry)

It must be remembered that - sadly - João Cabral, as a Marxist
sympathizer, was and died an unreconstrued Stalinist, who was not shy
of, in the early 90s, uttering praise for Zhdanov, whom he regarded as
"a patriotic fellow" who wanted Soviet poetry to become "concrete" by
praising "substantive" Soviet achievment. Nevretheless, it must be
remembered that João Cabral made his Marxist *Weltsanschauung* exactly
during the emergence of the Brazilian post-Vargas populist republic,
which was a time when Brazilian left politics was dominated by the idea
of *economic modernization* to be achieved under the aegis of a Popular
Front that congegrated the enlightened bourgeois elites and the masses
around an agenda of an inclusive process of  modernization of the
productive structures. The "weakeness" of Cabral's poetry would be
exactly to reflect this ideology. However, the intensity - more intense,
in fact, for uncommiting his refusal to be lyrically "sweet" - of
Cabral's poetry compensates for all these weaknesses. His early love
poems, BTW, are, in my personal view, among the best such poems ever
penned in Portuguese.

Put into a nutshell, a superb poet that will be missed and in urgent
need of an inspired translator to English.

Carlos Rebello

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