The World Used To Be More Poetic - Lêdo Ivo's Poems and Confessions

Andrew Gebhardt

(La Noche, 1995, painting  by Isabel Quintanilla)

The translations published here come from poems in several different books, written decades apart.

BARGANHA


Domingo é dia de barganha.
Troco um relógio dos antigos
por um cavalo rosilho,
um bode por um trinca-ferro,
e uma radinho de pilha.
Troco um gibão de cigano
pela serra que serrou
o tronco mais odorante
e por um fogão de lenha
troco um cachorro de caça
e uma panela de cobre.
Troco toda a luz do sol
pela sombra de um só pássaro.
Por uma espingarda troco
um tacho que foi de escravos
além de um almofariz
e uma xícara sem asa.
Troco a salmoura dos peixes
por qualquer gosto de lágrima.
Pela vitrola rachada
dou a minha bicicleta
com os pneus arriados.
Troco o entulho de restou
do muro que derrubei
pelo calor da fogueira
que por uma noite apenas
negou o frio dos pobres.
Troco um lençol de noivado
e uma toalha bordada
pela lua refletida
na escuridão das cisternas.
Troco o meu selim de couro
por um arreio de prata.
Dou um caminhão de pedra
por um portão de peroba.
Na tabuada do mundo
troco um número um
pelo número dois.
E troco o bolor do dia
pelo silêncio guardado
na boca aberta dos doidos.
Troco a alvorada dos galos
pelo rumor dos reis mouros
que passam com seus vassalos
pelas antigas muralhas
rubras de tantas batalhas.
Também troco uma tigela
feita de barro da terra
por um jarro e uma gamela.
Barganho a chuva celeste
pela água negra da terra
e troco a nuvem que passa
por tudo o que for eterno.
Só a minha alma é inegociável.
Não a dou por dinheiro nenhum

BARGAINING


Sunday is bargaining day.
I trade an antique watch
for a rose palomino,
a billy-goat for a buff-throated saltator,
and a small battery radio.
I trade a gypsy jerkin
for the saw that sawed
the most aromatic trunk,
and for a wood stove
I trade a hunting dog
and a copper pan.
I exchange all the sun’s light
for the shadow of a single bird.
For a musket I trade
a pot used by slaves
as well as a mortar
and a cup without a handle.
I trade fish brine
for any flavor of tears.
For a cracked record player
I give my bike
with flat tires.
I trade the leftover rubble
of the wall I knocked down
for the heat of the fire
that during one night only
suppressed the cold for the poor.
I trade a wedding sheet
and an embroidered towel
for the moon reflected
in the darkness of wells.
I trade my leather saddle
for a silver harness.
I give a stone truck
for a gate of peroba wood.
On the world’s multiplication tables
I trade a number one
for number two.
And trade the mold of the day
for the silence held
in the open mouth of the insane.
I trade the dawn of roosters
for the rumbling of Moorish kings
who pass with their vassals
by the ancient walls
crimson from so many battles.
I also trade a bowl
made of earthen clay
for a pitcher and a trough.
I barter heavenly rain
for the black water of earth
and trade the passing cloud
for all that is eternal.
Only my soul is non-negotiable.
I don't offer it for any money.


O PASSAGEIRO DE TÁXI


Onde foi que perdi a minha máscara?
No lugar da linguagem, onde as palavras
na escuridão fervilham como larvas,
ou foi num ônibus, no metrô, num táxi?
Era um escudo que me defendia
de ser reconhecido e cortejado
pelos que andam na rua à luz do dia.
Agora sou um irreconhecível
rosto nu impedido de mirar-se.
Perdi tudo ao perder a minha máscara,
pois eu só existia no disfarce.
Separado de mim, não sou mais nada.
Nada mais sendo, só me resta ser
aquele cavalheiro que está pegando um táxi.

THE TAXI PASSENGER


Where did I lose my mask?
In language’s interstices, where words
teem like maggots in the darkness?
Or was it on a bus, the subway, in a taxi?
It was a shield that defended me
from the recognition and solicitation
of those who walk the streets by daylight.
I’m now an unidentified
naked face obstructed from seeing himself.
I lost everything when I lost my mask
since I only existed in disguise.
Separated from myself, I am nothing else.
Being nothing else, I’m left just to be
that gentleman taking a taxi


A LINHA N´ÁGUA


Só quando ninguém o contempla o mar é la mar,
pura linha estendida à água, entre o rochedo e a jangada.
Os peixes caminham como sonâmbulos ao encontro do pescador.
E que colheremos do mar, e que colheremos da vida?
Devagar e sempre, um pouco de nada.
Liberta do ritmo da emoção, da semelhança,
a vida poderia prescindir de palavras
e existir sem que o pensamento a representasse.
A vida — la mar — igual à Beleza
ou ao amor sem a forma que o ajusta ao efêmero
como a luz se ajusta ao dia.
Jamais veremos o mar que o mar oculta.
Seremos sempre cegos à rosa que está na rosa.
Jogada a rede ao mar, um pouco de piedade,
espelho partido e nada mas.

THE LINE IN THE WATER


Only while no one contemplates her is the sea the sea,
pure line extending through water, between cliff and jangada.
The fish advance like somnambulists to the encounter with the fisherman.
And what do we reap from the sea, and what do we reap from life?
Slowly and forever, a little bit of nothing.
Freed from the rhythm of emotion, of resemblance,
life could do without words
and exist without thought representing it.
Life — the sea — like Beauty
or love without the form that adapts it to the ephemeral
the way that light adapts itself to the day.
We will never see the sea that the sea obscures.
We will always be blind to the rose that is in the rose.
Tossed from the net into the sea, a little mercy,
broken mirror and nothing else.


O FERRADOR DE CAVALOS


Em que língua falarei
ao ferrador de cavalos?
Por que, na minha língua
de assombro e vogal,
só falo a mim mesmo
— ao meu nada e ao meu tudo —
e nem a sequer disponho
do gesto dos mudos?
Se as palavras morrem
à míngua como os homens
e se o silêncio fala
seu próprio idioma
em que língua direi
ao homem diferente
que ele é meu semelhante
quando o vejo ferrar
o casco de um cavalo?
Empunhado o martelo
ele me conta histórias
de cravos perdidos
e cavalos mancos.
Palavras que se perdem
como ferraduras
no caminho do pasto.

THE BLACKSMITH


In what language should I speak
to the blacksmith?
Why, in my language
of vowel and astonishment,
do I just talk to myself
— to my nothingness and my everything —
and not even manage
the gestures of the mute?
If words starve, like men,
and if silence speaks
its own language
in what language should I tell
a different man
that he is my equal
when I see him shoe
a horse's hoof?
Wielding a hammer
he tells me stories
of lost nails
and lame horses.
Words that get lost
like horseshoes
on the path to pasture.


VARGEM GRANDE


Afinal aprendi a ler a terra.
Este chão completa o céu: brancor de nuvens e constelações
onde pássaros pousam, banhadas de sol.
Vejo o enlace do amor na escultura do cacto.
Ouço a carroça carregada de capim que abre dois sulcos desiguais na terra núbil.
Soletro as pedras que vieram dos outros planetas.
Somo as águas
que escorrem para a vargem, entre pepinos e quiabos.
Falo ao rio. Falo às árvores.
As pedras me escutam com a maior atenção.
Converso com os pássaros sobre o calor do sol.
Deblatero com o fogo crepitante.
A chuva que ameaça os ninhos
bebe o meu silêncio.
A água pura canta e celebra na manhã
a sua serventia
como as palavras na boca dos homens!
Hoje, no formigueiro, é o oitavo dia da Criação.
Voando entre as estacas, quatro anuns proclamam
a glória do mundo.

VARGEM GRANDE


I have finally learned to read the earth.
This ground completes the sky: white light of clouds and constellations
where birds land, bathed in sun.
I see love entwined in the sculpting of a cactus.
I hear a wagon loaded with grass cutting two uneven furrows in the nubile land.
I decipher stones that came from other planets.
I measure the waters
that flow into the field, among cucumbers and okra.
I speak with the river. I speak with the trees.
The stones listen to me with the greatest attention.
I talk to birds about the heat of the sun.
I cry out against the roaring fire.
The rain that threatens nests
drinks my silence.
In the morning pure water sings and praises
its service
like words in men's mouths!
Today, in the ant mound, is the eighth day of Creation.
Flying between the posts, four anis declare


O BARCO BRANCO

Penso um barco branco atravessando o mar.
Vejo um barco branco atravessando o mar.
Sonho um barco branco atravessando o mar.
Sinto um barco branco no meu pensamento.
Penso o meu pensamento sobre um barco branco.
Sou um barco branco atravessando o mar.

THE WHITE SHIP


I think a white ship crossing the sea.
I see a white ship crossing the sea.
I dream a white ship crossing the sea.
I feel a white ship in my mind.
I think my thought about a white ship.
I am a white ship crossing the sea.


O GUARDIÃO


Quando eu sou eu, sou os outros:
mistério de acumulação,
soma de letras e estrelas,
portão aberto noite e dia
aos demônios que me visitam,
passos bebidos pelo chão.
Dos sonhos que não sonhei
sou o zeloso guardião.
E o vento sopra e se apodera
da minha canção.

GUARDIAN


When I am I, I am others:
mystery of accretion,
summation of letters and stars,
door open night and day
to the demons that visit me,
drunken steps across the floor.
I’m the zealous guardian
over dreams I didn’t dream.
And the wind blows and carries off
my song.


OS URUBUS NA ENSEADA


Um bando de urubus sobrevoa a enseada de Botafogo
e assusta os banqueiros que, no convés dos iates,
seguem o sulco de espuma aberto nas águas.
Antigamente o mundo era mas poético.
Onde estão as neves de antigamente
e as gaivotas en revoada que encantavam os milionários
como se fossem moedas de luz caindo do céu?
Sob o sol de verão os banqueiros sentem frio.
Este é um tempo de aflição e não de aplausos.
Devemos aprender a ter medo mesmo aos domingos.

VULTURE ON THE COVE


A wake of vultures flies over the cove of Botafogo
and disturbs the bankers who, on the decks of yachts,
follow the furrow of foam opening in the waters.
The world used to be more poetic.
Where are the ancient snows
and the soaring gulls that once seduced the millionaires
as if they were coins of light falling from the sky?
In the summer sun the bankers feel a chill.
This is a time of trouble and not of celebration.
We must learn to have dread even on Sundays .


AS PALAVRAS BANIDADS


Os poetas são coveiros que enterram palavras
e se contentam com algumas migalhas do dicionário.
Criaturas frugais, não admitem que as palavras brilhem como luzes navios
vistas de praia branca de página, de praia banal da vida.
Exigem que elas tenham a submissão dos bichos domados de um circo
ou andem trajadas com o burel dos franciscanos.
Mas na noite frígida varrida pelas constelações
as palavras banidas se levantam de suas tumbas
e, no espaço reservado às fulgurações perpétuas,
compõem o grande poema do universo.

BANISHED WORDS


Poets are gravediggers who bury words
and make do with some scraps from the dictionary.
Frugal creatures, they don’t accept that words shine like ship lights
spotted from the white beach of the page, the banal beach of life.
They demand that they have the obedience of trained circus animals
or march around in a Franciscan habit.
But in the frigid night swept by the constellations
banished words rise from their tombs
and, in the space reserved for eternal electrical flashes,
write the great poem of the universe.


A QUEIMADA


Queime tudo o que puder:
as cartas de amor
as contas telefônicas
o rol de roupa suja
as escrituras e certidões
as inconfidências dos confrades ressentidos
a confissão interrompida
o poema erótico que ratifica a impotência e anuncia arteriosclerose
os recortes antigos e as fotografias amareladas.
Não deixe aos herdeiros esfaimados
nenhuma herança de papel.
Seja como os lobos: more num covil
e só mostre à canalha das ruas os seus dentes afiados.
Viva e morta fechado como um caracol.
Diga sempre não à escória electrônica.
Destrua os poemas inacabados, os rascunhos, as variantes e os fragmentos
que provocam o orgasmo tardio dos filólogos e escoliastas.
Não deixe aos catadores do lixo literário nenhuma migalha.
Não confie a ninguém o seu segredo.
A verdade não pode ser dita.

THE BURNING


Burn everything you can:
love letters
phone bills
collection of dirty laundry
deeds and certificates
the duplicity of resentful colleagues
the interrupted confession
the erotic poem confirming impotence and announcing arteriosclerosis
old clippings and yellowed photos.
Don’t leave hungry heirs
any inheritance of paper.
Be like wolves: dwell in a den,
show only thieves your sharp teeth.
Live and die shut like a snail.
Always say no to electronic crap.
Destroy unfinished poems, drafts, variations, and fragments
that trigger the belated orgasms of scholars and critics.
Don’t leave literary trash collectors even a crumb.
Trust no one with your secret.
The truth can not be told.



[Translation from Portuguese. Excerpt from Confessions of a Poet, by Lêdo Ivo.]

NAMELESS TEXTS


If there is any evidence that follows me at this stage of my life, when I already hear the rumbling of the evening, it is the aesthetic changes that took place inside and outside of me as I became a poet and writer. Poetry, novel, essay, drama — the literary genres that, at the beginning of my career, seemed to exhibit an indelible independence, had their lines of demarcation eroded by the social and economic transformations so visible in this time when History hides from no one — not even those who want to be deaf, dumb, and blind — its unshakable determination to make History. New forms, outside typical genres, were becoming better known, and were seeking to entice us into previously unimagined adventures, were eager to overcome what is, in us, held back by habit, convention, fatigue, and even fear.

This untitled book, which I may interrupt at any time, is perhaps the distinctive mark of the crisis I'm living through — at least it serves to hold within it certain material that could never be inscribed in a work intending to reflect its fidelity to a distinguished genre. It's a personal documentary. I believe that, alongside political and economic documentaries, and elaborated in a prose in which the reportage espouses novel and History, to deal with the world's wars and crises, landscapes and the joys of time, planetary peoples and figures, there is room for confessional narratives like this one. Memoirs of a poet, as I classify them, these prose texts (if indeed they are) draw simultaneously from the source of chronological truth and poetry, and this double existential origin already raises the problem of an accuracy that the arrow of invention targets. Evidently, the label should only serve to guide or attract the reader not yet properly warned about the emergence of these new forms or genres — in fact, not even recognized by almost all of the confreres involved in preaching the permanence of the novel and poem as immutable artifacts and subject to certain fixed rules,
in a world hit by the most amazing changes, and in which newspapers, cinema, radio, and television established a new system of recreational and informational relationships with human creatures.

Let it be said on my behalf: surrounded by so many hardened convictions about the perpetuity of once flourishing literary genres, I feel that the names of the ships must be changed. Or they are being changed without us, between the afternoon tide and the dawnwind. Incidentally, it is worth remembering here that, when I wrote Snakes’ Nest, I did not dare call it a novel. I preferred to describe it as a tale badly told — and in fact it is, since I chose an inverse path to the narrative clarity of the great masters of the nineteenth century novel, as if my fiction, fragmentary and elusive, were flowing from the mouth of a gypsy or a horse thief.

By accepting and acknowledging the truth of the appearance of as-yet-unnamed genres — comprehensive genres that fuse in their textual profile the identity and virtue of classical productions — this does not mean that I yield to the fallacy that the aesthetic intentions contained in a poem, a novel, or an essay have died. As theaters of metamorphosis, the threatened or condemned genres are looking for other laws and conduits of expression and permanence, which allow them to continue conveying the metaphorical discourse of human existence.

My texts do not conform to dwelling in the pigeonholes where I have been keeping them since I started writing. Rebellious, and armed with the purpose of disorienting my eventual readers, they demand of me freedom to walk in any blank page, in any projected book; and, in this textual subversion, they no longer accept my calling them prose and verse. They challenge themselves to discover the exactness of the liberating names, or to abandon themselves in their morning anonymity. For them, the classification label is like the ship's gangplank: it only serves as a step on the journey. And, having prepared my intellectual life for the exercise of verse and prose, and the unencumbered passage through territories tha allowed me to use my being, I cannot help but acknowledge that the party is over. However, I find in myself, in the long apprenticeship destined to take me down a path that has becomenon-existent, the necessary strength to continue, instigated and activated by the challenge of the words, phrases, metaphors, images and blank spaces that now encourage me to tryto be — to become what I am.

                                                  I am dreamed by my dream.
                                                  I am contemplated by what I contemplate.
                                                  What I write writes me.


THE WORLD USED TO BE MORE POETIC


“The world used to be more poetic,” wrote Lêdo Ivo in “Vultures on the Cove.” He had a broad and unusual vocabulary and often wrote long complex sentences, but occasionally he made such direct, bold statements. At the same time there was always an edge, another level of meaning, a subtlety, or some wit, humor, or irony to the tone — as in “Rilke Goes to the Dentist:” “Man was not made for minor pain.” With dozens of books published over seven decades, there are many faces and many facets to this Brazilian writer, and deep attraction for a translator into English, where he is little known but where I believe he should have great appeal. The poems and prose appearing in La Piccioletta Barca explore some of his ongoing preoccupations, particularly language, identity, and form. “Nameless Texts” may serve as a kind of introduction to Confessions of a Poet, an unusual book that spans autobiography, literary history, personal narration, and arspoetica, and was published in 1979.

In Confessions of a Poet he writes that “Poetry ended up imposing itself on me as a verbal operation designed to hide my personal life, generating a particular mythology that replaces the trivial truth of existence.” This imperative describes the exact opposite of the identity based personal lyric poem so common today, and may be one reason his work continues to seem so distinctive and to attract readers. In his poetry, he largely eschews autobiographical details, favoring instead the construction of an idiosyncratic cosmology which encompasses regional, Brazilian, global, and even galactic perspectives. And although he sometimes writes as ‘Lêdo Ivo,’ Lêdo Ivo is always another. “Later as a writer I discovered my name corresponded to a real pseudonym,” he wrote in Confessions, and “When I am I, I am others” in “Guardian,” sentiment that is not exactly familiar but rhymes with certain declarations that readers of poetry know (je est un autre, ya no soy yo, I contain multitudes…).

Maybe translating, like writing, invites a similar kind of aesthetic and psychological relationship with the ego. One challenge of translating Lêdo Ivo is to recreate analogous effects in terms of form, sound, and meaning — the original is always correct, and is the model for whatever I am able to devise in English. Even when the words are simple, the meaning and cultural references readily comparable, and the sentence structure straightforward, it is not always an unambiguous operation, since there is no equal sign between languages. In “A Line in the Water” I left “jangada”, a small hand made raft with sails unique to Brazil’s northeast that is used for fishing, as “jangada” instead of maybe “skiff” or “small boat”, and did not include a footnote, because I liked the foreignness of the word, and believe readers can easily look it up (they might discover a fascinating 12 minute short film made by Orson Welles in the 1940s about jangadeiros and their political and cultural struggles). Rather than lamenting things being “lost”, there is much to be discovered in reading work in translation, and not least through individual words.

Lêdo Ivo continually developed, or translated, his own vocabulary, themes, and images: “Like the Earth, poetic creation is round,” he wrote in Confessions, picking up a thread from his own poem “The Earth Is Round.” In both his prose and poetry, common words like “rumor” (rumor, chatter, whisper, cry, gossip), “mormaço” (a stifling humidity), “imóvel” (still, immoveable, unmoving, steady; also property, building), “berço" (cradle, crib) and many more, have surprising flexibility and expressive power. They are not always best translated as one word, or even the same word, although in Portuguese they work as elemental, ongoing motifs, that among other things create and extend patterns.

Not only are these words invoked and assembled (in a process he describes as unconscious and without artifice), he also draws attention to the act of writing, its composition, it’s “invenção” (invention, creativity; another of his characteristic words), so that he’s continually calling attention back to form — as writing, as poetry, as prose, as questioning genres, as narrative, as the word and the world. In fact “forma” (form, shape) is yet another of those repeated words, which appears in the poems here. But ultimately, “My texts do not conform to dwelling in the pigeonholes where I have been keeping them since I started writing. Rebellious, and armed with the purpose of disorienting my eventual readers, they demand of me freedom to walk in any blank page, in any projected book; and, in this textual subversion, they no longer accept my calling them prose and verse. They challenge themselves to discover the exactness of the liberating names, or to abandon themselves in their morning anonymity. For them, the classification label is likethe ship's gangplank: it only serves as a step on the journey”.

As these poems show, he often conjures, celebrates, rebels against, and draws attention to the possibilities and limits of language. In “A Taxi Passenger,” he loses his identity among words; in “Vargem Grande,” he announces “I have finally learned to reathe earth;” “Bargaining” plays with metaphor, where he’s constantly exchanging one the earth;” “Bargaining” plays with metaphor, where he’s constantly exchanging one identity.

Of course, language itself is a kind of metaphor, putting into words what is wordless, and the words are just gestures towards, or depictions or indexes of, something else, as Lêdo Ivo (and others) have indicated. “Words have rinds or clothes. In each one is hidden the true word that inhabits it,” he wrote, a perspective that resembles or approximates or echoes Naomi Shihab Nye’s phrase “words under the words,” as well as (Francis Jones’ translation of) Hans Favery’s lines, “What hides beneath the/ wordline, hides all but/ in vain,” and Taha Muhammad Ali’s lines (in Peter Cole’s translation) “Poetry hides/ somewhere/ behind the night of words/ behind the clouds of hearing,/ across the dark of sight,/and beyond the dusk of music/that’s hidden and revealed”. From this understanding, there’s a kind of doubling or reverberation, and poetry exists somewhere between the language and what it refers to. Again and again, Lêdo Ivo approaches the idea, but with various shadings and variations. In “A Line in the Water” he writes
                                                  We will never see the sea that the sea obscures.
                                                  We will always be blind to the rose that is in the rose.

Although the expression is never futile, writing is always insufficient, since language is a metaphor or an approximation, and what needs to be said is ultimately unsayable. As he wrote in “The Burning”, another poem with a seemingly simple but philosophical statement: “The truth can not be told".



Lêdo Ivo was born in Brazil’s northeast state of Alagoas in 1924, and wrote prolifically, producing poetry, essays, novels, short stories, and journalism. He wrote passionately of his beloved native city of Maceió, but was equally a citizen of the world, at home writing from many places and perspectives. He was a member of the Brazilian Academy of Letters and has received numerous national and international awards for his writing, including the Casa de las Américas prize for Brazilian literature in 2009. He also translated into Portuguese work by Jane Austin, Arthur Rimbaud, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Though he is an important figure in Brazilian letters, and his work has been amply translated in other languages, the vast majority of his poetry has yet to appear in English (a novel, Snakes’ Nest, was published by New Directions in 1981). Lêdo Ivo’s writing began to appear in the 1940s and continued steadily with dozens of books until his death in 2012, creating a distinguished body of work in several genres, and crafting a highly original poetry — from sonnets and short aphoristic poems to prose and persona poems.


Andrew Gebhardt

Andrew Gebhardt is a writer and teacher who has lived in Brazil, Uruguay, Chile, the Netherlands, and Cyprus. He is working on translations of poems by Lêdo Ivo as well as his unique memoir, Confissoẽs de um poeta.

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