Manoel de Barros — Birds for a Demolition

It is not normal, the Pantanal. The Pantanal is a region in the northeastern corner of Brazil near Paraguay that is the largest wetlands in the world. 80% 0f the 54,000 square miles of the region are submerged during the rainy season. The water can rise between 2 to 5 meters during this time. However, the Pantanal is a place of dramatic difference that alternates between dry and wet, so there is very little in the environment that one can get used to and consider stable and normal. What is normal in the Pantanal is that it is never predictable. It cannot be cornered by any rational system of thought.

So it is in such a place that Manoel de Barros has made his home for 50 years. Born in 1916, he left briefly earlier in his life to pursue a career in the city as a lawyer, but he returned in 1960 to his family’s ranch. As one might expect, the natural world abounds in Manoel de Barros’s work. The natural world is teeming with absurdity. The requisite wonder of such a place as the Pantanal is captured in many of the poems. Yet there is also an innocence and naivete that one can see in one of my favorite poems in the book.

Small World

My world is small, Lord.
There is a river and a few trees.
The back of our house faces the water.
Ants trim the edge of Grandmother’s rose beds.
In the backyard, there is a boy
and his wondrous tin cans.
His eye exaggerates the blue.
Everything from this place has a pact
            with birds.
Here if the horizon reddens a little,
            the beetles think it’s a fire.
Where the river starts a fish,
                        river me a thing
River me a frog
River me a tree.
In the evenings, an old man plays his flute
to invert the sunsets.

I love how this poem sets the reader up with the expectation that the speaker is a humble one reporting on his little corner of the world, even beseeching the Lord as his witness. The wonders of boyhood appear and the reader believes that this is a typical story of a rather pedestrian life. But as the poem gathers speed, the reader begins to see the magical qualities of the place the speaker is from. I liked the poems where the magical quality of the place snuck up on me. Some were blaring their absurdity and surrealism from the beginning and while there were some inventive images and language, the strangeness wore on me when it was pursued so aggressively (like in “The Tin Man”). All the images struck an absurdist pose, so there was no hint at a reality with a strange underbelly, just a hall of mirrors. The lack of tension between a place that bears the weight of the laws of gravity and one that only possesses qualities of mythic proportions makes the place de Barros is writing about only seem like a figment of the imagination.

Yet one truly stands back in amazement at a place where river becomes a verb.

I tip my hat to translator Idra Novey here. Though Carnegie-Mellon did not include the Portuguese alongside her translations (presumably because of the cost or inability to get permission), so I cannot confirm how Manoel de Barros captured river as a verb in Portuguese, I applaud Novey’s inspired choice of river as a verb in English. This little extra verbal magic serves well in characterizing this place.

However in “In War” questions arose about a particular word choice.

In War

The Mayor dispatched a messenger by horse with a letter to the Emperor.

The letter announced the city had been invaded by Paraguayan troops and expressed a need for extra recourses.

Two months later, the messenger handed the letter to the Emperor.

When the recourses arrived, the Paraguayans were no longer there.

The Emperor’s men came with fifteen young women and a few provisions to eat on the way.

I guess they ate them all.

Corumbá is a city whose population is well mixed with Paraguayans.

The translation of “recursos” (which Novey informed was the corresponding Portuguese word) as recourses is an interesting choice. While “recourses” can be defined as “a source of help in a difficult situation” or even as “the use of someone as a source of help in a difficult situation” the usage seems strained in English. In a military context, one doesn’t call for recourses, one calls for “reinforcements”.

After these reinforcements arrive, they are no longer able to stave off the Paraguayans. However, there is another bit of intrigue in the second to last line — “I guess they ate them all.” In Brazilian slang “to eat” (“comer” in Portuguese . . . again Novey confirmed for me that this was the word de Barros used) means to have sex with someone. Thus, there is a double entendre in this line. Yes, they (the reinforcements) may have eaten all the provisions, but also they (the Paraguayans) had sex with all fifteen young women. This makes the last line much more understandable, that the place was overrun with a mix of Paraguayan blood. To Novey’s credit, she had considered this possibility, but she could not confirm it with de Barros, so in lieu of such confirmation, she chose to not make reference to this more sordid reading of the line.

The real culprit is the English language. Though there is considerable room in English for the concept of sensuality in eating (and many movie scenes have exploited this quite well) there is no expression for eating that also has the notion of sexual intercourse explicitly tied to it. The best one can do is to intimate the connection with words like “consume” or “to have one’s fill” or “to eat something (someone) all up” which don’t quite go far enough or work the way “comer” does in Portuguese.

The double entendre in a language is the most difficult to interpret in the arrived language. There are a number of ways to deal with it. One is to avoid it and just go for one meaning (as Novey does here). This can be a suitable treatment if the second meaning is ornamental or unimportant to get the gist of the poem [Note: I have taken this route in translating some of Carlos Drummond e Andrade’s poems in which the second meaning seemed to be more of a distraction from the main line of logic in the poem]. The second treatment can be to find a suitable construct in English that hints at this second meaning. this is the best way to go, but it is also the one that is least likely to come to fruition. The third way to treat the double entendre problem is to add on an additional statement (that doesn’t appear in the original text) but which reflects the second meaning. In this case it might be something like “I guess they ate them all (while the Paraguayans eventually did the same with the women).” Perhaps with the second meaning as coarse as it is, Novey did right in this case to avoid it.

Whatever I may think of the realm of total imagination, de Barros is adequately comfortable with staying there. In the epigraph to “An Education on Invention” de Barros cites “the things that don’t exist are more beautiful.” In this poem and in “The Book of Nothing” he provides a litany of imagined images and meditation on the imagination comes into contact with the physical world, the existential truth that lies therein.

from An Education on Invention

To enter the state of being a tree it’s necessary
to begin with a gecko’s amphibian torpor
at three in the afternoon in the month of August.

In two years inertia and scrub grass will begin
to expand our mouths. We will suffer
a little lyrical decomposition
until the scrub grass emerges in our speech.

For now, I ‘ve designed the smell of the trees.

There is something quite somber in de Barros’s full resignation, but perhaps it is only sad if one presupposes one’s position in nature as one who prevails. De Barros seems content to be the blacktop that is penetrated by weeds and grasses that poke up through it until it has been shred into a thousand island fragments of concrete. There is a kind of slow beauty that de Barros is transmitting here also. The slow physical deterioration underscores belies the notion that one’s mental apprehension of the physical world is of foremost importance. It’s ashes to ashes, dust to dust for everything else. Only attitude and emotion remain. In this way, de Barros seems to be nearly Buddhist. He acknowledges that only impermanence is permanent. The insubstantial exists, however, on another plane that cannot be moved or disturbed. At times, too, the will to imagine is so great on his part, the phantasmagorical so alive and present that it seems the writer’s imagination is exerting itself to get out from under the constraints of its environment. The writer’s mind is in exile.

Nowhere can this sense be captured as vividly as in “The Illness”

The Illness

I never lived far from my country.
Yet I suffer from farness.
In my childhood my mother had the illness.
She’s the one who gave it to me.
Later my father went to work at a place
that gave this illness to people.
It was a place without a name or neighbors.
People said it was the nail of the tope at the end of the world.
We grew up with no other houses nearby.
P place that offered only birds, trees, a river and its fish.
There were unbridles horses in the scrub grass,
their backs covered in butterflies.
The rest was distance.
Distance was an empty thing we carried in the eye,
what my father called exile.

The illness here could be described as living inside one’s head (in perpetuity).
The farness is another name for dreaminess, for the supremely distracted state that has one’s ideas and thoughts running as the main attraction alongside all the other entertainment options. The natural world seems designed for one thing — to serve as mental playthings for consideration. The joyousness and affirmation that occurs in the early poems of the book where de Barros embraces his imagination as end-in-itself becomes rarefied disease. The damnation of insularity is a very different chord that is struck here, one that provides depth and counterpoint to the revelation of the powers and scope of the imagination exhibited in earlier pieces. The imagination is more broken down, less relied upon. It is seen as something repugnant. It is a problem, like filth.

Filth

I prefer the bleak words that live in the corners
of kitchens—filth, grit, tin cans—
over those that live in fraternities—
words like excellence, prominent, majestic.
My alter egos are filth and grit, the devils
who hole up in kitchen corners —
Ones like Seven Ball, Mário the Frog Catcher,
Luisa Leather Reins, etc.
All of them drunk and strange.
All of them grubby and in rags.
One day someone suggested to me I adopt
a respectable alter ego — a prince,
admiral, or senator.
But who, I asked,
would dwell in my empty corners
if these devils don’t?

Hoping to be a more actively engaged, gregarious type (like the prince, admiral or senator), to be a man of some social and practical use, to be a man of some station, de Barros holds court in his dirty corners of the kitchen (presumably where the imagination is also holed up). He asks who though will take on the task of imagining and reimagining the world if he doesn’t. This in itself is reason for his existence.

His existence is not a “normal” existence, in any sense of the word. However, in the Pantanal this is not strange. Nothing is normal. The change is not periodic or programmatic or even measurable. Living there is like living in two worlds at once, like living in a readily available space one minute and then in the next minute having all of that taken back. It is like inhabiting a space where at any moment the imagination may be subject to a flood tide of sensory stimuli. Strange transformations may take place at that point. De Barros reflects these strange transformations throughout his work at every juncture that Novey endeavors to translate for an American audience. The strange is a structural element in his work; however, to this reader his most sublime moments derive from those half-strange moments.

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