LETTERS

    By With Manuel Bandeira and Carlos Drummond de Andrade, João Cabral de
    Mello Neto constituted the Holy Trinity of the Brazilian poetry. The poet was also
    Brazil’s best hope for a Nobel Prize in literature.

    He once took the time to explain that it was quite natural that he was terrified by the
    idea of hell although he did not believe in God. Maybe it was also quite natural that
    atheist poet João Cabral de Mello Neto ended up dying in Rio, on October 9, a few months
    before turning 80, while holding hands with his wife Marly de Oliveira and praying to the
    God he didn’t think existed.

    According to Marly, after reciting Our Father, the head of João Cabral fell to one
    side and she thought he had fallen asleep. "It was a moment of beatitude," she
    commented later. "It was so serene that I wished at that moment that we could go
    together. I believe it was his contact with religion that made his passage so peaceful. He
    started having another vision of life."

    João Cabral was better known for his long poem Morte e Vida Severina (Severino
    Life and Death), but he considered this work made at the request of playwright Maria Clara
    Machado as a Christmas play, a minor one. "I didn’t write Morte e Vida Severina for
    intellectuals," he once told poet Vinicius de Moraes. "I wrote it for the
    illiterate folks who listen to folk poems at the Santo Amaro open market in Recife."

    He once complained against those who asked for more political commitment from him when
    the play-poem was presented: "I think that some people would like me to go up there
    on stage and scream at the end of every show: `Long live the agrarian reform.’"

    A recluse for most of his life, the poet and diplomat had become even more of a hermit
    after being struck by blindness in 1994. He rarely gave interviews and stayed in touch
    only with close friends and family. Losing his sight also made him bitter and he refused
    to dictate new poems.

    The poet was born in Recife on January 9, 1920 in a wealthy family that owned a sugar
    cane farm, but the contact while growing up with farm workers, drought-stricken folks, and
    popular literatura de cordel (string literature) made him highly tuned to the
    plight of the poor peasants. He was very popular among the workers at the farm since he
    was a little boy. As nobody knew how to read, he became their main source of
    entertainment.

    When these men had some money left they would go to the city and bring little booklets
    written by improvisers telling in verse stories of love and misadventure, tales of
    miracles and dreams, the adventures of the heroes and villains of the Northeast. On these
    occasions, João Cabral was more than happy to oblige and read to them this popular
    literature_often from the top of an ox cart. Fifty years later he would remember those
    sessions in "Descoberta da Literatura" (Discovery of Literature), a poem
    included in the book A Escola das Facas (School of Knifes) from 1979:

    No dia-a-dia do engenho,
    toda a semana, durante,
    cochichavam-me em segredo:
    saiu um novo romance.
    E da feira do domingo
    me traziam conspirantes
    para que os lesse e explicasse
    um romance de barbante…

    In the sugar-mill’s day-to-day,
    the whole week, throughout,
    they whispered to me in secrecy:
    there is a new novel out.
    And from the Sunday open market
    they brought me conspiring
    so I read them and explained
    a novel of string…

    He moved from Recife (capital of Pernambuco) to Rio in 1945. He was still 17 when he
    started to work as a bureaucrat and continued doing this for eight more years. During this
    time he wrote poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade an untitled poem that remained unpublished
    for more than 50 years:

    Difícil ser funcionário
    nesta segunda-feira.
    Eu te telefono, Carlos,
    pedindo conselho.
    Não é lá fora o dia
    que me deixa assim…
    É a dor das coisas,
    o luto desta mesa;
    é o regimento proibindo
    assovios, versos, flores…

    Hard to be a public servant
    this Monday.
    I call you on the phone, Carlos,
    asking for advice.
    It’s not the day outside
    that makes me like that…
    It’s the pain of things,
    this table’s mourning;
    it’s the regulation forbidding
    whistling, verses, flowers…

    He was 22 when his first book, A Pedra do Sono (The Sleep’s Stone), was
    released. The work, a manifesto against the dominant poetry of the time_Parnasianism and
    its adherence to metrical form_became a landmark and an inspiration for future poets.
    Three years later, in 1945, he published O Engenheiro (The Engineer). By this time,
    he had already become friends with the best poets of the day: Vinicius de Moraes, Murilo
    Mendes, Jorge de Lima, and Carlos Drummond de Andrade. In 1946 he married Stella Maria
    Barbosa de Oliveira_granddaughter of renowned writer Rui Barbosa (1849-1923).Together they
    had five children.

    Poetic Journeys

    Having passed in 1945 the exam to the Instituto Rio Branco, which prepares Brazilian
    diplomats, João Cabral would become another kind of bureaucrat traveling the world as a
    representative of the Brazilian government. In 1947, he was sent to Barcelona, Spain, for
    his first foreign mission. There he met and became a friend of painter Joan Miró and
    created a printing shop to publish Spanish and Brazilian poetry, including two of his
    books: Psicologia da Composição (Psychology of Composition), 1947, and O Cão
    Sem Plumas (Featherless Dog), 1950. His Barcelona stint would change his life and
    deeply influence his poetry.

    It was also in 1950 that an unexplained headache struck the poet, a cross he would
    carry for most of his life, getting only mild relief from drugs. The pain would inspire
    him to write a hymn to aspirin, a product he avidly consumed for years, until he was given
    other drugs by his doctors.

    Monumento à Aspirina

    Claramente: o mais prático dos sóis,
    o sol de um comprimido de aspirina:
    de emprego fácil, portátil e barato,
    compacto de sol na lápide sucinta.
    Principalmente porque, sol artificial,
    que nada limita a funcionar de dia,
    que a noite não expulsa, cada noite,
    sol imune às leis de meteorologia,
    a toda hora em que se necessita dele
    levanta e vem (sempre num claro dia):
    acende, para secar a aniagem da alma,
    quará-la, em linhos de um meio-dia….

    Monument to Aspirin

    Obviously: the most practical of suns,
    the sun of an aspirin tablet:
    of easy usage, portable and cheap,
    a sun compact in the succinct headstone.
    Mainly because, artificial sun,
    that nothing limits to work by day,
    that at night, does not expel, each night,
    sun immune to the meteorology laws,
    any time you need it
    gets up and come (always in a clear day):
    turns on, to dry soul’s burlap,
    whiten it under the sun, in linens of noon….

    From the book A Educação pela Pedra(The Education by the Stone)

    From 1950 to 1952 the poet stayed in London. Accused of being subversive and a
    communist at the time McCarthyism was raging in the US, he had to return to Brazil. Placed
    in a forced sabbatical in 1953 he worked for Rio’s newspaper A Vanguarda until
    being reinstated to the diplomatic career in 1954. In 1955 he wrote the painful story of a
    poor northeastern man who has no place to stay after losing his little piece of land to
    the drought and a rich farmer. This was Vida e Morte Severina.

    Maria Clara Machado, who had ordered the play, returned it to the sender explaining
    that her O Tablado had no structure to stage it. The poet decided then to cut the stage
    indications and publish the work as poem in Duas Águas (Two Waters), a book he was
    publishing and had not enough material according to his publisher.

    Finally in the ’60s, with music by Chico Buarque de Hollanda, Morte e Vida Severina
    was shown on stage, first in Brazil and then in Europe, receiving awards and applause
    wherever it was presented. In 1966, the show was presented by the Tuca troupe in France’s
    Nancy Festival and Cabral received the Best Author Alive award.

    An enquiry on his alleged leftist connections didn’t prove anything. He was back in
    Barcelona in 1956. In 1972 he was sent to Senegal as ambassador. He would still work in
    Ecuador (1979), Honduras (1981), ending his career in Porto, Portugal. He retired as
    diplomat in 1987.

    João Cabral had a dry way of writing verses. In an interview with Cadernos de
    Literatura Brasileira, he said: "For me, poetry is a composition. When I say
    composition, I mean something built, planned—from the outside in. No one imagines
    that Picasso made the paintings he made because he was inspired. His problem was to take a
    canvas, to study the spaces, the volumes. I only understand the poetic in this sense. I am
    going to write a poem this size, which such and such elements, things I keep placing as
    they were bricks. That’s why I can spend years creating a poem: because there is planning.
    For me, poetry is a construction as a house. I learned this with Le Corbusier."

    The Brazilian poetry has its Holy Trinity, which is comprised of Manuel Bandeira,
    Carlos Drummond de Andrade, and João Cabral de Mello Neto. João Cabral was Brazil’s best
    hope to get a Nobel Prize in literature. In the last five years every time the Swedish
    Nobel Foundation asked for a Brazilian candidate for the Nobel, the ABL (Academia
    Brasileira de Letras—Brazilian Academy of Letters) offered his name. He was himself a
    distinguished member of that 40-member literary club. The poet was elected to the Academy
    in 1968. He occupied seat 37, which belonged among others to President Getúlio Vargas and
    media mogul Assis Chateaubriand.

    Lições de Sevilha

    Tenho Sevilha em minha cama
    eis que Sevilha se faz carne,
    eis-me habitando Sevilha
    como é impossível de habitar-se
    Nada em volta que me lembre
    a Sevilha cartão-postal,
    a que é turística-anedótica,
    a que é museu e catedral
    Esta Sevilha que é trianera,
    Sevilha fundo de quintal,
    Sevilha de lenço secando,
    a que é corriqueira e normal
    É a Sevilha que há nos seus poços,
    se há poço ou não, pouco importa,
    a Sevilha que dá às sevilhanas
    lições de Sevilha, de fora.

    Seville Lessons

    I have Seville in my bed
    Here’s Seville becoming flesh,
    here’s myself inhabiting Seville
    in a way it is impossible to inhabit
    Nothing around that reminds me
    of a postcard Seville
    that is touristy-anecdotic
    that is museum and cathedral
    This Seville that is neoclassical
    Backyard Seville,
    Seville with drying kerchief,
    which is ordinary and normal
    It’s the Seville that exists in its wells,
    if there’s a well or not, it doesn’t matter,
    Seville which gives Sevillan women
    Seville lessons, from the outside

    Bibliography:

    Pedra do Sono (1942), published by the author
    Os Três Mal-Amados (1943), Revista do Brasil
    O Engenheiro (1945), paid for by poet Augusto Frederico Schmidt
    Psicologia da Composição (1947),
    O Livro Inconsútil (Barcelona, 1947)
    O Cão sem Plumas (1950)
    O Rio (1953), São Paulo’s Commission for the 4th Centennial
    Poemas Reunidos (1954), Orfeu
    Duas Águas (1956), containing "Morte e Vida Severina," "Paisagens
    com Figuras" and "Uma Faca Só Lâmina," José Olympio
    Quaderna (1960), Guimarães Editores (Portugal)
    Dois Parlamentos (1960), published by the author
    Terceira Feira (1961), published by the author
    Educação pela Pedra (1966), published by the author
    Poesias Completas (1968), José Olympio
    Museu de Tudo (1975), José Olympio
    A Escola das Facas (1979), José Olympio
    Poesia Crítica (1981), Nova Fronteira
    Auto do Frade (1982), Nova Fronteira
    Agrestes (1985), Nova Fronteira
    Poesias Completas _ 1940-1965 (1986), José Olympio
    Crime na Calle Relator (1987), Nova Fronteira
    Museu de Tudo e Depois (Poesia Completa 2) (1988), Nova Fronteira
    Poemas Pernambucanos (1988), José Mariano Foundation and Nova Fronteira
    Primeiros Poemas (1990), Faculdade de Letras of UFRJ
    Sevilha Andando (1990), Nova Fronteira
    Poemas Sevilhanos (1992), Foreign Ministry and Nova Fronteira
    Obra Completa (1994), Nova Aguilar
    Serial e Antes (1997), Nova Fronteira
    Educação pela Pedra e Depois (1997), Nova Fronteira

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