By Rob Packer
Vinicius de Moraes' Poetry Anthology (not the collection I read)
Vinicius de Moraes (1913-1980) is one of the leading figures of 20th-century Brazilian culture and was the joint founder, with Tom Jobim, of the bossa nova movement of the late 1950’s. Vinicius was a frequent lyricist of the movement and is above all known for writing the incredibly famous ‘Chega de saudade’ and ‘Garota de Ipanema’ (‘The Girl from Ipanema’). Less well known (outside of Brazil, at least) is that Vinicius was also a leading poet of the past century.
I recently finished his New Poetry Anthology, collection of over 200 of Vinicius’ poems, which cover a wide range of poetic forms from his free-verse spontaneity to Petrarchan love sonnets and left me with extremely ambivalent feelings (see later on). Personally, I found him strongest as a sonneteer, where the conciseness of the form concentrates his sensual impulsiveness of his longer poems, which can often feel overblown or disappear into a repetition more suited to song.
His ‘Sonnet of Separation’ (‘Soneto de separação’) was written on board ship at the writer left Brazil to study in England and is full of disorienting and sudden changes than come over like an unexpected wave crashing against the side of the ship: ‘And from mouths united came the spray / And from hands outstretched came the fear.’ Meanwhile, ‘Sonnet of fidelity’ (‘Soneto de fidelidade’) starts with a declaration of fidelity:
To all, for my love I will be true
Before, with such zeal, forever, and so
That even facing the greatest temptation
More will enchant me my imagination.
De tudo, ao meu amor serei atento
Antes, e com tal zelo, e sempre, e tanto
Que mesmo em face do maior encanto
Dele se encante mais meu pensamento.
New Poetry Anthology by Vinicius de Moraes - The copy I read
It continues in love-drunk addiction where he wants ‘to live it in every vain moment’ ‘and laugh my laughter and spill out my tears’. At the volta, however, the tone changes: he realizes that the cliché that love is like a flame is true and wishes ‘that it might be infinite while it lasts’. It’s as if he both redefines time, as a present where tomorrow never comes, and fidelity, in that he’s being faithful to the intoxication of love, rather than anyone in particular. Indeed, the word ‘you’ is notable by its absence—this seems to fit with the author’s eight marriages.
Over the course of reading the book, however, Vinicius de Moraes’ impulsiveness did begin to grate, but my opinion changed once and for all around page 100 with two poems in particular that I found completely lacking in compassion and absolutely objectionable.
In ‘Crepúsculo em New York’, the poet ecstasies over sunset in New York before three lines, which are unforgettable in the worst sense of the word: ‘Despite the East Side, and the yellow stain / Of China Town, and the dark stain of Harlem / New York is really pretty!’ Portuguese isn’t my native language, so I thought I’d misunderstood. But after reading, going to the dictionary and re-reading these lines time and time again, I can´t find them anything but horribly racist in their combination of despite and stain.
More shocking is the ‘Balada dos mortos dos campos de concentração’ (‘Ballad for the dead of the concentration camps’), whose title feels barely appropriate to say the least. But it was the sheer unsuitability of the images, which were quite simply beyond my comprehension:
Piled on the floor
Squalid and entwined
In stupefied kisses
Like amazed ascetics
In presence of a vision
Amontoados no chão
Em beijos estupefatos
Como ascetas siderados
Em presença da visão.
And a few lines later:
In your dreadful faces
There are jocund smiles.
Em vossas faces hediondas
Há sorrisos de giocondas.
Personally, neither kisses nor visions nor smiles, and certainly not jocundity, can describe the Holocaust: this juxtaposition seems to trivialize the fact that 6 million people were brutally murdered. It’s difficult to express my shock and revulsion.
It is sometimes difficult to draw the line between literary worth and ethics, but these poems (there is a third on the atomic bomb I’m leaving out for reasons of space) are clearly irredeemable.
But I was then confronted with an ethical question: do, should or can you write off the entire work of a writer for three tasteless poems? What about the poems I read—and liked—before coming to these poems? And worse, what about the poems I liked subsequently? Or should I even have continued reading or simply thrown the book across the room? These are difficult questions that every reader has to resolve separately for every author, and I make no claims to be any kind of judge.
In the end and with a bad taste in my mouth, I decided to carry on, but the damage was done. With a handful of exceptions (the homesick ‘Poem of Auteuil’ is one), the impetuosity became tedious, the frequent self-references to himself as “the poet” narcissistic, and the poet himself increasingly repellent.
In short, the magic that poetry needs to work well had gone.
 E das bocas unidas fez-se a espuma / E das mãos espalmadas fez-se o espanto.
 Quero vivê-lo em cada vão momento
 E rir meu riso e derramar meu pranto
 Mas que seja infinito enquanto dure.
 Apesar do East Side, e da mancha amarela / De China Town, e da mancha escura de Harlem / New York é muito bela!