“Rabo de baleia” by Alice Sant’Anna
The cliché belongs to the iceberg of course. But the whale too inhabits this world sometimes in the air, sometimes in the sea—and is more hidden most of the time than those 90% of the iceberg that you can’t see. I’ve never been whale-watching (I have seen river dolphins in the Amazon), but can imagine taking a boat out to sea and watching the still horizon suddenly punctuated by a huge tail fin.
In the same way, Rabo de baleia (literally, the Whale’s Tail, but I’ll stick to the Whale’s Fin to skip a too obvious rhyme that would be out of place in this book), which is Alice Sant’Anna’s second collection, often works out of sight, under the water, at oblique angles. This even comes down to her writing practice that the critic Heloisa Buarque de Hollanda describes in the book’s blurb:
“And I discovered that she writes in syncope and subliminally. She writes on the bus, in quiet interludes, in moments of boredom, in the small gaps over the course of the day and, what apparently attracts her most, in risky situations like at work, in classes, meetings, conversations.”
I’m not sure if all the poems in the collection were written this way, but there are traces of it throughout the poems. In one, the speaker’s companion in Lisbon has “a strange compulsion” to sketch everything: a painting, a doorknob, an egg tart, whereas the speaker herself ends the poem saying (in my rough translation):
meanwhile I anxiously wanted to repeat
the gesture, to document all this, talk about the taste
of cinnamon on the egg tart
of the first blue day in lisbon
but I couldn’t write and hurrying to register things
I became bureaucratic
in my diary: today we took the train, it was hot
Coming at things face-on appears to be a problem and here it turns around the word register, registrar in Portuguese that means to note down or memorize mental perception, but like in English as well, it is also a word widely used by bureaucracy. With too much effort the result becomes banal.
This doesn’t lead to banality with the poems though, although paradoxically some of them are full of finely-tuned observations: the contradictory instructions of an host family in England, a trip to the grandparents in the mountains, a road trip, descriptions of fellow students in Paris or visits to cousins. And in other poems there are colloquialisms that feel verbatim, for example lavar bem lavadas as cerejas (to wash the cherries really washed). They feel like phrases or situations consciously noted down in situ.
In other poems there are unconscious slips, dreams, non sequiturs. There is a dream of a eucalyptus sprouting from a sweet and growing inside the speaker. There is a strange slip in “something always darkened (alguma coisa sempre escurecia)” where you expect—and perhaps if listening would hear—“happened (ocurria)”: phonically they are so close that the normal word hides behind the more unexpected one. There is this fantastic metaphor for snow: “Today we woke up to the city all white, a sensation that we were taking part in someone else’s dream”. And most of all there is the surreal deus ex machina that opens the collection and give it its title:
If only the huge fin of a whale
would cross the living room right now
without any noise at all the animal
would sink between the floorboards
If you’ve picked up the book, you know what the title is, but even so having a whale’s fin suddenly in your sitting room comes as a shock. It is a great poem of boredom, time and things unsaid that continues a few lines later:
what I wanted but can’t tell you
was to grab the whale and dive down with her
I feel a terrifying boredom of these days
of stagnant water attracting mosquitos
despite the stress of these days
of the exhaustion of these days
the body that arrives home exhausted
with the hand outstretched looking
for a glass of water
In both of these extracts, there are words for time at the ends of lines: “right now” in the first and the quick repetition of “these days” in the second that only emphasizes how slow time is passing. It is also a poem of the desire for change or escape and its sheer impossibility: the whale appears in the first line, but there is no mention of the ocean; indeed any mention of water has either been still for days or confined within a glass. And then the poem ends with:
… and the longing
is to embrace the huge
fin of a whale and follow it down.
But it’s impossible to sink down through the floorboards like that.
Alice Sant’Anna, Rabo de baleia, Cosac Naify (São Paulo, 2013) (Buy it from Cosac Naify)