Every Man Is an Urgent Island: Ismar Tirelli Neto’s Os Ilhados

“Os ilhados” by Ismar Tirelli Neto

Outside—and to a fair extent, inside—Brazil, the postcarded stereotype is one of gregarious sun-kissed beauty. Reality, as always, is more complex, but even so, maybe it would be a surprise to outsiders to come across the title of Rio poet, Ismar Tirelli Neto’s third collection, Os ilhados (something along the lines of The Isolates in English). After his other two collections, Syncronoscópio (Synchronoscope) and Ramerrão (Routine), it feels like a break or maturing of style (there are some translations of earlier work here at Jacket2 and Poets at Work, where Furore is from this book; the translations from here on in are mine).

You can see this difference even at first glance: nearly half of the collection is made up of prose poems. These read like fragmentary portraits or monologues of loneliness or disconnection that have a cumulative effect over the course of the book. Like in his previous collections, there are touches of the absurd or grotesque—a narrator with his family in a hotel for two years and who gets trapped in a revolving door, or how do you live with a mother who has been quite literally on fire for months? But there is something that feels more urgent about many of these poems. One of the best, ‘Quei giorni insieme a te’, describes the murder of the village witch with sticks and chains. The title, and the content, is from a song by the Italian singer Ornella Vanoni from the soundtrack of the 1972 thriller Non si sevizia un paperino. In the film, the music is juxtaposed with the murder and the poem makes the same juxtaposition with vivid detail that ends:

she does not stop hauling
herself out of the graveyard
the village witch
leaps up the small slope,
the melody falls with force,
but as soon as she reaches
the road, the violins
recoil at the sight of hands,
of fingers cut with branches
and grimy (as everything was
once) with earth and blood
and the song—
the song
is as it says.

But this doesn’t just repeat what happens in the film: the poem expands it out, universalizing it to seem it could be about any murder of an outcast (and there are plenty in Brazil). There are no indicators of time or space apart from the references to the song at the opening and close of the poem. And, indeed, there’s also no time to locate it anywhere: apart from the first few words, the poem is a continuous sentence and its short lines convey a breathless urgency. Then in describing the violins as “recoiling” and the song doing what it does, these final lines draw attention to the grotesqueness of the unhappy love song alongside a bloody murder. In doing that, it also shows its empathy.

This empathy also comes through in the portrait poems. ‘The Lonely Ones’ (‘Os solitários’) follows a Carioca, one of the lonely ones who disappear in summer, only appear in autumn. Everyone has left them, they try to put down anchors, they look at a boy eating açaí, “Surely he is coming back from the beach, aren’t they always coming back from the beach?”

At other times, the isolation is geographic. There are several poems rooted in the open plains of São Paulo state, where not even the cartographic certainties are to be trusted:

Maybe it is a case of a city abandoned in a hurry, without preparation, with a firm decision as ridiculous as the backpack that now weighs on his back.


As if that was not enough, ever less definite places spread themselves out on the road I travelled along at night. It is so difficult to believe that whole towns lie behind the rest stops, behind the bathrooms of the rest stops, behind the successive mirrors where my face is clouding up—, these bathrooms where invariably you think: this is possible, it’s not quite me, this journey is entirely possible.

‘A Bad Travelling Companion’ (‘Um mau amigo de viagens’)

For me at least, it feels that there is something of short prose pieces of Robert Walser or excerpts from Kafka’s diary about these poems: the travel, the isolation, the alienation, the empathy as well (I recently reread Kafka was bowled over yet again by his capacity for empathy).

What some of the poems also share with Kafka is the idea of corporate work, and the isolation and strain it brings to the artist. In particular, the final long poem, ‘Pleiteantes (‘Candidates’ or perhaps ‘Petitioners’), which seems to begin with an interview before the speaker is swallowed by the customs and habits of work and commuting in the building site that is currently the centre of Rio. He has fantasies of escape:

            lets ask him then, what deepening, what sudden widening of field he believes would happen if his nerves did in fact explode, if he began to scream like he had been struck by lightning, a recent convert, inside an almost empty cinema, not ever having returned from lunch, just going into the two o’clock screening

I’m sure we have all had fantasies like these. And all know the futility of them. Like ‘Quei giorni insieme a te’, there is the same urgency and like that poem, it is one sentence, albeit much longer and broken up into paragraphs. But it’s different too: rather than a deep focus, the ideas clamber over one another. For example, in the paragraph above, technical terms of cinema (depth of field, widening of field) pre-echo the appearance of the cinema. What makes the poem so good is how the different ideas clamber over one another. And as I wrote early on in this post, the effect of the collection is cumulative: different ideas echo through and the end of the poem harks back to recoiling of ‘Quei giorni insieme a te’ and ‘The Lonely Ones’ wanting to put down anchors. But here, any kind of connection, especially digging and rootedness in the ground is a threat:

            these things spoke to each other somehow and because they spoke to each other they put fear into him,

fear of dialogue that would trap him further along, of entering the space of dialogue, of being caught by dialogue, that it would catch his hat and stamp on it right there, on what was left of the pavement, to be caught in its vortex downwards, to the trains,

that these forces that collided dully further along—a boy with a greenpeace apron, the ruins of the municipal theatre—, would suddenly turn against him and crush him, he

who quickens his pace, who points at the missing clock, missing both from his wrist and the square, that will soon be out of circumstances, that with a flourish

he was swallowing an umbrella a moment ago as if it was a sword and

he smiles not without some shyness at passers-by, has

the impression all the same that the underground trains had buried themselves, that for a moment you could enter the shopping arcades freely and then they began to dig,

to dig, maybe they had reached the secret place, before which they recoiled, disgusted, recoiled a little, the world

the world when it falls

Ismar Tirelli Neto, Os Ilhados, 7Letras (Rio de Janeiro), 2015 (Buy it from 7Letras)

“Leave the rest of your dream to sleep at the open window”

The title a contradiction. It is unclassifiable. And all of that you say about the book itself. Absent Presence is—depending on the moment you look at it—the autobiography, the memoirs, an extended prose poem, a novel, perhaps more specifically a Künstlerroman, a monologue written into the mirror, difficult prose, simple prose, an ars poetica, by the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008), translated by Mohammad Shaheen. It is all of the above and none. What it is—and what it remains—is hallucinatory, enlightening, beautiful in specific sentences, such as:

Poems and twilight have this in common: obscurity mingles with clarity, because a hidden pit emits its rays in shafts of light and in words, and consequently deprives darkness of the eternity of adjectives.

Or in longer sections, such as this description of his writing process that plays off the title and the previous sentence a good 25 pages before:

You marvel at how the water and the song are united; the voice of water is rhythm. Perhaps music is the organisation of drops of water in a spirit which becomes clear in the hands of one who plays on instruments made out of watery, emotional material. […] …and you proceed to the hobby which has become a trade, and the trade which has been a hobby. The cup of coffee on the left side of the desk, the box of pens on the right, next to the bottle of black ink; in the middle, the white leaves covered with white writing. You meet them, and they meet you, containing the secret memory of those who have gone before. You alone have nothing determinate, no content, and in vain you try to find your own line in this white throng which stretches between writing and speech. You longer ask, ‘What shall I write?’ but rather, ‘How shall I write?’ You summon a dream, but it flees from form; you beg for a meaning, but the rhythm is uneasy with it. You believe that you have crossed the threshold which divides the horizon from the abyss. You have practised the opening of metaphor to an absence that is present, to a presence that is absent, a spontaneity that seems obedient. You know that meaning in poetry is made up of the meaning in the movement of meaning in a rhythm in which prose aspires to the citizenship of poetry and in which poetry aspires to the aristocracy of prose. ‘Take me to features of the river that I do not know, take me.’

Take us all.

I should also mention that I read this book a while back, but the impulse came from the Brazilian poetry blog, Modo de Usar, where a Portuguese translation of one of Darwish’s poems appeared my Facebook feed yesterday.

Mahmoud Darwish, Absent Presence (translated by Mohammad Shaheen), Hesperus Press, 2010

Transatlantic, Fraternal: Matilde Campilho’s “Jóquei”

joqueiIt is rare to find the words “best-selling” and “poetry” inhabiting the same sentence—even in Brazil, “a country where poets are taken seriously” according to the New York Times. So great was this deviation from the script, that at the launch of Matilde Campilho’s first collection Jóquei last week in Rio, talk among readers, the moderator was of that thing that happened—whisper it, a poetry book was number 1 in sales at the Flip, Brazil’s biggest literary festival. Whether the New York Times is right, but anyway, it’s worth repeating: Matilde Campilho’s Jóquei was the best-selling book at Flip.

Campilho is Portuguese, but with a strong connection to Rio de Janeiro—she lived here in between 2010 and 2013, she began writing here, she was surrounded by local poets at the mic. I know next to nothing about contemporary Portuguese writing (the connection between Portuguese and Brazilian letters is not as straight-forward as it might seem from outside the Lusosphere—the publishers are different like in English or Spanish, there are spelling differences perhaps more extreme than English, bookshops divide their shelves between Brazilian and international fiction and poetry…), but her work feels quite Brazilian, or at least cured in Brazil. This is for more than the geographical location of many of the poems: there is a freshness and lightness of touch, strong both in the prose poems and the short-lined unpunctuated free verse, that comes partly from lines or sentences are often equal to breath or thought.

The book has two overt artes poeticae, which are both real defences of poetry as an art form. From the start of the first, ‘Prince in the Rose Garden’, it comes at the reader with demands: “Listen here / this is a poem / it doesn’t talk about love / it doesn’t talk about blue / scarves…” (my translations). This is poetry that knows what it wants and isn’t afraid to ask. And what does poetry want? Contradictory things. The second poem, ‘Extinct Principality’ begins: “This is a poem / it talks about love / or fear of love / It talks about death / or the end of the amalgam / face voice soul and scent / that is death / This is a poem / be afraid”. I don’t like being bossed about, but there’s something so enjoyable being told what to do by these poems.

And so they go on, contradicting each other, like a couple or two sisters in an argument. When I read the book for the second time, I found myself stopping at the lines: “Listen here / this is a poem / it isn’t going to line up concepts / like liberty equality and faith”. Something about it seemed important; it isn’t contradicted in the second poem; and isn’t that last word wrong? Perhaps not.

The book is full of references to famous poets of the past: there’s Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Rimbaud and most of all, Whitman. There are poems set in Brooklyn, but it seems to go deeper, more multitudinous, more like the “blab of the pave” from part 8 of Song of Myself. It feels that there is an aim towards the fraternity missed out of the French motto: there are lines from letters, dialogue; it’s sometimes unclear who’s speaking, there are lines from songs by Mercedes Sosa or Stevie Wonder; there is a wonderful poem, ‘I’ll Have What She’s Having’ based around When Harry Met Sally. There is a wish to capture experience itself, both the poet’s and other people’s.

There is also a real feeling of being between places, of nomadism, of restlessness (the poems are set variously in Rio, Lisbon, Brooklyn, India, Prague, Rome) and it is here that the multiple voices, the lack of punctuation come into themselves. ‘Rio de Janeiro – Lisbon’ looks at a couple now separated by the Atlantic: “one day you / love my glasses / I love your glasses / the next day / I don’t want you to come to the ranch / three days later / you would love this place / do you want to come to the ranch?” The poem is anything but chronological, but is full of references to time (one day, the next day, forty days later)—and it fits perfectly. The place is certain (Rio or Lisbon), but time isn’t. Relative time of who said what when is hard to remember.

And in a poem like ‘Someone Told Me’, it’s the sense of place and home, nomadism and impermanence, the male relative’s call to bring the poet back to Portugal:

come see that you come back he said
you’re my family it’s impossible
to see the transition of winter
to spring without family close by

come back tell me you’ll come back
look it’s the season of migrations
and you who always followed
the hummingbirds and penguins
just stop signing up
for this championship of detachment
you always lose you should know that now

There’s something so urgent in the voice: that time can’t go on without her close by. And the poem works on so many levels, especially in the line about “the season of migrations”, which could as easily be about the flight of birds or the Portuguese and other Southern Europeans leaving their countries out of disillusionment. The collection touches on politics—in ‘Love Makes Me Hungry’, there are mentions of snipers in Kiev, of Venezuela, there is a line that “yesterday we were the children of the grandchildren of the revolution”—and you get the feeling that politics isn’t there all the time, but the book really cares about it and when it is, it is.

This is poetry of the here and now. It wants to speak to you urgently.

Matilde Campilho, Jóquei, Tinta-de-China, 2014 (in Portugal) or Editora 34, 2015 (in Brazil)

Inge and Paul



So much of the Second World War is unimaginable, but constant depictions have made us grow used to its horrors. For me at least, this makes parts of its aftermath more unimaginable still. In 1948 Paul Celan fled Communist Romania for occupied Vienna. Celan’s father died of typhus, his mother was shot, both in internment camps, Celan himself spent much of the war in labour camps:

On arrival in Cernăuți July 1941 the German SS Einsatzkommando and their Romanian allies set the city’s Great Synagogue on fire. In October, the Romanians deported a large number of Jews after forcing them into a ghetto, where Celan translated William Shakespeare’s Sonnets and continued to write his own poetry. Before the ghetto was dissolved in the fall of that year, Celan was pressed into labor, first clearing the debris of a demolished post office, and then gathering and destroying Russian books. (taken from Celan’s entry in Wikipedia)

It is impossible to say that the war ended in 1945 in anything more than historiographical terms, if its survivors carried it within them for the rest of their lives. And is peace peace, if three years after the end of the war, Celan was stateless in Vienna?

There he met Ingeborg Bachmann and they began a friendship or, for two short periods in 1948 and in 1957-58, a relationship. Their correspondence was published in Germany in 2008 as Herzzeit, which also includes the letters between Celan and Max Frisch (Swiss author and Bachmann’s later partner) and Bachmann and Gisèle Celan-Lestrange (Celan’s wife and widow).

It is a correspondence of floods and lacunae. There are long silences from one side or the other: writing is difficult for Ingeborg, especially. She cannot bring herself to reply to Paul in the first years of their friendship: it seems the feelings and the pain are too deep. There are letters abandoned halfway through and later sent enclosed within others:

My silence means above all that I want to preserve those weeks are they were, I wanted nothing more than to receive a letter from you every now and then, to prove that I was not dreaming, that everything was real, as it was. I was fond of you, quite unchanged, on a plain “beyond the chestnut trees”.

„Mein Schweigen bedeutet vor allem, dass ich die Wochen behalten wollte, wie sie waren, ich wollte nichts, als eben ab und zu durch eine Karte von Dir die Bestätigung bekommen, dass ich nicht geträumt habe, sondern alles wirklich war, [wie] es war. Ich hatte Dich lieb gehabt, ganz unverändert, auf einer Ebene, die „jenseits der Kastanien“ war.“

—Ingeborg Bachmann to Paul Celan, Vienna, 24 August 1949, sent as an insert on 24 November 1949

This difficulty in writing letters occurs later in her novel, Malina. Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising to see the life reflected in the work. But here it goes further: a fascinating part of Hans Höller and Andrea Stoll’s commentary is how even during the silences of their writing, Bachmann’s poetry speaks and responds to Celan’s. For example, Celan’s poem the line “we spoke of dark things to each other/wir sagen uns Dunkles” in Celan’s ‘Corona’ influences Bachmann’s poem ‘To Speak of Dark Things/Dunkles zu sagen’ where the speaker, like Orpheus, knows only how to speak of dark things. And in the quotation, “beyond the chestnut trees” is from Celan’s poem ‘Drüben (Over There)’.

They grow apart over time and the correspondence peters out by the beginning of the 1960’s. This is when Celan is criticized in some (anti-Semitic) parts of the German press and is subject to plagiarism accusations, both spend times in psychiatric clinics. Maybe banally, Bachmann’s last letter to Celan is a Christmas card in 1961, but she continues to react or respond to Celan: in 1967 she leaves her publisher in protest at a decision to publish translations of Akhmatova by a translator with a Nazi past, rather than Celan’s. But, of course, neither of them could know they only had so much time, that Celan would commit suicide in the Seine in 1970, that Ingeborg would die in 1973. Thoughts, feelings and pain unwritten leave no trace. Should we be surprised that their letters read like fragments?

Bachmann and Celan are two of my favourite poets of post-war German literature, and I suppose it is inevitable that I would be fascinated by their letters, but I had not expected to be so moved by the friendship that develops between Ingeborg and Gisèle, especially after Paul’s suicide, “the most anonymous and solitary of deaths”. Gisèle’s letters often refer to Ingeborg’s acts of kindness, such as sending Gisèle flowers on Celan’s birthday, half a year after his suicide.

Over the next few years, it becomes clear that these gestures, phone calls, the meeting of the two in Rome become an important support for Gisèle. Ingeborg’s difficulty in writing is just as much the case here: in a 1959 letter to Gisèle, she wrote “I fear letters more and more because they regard us with such inflexibility, when all one seeks is a living word – or even a living contradiction” (« Je crains de plus en plus les lettres parce qu’elles nous regardent inflexiblement, quand on ne cherche que la parole vivante – et même la contradiction vivante »).

In search of the “living word”, Ingeborg phones, while Gisèle appears to be writing into silence. This and history (their future) made it difficult not to be overwhelmed by their melancholy—it is hard not to see this last letter to Ingeborg (2 January 1973) as desperately sad:

“I am still moved by your call yesterday evening: I was almost paralysed with the surprise, the distance, that you represent for me and I could not find the words that I wanted to say to you –
I am so touched by how much you care about me, I feel so deeply that it matters to you that I am well and that I find my own path. Thank you for such warm thoughts.
You know, you know … the hardships that one has with oneself, with life. One tries, one is mistaken, one finds paths that lead nowhere. One takes steps that are not always the right ones and finds oneself again at a dead end…”

« Je suis encore toute émue de votre appel d’hier soir : j’étais un peu paralysée par la surprise, la distance, ce que vous représentez pour moi, et je n’ai pas pu trouver les mots que j’aurais voulu vers vous –
Je suis très touchée par l’attention que vous me portez, je sens si fort que cela vous importe que j’aille bien et que je me trouve un chemin, merci de ces pensées si chaleureuses.
Vous savez, vous savez … les difficultés que l’on a chacun avec soi-même, avec la vie. On essaie, on se fourvoie, on trouve des chemins qui ne mènent nulle part. On fait des pas qui ne sont pas toujours les justes et on se retrouve à nouveau dans ses impasses… »

—Gisèle Celan-Lestrange to Ingeborg Bachmann, Paris, 2 January 1973

There is nothing more. I could only imagine time coursing towards Ingeborg’s own death on 17 October of the same year.

Ingeborg Bachmann/Paul Celan, Herzzeit: Briefwechsel, Suhrkamp Verlag, 2008

Acting, Ethics and Being Human

An incredibly incisive comment on the moral obligations of acting by Eddie Marsan on BBC Radio 3’s Free Thinking show (available to listen here):

I was making a film with Ewan McGregor once and we had a couple of hours off; we was watching a film with this big American star, making a film and the performance was awful and Ewan said this great thing. He said, “He’s referencing other actors and what he’s doing is he’s playing a character based on other performances of other actors.” And we both realised that that’s morally a terrible thing for an actor to be, because as an actor you have to be a human being so that when people watch you they think “that’s me” and they don’t feel lonely any more, they don’t feel isolated, they feel that they could talk to the person sitting next to them; but if you portray characters referencing other actors, then you create a character of what we wish we could be, so those performances create more isolation. They create more detachment, more depression, more low self-esteem and so the job of an actor is to give an honest testimony of what it is to be a human being.

— Eddie Marsan

Rereading. Not Telling

It is rare I will reread favourite sections of a novel just after finishing it. Malina, Ingeborg Bachmann’s only finished novel is a disquieting and strange and engrossing exception. It repeats and evolves throughout in words, phrases, unattributed and unfinished telephone sentences, recurring dreams of the cemetery of murdered daughters, anonymous letters the protagonist writes… As I read, Ingeborg became a more and more obsessing figure. I found myself staring at the sky on Sunday while a friend went to charge his phone, just thinking thinking about Ingeborg and Malina. When I was tired of the novel (it is not light), I reached for the book of her poems I have. The picture of her on that book could be another woman. There is a photo of her on the cover of most of her books. Each could be another woman (here on the Piper Verlag website). She seems protean and chimeric. There is a book of her correspondence, Herzzeit: “For a long time their love was a great secret, now it is documented” according to the Suhrkamp Verlag. There is a biography of her relationship with Max Frisch. There are no photos of them together.

She seems protean and chimeric. I have no idea what she really looks like.

I do not tell stories, I will not tell stories, I cannot tell stories, it is more than an interference in my memory.

— Ingeborg Bachmann, Malina

“What use is all that I have read up until now”

Anyone would say that Ivan and I are not happy. Or that for a long time we have had no reason to call ourselves happy. But anyone is wrong. Anyone is nobody. I have forgotten to ask Ivan about the tax return on the telephone, Ivan has generously said he will do my tax return for next year, it is not about the tax and what this tax already wants from me for another year, for me it is only about Ivan talking about next year, and Ivan said to me today he had forgotten to tell me on the telephone that he has had enough of sandwiches and that he would like to know what I can cook, and then I promise more from just one evening that from next year. Because if Ivan wants me to cook, then that must mean something and he cannot then run off quickly, after one drink, and tonight I look around in my library among my books and there are no cookbooks among them, I must buy some right away, how absurd, then what use is all that I have read up until now, if it is of no use with Ivan. THE CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON, read at 60 watts in the Beatrixgasse, Locke, Leibniz and Hume, under the small reading lamps in the half-light of the National Library from the pre-Socratics to BEING AND NOTHINGNESS infatuated with all the concepts from all of history, Kafka, Rimbaud and Blake read at 25 watts in a hotel in Paris, Freud, Adler and Jung read at 360 watts on a lonely Berlin street, to the muted turns of Chopin Études, studied a fiery discourse about the expropriation of literary property on a beach near Genoa, the paper specked with salt and warped by the sun, read LA COMÉDIE HUMAINE in three weeks in Klagenfurt with a mild fever, weakened by antibiotics, read Proust in Munich until the first light of morning and until the roofers broke into the garret flat, read the French moralists and Viennese logicians, with my stockings falling down, read everything with thirty French cigarettes a day, from DE RERUM NATURA to LE CULTE DE LA RAISON, gone through history and philosophy, medicine and psychology, worked through the medical histories of schizophrenics and manic-depressives in the asylum in Steinhof, written transcripts in the Auditorium Maximum at just six degrees Celsius and still made notes at 38 degrees in the shade about de mundo, de mente, de moto, read Marx and Engels after washing my hair and read V. I. Lenin completely drunk, and read newspapers and newspapers and newspapers racing though them distraught, and already read newspapers when I was a child, by the oven, while lighting the fire, and newspapers and magazines and paperbacks everywhere, at every station, in every train, in trams, in buses, aeroplanes, and read everything on top of everything in four languages, fortiter, fortiter, and understood everything there is to read, and freed from reading everything for an hour, I lie down next to Ivan and say: I will write this book, that does not even exist yet, write it for you if you really want. But you have to want it really, want it from me, and I will never make you read it.

Ivan says: Lets hope it will be a book where everything turns out fine.

Lets hope.

— Ingeborg Bachmann, Malina (my translation from the German)

Published in English by Holmes & Meier and in German by Suhrkamp.


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