The 1950’s poetry of João Cabral de Melo Neto

By Rob Packer

"Morte e vida severina" by João Cabral de Melo Neto

João Cabral de Melo Neto (1920-1999) is, like Jorge Amado or Graciliano Ramos, another of Brazil’s writers from Brazil’s Northeast whose subject is often the poverty of the region. I recently read a Morte e vida severina (Death and Life of a Severino), a collection of his poetry from the 1950’s, including Morte e vida severina, O rio (The River) and Paisagens com figuras (Landscapes with Figures)—as well as the personal Uma faca só lâmina, which I won’t be talking about in this blog. Without a doubt, this collection is the best piece of Brazilian literature I’ve yet to read.

Cabral’s poetry is highly metrical and is clearly influenced by popular Northeast form of cordel (string) literature, a form of illustrated chapbook that gets its name from the pamphlets pegged on a string like clothes hung out to dry. Unlike this sometimes light-hearted genre, Cabral is dead serious and the flow of retirantes, or migrants, for whom “everything had dried out but their sweat”, is a recurring theme in this collection.

In the long poem O rio, the River Capibaribe describes its journey in the first person from the sertão “where only the rocks stay behind” to the coastal city of Recife. The inexorable flow of the river is bound through rhyme and metre to another unstoppable stream of retirantes escaping the sertão. The river passes voracious sugarcane plantations before arriving at the migrants’ destination, but the city is little more than a “desert of swamps” where the driest land is ominously taken up by the Government Palace and prison; and the river—the source of water and therefore life, the “best travelling companion” and mostly sympathetic until then—turns on them becoming their “most intimate friend”, coming into the kitchen and “penetrating into the bedroom”. After a long journey the misery remains and even your old friends can stab you in the back.

Slightly less pessimistic is Morte e vida severina, based on the form of a Christmas morality play in verse and told by Severino, whose name Cabral turns into both archetype and adjective: a ‘Severine’ death is an ambush at 20 or dying “of old age at 30”. As he follows the riverbed to the coast, Severino, expecting life, only finds gravediggers and professional mourners—the region’s only reliable professions. In Recife, things are no better with Severino “only finding, on arriving/ cemeteries waiting”. But just as all seems hopeless, Severino comes across a real-life Nativity scene in a mocambo (a slum on a muddy riverbank), where the proud new father tells him that any “explosion of any life”, even a ‘Severine’ one, is cause for celebration.

Alongside the inspiration of the Northeast, João Cabral de Melo Neto’s poetry is influenced by his long experience as a Brazilian diplomat—above all in Spain where he moved in artistic circles—and this Iberian influence makes itself most felt in Paisagens com figuras, Cabral alternates between landscapes of rural Spain and his native Pernambuco. While the Brazilian state continues producing corpses and is still so unchangingly skeletal you can see the bones, the glimpses of Castile or well-proportioned Catalonia almost come as a relief; but it is this cosmopolitan touch combined with the cordel form that make me find his poetry so interesting and rewarding.

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