Modern Brazilian Sonnets: Paulo Henriques Britto’s Forms of Nothing

By Rob Packer

Formas do nada by Paulo Henriques Britto

A constant in all (?) European literatures, the sonnet has a long pedigree in Portuguese, ranging from love sonnets by Camões, the language’s equivalent to Shakespeare, Cervantes or Goethe, right down to twentieth-century Brazilian poets, such as Vinícius de Moraes or Mario Quintana. In his collection from March this year, Formas do nada (Forms of Nothing, no English translation), Paulo Henriques Britto, one of Brazil’s leading poets, returns to the form throughout, exploring in half the collection’s poems the sonnet’s Petrarchan, Shakespearean and unrhymed forms, as well as reaching into more unconventional combinations (5-4-3-2, 5-5-4 and the like).

It soon becomes clear how apt the title is: the Forms are specifically poetic in their most traditional and rhyming guise and it is clear that Nothing refers to the subject matter. The first poem is ‘Lorem ipsum’, named after the placeholder text, featured in PowerPoint or WordPress that’s really a nonsense version of text by Cicero. Britto, who is also a translator, includes a “self-translation”, where the speaker promises poetic fireworks:

“Come”, he says, “and I will give you kennings,
trochees, caesurae, hemistichs to burn;
meaning is all I ask you in return,
or if not meaning, then the next best thing.”

Lorem ipsum [Self-translation by Paulo Henriques Britto]

The exact meaning of the poetic jargon in the first two lines barely seems important—and their inclusion in a poem that rhymes “maître d’” with “to a T”, makes them feel all the more tongue-in-cheek. Poetry may, in fact, all mean nothing and towards the end, the speaker warns of “words like empty shells”. In much of the collection, meaning isn’t just inadvisable: it’s impossible, as in this poem from a five-sonnet sequence called Workshop:

Everything is lost, nothing is retained,
I know. But even so the impression
remains of some (small) thing that has been done
that could perhaps deserve some kind
of, well, if not exactly eternity,
then more than instantly being forgotten.
Is it an illusion? Or pure vanity?
Very likely. Even so, I’m content
with the vague pleasure (if pleasure it is)
of scribbling in a notebook, on the off chance,
something not to be seen by anyone else,
perhaps not even me. Writing is
necessary. Why? That’s beside the point
And does it make sense? No. It doesn’t.

IV, ‘Workshop’ [my rough translation]

The paradox of writing a sonnet about the futility of writing poetry is obvious: the meaning pulls towards the conclusion that poetry might well be futile—but if we are drawn towards the argument, or even convinced by it, then how can it really be futile? At the same time, there is a tension to its adherence to form in the stop-start injections (the “Why?” and “No” of the last two lines) and the caesurae (as promised) that give the poem a colloquial touch and disguising its formality.

At the same time the poem, like most others in the collection, is detached and distant from the effusiveness of the sonnet tradition. In fact, the whole collection feels withdrawn from external stimuli and shorn of biographical detail, above all in the Biographia literaria sequence, where the speaker describes vague memories he’s not sure are his; his certainty that unmentioned good and bad decisions made him the person he is; or his description of a photograph, probably in colour, about which all we know is that the subject is laughing, male and since died. Even when Britto refers to places you can imagine people inhabiting, the speaker holds back:

Suddenly? No. This thing dies of neglect,
as mark becomes stain, the stain a full stop.
Just take one Sunday morning, already up
the table laid for breakfast: all is set
to do nothing at all—or maybe too
an empty, hollow Tuesday night,
under the television’s evil eye—
but what does this matter now; screw
the time and screw the place (our local?
a  lift?)—it was trivial and perverse
towards the end of this predictable
process that reduced the universe
to a ball of paper, from which
you free yourself with a flick of the wrist.

V, ‘Five frivolous sonnets’ [my rough translation]

Whatever happened on that Sunday morning or Tuesday night is impossible to tell: the description stops mid-line, as if the speaker is cutting himself off from giving away too much. The adherence to form here is neither than straightjacket or structure, but feels more like armour that the speaker is hiding behind. What makes Henriques Britto exceptional is that he breaks the rule of “show not tell”: the collection is full of abstract nouns that could—in the hands of a lesser poet—easily end in disaster. In fact, Britto can pull off generalizations (and perhaps even the odd platitude) while keeping the poetry at a very high standard.

Paulo Henriques Britto, Formas do nada. Published in Brazil by Companhia das Letras, March 2012.

A selection of translations of Britto’s previous work was published as The Clean Shirt of It in 2007.

2 Responses to Modern Brazilian Sonnets: Paulo Henriques Britto’s Forms of Nothing

  1. johnfield1 says:

    Thanks for posting, Rob. This has me hoping for the opportunity to read some Britto, whose name was unknown to me until this evening.

    I am sure that this is just because I have read so little South American literature (Borges, Llosa, Andahazi) but it always strikes me as philosophical and playful. IV, ‘Workshop’ tackles mutability head-on and Britto’s musings about who will read the poem feel like a nod to Shakespeare / the sonnet’s heritage. Great stuff.

    • Rob Packer says:

      I’m glad you want to look for more! Unfortunately finding Brazilian literature in English is not easy and apart from the book on Amazon I linked to (which I couldn’t even see in London’s Poetry Library), all I could find for PHB was one poem on the Guardian’s coverage of Poetry Parnassus from earlier this year: The easiest way to read some of the greats will be to get hold of the Poems volume of Elizabeth Bishop’s collected works. Past that, the easiest ones to find in translation are going to be Carlos Drummond de Andrade, who I haven’t read enough of to really comment, and João Cabral de Melo Neto, who is excellent. The Poetry Translation Centre website also has a few by Armando Freitas Filho (his most recent collection is very good) and one by Hilda Hilst (don’t know enough again).

      I think there’s a definite influence from the English sonnet tradition, both in tradition (e.g. Fernando Pessoa was schooled and wrote in English) and from Britto’s own experience as a translator—I had a quick read through his bibliography and he’s translated Bishop, Stevens, some Byron, some Donne sonnets. And speaking of him, there’s a lovely sonnet I didn’t get a chance to mention here that involves a digital photo frame in what feels like quite a Donnean touch.

      I’m still very much a novice in Brazilian poetry, so I hope to be able to have a semi-regular Brazilian poetry spot on this blog.

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