Transatlantic, Fraternal: Matilde Campilho’s “Jóquei”
July 15, 2015 1 Comment
It 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)