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)

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

  1. Pingback: On Mariano Marovatto and His “Casa” | Nomadic Permanence: Rob Packer's Blog

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