Same and Different: Ana Martins Marques’ “The Book of Similarities”



“O livro das semelhanças” by Ana Martins Martins

The Book of Similarities opens, as it surely should, by holding a mirror up to itself. It begins with six numbered couplets that are “Ideas for a Book” (not necessarily this one) before a sequence called “Book”, where each poem describes the cover, the title, the first poem, etcetera, the colophon, the back cover.

The book as a whole (published this year and called O livro das semelhanças in Portuguese) is Ana Martins Marques’ third and sometimes has the feeling of being a series of pamphlets: the first three, “Book”, “Cartographies” and “Visits to the Commonplace” are concept-based; the final one “The Book of Similarities” more open. On a superficial level, this is similar to her previous book On the Art of Traps (Da arte das armadilhas, 2011). And perhaps more than superficially: indeed, the book remains full of traps.

One of the most noticeable things about Marques’ poetry is its apparent simplicity. It’s nothing of the sort. The first section is full of winks and dead-ends. In “First Poem”, the speaker promises “at least here, dear reader / you won’t find / any dirty cups”, which may be true, but seems also to be a sly nod towards the Tender Buttons-esque first section of her previous book. With relief, “Second Poem” begins saying “Supposedly it’s easier from here / the worst is past”, but then turns out, contradictorily, to be a sonnet in hendecasyllables (a traditional Portuguese metre) and the most formal poem in the whole book. There is an alphabetical index of words found throughout the book that appears on page 30 but refers to the book’s 100 plus pages. And there is a poem called “Translation” that ends with an intricate mirroring of sound in its final lines. The translation is my own and includes a rough attempt to replicate the patterning—deep down, I feel the Portuguese is almost untranslatable:

o importante é que
num determinado ponto
os poemas ficam emparelhados

como em certos problemas de física
de velhos livros escolares

the important thing is
that at a particular point

the line between poems cancels out

like in certain physics problems
in old school textbooks

When you cancel out in equations, a letter on one side of the equals sign removes its pair on the other. In the same way, every sound of the line “os poemas ficam emparelhados” is repeated in the couplet that follows. But this is more than just playing with sound: I feel that what Marques is doing here is simultaneously stating and demonstrating a theory of translation, in which there’s a kernel of “real poem” within the original that it’s important to stay true to. It’s another kind of metapoetic similarity.

The rest of the book continues to play with the concept of similarity and increasingly—as the book goes on and the similitude comes to appear less and less accurate—difference. The speaker is often confused between representation and the real world, seeing the real in terms of above all books and maps. One of the most memorable images is from the “Cartographies” section:

I travel looking through the bus window
looking for the red lines of borders
or the luminous names of cities
hovering over them

Or in these four closing lines of “One Day”:

we travel
side by side
like in a parallel

As this, like many of the poems, is a love poem, this disconnect, this separateness is both comforting (there is kernel of something that connects them, makes them belong together) and urgent (they are not speaking the same language). And in one of the highlights of the book, “Minas”, the poet compares the screaming beach-goers of her lover’s home with her own home state, Minas Gerais:

at my chest
to the elemental
of metal

There’s something so touching about a couple listening at each other’s chests to the places they are from. It’s one of the great strengths of the book that it manages to be simple and complex, to be about similarity and not.

But maybe me even talking about or looking for that similarity is a trap of its own. In a poem called “Title”, the poet explains in four lines what a title really is:

over the book
like a chandelier
in a theatre

At first glance, it seems simple. What after all is a title, but something that hangs over and illuminates a work? But think again about the theatre. You’re concentrating on the stage, not the chandelier. The light in the auditorium has to be turned off for you to experience the play—and it is the play that is responsible for the chandelier having been constructed in the first place. It lights up and is not present.

Ana Martins Marques, O livro das semelhanças, Companhia das Letras (São Paulo, 2015) (Buy it from Companhia das Letras)

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