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.

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“Leave the rest of your dream to sleep at the open window”

The title a contradiction. It is unclassifiable. And all of that you say about the book itself. Absent Presence is—depending on the moment you look at it—the autobiography, the memoirs, an extended prose poem, a novel, perhaps more specifically a Künstlerroman, a monologue written into the mirror, difficult prose, simple prose, an ars poetica, by the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008), translated by Mohammad Shaheen. It is all of the above and none. What it is—and what it remains—is hallucinatory, enlightening, beautiful in specific sentences, such as:

Poems and twilight have this in common: obscurity mingles with clarity, because a hidden pit emits its rays in shafts of light and in words, and consequently deprives darkness of the eternity of adjectives.

Or in longer sections, such as this description of his writing process that plays off the title and the previous sentence a good 25 pages before:

You marvel at how the water and the song are united; the voice of water is rhythm. Perhaps music is the organisation of drops of water in a spirit which becomes clear in the hands of one who plays on instruments made out of watery, emotional material. […] …and you proceed to the hobby which has become a trade, and the trade which has been a hobby. The cup of coffee on the left side of the desk, the box of pens on the right, next to the bottle of black ink; in the middle, the white leaves covered with white writing. You meet them, and they meet you, containing the secret memory of those who have gone before. You alone have nothing determinate, no content, and in vain you try to find your own line in this white throng which stretches between writing and speech. You longer ask, ‘What shall I write?’ but rather, ‘How shall I write?’ You summon a dream, but it flees from form; you beg for a meaning, but the rhythm is uneasy with it. You believe that you have crossed the threshold which divides the horizon from the abyss. You have practised the opening of metaphor to an absence that is present, to a presence that is absent, a spontaneity that seems obedient. You know that meaning in poetry is made up of the meaning in the movement of meaning in a rhythm in which prose aspires to the citizenship of poetry and in which poetry aspires to the aristocracy of prose. ‘Take me to features of the river that I do not know, take me.’

Take us all.

I should also mention that I read this book a while back, but the impulse came from the Brazilian poetry blog, Modo de Usar, where a Portuguese translation of one of Darwish’s poems appeared my Facebook feed yesterday.

Mahmoud Darwish, Absent Presence (translated by Mohammad Shaheen), Hesperus Press, 2010

Transatlantic, Fraternal: Matilde Campilho’s “Jóquei”

joqueiIt 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.

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Inge and Paul



So much of the Second World War is unimaginable, but constant depictions have made us grow used to its horrors. For me at least, this makes parts of its aftermath more unimaginable still. In 1948 Paul Celan fled Communist Romania for occupied Vienna. Celan’s father died of typhus, his mother was shot, both in internment camps, Celan himself spent much of the war in labour camps:

On arrival in Cernăuți July 1941 the German SS Einsatzkommando and their Romanian allies set the city’s Great Synagogue on fire. In October, the Romanians deported a large number of Jews after forcing them into a ghetto, where Celan translated William Shakespeare’s Sonnets and continued to write his own poetry. Before the ghetto was dissolved in the fall of that year, Celan was pressed into labor, first clearing the debris of a demolished post office, and then gathering and destroying Russian books. (taken from Celan’s entry in Wikipedia)

It is impossible to say that the war ended in 1945 in anything more than historiographical terms, if its survivors carried it within them for the rest of their lives. And is peace peace, if three years after the end of the war, Celan was stateless in Vienna?

There he met Ingeborg Bachmann and they began a friendship or, for two short periods in 1948 and in 1957-58, a relationship. Their correspondence was published in Germany in 2008 as Herzzeit, which also includes the letters between Celan and Max Frisch (Swiss author and Bachmann’s later partner) and Bachmann and Gisèle Celan-Lestrange (Celan’s wife and widow).

It is a correspondence of floods and lacunae. There are long silences from one side or the other: writing is difficult for Ingeborg, especially. She cannot bring herself to reply to Paul in the first years of their friendship: it seems the feelings and the pain are too deep. There are letters abandoned halfway through and later sent enclosed within others:

My silence means above all that I want to preserve those weeks are they were, I wanted nothing more than to receive a letter from you every now and then, to prove that I was not dreaming, that everything was real, as it was. I was fond of you, quite unchanged, on a plain “beyond the chestnut trees”.

„Mein Schweigen bedeutet vor allem, dass ich die Wochen behalten wollte, wie sie waren, ich wollte nichts, als eben ab und zu durch eine Karte von Dir die Bestätigung bekommen, dass ich nicht geträumt habe, sondern alles wirklich war, [wie] es war. Ich hatte Dich lieb gehabt, ganz unverändert, auf einer Ebene, die „jenseits der Kastanien“ war.“

—Ingeborg Bachmann to Paul Celan, Vienna, 24 August 1949, sent as an insert on 24 November 1949

This difficulty in writing letters occurs later in her novel, Malina. Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising to see the life reflected in the work. But here it goes further: a fascinating part of Hans Höller and Andrea Stoll’s commentary is how even during the silences of their writing, Bachmann’s poetry speaks and responds to Celan’s. For example, Celan’s poem the line “we spoke of dark things to each other/wir sagen uns Dunkles” in Celan’s ‘Corona’ influences Bachmann’s poem ‘To Speak of Dark Things/Dunkles zu sagen’ where the speaker, like Orpheus, knows only how to speak of dark things. And in the quotation, “beyond the chestnut trees” is from Celan’s poem ‘Drüben (Over There)’.

They grow apart over time and the correspondence peters out by the beginning of the 1960’s. This is when Celan is criticized in some (anti-Semitic) parts of the German press and is subject to plagiarism accusations, both spend times in psychiatric clinics. Maybe banally, Bachmann’s last letter to Celan is a Christmas card in 1961, but she continues to react or respond to Celan: in 1967 she leaves her publisher in protest at a decision to publish translations of Akhmatova by a translator with a Nazi past, rather than Celan’s. But, of course, neither of them could know they only had so much time, that Celan would commit suicide in the Seine in 1970, that Ingeborg would die in 1973. Thoughts, feelings and pain unwritten leave no trace. Should we be surprised that their letters read like fragments?

Bachmann and Celan are two of my favourite poets of post-war German literature, and I suppose it is inevitable that I would be fascinated by their letters, but I had not expected to be so moved by the friendship that develops between Ingeborg and Gisèle, especially after Paul’s suicide, “the most anonymous and solitary of deaths”. Gisèle’s letters often refer to Ingeborg’s acts of kindness, such as sending Gisèle flowers on Celan’s birthday, half a year after his suicide.

Over the next few years, it becomes clear that these gestures, phone calls, the meeting of the two in Rome become an important support for Gisèle. Ingeborg’s difficulty in writing is just as much the case here: in a 1959 letter to Gisèle, she wrote “I fear letters more and more because they regard us with such inflexibility, when all one seeks is a living word – or even a living contradiction” (« Je crains de plus en plus les lettres parce qu’elles nous regardent inflexiblement, quand on ne cherche que la parole vivante – et même la contradiction vivante »).

In search of the “living word”, Ingeborg phones, while Gisèle appears to be writing into silence. This and history (their future) made it difficult not to be overwhelmed by their melancholy—it is hard not to see this last letter to Ingeborg (2 January 1973) as desperately sad:

“I am still moved by your call yesterday evening: I was almost paralysed with the surprise, the distance, that you represent for me and I could not find the words that I wanted to say to you –
I am so touched by how much you care about me, I feel so deeply that it matters to you that I am well and that I find my own path. Thank you for such warm thoughts.
You know, you know … the hardships that one has with oneself, with life. One tries, one is mistaken, one finds paths that lead nowhere. One takes steps that are not always the right ones and finds oneself again at a dead end…”

« Je suis encore toute émue de votre appel d’hier soir : j’étais un peu paralysée par la surprise, la distance, ce que vous représentez pour moi, et je n’ai pas pu trouver les mots que j’aurais voulu vers vous –
Je suis très touchée par l’attention que vous me portez, je sens si fort que cela vous importe que j’aille bien et que je me trouve un chemin, merci de ces pensées si chaleureuses.
Vous savez, vous savez … les difficultés que l’on a chacun avec soi-même, avec la vie. On essaie, on se fourvoie, on trouve des chemins qui ne mènent nulle part. On fait des pas qui ne sont pas toujours les justes et on se retrouve à nouveau dans ses impasses… »

—Gisèle Celan-Lestrange to Ingeborg Bachmann, Paris, 2 January 1973

There is nothing more. I could only imagine time coursing towards Ingeborg’s own death on 17 October of the same year.

Ingeborg Bachmann/Paul Celan, Herzzeit: Briefwechsel, Suhrkamp Verlag, 2008

Preview, Rear View

Best of 2014

Well yes, the tradition is to do this before the year is out, but I do a fair bit of reading between Christmas and New Year and it would be, of course, disingenuous to exclude what could have been included as one of the best books I read in 2014—and indeed, the book in question almost was.

It was the year of finally catching the Dante bug (after studying and just not really getting it at university), spending months reading the Purgatorio and Paradiso (Inferno was last year), reading around in Boethius, Augustine, the Vita Nuova, Cavalcanti, and wondering if the modern equivalent of Dante looking down on the world from Paradise would be the Pale Blue Dot photo that the Voyager mission took of Earth as it left the Solar System.

But it was also a year of reading wider and wider in Brazilian poetry from the colonial inconfidents, to modernists, concretists and marginal down to contemporary writers.

For 2015


Sneak Preview

Well, more Brazilians, more Central Europeans (after a fantastic online course by the UK Poetry School in final months of 2014), more British and Americans, re-readings and plenty of writers I’m sure I barely know exist right now. Right now, the pile by the bed includes Ingeborg Bachmann, William Gerhardie, Joan Margarit, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Toby Martínez de las Rivas, Tomasz Różycki, Eugeniusz Tkaczyszyn-Dycki and Louis Zukofsky.

And the best

So here is my list of what I read and re-read and loved in 2014: Read more of this post

The Old Mine of Rhyme

Rhyme is no longer, to be sure, universally despised as a kind of correctional institution for the English soul; it is more like an old mine, abandoned as unprofitable long ago and now remembered only by the nostalgic townsfolk and the odd curious visitor from abroad who wants to trace his family’s roots to their humble beginnings during a summer holiday. The ‘progressive’ critical community regards it as a sad anachronism blighting the landscape: willing as its members are to tolerate the occasional enthusiast, they are not about to welcome the conversion of this redundant enterprise into a going concern. Yet rhyme is not only the spirit of Pasternak, it is his letter.

Agree or not, it’s one of several striking images in the (polemical) introduction by Andrei Navrozov to his translation of Pasternak poems, Second Nature (Peter Owen Publishers, 1990).

One Map Can Hide Another: Marília Garcia’s “Engano geográfico”

I first visited the street where I now live a night arrived from Europe before flying off for the south of Brazil the next day. The streets I walked along that night opened in different ways to how I now know possible; traffic came channelled through what now are decades-old buildings. I still wonder if the real world can be twisted back to fix that memory in reality. Return journeys always create a palimpsest of memory: of the place you’ve just left, the place you’re returning to, the mirror image of the journey that you’re making.

As she sits on a train from Barcelona to Toulouse, perhaps fleeing the end of a relationship, the persona in Brazilian poet Marília Garcia’s book-length poem, Engano geográfico (probably best translated as Trick of Geography, literally Geographical Mistake—there isn’t a translation I could find, so this an any mistakes of translation are mine) thinks back on a journey to a Pyrenean village years (?) before. Thought and memory, things remembered and seen, multiple times and geographies swim effortlessly together, creating both an incredible richness to the text, but also an engrossing vagueness: the verse is unpunctuated and uncapitalized; thought and vision run into one another; there are very few personal pronouns (impossible in English, but I was often unsure if the traveller was she, he or you); memory repeats itself along the journey in echoes of lines or the banality of the train company’s jingle. This lack of fixity makes for a strangely impersonality, an intensely personal, and also incredibly beautiful poem: Read more of this post

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