“Sometimes the night closes in around me like a small room without a door.”

I must have heard of Bruno Schulz (1892-1941) before this year. I probably had while reading secondary literature for my university dissertation on Kafka; I definitely had listening to this BBC documentary about the history of Jewish life in Poland by the writer Eva Hoffman.

But it was this year that I kept coming across his name: referenced in Tomasz Różycki’s sonnet sequence Colonies; in this interview with David Grossman where the conversation turns to See Under: Love and Bruno Schulz’s resurrection after being murdered on the street by a Gestapo officer; in this radio essay on Kafka by Margaret Atwood that—by incredible coincidence—I listened to the same night as a discussion at the Goethe-Institut on a book by Martin Walser about the Yiddish writer Sholem Yankev Abramovich; in the new Brazilian edition of complete fictions of Schulz that I saw on a friend’s bookcase.

If it was the sheer anonymity of his name and the fleeting references that had made me forget him before, in 2015 it was impossible and now—after reading his incredible prose that conjures up something like a disembodied synaesthesia where all the sense are mixed up—doubly so.

Here is a paragraph from The Street of Crocodiles and Other Stories (Penguin) translated from the Polish by Celina Wieniewska:

A night in July! The secret fluid of dusk, the living, watchful, and mobile matter of darkness, ceaselessly shaping something out of chaos and immediately rejecting every shape. Black timber out of which caves, vaults, nooks, and niches along the path of a sleepy wanderer are constructed. Like an insistent talker, the night accompanies a lonely pilgrim, shutting him within the circle of its apparitions, indefatigable in invention and in fantasies, evoking for him starry distances, white Milky Ways, the labyrinths of successive Colosseums and Forums. The night air, that black Proteus playfully forming velvety densities streaked with the scent of jasmine, cascades of ozone, sudden airless wastes rising like black globes into the infinite, monstrous grapes of darkness flowing with dark juice! I elbow my way along these tight passages, I lower my head to pass under arches and low vaults, and suddenly the ceiling breaks open with a starry sight, a wide cupola slides away for a moment, and I am led again between narrow walls and passages. In these airless bays, in these nooks of darkness, scraps of conversation left by nightly wanderers hang in the air, fragments of inscriptions stick to posters, lost bars of laughter are heard, and skeins of whispers undispersed by the breeze of night unfold. Sometimes the night closes in around me like a small room without a door. I am overcome by drowsiness and cannot make out whether my legs are still carrying me forward or whether I am already at rest in that small chamber of the night. But then I feel again a velvety hot kiss left floating in space by some scented lips, some shutters open, I take a long step across a windowsill and continue to wander under the parabolas of falling stars.

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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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