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Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Multitudinous Heart: Selected Poems by Carlos Drummond de Andrade

In his home country of Brazil, Carlos Drummond de Andrade was considered a great poet in his own lifetime (1902-1987) with his poems going beyond borders, thanks first to John Nist then such well-known American poets as Elizabeth Bishop and, later, Mark Strand, who translated his work from Portuguese into English. Now, Richard Zenith has translated poems in a new bilingual edition Multitudinous Heart, published by Farrar Straus Giroux, who kindly sent me a copy to review for which I’m grateful. Without this highly recommended book, I might never have discovered a new-for-me poet whose work I look forward to experiencing and reading again.

Zenith’s Introduction presents a brief biography of this fascinating poet, who, as a child of 10 or so, begged his father for a 24-volume set of Western literature to study, “beginning with Homer, as well as many selections from nineteenth-century British and American authors now more or less forgotten. This hodgepodge of poetry, essays, fiction, and theater became the literary foundation for the little boy,” whose readings as an adult “would continue to be a mixed bag of irreproachable classics and recent literature of uneven quality.”

Reading those words from the Introduction made me wonder if a poet’s academic study of literature today has been impoverished by a lack of poorly written poems and stories! Conversely, a self-taught poet, such as Carlos who initiated his own studies at an early age, might be apt to come up with an eclectic mix of writings, whose inconsistencies could help a poet discern the characteristics of well-written works on one hand and provide a list of “Things Not To Do” on the other.

No doubt Carlos’ background as a lifelong lover of literature and his adult employment as a government bureaucrat helped to shape his view of himself and the world as revealed, for example, in the opening piece entitled “Seven-Sided Poem.”

“When I was born, one of those twisted
angels who live in the shadows said:
‘Carlos, get ready to be a misfit in life!’”

The poem “Elegy 1938” gives us another glimpse of that ongoing push-pull between a literary life and the everydayness of the working world, beginning with “You work without joy for a worn-out world/ whose forms and actions set no example.”

Then midway in the poem, these sad but insightful lines appear:

“You love the night for its power to annihilate
and you know, when you sleep, the problems stop requiring you to die.
But you fatally wake up to the Great Machine existing,
and once more you stand, minuscule, next to inscrutable palms.

“You walk among dead people and with them you talk
about things of the future and matters of the spirit.
Literature has ruined your best hours of love.”

The intrusion of literary arts goes “Hand In Hand” with the resolutions put forth in these lines:

“I won’t be the singer of some woman, some tale.
I won’t evoke the sighs at dusk, the scene outside the window.
I won’t distribute drugs or suicide letters.
I won’t flee to the islands or be carried off by seraphim.
Time is my matter, present time, present people,
the present life.”

That life spent “In Search Of Poetry” finds what works in poems and what does not. For example:

“Don’t write poems about what happened.
Birth and death don’t exist for poetry.”

Also, “In Search Of Poetry”

“Don’t sing about your city, leave it in peace.
Poetry’s song is not the clacking of machines or the secrets of houses.
It’s not music heard in passing, nor the rumble of ocean on streets
near the breaking foam.
Its song is not nature
or humans in society.
Rain and night, fatigue and hope, mean nothing to it.
Poetry (don’t extract poetry from things)
elides subject and object.”

Despite the negatives "In Search Of Poetry," the poem "I'm Making A Song" acknowledges that...

“My life, our lives,
form a single diamond.
I’ve learned new words
and made others more beautiful.”

The title poem “Multitudinous Heart” also reflects the connections poetry brings to us through other people or places, for instance, where

“The sea was beating in my chest, no longer against the wharf.
The street ended, where did the trees go? the city is me
the city is me
I am the city
my love.”

Connecting the self with the city hints at the “Truth” found in the poem by that name:

“The door of truth was open
but would only let in half
a person at a time.

And so it wasn’t possible to have the whole truth,
since the half person who entered
returned with the picture of a half truth.
And the person’s other half
likewise brought back a half picture.
And the two halves didn’t line up.”

We need our full selves and one another to see a whole truth, which, like any subject for poetry, often eludes us. Therefore, “Truth” tells:

“.... And so each person chose
according to his whim, his illusion, his myopia.”

The truth in that statement gives us a subtle truth about poetry in general as we search for ways to encounter new experiences through the written word while connecting our own experiences with ones richly provided in insightful poems such as these.

©2015, Mary Harwell Sayler, writer and reviewer, has 3 books of poems in print: Living in the Nature Poem published by Hiraeth Press and Beach Songs & Wood Chimes (for children) and Outside Eden, published by Kelsay Books.

Multitudinous Heart: Selected Poems, hardcover

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