Friday, May 4, 2012

In Translation: Carlos Drummond de Andrade

A recent obituary for Antonio Tabucchi noted that, in addition to being a writer of fiction, a political activist, and an academic with a strong focus on modern literature in Portuguese, especially Fernando Pessoa, Tabucchi also specialized in the poetry of Brazil’s most renowned 20th century poet, Carlos Drummond de Andrade. I’m half ashamed that I’d never heard of him.

I say “half ashamed” as the fault lies not simply in the inadequate scope of my curiosity, but also in the scarcity of English translations of Drummond’s work. Drummond is a grand figure in Brazilian literature. His poems are widely recognized, anthologized and recited; one even appears on a bill of the nation’s currency. Yet a mere handful of short collections have appeared in English, all now out of print. This makes for a rather astonishing state of affairs for a poet of Drummond’s stature: imagine not being able to read Pablo Neruda in English, or reading only Spanish and being unable to find Walt Whitman in translation.

Prompted by the Tabucchi obituary, I dug into one of these books - In the Middle of the Road, translated by John Nist – with an exponentially growing excitement and an almost proprietary sense of discovering a writer who appealed to me so directly as to merit inclusion in the selective personal pantheon of writers for whom I feel the greatest enthusiasm. Here was the kind of poet who – in his resonant, concrete clarity, deep humor, and profound appreciation of life’s knife-edge proximity to death – threw into sharp relief the inadequacies of so much other poetry. I followed Nist’s book with The Minus Sign (translator Virginia de Araujo) and Traveling in the Family (various translators). These three volumes together offer a terrific introduction to Drummond, as well as – given their overlapping selections – the opportunity to examine, side-by-side, different approaches to translating him. But the difficulty of finding these books and the limited number of poems they contain – altogether about 100 accounting for overlap, compared to over 200 in a single French pocket edition I found - underscore the dire need for an expanded collection of this tremendous poet’s work to be published for English readers. I’m talking to you, publishers!

The three volumes exhibit remarkably complementary strengths and weaknesses. Only In the Middle of the Road provides the original Portuguese, with translations on facing pages. Drummond’s clear simplicity of expression makes turning to the originals - if for no other reason than to get a sense of the sound and rhythm of his work - rewarding to anyone with even a wisp of a background in a Romance language. De Araujo notes that Nist’s translations are often overly literal, and while in certain instances I preferred them to others, they displayed occasionally wince-inducing missteps (most notably in the translation of a proper name, “Raimundo,” used to rhyme with “mundo” [world], for which Nist’s baffling, expedient solution is "Twirled"). The organizing principle behind Nist’s selections is also unclear and frustrating in its lack of dates for the poems. Traveling in the Family remedies this problem with a chronologically-arranged selection of about 45 poems, translated by Thomas Colchie, Mark Strand, Gregory Rabassa and Elizabeth Bishop - the last widely credited with bringing Drummond to the attention of admiring Anglophone poets (with whom Anglophone familiarity with Drummond has largely, alas, appeared to settle).  Finally, Virginia de Araujo’s solo translation effort, The Minus Sign, offers some 55 poems organized thematically: The Individual, Land and Family, and Being-In-The-World. De Araujo also offers a majestic introductory bio-sketch of Drummond’s remarkable life (plus, as an added bonus, a defense of her translation method that could stand alone as an unusually conscientious argument for the serious responsibilities of the translator). This beautifully written introduction outlines Drummond’s aristocratic origins in the hilly mining and agricultural country of Minas Gerais and the way in which the close friendships of his youth – with many who would later become influential Brazilian politicians – trumped to a large extent any ill feeling regarding his rejection of privilege in favor of a strongly left-leaning, humanistic political activism. Thus, despite an embrace of communism, Drummond remained a respected civil servant in Rio de Janeiro, holding for most of his life a position in charge of preservation of the country’s historical monuments.

One poem included in all three books - “In the Middle of the Road” - is arguably Drummond’s most famous – and uncharacteristic. Here is de Araujo’s translation:

In the Middle of the Road

In the middle of the road there was a stone
there was a stone in the middle of the road
there was a stone
in the middle of the road there was a stone.

I will never forget the occasion
never as long as my tired eyes stay open,
I will never forget that in the middle of the road
there was a stone
there was a stone in the middle of the road
in the middle of the road there was a stone.

This short, curious poem encapsulates many of Drummond's signature elements: humor and liveliness; complexity in simplicity; universality; the abrupt sense of the immediacy of events; the grounding (literal in this case) of his subject in the concrete and tangible; the notion of the inevitability of obstacles in life; the harmonious melding of form with function (in this case, experimentation with form as a means of approaching and evading obstacles).

For skeptical readers, I’ll quickly note that the poem is perhaps the most obscure in these collections. By contrast, most of Drummond’s work, though no less intriguing,  is eminently accessible: intimately personable, warmly conversational and clear. He writes about subjects immediately familiar (at a slant), exploring unexpected niches of life one nonetheless recognizes as having been in front of one’s face all along:  the essential weirdness of family photographs; the losses that occur with maturity; the mixture of joy and regret in discovering love in middle age; the curiously potent nostalgia in seeing a grand hotel being demolished; the everyman qualities of Charlie Chaplin; even a poem about the complicated psychological concern for one’s appearance that dental work can produce. His range is formidable, from brief poems that indulge in almost childlike, whimsical word-play, to lush, erotic love poems, to poems with a deep resonance on sober subjects, for example a mother fretting over a disappeared daughter (“Forget politics for a moment/set aside materialistic concerns/and devote some time to searching,/making inquiries, nosing around./You won’t regret it. There’s no/satisfaction greater than the smile/of a joyous mother”), or a man heading to his death in a plane crash - a stunning poem told as though time has been twisted to simultaneously show both the man's awareness and unawareness of what’s to come (“I eat a fish in a sauce/of gold and cream./It is my last fish on my last/fork.”). 

Mortality and its companions, time and aging, appear throughout Drummond’s work. Particularly striking for a modern poet, Drummond appears to assume the inevitability of human extinction, though with a fierce defense of the importance of reveling in life despite our species’ poor odds. What appears to be an implicit pessimism may actually be (to use a phrase from Sartre) “the sternness of our optimism,” as these are hardly what one would think of as apocalyptic, grim or morose poems. They exalt and extol life, rage against the dying of the light, sometimes on a global scale, embracing the “the sun of the short day in which we fight.” There’s a tender ferocity in Drummond, a deep appreciation of the limited time we have on earth fused with a pointed sense of justice and a deliberately humanistic, generalisable quality. When he writes of love, it is both particular and partaking of a wider, agape-like love of humanity. Also, in defiantly setting himself against death, Drummond can be funny and moving in equal measure.

One example of this is the poem “The Table,” an extended fantasy on a family holiday feast at which Drummond’s deceased father – and the family’s other ghosts – are present along with the living. It’s a clever idea brimming with humor (“you’d feel replete, pleased/to have such sons…Man!/What crooks! But [you’d say]/they did turn out better/than they looked”), but also flickering with deeply felt grief and love. At one point in the poem, Drummond invites his father to look at a girl we assume to be Drummond’s daughter:

take a close look at this
little girl: chin, eyes, hands,
and into her private conscience,
and into her young grace,
and say, after that look,
if she isn’t – in my tide of error –
an island of surprise.
She is my explication,
my best, my most quiet stanza,
my all, who fills the vacuum.

“My most quiet stanza” echoes a philosophical underpinning of Drummond’s poetry – that poetry is both essential and inadequate to life, a kind of meager scratching to get at truth. Poetry itself is a frequent, reflexive subject of Drummond’s poems, which plead both in form and content for conscientiousness in writing and humility in recognizing poetry as a tool for the grand task of living.  Seldom does one find a poet who breathes so much life into words, makes of them such living entities, offers such buoyant support for why poetry and literature matter to us.

Come close and consider the words.
With a plain face hiding thousands of other faces
and with no interest in your response,
whether weak or strong,
each word asks:
Did you bring the key?

Take note:
Words hide in the night
in caves of music and image.
Still humid and pregnant with sleep
they turn in a winding river and by neglect are transformed.

Amid poets who believe so strongly in the power of the written word, it’s immensely refreshing to find one who so humbly recognizes that poetry can only get us closer to life, that (in the poem from which de Araujo’s book takes its title) “the best poetry is/a minus sign.” In the pantheon of great modern poets, however, what Drummond deserves is addition, particularly for those readers of English like me who until now have been unfamiliar with his marvelous work. Discovering him in the middle of my own road has been an occasion I will never forget. 


  1. His poetry is very accessible. I consulted my copy of The Ecco Anthology of International Poetry, and sure enough, there was Drummond de Andrade, represented by 6 poems. I like his version of Ecclesiastes in "Your Shoulders Hold Up the World".

    1. I have his poetry in three volumes, I've read two so far. I'm not crazy about the man, but I like several of his poems. His poetry is indeed very accessible, and often humourous and self-deprecating.

  2. Drummond de Andrade was someone I missed in this round - I stayed over on the Portuguese path. Someday. Very interesting to read about his poems.

  3. Rise - I'm glad to hear that Drummond gets some space in an international poetry anthology - for my money, he richly deserves it.

    Miguel - I'm aware that Drummond's work is readily available in Portuguese, but I'm also oblivious as to how he's viewed in the Lusophone world by contemporary poets/writers/critics. Your not being "crazy about the man" intrigues me - not that I'd expect everyone to share my neophyte's enthusiasm, but I'd be curious to know what dampens your enthusiasm.

    Amateur Reader - Can we expect a Wuthering Expectations Brazilian Literature Challenge in the not-too-distant future?

    1. Nothing too concrete, really. Just a sense of exhaustion. I think he repeats the same idea too often and after a while it gets tiresome. When he's melancholy funny, though, he's very good.

    2. Thanks. I can see that. I began to wonder if perhaps one reason for the limited number of his poems in translation and the fact that 6 translators chose so many of the same poems to translate might reflect a limited number of poems of very high quality (selected from what I understand was a fairly prodigious output). I was surprised, however, that I managed the three whole books without wearying of him. There may well be a side to him - perhaps as suggested in a few of his more vague poems - that conflicts with the image of the genial public persona I've formed from what little I know of Drummond. In any case, I hope to read more.

    3. Well, I think we can agree that all poets have a very small body of really brilliant poems - except, you know, Fernando Pessoa ;) - and all the others are just rather good, if not spectacular, poems. I mean, I don't expect Szymborska and Heaney to awe me with every poem. Do keep reading Drummond, I wouldn't wish to be responsible for putting someone off him.

  4. Eh, this was my Brazilian Challenge, even if Machado de Assis absorbed almost all of the Brazilian energy. 18 Machado posts is not so bad, though.

    1. They may deserve their own challenge: they have a spectacular body of literature.

    2. Somewhat less spectacular, though, when restricted by my fussy Challenge rules (e.g., 19th century Brazilian lit).

    3. I was just trying to drive you mad :).

    4. Well, just by a few years then you've missed reading one of the greatest works of non-fiction ever written, Euclides da Cunha's Backlands: The Canudos Campaign (1902). Reading it back to back with Vargas Llosa's The War of the End of the World is amazing!

    5. Well, the Challenge extended to 1919 and I mentioned Euclides as a possibility in my reading lists. No one took me up on it. So blame my readers. That's what I usually do. Dang readers.

    6. And then on top of it all, your readers go off and read things that weren't even on your lists and then blame you for it.

  5. he was new to me when mention in the obit ,I ve only ever read brazilian fiction myself ,all the best stu