A long-overdue bilingual edition of João Cabral de Melo Neto’s poetry has just been published by Archipelago Books, a young literary press based in New York. Winner of many international prizes, Cabral first became known to English-language readers via a group of translations edited by Elizabeth Bishop in the classic An Anthology of Twentieth-Century Brazilian Poetry (1972). This new volume, exquisitely crafted by Richard Zenith, is a fine heir to that tradition, continuing the efforts of the now out-of-print Selected Poetry, 1937-1990, edited by Djelal Kadir (1994).
Jo“o Cabral de Melo Neto, one of the most influential Brazilian poets of the twentieth century, was born in Recife in 1920 and died in Rio, where he had resided the last years of his life, in 1999. Despite having spent decades abroad as a diplomat, his poems remain firmly rooted in the arid landscapes of the northeastern backlands and the hard life of its inhabitants, a “hardness” also present in the precise assembly of his compositions.
In an unusual and masterly way, Cabral’s poetry thus blends two things that often appear unrelated: social concerns and formal innovation. Evincing an equally unlikely marriage of influences, Cabral’s deceptively simple, lapidary poetics invokes both the universe of literatura de cordel (popular northeastern ballads sung by itinerant musicians) and the lessons of high modernist architecture as exemplified by LeCorbusier, one of the poet’s long-time models. Instead of a poetics of “expression,” Cabral’s texts seem to enact both what Ezra Pound called “a direct presentation of the thing” and what Haroldo de Campos termed a “geometry of commitment,” where neither form nor content dominate, but rather fuse into an organic whole. In this hard-edged yet moving poetry, one acquires from the stone lessons in morals (“its cold resistance”), in poetics (“its concrete flesh”), and in economics (“its compact weight”), but never actively, for this reluctant instructor “is a stone from birth, penetrating the soul.”
In a conscious choice that excludes very early and very late work, Zenith gathers pieces from the 1950s through the 1980s (in his estimation, Cabral’s strongest period), paying particular attention to the landmark volume EducaÁ“o pela pedra (1966), which also lends its title to the selection. Education by Stone includes poems Zenith had previously published but in a revision that corrects slight inaccuracies and clarifies what seemed a hesitating line or stanza. Overall, the choice of poems is a generous, personal introduction to Cabral, and, where the previous edition had included only excerpts of longer poems, Zenith has gone for the full text, as is the case of the book-length poem The Dog without Feathers, an allegory of the Capibaribe River in Pernambuco. Other important poems collected here for the first time in English include Cabral’s “Antiode” and “The Engineer,” which can be read as his anti-lyrical and constructivist ars poetica.
The selection also features poems from the A Escola das facas (The School of Knives), translated here for the first time. Nota¨bly absent, however, is Cabral’s most popular long poem, Morte e vida severina (a section of which was translated by Bishop as The Death and Life of a Severino), a dramatic piece influenced by the vernacular that recounts the trials and tribulations of impoverished retirantes (migrant sugar-cane workers).
The collection, then, presents a slight preference for the lyrical poem, instead of Cabral’s more narrative/dramatic texts. Zenith’s excellent translations, however, do not overlyricize, and, in comparison to versions by other translators, seem intent on making Cabral’s Brazilian modernity speak the current North American poetic idiom. Also, in contrast to earlier versions, Zenith has opted for the colloquial, eschewing Latin cognates and closely following Cabral’s reticent style. The volume also includes an informative and well-written afterword, as well as discreet factual notes to selected poems. A very timely pub¨lication and a handsome edition, Education by Stone stands as a fitting posthumous homage not only to one of Brazil’s but to one of the world’s most original poets of the last century.