certain art

Wassily Kandisnky, Russian Beauty, 1905.


Commentary on Elizabeth Bishop's Poem

I saw a few years ago, when I was still living in Shanghai, the movie Rare flowers, directed by Bruno Barreto, with Glória Pires. How good it was to see a great Brazilian film being so far from our beloved country! The film is the story of the troubled romance between the landscaper and urban planner, Lotta Macedo Soares, one of those responsible for planning the Aterro and Parque do Flamengo, and the North American poet Elizabeth Bishop.

Talking recently with my mother, I remembered the film and the poem that framed the film, a beautiful, beautiful poem by Elizabeth called “oneart” (“A certain art”). And I decided to reread the poem and watch the movie.

This time I liked it even more than the first. Bruno Barreto shows several beautiful things – the wonderful Rio de Janeiro of the 1950s, for example – but the most beautiful is the way he opens the film with this poem, still incomplete and embryonic, and ends with it, finished and moving. It is understood that Elizabeth could only complete the poem, which deals with the art of losing, after having experienced and suffered loss – the catastrophic loss of a loved one.

The poem is this:

one art

The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
Lose some things everyday. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.
Then practice losing faster, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.
I lost my mother's watch. And look! My last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.
— Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master
although it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

My gentle reader is under no obligation to know English. Thus, I translate, sacrificing, however, the rhyme:

certain art

The art of losing isn't hard to learn;
so many things seem full of intent
of being lost that their loss is no disaster.
Lose something every day. accept the rush
of lost keys, time misused.
The art of losing is not difficult to learn.
So practice losing deeper, losing faster:
places, and names, and where you wanted to travel.
The art of losing is not difficult to learn.
I lost my mother's wristwatch. And look! my last,
or penultimate, of three beloved houses, is gone.
The art of losing is not difficult to learn.
I lost two cities, beautiful ones. And, even more,
reigns he had, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.
— Even losing you (the cheerful voice, a gesture
that I love) I will not have lied. it goes without saying
the art of losing is not that hard to learn
although it seems (Write!) a disaster.

Poetry is, by definition, what heroically and obstinately resists translation. Losing the rhyme, the musicality of the rhyme, is an irreparable loss, I know. There are those who question whether it is worth translating like this. I found some translations of the poem on the internet, which try to recreate the rhymes in Portuguese, but they are disastrous. Better not to have tried to recreate them. I think I managed to preserve, at least, the rhythm and the sense.

Bishop's poem is a little masterpiece, isn't it? The power of words! His ability to evoke suffering, to stylize it and thus make it a little more bearable! The language is simple, like a conversation. But it builds to a crescendo, and we gradually realize that the art of losing, contrary to what is insistently proclaimed, in a repeated refrain at each verse, it's not easy to learn.

Losses at the beginning are small, trivial, “keys”, “the wasted time”. Then “places”, “names”, and “where you wanted to travel”. But here comes the reference to the mother, and the beloved houses, which heighten the emotional intensity. Then the amplitude increases: the loss is of entire cities, kingdoms, continents – to culminate in the loss of a loved one.

Notice, reader, that in the last verse, the almost imperceptible insertion of the word “so” in the middle of the chorus – “the art of losing is not difficult to learn” becomes “it is not So difficult to learn” – prepares the final moment, of impact, which reveals all the insincerity – even though maintaining, now without conviction, the insincere denial – “although it seems (Write!) a disaster".

At a time when national culture is under intense and violent attack on all fronts, with this chronicle I pay my small tribute to Brazilian filmmaker Bruno Barreto, who knew how to frame and recreate, with exceptional sensitivity, Elizabeth Bishop's beautiful poem. This is, after all, one of the great contributions, among many, that cinema can make – opening doors, wide and wide, to other arts, poetry, literature, painting, music – making them known and loved for whom he might not even meet them one day.

Richard Wagner spoke, in the XNUMXth century, of his dramatic opera as Total artwork, as the “total art”, which would bring together all the arts. But the twentieth century would show that cinema, more than any other, is the true total art.

*Paulo Nogueira Batista Jr. he holds the Celso Furtado Chair at the College of High Studies at UFRJ. He was vice-president of the New Development Bank, established by the BRICS in Shanghai. Author, among other books, of Brazil doesn't fit in anyone's backyard: backstage of the life of a Brazilian economist in the IMF and the BRICS and other texts on nationalism and our mongrel complex (LeYa)

Extended version of article published in the journal Capital letter, on August 20, 2021.


See this link for all articles