sleeping soundly

Antonio Lizárraga (Reviews Journal)


Commentary on the work of Manuel Bandeira

Certain poets should not be remembered dead, but should be celebrated every day, because they are simply immortal and, therefore, it would be disrespectful to commemorate the absence of someone deeply present. This is the case of Manuel Bandeira.

Our culture leaves dead poets out in the open. It seems as if his works would have just said everything they had in potential, with his burial. Serious mistake. Critics and many laypeople have not yet exhausted the possible readings of Bandeira's work, so even more than 50 years after his death in Rio de Janeiro on October 13, 1968, he is still alive, eternal and infinite.

Only good poets understand immortality and therefore know how to convey to us that there is always life after the death of a great poet. An anonymous medieval author predicted: “Written words remain, spoken ones fly” (uerba uolant, scripta manent). Today I understand what the present tense of this maxim actually means, the sure permanence of what is well written, as opposed to the volatile discourses of narrow and restricted orality.

But why is writers and poets given such a privilege? Would it be us, mere mortals, perishable matter, incapable of understanding that good poetry does not die? The answer is certainly no. However, poets have always bet on it. They know that their craft, their art, will find a welcome in the soul, under the watchful eyes of good readers, regardless of the era. It is not in any other way that we still read Homer today or understand when Horace tells us “I have erected a monument more permanent than bronze” (exegi monumentum aere perenius), dealing with his first three books of odes. However, few can read poetry. Thus, few other than good poets understand that there is no direct relationship between the poet's death and the end of his poetry.

If that premise is true, we will continue to write tributes to the living dead until the end of time, trying to alert as many people as possible that there is life after the death of a great poet.

In 1977, more precisely on April 17 (Newspapers in Brazil), Carlos Drummond de Andrade – another immortal – managed to synthesize the work of Manuel Bandeira, not by writing a critical, deadly and limited text (if compared to the art of poetry), but by building a beautiful poem on his friend Manuel and his poetry. (“Manuel makes novent'anos”) along the lines of the one he was referring to, after all Bandeira was assiduous in his poetic tributes. Well, it is precisely talking about immortality that Drummond, much like Bandeira, begins his poem: “Hi, poet! / On the other side, in the thicket, huh? Making your nineties... / And laughing, I bet, at this nonsense of counting time, / Of pasting numbers on the seamless garment of time, the innumerable, / The void-filled, the infinite where beings and things / Are born, are reborn, they shuffle, exchange, / With intervals of greater sleep, which, without scientific precision, we call [death.(…)”.

In this way, death's lack of scientific precision is its complete non-existence for Drummond. Bandeira is just on the other side of a bush, laughing at us. Time for him is one of those silly things where numbers are glued to his unsewn garments. For Drummond, therefore, Bandeira only sleeps “deeply”.

This idea has always haunted the Recife poet. The poem “Deeply” from the book Licentiousness, for example, combines the theme of the distant memory of Recife with the closer memory of Rio, transfiguring time into something inert and worthless.

“Where are they all? / They are all sleeping / They are all lying down / Sleeping / Deep”.

The place of eternal sleep, or greater sleep, or truth referred to by Drummond, in turn, has ideal characteristics. Therefore, for poets this space, which we mortals, progressively decomposing matter, call death, is the ideal place for poetry. There all things are in themselves, are true, "ilatent" (alétheia, ἀλήθεια). It is not otherwise, therefore, that in Erebus (“Pasárgada”), a person with tuberculosis practices gymnastics, rides a bicycle, climbs a tallow stick, rides a wild donkey, etc. The unrealizable, the impossible (adynaton, ἀδύνατον) has space in eternity where time does not stop, is not broken up in our limited calendar and just flows in an infinite perenniality, the forever – the aei, ἀει, Greek that is also in the aetas latina. Everything is possible.

However, if poetry refers to the eternal (eternity, aeternitas) with lyrics and voices from hic and nunc (here and now), what will be the consistency of poetic practice in the world of eternal sleep? Drummond asks: “(…) Today the desire rises in me / to know what you do, how, / where: in what verb do you express yourself, if there is a verb? / in what form of poetry, if there is poetry, do you verse? / in what love do you wrap yourself, if there is love? / In which god do you settle, if there is a god? / What side, poet, is the other side, / Won't you tell me, in confidence? (…)”.

Drummond wants to deceive us by questioning about the other side of life, death, about how the dead communicate, how they write poetry and how they love each other. He knows that his friend's voice there is no different from his voice here on earth. Bandeira had already foreshadowed it when he proposed in “The Last Poem” that: “This is how I would want my last poem / That it be tender saying the simplest and least intentional things / That it be ardent like a sob without tears / That has the beauty of flowers almost without perfume / The purity of the flame in which the cleanest diamonds are consumed / The passion of suicides who kill themselves without explanation”.

The ideal form of poetry is a universal that serves any world, the living and the dead. The ideal form is simple, it is ardent, it is beautiful, it is fire. And, in this sense, a Camonian Platonism echoes in his modern verses, shaped and modeled in his free verses. More than that, Bandeira is capable of reaching the perfection of poetry, using different materials that range from the absolutely mundane, everyday and vulgar to the inaccessible sublime. From the simplicity of “Coffee with bread // Coffee with bread // Coffee with bread // Virge Maria who was that train driver?(…)” to the sublime complex delicacy of “When death closes my hard eyes // – Hard from so many vain sufferings, // What will your immature breasts think // Of my pain at all times?(…)”.

Regarding this ideal that permeates Bandeira's work, Gilda and Antonio Candido de Mello e Souza had already thought about the introduction to the volume Star of Life (Nova Fronteira), 1966: “The hand that traces the path of the little charcoal burners in the dust of the afternoon, or registers poor Misael’s movements through the neighborhoods of Rio, is the same one that describes the pirouettes of Mozart’s white horse entering the sky, or it evaporates the flesh of women into flowers and stars of a magical environment, though saturated with the passions of the earth. It is between these two poetic modes, or two poles of creation, runs as a unifier an I that unceasingly reveals itself when it shows life and the world, fusing the opposites as manifestations of its fundamental integrity”.

On the other hand, it is true that the modernist Bandeira stands out for his ability to express himself under the aegis of any aesthetic hue, thus the ideal is embodied in any means of expression. It is worth saying, however, that it was not Bandeira who found modernism, but, on the contrary, it was the modernists who found it – and Mário de Andrade is responsible for this. Its formal and thematic eclecticism touched them. Those who sought rupture found in him the renewing and overwhelming synthesis necessary for aesthetic fracture.

Thus, when we look at Bandeira, affiliated with a certain symbolism, whose exacerbated musicality strikes the eyes of more curious readers; to a romanticism, which he knew how to comment and translate so well; to a poetic radicalism in line with a certain more visceral aesthetic; to the formal experiments characteristic of concrete poetry, so far from his poetic formation, and to a psychoanalytical sexuality, which sends him to an impossibility of real and sensitive life, we can say that the ideal world advocated had materialized in form and content.

This diversity of Bandeira, which certainly leads to ideal universality, Drummond beautifully summarizes: “(…) Manuel chamber song, Manuel / room and alley song, / bed and mouth rhythm / of man and woman glued to the shiver / of the eternal transitory: you translated / for us the sadness of possessing and remembering, that of not possessing and remembering, / that of passing, a mixture of what was, what would be, simultaneously projected / on the same white screen of episodes / – in us, vague, blown in ashes, / in you, the intense breath of poetry.(…)”.

The “blend of what was, what would be, // simultaneously projected // on the same white screen of episodes” that Drummond talks about is precisely the fusion “of the two poles of creation” of Dona Gilda and Antonio Candido and what we refer to about the universal ideal to which diverse poetic conceptions converge and to which mundane and suprareal diversity, reconciled, react in the form of poetry, which is intensely lyrical, reaches everyone, sometimes through the humble simplicity of the discourse – as proposed by Arrigucci Jr. in Humility, passion and death (Companhia das Letras) –, sometimes because of the ontological complexity that escapes our comprehension.

In this way, the symbolism of Bandeira, easily observable in Gray of Hours (his inaugural book – 1917), is born from a poetry subject to an extremely accurate technique that does not aim at the external effect, does not address so much the feeling, the heart, as the less explored regions of the soul, as Sérgio Buarque had already warned (“ Manuel Bandeira” in The Spirit and the Letter, I). This is how he states in “Versos Escritos N'Água”: “The few verses that go there, / I put them in place of others. / You who read me, I leave it to your dream / To imagine how they will be”.

Indelibly linked to this tradition, Bandeira states in Pasargada itinerary: “I understood, even before I met Mallarmé, that in literature, poetry is in the words, it is made with words and not with ideas and feelings, although, of course, it is due to the strength of the feeling or the tension of the spirit that come to the poet the combinations of words where there is a load of poetry”.

Likewise, German romantic poetry is topical in its poetry. His stay in Europe before the First World War made possible a more direct contact with the German, and thus he was able to get to know the full force of Goethe, Hölderlin, Schiller and many others. However, his affinity for modern poetry really is his most significant point. He builds for himself a poetics that feeds on tradition and the canon and swallows and absorbs them to produce a reorganizing effect on his work and, consequently, on others that will come to be, or rather, on modern poetry itself. His previous contact with foreign forms of expression enabled him to severely criticize them. Mario de Andrade (in Aspects of Brazilian Literature) so speaks of Licentiousness, in which his modern maturity hits us overwhelmingly: “Debauchery is a book of crystallization. Not the poetry of Manuel Bandeira, as this book confirms the greatness of one of our greatest poets, but his psychology. It is the most individual book Manuel Bandeira has ever published. Furthermore, he never reached his static ideals so clearly as in the confession of today”.

Mário would refer to the poem “Poética”, perhaps one of the greatest aesthetic instruments composed by Brazilian modernism, anthological in each of its verses. This poem reflects the ideals of an entire generation of poets. Its last verse is a beautiful hyperbole that restricts and, at the same time, universalizes modern poetic production: “- I don’t want to know more about lyricism that is not liberation.” At the same time that he determines a reduction, by denying lyricism, he proposes its ideal universalization, which is liberation.

Such proposed dialectical movement can be observed, for example, in the couplet “Poema do Beco” from 1933: “What does the landscape, the glory, the bay, the horizon line matter? / What I see is the alley”.

Or in “Última Canção do Beco”: “Alley that I sang in a couplet / Full of mental ellipses, / Alley of my sadness, / Of my perplexities (...) / Alley that you were born in the shadow / Of convent walls, (...) / Goodbye never again!”

The alley so present in his work corresponds to a limited physical universe that opposes the universality of the world. However, this physical limitation is worked on in order to be universally transposed and reassessed in lyrical modulation, erupting in liberation. Thus, Bandeira's ideal universe, which seems to be restricted by an apparent simplicity, by the smallness of the world considered, becomes the unifying motto of universal expectations. And it is precisely these apparently simple universal expectations of his poems that convert him, Bandeira, into a poet of immortality.

* Paulo Martins Professor of Classical Letters at USP and author of Roman elegy: construction and effect (Humanites).


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