José Almino Alencar, poet

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Preface to an unpublished book by the writer from Pernambuco

By Maria Rita Kehl*

I was lucky enough to meet José Almino when the writer was asked to help us with research by the National Truth Commission, in 2013. Until then, I had not had contact with his poetry. I read, enchanted, the poems of the cold star, (Companhia das Letras, 2010). They reminded me of Francisco Alvim's economy of metaphors – but where Alvim's minimalism is predominantly ironic, Almino's does not lose its tenderness. As in this short poem, which gives the book its name:

From afar / childhood burns: / it is the light of a cold star.

After learning about my enchantment with the poems, Almino introduced me to his chronicles (the engine of light, Editora 34, 1994), also excellent. With the same precision, the same economy of metaphors and adjectives and with the same tender look, the poet composes portraits of popular Recife types, many of them frequenters of the family home. I have in my hands now, Armored and baked into the skin, verses from your recent batch

The expression that comes to mind when thinking about Zé Almino's poetry is pedestrian. The adjective does not designate banal poetry; it's quite the opposite of that. It's just that the poet's gaze encompasses – without losing tenderness – what is happening on the sidewalks and streets of Recife. However, the reader should not expect little from his verses. What “raises” here is not the tone: it is the author's sympathy for everyone, for anyone, for the most common types of his native Recife. But how does he manage to combine so well the tenderness and detachment required by good poetry?

Saying about its ironic footprint does not clarify much: irony has marked modern poetry at least since Baudelaire. But in this poet, irony does not come to reveal the poet's critical distance from his object and promote the same affective disposition in the reader. Or at least, it doesn't just serve that purpose. It seems to me that the use of irony, in José Almino, comes to temper the vast tenderness that bathes his poetic voice:

And the gentleness of fraternal presence/ and the consolation of the afflicted/ The hollow of the world.

As in the previous book, several poems in this current one also describe Pernambuco characters from the last century. I mean: twenty. They are popular types with which the poet lived since childhood in Recife, at the time a progressive city with inevitably provincial traits. Some of these characters lived, or attended, in the family home itself; others arrived at the gate seeking help from their father, Governor Miguel Arraes, later impeached and exiled by the dictatorship – the whole family moved to Algeria, which after the war of independence against France went through a progressive period.

In brief lines, like caricatures, the poet conveys to us the essential traits of the characters who inspire his poetry: in this one, the false blasé air hides sadness; in the other, one notices the meek way of walking. A sentence by the poet addressed to the reader sums up Doctor Nazareno: “A mulatto in a white suit and a maroon tie”. Back in the twentieth century, would a well-dressed mulatto be considered perverse? Nazareno is a doctor. He is bovarist. But the first word with which the poet defines him, with the intention of shaking the reader, is mulatto. As for the use of the term “bovarism”, I would say that it sums up Brazilian melancholy: failed pretensions, semblances adopted by a poor guy, (like any Brazilian with a slipper, any poor devil like us), in the illusion of – like Flaubert's Emma – “becoming someone else”.

However, the resource – Almino's trademark since the previous book – of inserting in the middle of his poems excerpts from canonical poets of the best stock of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, is not, as it might seem, bovarist. I think that, quite the contrary, they indicate that the author abdicates any claim to absolute, narcissistic authorship of his poems. Without taking off your hat, without “excuse me, white[I]”, José Almino gently demands from the reader the recognition that his poetry sails in the great ocean where Baudelaire, Rilke, Valéry, TSEliot, Emilly Dickinson, as well as his countrymen Joaquim Cardoso, Manuel Bandeira and João Cabral sailed.

And notice how this subtle man from Pernambuco, “moved like hell[ii]” with the condition of the people around him, he is at ease in that pantheon! He introduces us to the erudite environment of his best literary friends and then disengages the reader:

…that I clung to in childhood/ that I clung to in hope… then, against the grain:  that I grabbed the tambourine.

On the tambourine: people’s resource, our only rhythmic instrument – ​​the engine of carnival. Which any slippered foot can grab in exchange for a few pennies of joy.

The enormous sympathy for the popular types of his land should not be a reason for the reader of this poetry to install himself in the comfort of easy emotions. José Almino walks on a razor's edge. He knows how to be moved – and to be moved by us – without any self-complacency.

At a certain point, the reader is faced with a cutting reference to João Pedro Teixeira, “a goat marked for death” whose tragedy was recorded in Eduardo Coutinho’s film, which began in 1964 and ended only after redemocratization, in 1984.

The goat marked for death/died/alone. // That was it/ That was it/ That's it.

Poems like these two quoted above illuminate - by candlelight, not by neon – the enigmatic title of this Armored and cooked inside the skin. Title that quotes a line from the third poem, “Nothing at all”:

Armored and sewn inside the skin / in a needle and firm thread, a blind knot / a thud in the water / that no one hears / or ever heard / nor will hear.

Is this verse an allusion to Brazilian melancholy, the one that returns every now and then over all carnivals and, also, with all that fury that alternates with our “euphoria for the English to see”? It will be the poet, as Drummond also declares[iii], a resentful? Rhetorical question: I am convinced that it is not. A pickup, perhaps. Little used to the spotlight. “Because the glory”, as Sinhô would have said to the young Mário Reis[iv] – “it is in a tremendously bad taste”.

In this respect, I must point out that the poet does inscribe himself as the descendants of the slaves who invented samba. As well as the melancholic Drummond. And like Goeldi. Like Clementina and so many other Brazilians (I quote at random) who escaped the tackiness of claiming glory. Declared smartness:

I'm beast[v],?/but not so much.

*Maria Rita Kehl, a psychoanalyst, is the author, among other books, of Resentment (Psychologist's House)

Notes


[I] As in the verse of the poem Irene, of another countryman of José Almino: Manuel Bandeira.

[ii] Drummond's Verse Seven-faced poem.

[iii] “That the poet is resentful and the rest are clouds”, CDA

[iv] See the film “Mandarim” by Ronaldo Bressane, 1988.

[v] “The Meek Despondency,” p. 16.

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