Cross out this word

Breon O'Casey, Music, 1997
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By JOSÉ FERES SABINO*

Comment on the book by Ana Martins Marques

1.

Before the first reading, stuck in front of the title – Cross out this word – the book by Ana Martins Marques invited me to unravel a childhood scene: two boys, still in their alphabetic gestation, playing in their father's library doodling in books – those that were within reach. They draw over the words, put scribbles on the white pages and rub their drawing-words with the words and illustrations.

2.

Almost simultaneously with the childhood scene, the verses of the poem “Título” – from his previous book – also appeared. The book of similarities:

Suspended
about the book
like a chandelier
in a theater

 and those that João Cabral de Melo Neto did to the mosque in Fez:

You have to enter it, because only from the inside
whole reveals itself
this architecture that exists
only on the inner side.

pushing me into the book.

Upon reaching the final part “Stop Smoking”, in which the poems at the same time dispose of the cigarette and celebrate the gesture of lighting it – a tribute to fire, a technique that a titan stole from the gods and donated to humans, inaugurating the human race on Earth –, it occurred to me to think that the verb “scratch” carries, in the book, in addition to the meaning of scratching, tracing, scribbling, erasing, also that of striking a match. Strike a match, strike out words, rub them, light them.[I]

And if poetry, as she says, taking up João Cabral de Melo Neto, is a laboratory of language, where its other uses (novels, stories, essays, dialogues) are experimented and manufactured, I began my re-reading with the motto that the word is a match that lights up the place where things and humans happen.[ii]

The two meanings of the verb “to scratch” – to erase and to light – delimit the poetic space. To draw it, however, Ana Martins Marques relied solely on the words “that we use every day/like a table, a nail, a basin” (“Second Poem”). These everyday words function as a ladder to reach poetic space. And, after being used, the ladder can be discarded.

It's in Tractatus Logico-Philosophico (1921), by Ludwig Wittgenstein, in which the image of the staircase appears. In the penultimate aphorism, number 6.54, before the one that ends the book (“About that which one cannot speak about, one must remain silent”), he writes:

My propositions elucidate in this way: whoever understands me ends up recognizing them as nonsense, after having climbed through them – through them – beyond them”. (He must, as it were, throw away the ladder after having climbed it.) He must overcome these propositions, and then he will see the world correctly.

It was up to the so-called nonsense (the propositions that make up the Tractatus), the task of designing logical space – a space delimited by two logical figures, tautology and contradiction, which shows how language can represent the world. Through propositions endowed with meaning, because they refer to facts in the world, propositions endowed with truth value (it is possible to decide whether they are true or false), natural science can tell the world.

No Tractatus, there is a distinction between two ways of using language: saying (which represents an objective fact) typical of science and showing (which speaks of something unrepresentable) typical of everything that is essential to human existence.

Both (the philosopher and the poet), however, seem to share the same attitude: overcoming the sayable to contemplate the world.

3.

I would venture to say that space, one of the most immediate forms of reality, is perhaps more primordial than time in Ana Martins Marques' work. Thus, not only does childhood stop being just the past time of an adult, to become a present place (we carry the child we were), but the poem “History” itself marks the presence of time in the poet’s life, tying it to something concrete: “I'm 39 years old./My teeth are about 7 less./My breasts are about 12 less”, and lists the age of the hair, the nails, the apartment, the bread, the clothes, of words and images.

4.

The poem “My friend,” which opens the book, condenses the conflict between words and things, the inner face of this book and the poetic core of his work:

I almost don't write anymore
I spend the day sitting somewhere
watching whatever is blooming
placed before the eyes

[...]

and what I found
one day after the other
it wasn't a word
but a canoe on fire

[...]

sometimes it occurs to me to find a word
only when I find it
it looks like a hole
full of silence

sometimes it occurs to me to find a word
hooked on a memory
like a light bulb in a socket

And it ends with the line “please cross out/this word”.
In the tension of the meanings of the verb scratch (to turn off and turn on), the tension between the visible and the sayable appears, as well as the constitutive difference between the non-verbal world (things) and the verbal world (words):

(although around things
words always come together
like barnacles on the hull
of an old vessel)

This gap never points to the inflation of the verbal world (or the sign), as if it swallowed the non-verbal, but presents the complex relationship between the two – which can be seen in the verses of The book of similarities:

It's harder to hide a horse than the word
                            [horse

It's easier to get rid of a piano than a
                            [feeling

I can touch your body but not your name

And in the verses of the poem “Papel de Seda”, in which, within the scope of a book, this type of paper seeks to separate words from images as if words could be drawings (which they were, says the poet) and drawings could be words (which were). Words are rivals to images, but also equal to images – the poem assimilates in its composition the play of opposites, of contradiction (it is this and that; it is this and it is not that).

And he doubles the contradiction by showing that some scenes can only be seen if translated (metaphorized) into what is sayable:

With that I've seen a stone die
and a dog hangs itself
in a patch of sunlight.

[...]

a poem is no longer
than a stone that screams

5.

The dealing of words with things is a permanent friction, in which something is contributed, as in the gesture of translating a poem, and introducing into it “a volcano/that was not there in the original/because of the meter or the need for a rhyme” . Words are rubbed together, with things and, thus, from friction to friction, other lights are woven. And the words, turned into lamps, but carrying with them the birthmark, silence (“All speech is born with the scar of silence,/ that was broken”), become shelters of experience:

carry the camel with them
the skyscraper the whale
not just the whale
all whales
not just love
all the love

And it brings under the scope of its light the fundamental experiences: that of becoming ashes, that of absence, that of love, and, again, the act of naming: having to say things and, in this gesture, the words extinguish, leaving a glow.

6.

Although the poet has the ability and responsibility to ignite words, her task is delimited by what comes to her. We do not own the language, it takes possession of us – “it takes root in her body / it is impossible to get rid of” (Language – Cross out this word). We are the books of the language. This is how she, little by little, takes the child into her arms:

soon the language will take
his account
will silence the world
shape your little teeth
soon the tongue will be the mother
more than you are the mother

7.

Like a meditation on poetic language, Cross out this word could not avoid reflecting on the place and challenges of poetry in the contemporary world. In the poems “Prose (I)” and “Prose (II)”, a diptych, we see the location of the poem in relation to the world of prose. In the first, from the place where poetry books are found in a bookstore, the image emerges that poetry is always on the ground – close to what it says, the space that founds it. The poet visits the commonplace of language to reveal its reverse side, thus expanding the visible through the sayable.

In “Prosa (II)”, reflecting on the relationship between poetry and prose in the work of Roberto Bolaño – who “considered himself/above all/a poet”, but became “known/above all/as a prose writer” –, the idea emerges that the failed poet always appears in his prose as if he were out of place (“like a beggar/at a party”, “a dog/in a theater”).

The figure of the displaced poet reappears in Roberto Bolaño transformed into the wild detective – the investigator of reality. Poets now act to investigate the destructive possibilities of cultural sophistication, possibilities that must be understood not only as the conjugation between culture and the practice of torture, but also expatriation of language, that is, the loss of the link between language and experience.

Thus, her prose, made with words and the lives of her characters, shows that poetry is a form of life, which in Ana Martins Marques' book is also present when she asks the reader to delete the words to pay attention to the things.

8.

The same displacement, or estrangement, that a poem causes when it appears, also occurs in translation, which doubles this original experience, as a foreign poem brought into the target language is:

a clock late
that marks the right time
from somewhere else

9.

Joseph Brodsky said that poetry, both to those who write it and to those who read it, quickly teaches the virtue of humility. Virtue present in the work of this Minas Gerais native who directs her gaze to the details of life.

The Russian poet is honored in the poem “Prose (I)”. His image is that poetry is aviation and prose, infantry. This distinction between the high, comprehensive point of view (poetry) and the low, linear point of view (prose) is a recurring topic in the writings of Joseph Brodsky.

In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize, “Uncommon Countenance”, we read the following formulation: “language, and probably literature, are older, more inevitable and more lasting than any social organization. The repulsion, irony or indifference towards power, frequently expressed in literature, is, in essence, the reaction of the permanent – ​​better still, the infinite – against the temporary, against the finite.”

Just as love is “in essence, an attitude maintained by the infinite in relation to the finite”, writes Brodsky in an essay about Anna Akhmatova. (Ana Martins Marques overlaps love and language – both set traps for the same prey: the human being.)

10.

Cross out this word presents the reader with the poem as a place to be reached by words. When we get there, however, we have to erase them so that we can contemplate the blossoming of things placed “before our eyes” – or also contemplate the scenes that have blossomed in memory.

* Jose Feres Sabino is a doctoral candidate at the Department of Philosophy at the University of São Paulo (USP).

Reference


Ana Martins Marques. Cross out this word. São Paulo, Companhia das Letras, 2021, 120 pages. [https://amzn.to/4c1LgJV]

REFERENCES


Brodsky, Joseph. Less than one. Translated by Sergio Flaksman. São Paulo, Companhia das Letras, 1994. [https://amzn.to/3KP5A5k]

Brodsky, Joseph. On grief and reason. New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995.[https://amzn.to/3XrkgPh]

Marques, Ana Martins. The book of similarities. São Paulo, Companhia das Letras, 2015.[https://amzn.to/3VvDsJ4]

Marques, Ana Martins. From the art of traps. São Paulo, Companhia das Letras, 2011. [https://amzn.to/3zh17Wc]

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Translation, presentation and introductory essay by Luiz Henrique Lopes dos Santos. São Paulo, Edusp, 1993. [https://amzn.to/4b4zq09]

Notes


[I] When this text was ready, I saw the conversation (an interview) that the poet Marília Garcia had with Ana Martins Marques in the Company Blog (“Exit Doors: a conversation with Ana Martins Marques”, 21/06/2023). Marília Garcia points out that the meaning “to strike” in the title also suggests that of “strike a match”, “to light, to illuminate”. So “cross out a word” can mean “show”. My scribble then is a result of your enlightened suggestion.

[ii] No Island Tours, Carlos Drummond de Andrade relates the poet to light. Thus he says: “[…] the poet is not the bearer of the sacred fire, but the cautious possessor of a pocket torch, who makes his way through the darkness of the dictionary”. We would thus have three types of poet: those who carry the sacred fire, those who strike matches and those who use a pocket flashlight.


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