Joao Cabral de Melo Neto and the poetics of bullfighting.
While the Pernambuco-born Cabral was intimately involved with the Brazilian northeast, the sertao does not constitute the only backdrop for his poetry. As a Brazilian diplomat, Cabral lived intermittently in Spain beginning in 1947, working at consulates in Barcelona, Seville and Cadiz, and traveling extensively within the country. Spain's landscape and everyday life came to exert a powerful influence on Cabral's poetry, and Spanish themes began appearing in his work with the collection Paisagens com figuras (1954-55). As Luiz Costa Lima and many other critics have argued, Cabral's inclusion of Spain in his poetry was not merely a function of his travels. In Lima's estimation, Cabral found in Spain an environment that exhibited similar poetic and existential qualities to those he associated with the sertao, namely an "arid nakedness" (Lima 336-37). Indeed, Cabral frequently juxtaposes the two environments, often mixing Spanish and nordestino motifs in his poems, and suggesting that the two landscapes have a common character, which, as he writes in "Sevilha em casa," are "de uma so maconaria" (638). (5)
Among Cabral's Spanish-themed poems there is an important subset dedicated to the Spanish bullfight, the corrida de toros. (6) As can be concluded from a 1947 letter to fellow Brazilian poet Manuel Bandeira, Cabral's aficion for the bullfight was a reality from his first days in Spain, when he worked at the Brazilian consulate in Barcelona. In this letter, Cabral describes his interest in publishing an anthology of Spanish bullfighting poems in translation--a project he never realized. Cabral also references the recent death of the matador Manuel Rodriguez, or "Manolete." Describing Manolete as "o melhor toureiro que ja aparecera ate hoje," Cabral favorably compares Manolete to the French poet and theorist Paul Valery, writing the following: "Seja dito de passagem que era um camarada fabuloso: vi-o algumas vezes aqui em Barcelona e imaginei que era Paul Valery toureando" (Sussekind 33-34). (7) In making this comparison, Cabral links the acts of bullfighting and poetic composition, and anticipates the approach he would take in his own bullfighting poems, which he would begin writing in the mid-1950s. (8) In these poems, Cabral elevates Manolete to the status of bullfighting and poetic ideal, and utilizes the corrida to offer a "licao de estetica" to the reader. (9) In compositions like "Alguns toureiros," from Paisagens com figuras, Cabral utilizes the corrida--its structure, its props, its bulls, and especially its bullfighters, to illustrate his approach to literature. It is clear, therefore, that we can describe a Cabralian poetics of bullfighting for these poems.
In "Alguns toureiros," Cabral describes the fighting styles of six prominent matadors. While he is sympathetic to each, the poet differentiates their respective styles, and establishes a clear preference for Manolete as the "most mineral" of the six, and as the bullfighter he links most closely to his poetic approach. Cabral evaluates the matadors by way of a recurring metaphor of bullfighting as the cultivation of a flower. This choice may seen curious in light of Cabral's preference for fixed, inorganic, or "mineral" motifs, like the stones described in "Pequena ode mineral" and "A educacao pela pedra," or the knife of "Uma faca so lamina." However, Cabral's championing of a mineral poetic order does not lead him to exclude potentially chaotic or violent manifestations of the organic--namely fluids, plants and animals--from his poetry.
Cabral actively confronts the threat of the organic in two distinct ways. First, he describes a mineral/organic opposition, with the two elements existing in a situation of contingency, and with the success of the mineral order predicated on its overcoming or avoiding the threat of the organic. See, for example, the poem "Cemiterio pernambucano (Toritama)." This poem describes the cemetery as a mineral space separated by a wall and iron bars from the "defunta paisagem." Cabral opposes a cemetery that paradoxically preserves the corpses it houses to an outer space described as "outro ossario mais geral." This outer space, which in the Pernambucan context is likely a cane field, promises a life of grinding rural poverty and consigns its inhabitants to a kind of death in life (Obra completa 155). (10) Further, "Uma faca so lamina" opposes the interior order of a man's body, mineralized by the presence of a knife (or bullet, or watch) to an exterior space that threatens disintegration. It is important that the knife be "so lamina," or "only blade," since the wood of the handle might be corrupted by the liquidity of the exterior environment. (11) In order to preserve the knife outside the man's body, it must be kept away from the tide and from humidity, in the dry sun and "ar duro" of the sertao, an environment Cabral repeatedly describes, along with the arid Spanish plan, as exceptionally suited to the preservation of organic matter (210).
The second way Cabral affirms the mineral is to critique what Antonio Carlos Secchin terms the "sentimental-evocative" poetic tradition, and what Haroldo de Campos identifies as a "poetics of expression"--that is, a poetics that celebrates the organic. For example, in "Antiode (contra a poesia dita profunda)," Cabral makes subversive use of an organic vocabulary with particular recourse to the flower image. By quite unsentimentally equating the flower with feces, Cabral upends the flower's normative connotations as an aesthetically pleasing and poetically inspiring object. According to Antonio Houaiss, "Antiode" reveals that for Cabral, "[p]oetry amounts to the need to identify 'feces' as 'feces,' not as a flower; for Cabral, poetry-as-metaphor seems condemned, and is, in fact, 'feces'" (Houaiss 218). Secchin furthers Houaiss's observation, characterizing Cabral's poem not merely as a denunciation, but moreover as an active intervention against "so-called profound poetry." In "Antiode," Cabral "[c]ombats the 'profound' [poetic tradition] using its own weapons, showing the other side of its rhetoric" (Secchin 69-70). In this way we can understand Cabral's engagement with the organic as an attempt to overcome its tendency to "decompose" both language and the mineral order. Here it is instructive to refer to one of Cabral's most famous poems, "O engenheiro." Like the poem's engineer-protagonist, the poet should be a rational builder, and "sonha coisas claras," rather than serve as a vehicle for unstable poetic inspiration. By means of his labor, the poet absorbs the risk associated with the organic into the body of his text, just as the engineer must take responsibility for the structural integrity of his or her design. This transforms once dangerous or degenerative motifs like the flower into productive mineral objects by their "metamorphosis into written sign" (62, 67-70).
Cabral utilizes both of these strategies in "Alguns toureiros." The poem opposes a mineral order, associated with the bullfighter and the formal structure of the corrida, to the organic potential for chaos represented by the bull. These exist in a situation of contingency. The bullfight becomes the event in which the matador engages with the organic, confronts the bull, and in "dominating [its] explosion," absorbs its chaotic potential into the order of the corrida. (12) Notably, the poet reproduces the action of the matador at the level of textual production. By confronting the risk of writing the poem, the poet engages and transforms an organic vocabulary, marked by the motifs of the bull and the flower, into a mineral order embodied in the finished text (Obra completa 158). (13) In "Alguns toureiros," Cabral writes of cultivating a flower, though his poetic cultivation does not allow the flower to grow or expand, as we might understand "cultivation" in its normative sense. Far from fostering an organic poetics embodied in the bull, Cabral's matador-poet kills the bull and "[w]orks" the flower into a productive mineral object.
In his description of the first five bullfighters, spread over the first four of the poem's eleven quatrains, Cabral offers tempered praise for each. He achieves this through antithesis. In his descriptions of the matadors, Cabral explicitly or implicitly couples a positive mineral poetic value with a negative organic one, and places both values within a floral metaphor. In the first stanza, Cabral states: "Eu vi Manolo Gonzalez / e Pepe Luis, de Sevilha: / precisao doce de flor, / graciosa, porem precisa" (157). The stanza's construction leaves ambiguous the question of whether the qualities of being from Seville and of possessing the "sweet precision of a flower" apply to both bullfighters, or only one. In either case, it affirms that Gonzalez and/or Luis possess this "sweet precision," "gracious, though precise." The word "porem" sets a negative poetic quality of graciousness (in the sense of expansiveness) against the virtue of precision, associated with the knife of "Uma faca so lamina," or here with the matador's sword. (14)
Similarly, Julio Aparicio's "easy science" suggests fluidity or lack of discipline in that it is "easy," and a contrasting rigor or rationality associated with the idea of "science." Likewise, Aparicio is "spontaneous," again suggestive of an undesirable fluidity or spontaneity, though he is also "precise." (15) Thus Cabral's praise for Aparicio is tempered in that the positive poetic values of science and precision are coupled with undesirable ease and spontaneity. Cabral's description of Miguel Baez--"Litri"--utilizes an implied rather than explicit antithesis. Litri "cultivates another flower," in the special Cabralian sense of transforming something organic and destructive--here a bull "anxious to explode"--into something mineral and productive. While the animal Baez confronts is "anxious to explode," it has not yet succeeded in doing so. This is because of the matador's effort to "dominate the explosion." Litri should be praised for assuming the risk of engaging with the organic, and for keeping it in check thus far. However, this praise is limited in that Litri is not credited with completing the task of killing the bull. This will have to wait for Manolete.
Cabral next describes Antonio Ordonez, "que cultiva flor antiga: / perfume de renda velha, / de flor em livro dormida." This image is ambiguous in terms of Cabralian poetics, and implies a more complex coupling of positive and negative poetic qualities than we have seen so far. On the positive side, the "old needlework" and similarly aged book suggest a lasting, resistant quality that recalls the stone in "A educacao pela pedra." Additionally, both objects reproduce the previously described process of organic-to-mineral transformation. Both objects, in being described as "old," suggest an artisanal mode of production in which organic materials like wool, plant fiber, paper and leather are transformed by human labor into household goods. (16) On the negative side, the image of the flower in a book refers to a nineteenth-century Romantic practice of "[k]eeping floral souvenirs and sentimental personal memorabilia," and by extension implies the "sentimental-evocative tradition" and "poetry of expression" Cabral opposes. (17) Furthermore, the needlework gives off a "perfume" which Cabral will link in the final quatrain to a misguided, excessively descriptive or emotive poetic approach of "perfuming [the] flower" and "poeticizing the poem." In sum, the characterization of Ordonez remains one of tempered praise, with a desirable lasting quality and productive transformation of the organic counterposed to a reference to Romantic custom and an undesirable poetic "perfuming."
Cabral begins his description of Manolete in the poem's fifth quatrain: "Mas eu vi Manuel Rodriguez, / Manolete, o mais deserto, / o toureiro mais agudo, / mais mineral e desperto." The conjunction mas marks a distinction, but unlike the previous porem, here Cabral distinguishes between the tempered praise he offered to the previous bullfighters and his forthcoming description of Manolete as a bullfighting and poetic ideal. This quatrain establishes the matador's claim to preeminence based on his greater proximity to Cabral's mineral poetics. Relative to the other matadors, Manolete is "the sharpest bullfighter, / the most mineral and alert." The next four quatrains will continue Cabral's celebration of Manolete, with the poet alternating between praising the bullfighter relative to his peers, and in absolute terms.
The sixth quatrain builds on Manolete's mineral characterization, here without reference to the other five bullfighters. In attributing to Manolete "wooden nerves" and "dry wrists of fiber," Cabral qualifies what might at first appear as an organic description of the matador by describing the wood as "dry wood from the [Brazilian] scrubland," the caatinga. (18) As described in "Uma faca so lamina," this arid environment is ideal for preserving organic matter. The wood and fiber, in deriving from the Brazilian scrubland and in being utilized by Manolete in a similarly arid Spain, are purged of their potentially dangerous organic character and become de facto complementary mineral metaphors. (19)
The seventh and eighth quatrains continue the poet's praise for Manolete, describing him as, "o que melhor calculava / o fluido aceiro da vida, / o que com mais precisao / rocava a morte em sua fimbria." The seventh quatrain highlights the risk the matador faces when he confronts the bull as a representation of life's "fluid firewall." The bullfighter confronts this risk with his sword, and with the poetic virtues of calculation and precision. The eighth quatrain describes a process by which Manolete quantifies various phenomena associated with the organic or sentimental-evocative side of the poetic dialectic. He gives "number" to tragedy, "geometry" to punishment, "decimals to emotion," and "weight and measure" to shock. This description reproduces a Cabralian poetic strategy not previously discussed, in which the poet subjugates and transforms the organic through a process of quantification, which is often spatial in application. (20) By defining the limits of a phenomenon like tragedy, the poet transforms it from a diffuse and chaotic force into a defined and ordered structure, like the "clear things" built by Cabral's engineer or the verbal "monster" turned finished poem in "O funcionario."
The ninth quatrain marks a transition between the praise offered to Manolete, here "the most ascetic" bullfighter, and the idea that he sets an example for poets, which is developed in the poem's final two quatrains. During his career, Manolete "[n]ot only cultivated his flower," that is, engaged in bullfighting for its own sake, "[b]ut showed the poets:; / how to dominate the explosion / with a serene and contained hand, / without letting spill / the flower kept hidden,; / and how, then, to work it; / with a certain hand, little and intensely: / without perfuming his flower, / without poeticizing his poem." That is, Manolete illustrates the proper Cabralian approach to poetry, privileging solid "work" over the excessive "perfuming" of the sentimental-evocative school (Secchin 158). The tenth quatrain opens with the phrase "dominate the explosion" as a description of the matador's controlling of the bull. The Portuguese verb domar carries the dual meaning of "dominate" and "domesticate," which recalls the image from Cabral's poem "Psicologia da composicao" of words rendered productive by "abelhas domesticadas." Manolete both dominates and domesticates the bull, transforming it through his labor from a manifestation of organic chaos to a productive display of Cabral's mineral poetics. As Benedito Nunes notes, the matador-poet must undergo a process of education in mineral poetics in order to learn dominacao as the dual skill of domination and domestication. Nunes writes: "Only by living with words, only the attention that is concentrated over them, teaches the poet to use them, as 'domesticated bees,' that prepare and distil their own honey" (Nunes 53-54). Likewise, in "A educacao pela pedra," Cabral advises that, "to learn from the stone" one must "go to it often." (21) Thus Manolete's considerable skill as a "mineral" bullfighter and poetic ideal is learned through experience, by continued exposure to the threat of the organic as embodied in the bull, and by continued use of his sword against this danger. As Cabral observes in the later poem "Lembrando Manolete" (Remembering Manolete), to bullfight is "to live by exposing oneself to the insane scythe" of the bull, and in more general terms, to the threat of the organic. It is only the most experienced and skillful of matadors, like Manolete, who can confront this danger "with the cold air of one who is not walking the tightrope," and who in doing so can serve Cabral as a poetic example.
Bishop, Elizabeth and Emanuel Brasil, eds. An Anthology of Twentieth-Century Brazilian Poetry. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 1972.
Araujo, Lais Correa de. Murilo Mendes: Ensaio critico, antologia, correspondencia. Sao Paulo: Perspectiva, 2000.
Cabral de Melo Neto, Joao. Correspondencia de Cabral com Bandeira e Drummond. Flora Sussekind, org. Rio de Janeiro: Nova Fronteira, Fundacao Casa de Rui Barbosa, 2001.
--. Obra completa. Marly de Oliveira, org. Rio de Janeiro: Editora Nova Aguilar, 1999.
--. Selected Poetry 1937-1990. Djelal Kadir, ed. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan UP, 1994. Campos, Haroldo de. Metalinguagem: Ensaios de teoria e critica literaria. 3a edicao. Sao Paulo: Cultrix, 1976.
"Floral Decoration." Encyclopedia Brittanica. 2003. Encyclopedia Brittanica Online. 12 Dec, 2003 http://search.eb.com/eb/article?eu=114599.
Leiris, Michel. "The Autobiographer as Torero." Literary Debate: texts and contexts. Denis Hollier and Jeffrey Mehlman, eds. New York: The New Press, 1999, pp. 132-40.
Lima, Luiz Costa. Lira e Antilira (Mario, Drummond, Cabral). Rio de Janeiro: Civilizacao Brasileira, 1968.
Nunes, Benedito. Joao Cabral de Melo Neto. Petropolis: Editora Vozes, 1971.
Secchin, Antonio Carlos. Joao Cabral: A poesia do menos. Sao Paulo: Duas Cidades, 1995.
Alguns toureiros Some bullfighters A Antonio Houaiss To Antonio Houaiss Eu vi Manolo Gonzalez I saw Manolo Gonzalez E Pepe Luis, de Sevilha: And Pepe Luis, from Sevilla: precisao doce de flor, the sweet precision of a flower, graciosa, porem precisa. gracious, but precise. Vi tambem Julio Aparicio, I also saw Julio Aparicio, de Madrid, como Parrita: from Madrid, as Parrita: ciencia facil de flor, the easy science of a flower, espontanea, porem estrita. spontaneous, but exact. Vi Miguel Baez, Litri, I saw Miguel Baez, Litri, dos confins da Andaluzia, from the frontier of Andaluzia, que cultiva uma outra flor, who cultivates another flower, angustiosa de explosiva. anxious to explode. E tambem Antonio Ordonez And also Antonio Ordonez, que cultiva flor antiga: who cultivates an older flower: perfume de renda velha, the perfume of old needlework, de flor em livro dormida. of a flower in an old book. Mas eu vi Manuel Rodriguez, But I saw Manuel Rodriguez, Manolete, o mais deserto, Manolete, the most desert-like, o toureiro mais agudo, the sharpest bullfighter, mais mineral e desperto, the most mineral and alert, o de nervos de madeira, he of wooden nerves, de punhos secos de fibra, of dry wrists of fiber, o de figura de lenha, of a figure of wood, lenha seca de caatinga, dry wood from the scrubland, o que melhor calculava he who best calculated o fluido aceiro da vida, the fluid firewall of life, o que com mais precisao who with the most precision rocava a morte em sua fimbria, let death touch his fringe, o que a tragedia deu numero, he who to tragedy gave number, a vertigem, geometria, to punishment, geometry, decimais a emocao decimals to emotion e ao susto, peso e medida, and to shock, weight and measure, sim, eu vi Manuel Rodriguez, yes, I saw Manuel Rodriguez, Manolete, o mais asceta, Manolete, the most ascetic, nao so cultivar sua flor not only cultivate his flower mas demonstrar aos poetas: but show the poets: como domar a explosao how to dominate the explosion com mao serena e contida, with a serene and contained hand, sem deixar que se derrame without letting spill a flor que traz escondida, the flower kept hidden, e como, entao, trabalha-la and how, then, to work it com mao certa, pouca e extrema: with a certain hand, little and intensely: sem perfumar sua flor, without perfuming his flower, sem poetizar seu poema. without poeticizing his poem. (Obra Completa 157-8)
(1) This paper is dedicated to Luiz F. Valente, who introduced me to the poetry of Joao Cabral de Melo Neto.
(2) The description of the stone in "Pequena ode mineral" serves as a helpful definition of the "mineral" in Cabral. See the following stanzas: "Essa presenca / que reconheces / nao se devora / tudo em que cresce.; / Nem mesmo cresce / pois permanece / fora do tempo / que nao a mede,; / pesado solido / que ao fluido vence, / que sempre ao fundo / das coisas desce" (Obra completa 83). Haroldo de Campos credited Cabral with inaugurating in Brazil "a poetry of construction, rational and objective, over and against a poetry of expression, subjective and irrational" (Campos 69; author's emphasis). See also Houaiss (218). All translations are my own except where otherwise noted.
(3) In English, "nothing is wasted / but remains."
(4) In the first of these poems, Cabral describes a stone that resists fluidity and movement, and that is concrete and economical in design. In the second, he writes of a knife that is "only blade" and that exhibits the poetic virtues of sharpness, precision, and alertness.
(5) See Campos: "The arid Spanish plain and the harsh [Brazilian] northeast are superimposed on each other, in the same optic, and the Spaniard and the nordestino are joined in the exemplary meagerness of their destinies" (Campos 73). See also Nunes, who remarks that Cabral's is not merely a "geographical superimposing [predicated on] [...] a common scale of their physical and ecological identities," but is moreover "a vision of an identical severe [...] existence that molds their topography into a single map, with the same prominences and weathering, be these rivers or cities, desert or vegetation" (Nunes 94).
(6) These include "Alguns toureiros," "Dialogo," "El toro de lidia," "Touro andaluz," "A praca de touros de Sevilha," "A morte de 'Gallito'" and "A imaginacao perigosa," as well as poems dedicated to various individual matadors, including Manolete.
(7) Flora Sussekind writes in her notes on the letter that Cabral owned a copy of Jose Maria de Cossio's anthology, Los toros en la poesia (Madrid: Espasa-Calpe, 1944), and that he kept a collection of "clippings, photos, and publications" on the corrida, and particularly on Manolete (Sussekind 37).
(8) Cabral celebrated Valery in the 1945 poem "Paul Valery." Valery's influence on Cabral becomes apparent in reading the former's essays, particularly "Poetry and Abstract Thought," against Cabral's poetry. See Luiz Costa Lima's helpful comparison of Cabral and Valery (Lima 280).
(9) This comment is found in a 1959 letter from Cabral to fellow Brazilian poet Murilo Mendes. Praising Mendes's recently-published collection Tempo espanhol (1959) at the expense of his own Spanish-themed poems, Cabral judges himself--unfairly, in my opinion--unable to capably treat the bullfight, as a "manifestacao, digamos assim, desse lado 'espiritual' da Espanha que V. capta tao bem" (Araujo 375).
(10) My reading recalls that of Antonio Houaiss, who argued for the "identidade da vida com a morte" in Cabral's cemetery poems (Houaiss 226).
(11) The words "so lamina" can be translated both as "only blade" and "all blade." Galway Kinnell translates the title of the poem as "A Knife All Blade." See anthologies by Kadir, and Bishop and Brasil.
(12) In the later poem "El toro de lidia," Cabral describes the bull as it enters the ring as a raging, flooded river, with the potential to stampede over a man. The bullfight becomes the event in which the matador, in confronting the bull and wearing it down, makes the river navigable (Obra completa 395-96).
(13) For a similar description of poetic risk in Cabral, see "O funcionario," in which the poet, described as an everyday worker, struggles against the "monster" of the unfinished poem until he arrives at "a prosa / procurada, o conforto / da poesia ida" (Obra completa 75-76). See also French autobiographer and theorist Michel Leiris, who advanced a similar conception of poetic risk and linked the functions of bullfighter and autobiographer in "The Autobiographer as Torero," the 1947 preface to his memoir L'Age d'homme. Leiris ties the "authenticity" achieved by the bullfighter in his strict adherence to a code to "that essential 'engagement' one has the right to demand of the writer [...] not to misuse the language and therefore to make his words, however he is able to set them down on paper, always tell the truth" (Leiris 140). However, where "truth" for Leiris derives from full, unadorned autobiographical disclosure, for Cabral, interested in objects and forms, risk lies in confronting the unwritten poem, the blank page and chaotic, unformed ideas and words.
(14) In "Dialogo," also from Paisagens com figuras, Cabral specifically links the matador's sword to his mineral poetics. Here the sword serves to "afiar / em terrivel parceria / no fio agudo de facas / o fio fragil da vida" (Obra completa 162-64).
(15) In Portuguese, estrita suggests both precision as well as adherence to a set of rules. This serves to sharpen the distinction between the order conveyed by this word and the disorder associated with espontanea.
(16) Notably, Cabral himself practiced this form of artisanal production. While in Barcelona, he published his own poetry, along with translations of Brazilian poets, using his own printing press (Campos 70).
(17) From the Encyclopedia Britannica: "The most delicate pressed flowers and foliage have been composed, mounted, and framed as pictures--a practice especially popular with 19th century Romantics, who preserved floral souvenirs as sentimental personal memorabilia."
(18) While I have translated caatinga as the more generic "scrubland," the word describes a specifically Brazilian environment associated with the sertao.
(19) In light of Cabral's later poem "Lembrando Manolete," we can read this description of Manolete in "Alguns toureiros," in which he possesses "wooden nerves" and "dry wrists of fiber," as reflecting his courage in the face of great danger. In "Lembrando Manolete" Cabral writes that the matador fought, "com o frio / ar de quem nao esta sobre um fio" (Obra completa 538).
(20) I would like to thank my colleague Rachel Rothenberg for alerting me to this aspect of Cabral's poetry.
(21) Here I refer to James Wright's translation (Kadir 130-31).
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Author:||Newcomb, Robert Patrick|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2006|
|Previous Article:||Transatlantic visions: imagining Mexico in Juan Rejano's La esfinge mestiza and Luis Bunuel's Los olvidados.|
|Next Article:||Garnier's La Troade between homeric fiction and French history: the question of moral authority.|