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The locus eroticus in the poetry of Gilka Machado.

IN 1922, the year of the Semana de Arte Moderna in Sao Paulo, Gilka Machado published her fifth volume of poetry with the simple but provocative title, Mulher nua. Following the appearance of two more volumes, O meu glorioso pecado (1928) and the anthology Carne e alma (1931), the Brazilian literary review O malho asked 200 intellectuals to cast their vote for the most important female poet in Brazil. Gilka Machado received the most votes, surpassing such noted contemporaries as Henriqueta Lisboa, Francisca Julia, and Cecilia Meireles. Yet despite her considerable literary output in the first three decades of the 20th century, and despite the attention and acclaim she received as a poet during that period, Gilka Machado is curiously absent from the pantheon of modern Brazilian writers. Although she was hardly the first writer to be ignored in the process of canon formation, Gilka Machado's exclusion seems directly linked to the erotic content of her verses, a content that transgressed the rules of what was considered to be good literary taste--especially for a woman writer.

In assessing Gilka Machado's place in Brazilian literature it is important to bear in mind that the originality of her poetry derives not just from its representations of physical love, but also from a more generalized feminist critique that made her work every bit as radical and transgressive as the anti-bourgeois poems of her more famous Semana de Arte Moderna contemporaries. Nonetheless, when mentioned in reference works, she is either classified as a symbolist or grouped along with other women writers under the generic rubric "poetisa." Although she published poetry in Festa, the literary review of Catholic "spiritualist" writers Andrade Muricy, Tasso da Silveira and Cecilia Meireles, there is nothing overly symbolist about Gilka Machado's work. In fact, several of her poems are about the working class, poverty and social injustice while many more poems describe a liberated female sexuality that, not surprisingly, gained her a substantial readership. But writing about erotic love also got her into trouble early on with a few very prominent members of the older literary establishment, who publicly derided her work.

The critic, Joao Ribeiro, who greatly admired her poetry, tried to deflect certain criticisms by claiming that her poems were "nem imorais nem amorais" and that their erotic content was more mystical and transcendental rather than physical (278). Ribeiro's comments are interesting to consider alongside those of critic Agripino Grieco, who observed that the sentiments expressed in her verses were in no way a reflection of her "vida modesta e altiva." And he added, "Nunca ninguem a viu tomar a atitude de certas madamas desabusadas--misto de sabichonas de Moliere e de 'blas-bleus' de 1839--que pretendem adotar as maneiras masculinas, virando ulanos de saias, usando gravata e monoculo, fumando pelos botequins" (93). In an equally dubious defense of her work, critic Humberto de Campos attributed the ardor in her lyrics to her "creole mentality." He further stated, "Ao ler-lhe as rimas cheirando ao pecado, toda a gente supos que estas subiam dos subterraneos escuros de um temperamento, quando elas, na realidade, provinham do alto das nuvens de uma bizarra imaginacao" (314). Campos goes on to cite Henrique Pongetti, who wrote in a 1930 essay on Gilka's poetry that those close to Gilka knew her to be the most virtuous of women and the most devoted of mothers (315).

What these comments make clear is that Gilka's defenders were as uneasy with her eroticism and just as puritanical as her most virulent critics. Furthermore, by describing her eroticism as mystical and otherworldly as opposed to human and carnal, Ribeiro helped forever seal her fate to be regarded exclusively as a symbolist. But anyone who has ever read Gilka Machado knows that her erotic poetry is anything but otherworldly -- unless one views sexual rapture and orgasmic ecstasy as mystical states. The fact that she wrote about a female eroticism made her a unique voice in early 20th-century Brazilian literature. This is why she was excluded from the canon and this is why she has recently become the subject of considerable feminist revisionary analysis. (1)

In this essay I want to go beyond the largely generalized discussions of Gilka Machado as an erotic poet, and focus on the poetry itself and, more specifically, the role of nature in her works. Ironically, what defenders like Joao Ribeiro and Agripino Grieco failed to perceive was that Gilka was reworking a set of conventions about the poet, love, and nature that harks back to classical times and was known as the "locus amoenus." Gilka's poetry offers a totally new and original conception of nature as the "locus eroticus" and stimulus for highly unconventional lyrics in which a female voice describes emotions and acts associated with an unbridled physical love. Unlike other modernist writers, who either eschewed nature as primitive or "other" or simply used it as background for socio-political ends, Gilka Machado shows us a different kind of nature, more pagan and animiste in character, whose implications are Freudian rather than mystical or spiritual, and this is one way she differs from the symbolists. In Gilka's poetry, nature not only represents a liberated female sexuality, but it also often stands in for the lover-object. As has been noted, Gilka paid dearly for writing about erotic love and women's sexuality--subjects regarded until quite recently in Brazil and elsewhere as the provenance of men. Nonetheless, her creation of a "locus eroticus" is in keeping with the radical spirit and antibourgeois critique of literary modernism. In other words, Gilka deserves to be recognized as a groundbreaking writer, and like many of her Semana de Arte contemporaries, she deserves to be included in the canon.

It was the Latin scholar and grammarian Servius who wrote upon reading Virgil, "Amoena sunt loca solius voluptatis plena" (Gentle are the places replete with pleasure only). For Servius, the idea of "amoenus" was associated with a specific place--in this case, nature, with special emphasis given to trees, fronds, fountains, rivers, water in general, forests, and gardens. Actually, the notion of nature as a locus for pleasure can be traced back even further to verses by Homer and Plinius. But it was Virgil's collection of poems, Bucolicas, that transformed the idea of the locus amoenus into a literary topus, and it was through Virgil that the motif came to be known in Europe. In Portugal, we find references to the locus amoenus in the early cantigas, especially the "cantigas de amigo," with their fountains and streams; the topus also appears in many other works, including the anonymous Boosco deleitoso, Bernardim Ribeiro's Menina e moca, and most prominently in the poetry of Camoes and Sa de Miranda, the latter of whom speaks of a "prado ameno" or gentle nature that inspires love (Biblos 3, 24-25).

In the tradition of the locus amoenus of Classical and Renaissance poets, 18th-century Brazilian arcadistas wrote aristocratic-style verses about idyllic pastoral settings where shepherd-poets speak to pretty shepherdess-muses, often trying to convince them to "seize the day" (carpe diem). In poem after poem of this period, we find the idea of the pleasurable and pastoral linked to love. Fernando Pessoa's odes by Ricardo Reis are a good example of a contemporary variation on the locus amoenus. However, unlike the 18th-century arcadistas, Ricardo Reis never seizes the day with his muse, but rather uses the imaginary pastoral settings strictly for stoic (and platonic) contemplations. For the romantic poets, nature was no longer represented as gentle and consoling, but rather as a dark, brooding and often frightening entity. Nature was still a place, but it also functioned as a mirror of the poet's emotions, which tended toward angst and ennui. This more dramatic and subjectivized use of nature became quite commonplace in 19th-century verse, and nature was now the "locus horrendus" or "locus terribilis."

Gilka Machado extracts the ideas of pleasure and love associated with the classical "locus amoenus" and the dramatic subjectivity associated with the "locus horrendus" to create the "locus eroticus." Somewhat like the arcadistas, she is drawn to nature as a place removed from the vicissitudes of the modern world--but with the important difference that it is not the tumult of urban life that she seeks to escape, but rather its "jugo atroz dos homens e da ronda / da velha Sociedade" (24). Note that the same critics who deplored Gilka's descriptions of physical love never once commented on her denunciations here and elsewhere of society, men and the status quo. In the minds of Gilka's critics, writing about erotic desire--even if it were couched in a language about nature--was far more transgressive than writing a poem like her "Alerta, Miseraveis" which explicitly denounces social injustice by referring to those "que sempre tudo nos roubam / que planejam agora / um roubo mais audaz: / querem ainda esta migalha que nos resta, / a independencia de morrer de fome / em paz" (391).

At the same time, her portraits of nature, including "prados ondulados pelo vento," "mares molemente espreguicados," "praias espalmos" and "arvores dancando," are a celebration of physical delights that urge the poet's "cantar, vibrar e gozar" (24-25). In nature, and no longer under the "jugo da Sociedade," Gilka imagines herself "qual desenfreado potro [a correr], / por estes campos / escampos" (25). Indeed, her desire and need for total (sexual) freedom, and her recognition that freedom of any kind is still out of her reach, causes her to look to the most humble aspects of nature as desirable to her condition as woman, "Ai! Antes pedra ser, inseto, verme ou planta, / do que existir trazendo a forma de mulher" (26).

Gilka's locus eroticus is populated with tall, sensuous trees that sway and embrace; with red roses whose vaginal-like petals emit an intoxicating perfume that excites desire; and with rivers that, like satyrs, lick the virginal green womb of the forests. Trees play an especially prominent role in her poetry. They dance, gesture slowly, and their pollens transfer from one to another as their branches reach out and touch in a fecund embrace. One of the most sensuous images of the poetic self appears in her volume entitled Estados de alma (1917), where the poet becomes an "arvore a oscilar" whose "cabelos sao francas." As a tree, she delights in the wind's sometimes brutal, other times gentle embrace, and she is ecstatic in her condition as "nua / completamente exposta a Volupia do Vento!" (164). What is interesting is that throughout this particular poem, the poet is addressing herself to a lover. But it is to nature that she gives herself most freely, and from which she experiences a "gozo violento" that she confides her lover cannot know. The "gozo violento" is directly associated with nature as "este ermo" or the locus eroticus.

In a later untitled poem from her collection O meu glorioiso pecado, the image of the tree becomes the means by which Gilka describes the ecstasy of the female orgasm, "Beijas-me e todo o corpo meu gorjeia, / e toda me suponho uma arvore alta, / cantando aos ceus, de passarinhos cheia ..." (297). Note that while a lover's kiss is the stimulus for her pleasure, nature once again serves as the metaphor for sexual rapture. In another poem from Estados de alma, the poet's sensuality is aroused by a peach tree and the smooth texture of a pubescent peach. The poem is a tactile exploration of the fruit whose soft carnal contours excite the poet. However, she is resolute not to harm the peach; she savors what it holds with a kiss at the same time that she gazes at her lover's lips. Aroused by the "peach-like" lips, she caresses the fruit and experiences an "insensato prazer" whose eroticism is further heightened by her repetition of the verb comer. The poem is a synaesthetic tour de force; however, unlike most symbolist poets who employed sensory perceptions to evoke worlds beyond the physical realm, Gilka uses synaesthesia to portray an intensely erotic moment derived from a female's sexual desire--a desire that is explicitly born of and linked to the natural world around her.

One of Gilka's most dramatic representations of the locus eroticus appears in the poem "Enamoradas," a free verse composition from her 1938 volume, Sublimacao. In the first stanza of the poem, nature is described in terms of the lover who calls to her with "seus multiplos labios de corola" (318). Nature is described as fresh and aromatic, and its sounds intoxicate and penetrate her. It is the primeval aspect of nature that attracts the poet and yet its "irresistible attraction of origins" also stirs within her a certain anxiety. Her trepidation derives from the idea of entering a state of complete abandon or the "desagregamento dos atomos" whereby her being is totally overtaken by the forces of nature ("Sinto que o azul me absorve, / que a agua, em po, / misturada com as coisas / integrada no infinito" [318].) Gilka is a nature poet, yet the poet's identification with nature is both reciprocated and absolute: "cantas nos meus versos; / vegeto nos teus cernes; / voo com os passaros, / espiralo com os perfumes / marejo com as ondas, / medito com as montanhas / e espojo-me com as bestas" (319). Here nature is the "tu" that knows the secret paths to her soul, and who, she says, is the only one who possesses her entirely. In the final stanza of the poem, there is a not so subtle suggestion that what the poet is experiencing in these "imortais momentos / em que confund[em] os seres, / em que rola[m] pelo infinito" (318) is not only the pleasures of sexual abandon, but also a passion that only women in love can feel. For just as the poet is transformed by and into the very essence of nature, nature, in the final lines, is given human form as a reciprocal "femea enamorada," and the poem ends with the two females crazed by a sense of sexual freedom and in a long, clinging embrace.

Whether or not Gilka was subtly writing about lesbian love in "Enamoradas" is difficult to determine, but the poem is open to the possibility of that interpretation. In another poem from the same volume, entitled "Festa da beleza," a somewhat similar sexual note is struck. Nature is portrayed as both setting for the poet's feelings and emotions and a being who is in love with the poet and who identifies with her nakedness and sensibility. What is different about this poem is that "Man" with a capital "m" also appears. But he appears only at the end of the poem, where he is described as fearful and keeping his distance. Or in her words, "... o Homem, / receoso de se defrontar, / fugindo a projecao de si mesmo / na objetiva / da minha frase / passou ao largo ..." (323). While she experiences freedom and ecstasy in nature, the Man passes by "incredulo e ... desconfiado" of both the "carne de [s]eu espirito" and the "desatavio de [s]eu verso" (323). The poem ends with the Man asking her in a rhetorical statement: "'Por que te vestes assim?'" (323).

In this poem, Gilka offers a positive and liberating view of a woman who refuses to be as society, or the Man, wants her to be. Nature is the desired and desirable alternative to a life of physical constraints, which are metaphorically described in the poem as the different vestes she tries on and ultimately discards; and her nakedness and joy in the locus eroticus confound and challenge the ever-present patriarchy that stands back and sits in judgment. "Na Festa da beleza" can also be read as a metapoetic work about the fear, distrust and incredulity that others (men) expressed about her poems about love. Her line "Por que te vestes assim?" conveys the uneasiness and condemnation that she frequently experienced as a poet who was determined to write about female sexuality. That she wrote about a taboo subject early on and continued to write despite considerable disapproval has earned her applause from feminist critics. But Gilka also deserves to be recognized as a major poet whose lyric sensibility and linguistic talent were apparent even to critics who "kept their distance." Through a highly imaginative use of nature as the locus eroticus, she opened a door on the subject of female sexual desire. To this day, her poems remain unequaled in their powerful yet delicate treatment of this topic.



Biblos: enciclopedia verbo das literaturas de lingua portuguesa. Vol. 3. Sao Paulo and Lisbon: Editorial Verbo, 1999.

Campos, Humberto de. Critica: segunda serie. Rio de Janeiro: Livraria Jose Olympio Editora, 1935.

Ferreira-Pinto, Cristina. "A mulher e o canon poetico brasileiro: uma releitura de Gilka Machado."

Grieco, Agripino. Evolucao da poesia brasileira. 3rd ed. Rio de Janeiro: Livraria Jose Olympio Editora, 1947.

Machado, Gilka. Poesias completas. Rio de Janeiro: Leo Christiano Editorial, 1992.

Paixao, Sylvia. "A fala de Eros." A fala-a-menos. Rio de Janeiro: Numen Editora, 1991. 121-165.

--. "A sombra de Eros." Anais do IV seminario nacional mulher e literatura. Org. Lucia Helena Vianna. Niteroi: ABRALIC, 1992. 115-128.

Ribeiro, Joao. Critica. Vol. II. Poetas. Parnasianismo e simbolismo. Rio de Janeiro: Edicao da Academia Brasileira de Letras, 1957.

(1) See, for example, the articles by Cristina Ferreira-Pinto and Sylvia Paixao.
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Author:Sadlier, Darlene J.
Publication:Romance Notes
Date:Sep 22, 2004
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