Multitudinous Heart: Selected Poems by Carlos Drummond de Andrade

Multitudinous Heart: Selected Poems: A Bilingual Edition (Portuguese Edition) BY Carlos Drummond de Andrade. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Paperback, 432 pages. $25.
The cover of Multitudinous Heart: Selected Poems: A Bilingual Edition (Portuguese Edition)

Early in Dostoevsky’s The Possessed, a young man obsessed with suicide proposes a thought experiment: “Imagine a stone the size of a big house; it’s hanging there, and you are under it; if it falls on you, on your head—will it be painful?” That speculation never seems far from the mind of the great Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade (1902–87). Much of Drummond’s work—from the crystalline verse he assembled in career-making collections like Feeling of the World (1940), José (1942), and Rose of the People (1945) to the blustery, sometimes turgid material he produced further into his middle age and the rueful, highly autobiographical poems with which he ended his career—takes place as if from under the shadow of a house-sized stone. The speakers of the poems collected in Multitudinous Heart, a new anthology of Drummond’s verse selected and translated by Richard Zenith, are always resisting immense, unnamed pressures, making space for themselves in hostile territory, or guiltily defending whatever pleasures and consolations they have.

The speaker of “Elegy 1938” insists to his unnamed listener that “you work without joy for a worn-out world / whose forms and actions set no example.” That of “May Afternoon” is in such a state that his “very love” has to move “into hiding, like hunted prey, uncertain of really being / love.” That of a late poem called “Declaration in Court” begins with an odd admission—”I beg pardon for being / the survivor”—and goes on to lament his lot:

it’s sadder, and grotesque, to be the sole actor

left onstage, without a role,

after the audience has all gone home

and only cockroaches

circulate in the sawdust.

Drummond could be funny, ironic and indignant, sometimes simultaneously, but the dominant mood of his poems is melancholy. Like the contemporary filmmaker Terence Davies or the poet Elizabeth Bishop (one of his first English-language translators), he was a figure of stubborn, shy loneliness, haunted by a sense of having missed or lost a connection with deceased family members, comforted by stillness and absence, and intensely affected by temptations to despair. He may not have shared one burden that made Davies and Bishop so much more fiercely reticent—the stigma attached to their being gay—but throughout his late poems he returned to a time in his Catholic childhood when his body was likewise a source of confusion and shame. Drummond’s sense of himself as an unlikely survivor of what in one poem he called, a little vaguely, “the world’s crimes”—liable at any moment to collapse under their weight—was at once an excuse for some of his poem’s bathetic excesses and the source of much of their emotional charge.

He was born in Itabira, a major city in Minas Gerais, to which he attributed, in one of his early poems, an “estrangement from all that’s porous and communicates in life.” Midway through the lesson-like “In Search of Poetry,” Drummond warns his addressee not to “reconstruct / your gloomy, long-buried childhood,” but his poems—as Zenith points out in the introduction to Multitudinous Heart—contain more than a few references to his own upbringing: the “International Library of Famous Literature” for which he once successfully begged his father (“Green Library”); the “old black maid” who sang him lullabies (“Childhood”); the “hand of fear” he had to kiss on encountering the local priest (“The Priest Walks Down the Street”). The single most indelible image from “Oxtime,” his late sequence of autobiographical poems, is of the poem’s speaker walking “hand in hand” with a young woman who wanders the city at night “dressed as a man from head to toe”—”a boy-man and a woman-man, / parading through the dark streets / our discontent with the malformed world.”

As a young poet living in the literary hotbed that was Belo Horizonte in the ‘20s, Drummond tried on a number of guises to express his “discontent with the malformed world.” Under the editorial auspices of Oswald de Andrade (no relation), he published a frustrating, tautological ten-line poem called “In the Middle of the Road” about a stone that refuses to move from the place named by the title. According to Zenith, the poem made Drummond “both famous and infamous,” but it was also something of a callow bluff; although Drummond continued to write what he called “playful exercises” into his sixties, his temperament wasn’t best suited to mischievous language games.

By 1936, he had relocated with his wife and daughter to Rio de Janeiro and underwent the first stage of a profound political transformation. His third volume, Feeling of the World, shows him at the peak of his involvement with the Brazilian Communist party, from which he would eventually break after a censorship row erupted over one of his articles in the group’s newspaper. Introducing Multitudinous Heart, Zenith examines this phase of Drummond’s career in some depth, so it’s odd that he includes so few of what he calls the writer’s “overtly political, left-leaning poems” in the collection. (One, an embarrassing, hyperbolic hymn to Soviet Russia called “Letter to Stalingrad,” is described but not translated.)

The book from which Zenith excerpts most liberally is Rose of the People, and it’s across the poems drawn from this volume that Drummond’s distinctive poetic persona emerges most vividly. The narrators of the book’s most moving poems resist the easy, wholesale consolations that come with pursuing, as one of them puts it, “what’s dead or eternal or divine.” Like that speaker, they insist on seeking “just what lives: tiny, quiet, indifferent, / solitary life”—and yet the bare gleanings of life “without embellishment or melodic commentary” fail to satisfy them. They chafe at the frictions of city living (“it’s still a time of feces, bad poems, hallucinations, and waiting”), the annoyances of aging (“I feel time’s heavy hand weigh down / on me. Wrinkles, bad teeth, baldness . . .”) and above all at the approach of death. “And the earth,” the last poem in this sequence begins, “will swallow us. / But not yet, not yet.”

None of the triumphant eruptions that punctuate Rose of the People would satisfy or excite without these longer, chafed, disaffected sections. So agonized and doubt-ridden are these poems that their climaxes often come off more like exhausted concessions than passionate affirmations. “After so many visions,” the speaker of one poem decides, “it’s too late to wonder / if we ought to toss out / our eyes and our glasses. . . . Ah, let the world exist!” Sometimes, the shape of the poems themselves reflects Drummond’s habit of doling out his affirmations grudgingly, after much stalling and withholding. “Middle Age” begins with a series of terse, proud announcements (“I no longer want words, / or need them. / I have all the elements / within my grasp”), but ends in a cascade of long, Whitmanesque lines: “No one will silence me, I’ll shout whenever / joy is stifled, I’ll defend the disheartened . . . I’ll be a doctor, a bread knife, medicine, a towel.” The rigidity of the couplets at the beginning of “The Last Days” soon dissolves into free verse, a format in which Drummond reached many of his most powerfully affecting devotional heights. “May this and no other time,” the poem’s narrator prays in one of its last stanzas, “fill the living room, bathe the books, / filter into our pockets and the dishes, with a dingy or a potent glimmer.”

By the mid-’50s, Drummond was widely considered a national treasure. (Curiously, he still never made a living from his writing: Until 1962, when he retired, he kept his day job in the civil service.) As Drummond’s readership grew, a new energy seeped out of his poetry; it lost precisely the capacity for stubborn withholding that made the poet’s earlier work so seductive. The poems still suggested disaffection and regret, but in language that was at once more metrically regular and less reticent, less disciplined, more crowded with embellishments and ungainly modifiers. It’s hard to imagine the younger Drummond writing a sentence as confounding as this one from “Chaos in the Bedroom,” originally published in Farmer in the Clouds (1954)—

How sensitive and secret a petal

torments me and makes me synthesize

this flower whose growth is a mystery: love

in the quintessence of the word, and mum

with natural silence, too busy plucking

and loving to accommodate the ambiguous

cloud that dissipates in that object

still hazier than a cloud and more

taboo: the body! . . .

—or a rhetorical question as baffling as the one posed by the speaker of “Nakedness” (from 1959’s Fair Copy of Life): “What feeling lives and already thrives / by digging in us enough ground / to bury itself with the grim resolve / of someone living his own death?” It was only in his later poems that Drummond arrived back at a way to consistently build pockets of space into his verse. “I used to consider absence a lack,” reflects the speaker of one of the poems in Body (1984). “And I ignorantly regretted that lack. / Today I have nothing to regret. / There is no lack in absence. / Absence is a presence in me.”

Richard Zenith made his name as a translator of the brilliant, idiosyncratic Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, introducing him to a new generation of English-language readers. Multitudinous Heart is his second anthology of a major twentieth-century Brazilian poet after Education by Stone, a revelatory 2005 selection of verse by Drummond’s admirer João Cabral de Melo Neto. Drummond published some of Cabral’s early poetry, and the two poets’ sensibilities sometimes lined up strikingly. Like Pessoa, both Drummond and Cabral were inveterate teachers. With a mixture of warnings, imperatives and helpful maxims, they were constantly proclaiming how poetry should and should not be done. In a “catechism” he playfully attributed to the thirteenth-century Castilian poet Gonzalo de Berceo, Cabral reminded himself to “make the loose word adhere / to the body of its referent” and “make the light word weigh / as much as the thing it tells.” Writing in a similar key in 1945, Drummond gave himself a suggestive piece of advice:

Spend time with your poems before you write them.

Be patient, if they’re obscure. Calm, if they provoke you.

Wait for each one to take shape and reach perfection

with its power of language

and its power of silence.

Both poems are calls for discipline, forbearance and a willingness to carefully examine the properties of the words that are the poet’s artistic materials. Cabral answers that call with almost eerie consistency across the poems in Education by Stone, just as Bishop answered it throughout her small, concentrated body of published work. Drummond was less reliable. In some cases, his sense of himself as a figure weighed down, hemmed in, and threatened seems to have given him an extreme clarity of focus, a limitless ability to wait for his poems to “take shape and reach perfection.” In other cases, you sense, this tendency led him to rush into existence poems that were still obscure or half-shaped. And yet the presence of those less worked-out poems in even a carefully curated selection like Multitudinous Heart somehow validates the wonderful ones. It suggests, movingly and convincingly, that the anxieties animating the best of Drummond’s poems were intense enough to lead him against the grain of his own wise advice.

Max Nelson’s writings on film and literature have appeared in The Threepenny Review , n+1, the Boston Review, and Film Comment, among other publications.