Twentieth-century Brazilian art is known for its hugely influential avant-garde and countercultural movements. One might think, for example, of the poesia concreta or concrete poetry movement pioneered by Décio Pignatari and Haroldo and Augusto de Campos in the 1950s, or of the equally subversive, cross-genre Tropicalismo or Tropicália movement led by musicians and lyricists Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil in the 1960s. Both movements had explicit political motivations: poesia concreta sums up its manifesto with Mayakovsky’s declaration that “without revolutionary form there is no revolutionary art.” Similarly, Tropicália’s ironic moniker captures its commitment to debunking the image of Brazil as a unified tropical paradise and revealing the brutality of life under a dictatorship that lasted from 1964 to 1985. The poems and songs produced out of these movements are emphatically engajados: “committed.”
Contemporary Brazilian poetry, by contrast, is characterized by the absence of a prevailing poetics or political agenda, and for the poets, this freedom is exciting. If we consider other examples of postwar or postrevolutionary art, like the post-Velvet Revolution poetry of the Czech Republic or the post-Revolução dos Cravos literature of Portugual, the shift makes sense: aesthetic experiment and subjective experience merge after political dictatorships end.
What young Brazilian poets do share is a surreal twenty-first-century intimacy with things near and far. The manner in which manifold references and influences casually connect in their poems is representative of the radical openness and vast scope that Rimbaud predicted in 1871: “Enormity [will] become the Norm … absorbed by everyone.” This style is crucially enabled and informed by Brazilian traditions of anthropophagy, or cultural cannibalism, popularized by Oswald de Andrade in the 1920s and revived by Veloso and Gil in the 1960s: de Andrade’s “Manifesto Antropófago” (1928) dictates that Brazilian artists should “devour” foreign cultural elements and freely combine them with native stuff to produce something truly their own. If they remain xenophobically obsessed with “roots” and “authenticity,” they produce nothing but “macumba [voodoo] for tourists,” to use de Andrade’s famous phrase. This anthropophagic precedent, in conjunction with the forces of globalization and Internet realities that define the present moment, means that the idea of unspoiled cultural authenticity is no longer a goal for contemporary Brazilian poets. Instead, an individualized compounding process has become a primary mode of composition.
The three poets included in this feature, Angélica Freitas, Leonardo Gandolfi, and Ismar Tirelli Neto, illustrate this new, idiosyncratic mixing. Angélica Freitas shakes up Rilke in Brazilian-Portuguese English, and pushes the Concretist obsession with the Joycean “verbivocovisual” into mythic personal anecdote, bringing São Paulo localities, the history of a Brazilian political prisoner, and Gertrude Stein’s daydreams into the same stylistic register, if not the same poem. In the work of Leonardo Gandolfi, Burt Bacharach somehow knows poems by Manuel Bandeira, and has acquired a finesse for sympathetic understatement by reading Elizabeth Bishop. Ismar Tirelli Neto’s poems possess an exuberance that is part Carioca, part New York School: he shares the latter’s light-hearted attitude toward the basic impossibility of absolute or objective understanding. Like Ashbery, his collage approach embraces the possibility that understanding comes by chance, if it comes at all.
Although free of a collective poetic or political agenda, these poems nevertheless redefine the terms of the poetic and the political. At the end of Rimbaud’s prophecy, when “enormity becomes the norm,” poetry regains its inherent political and civic nature: “This eternal art will have its function since poets are citizens. Poetry will no longer accompany action but will lead it.” In Freitas’s, Gandolfi’s, and Neto’s work, we see a new poet-citizen, anthropophagically devouring the present and recombining it into new, personal forms.
Thank you to Angélica, Leonardo, and Ismar for generous feedback throughout the translation process; thank you to Ismar for collaborating on the translation of Leonardo’s poems, with perfect English; and thank you to Cassie Owens for collaborating on the translation of Angélica’s poems, bringing such helpful attention to the subtleties of their Portuguese. Thank you to Paulo Henriques Britto for extraordinary erudition and insights. Last and not least, thank you to Jacket2 international editor Sarah Dowling for her valued editorial work.