Thursday, February 15, 2007

Souvenir of the Ancient World

Thirty years ago, Dr. Generosity's was a bar on Manhattan's Upper East Side. New York City had Irish bars, punk bars, biker bars, gay bars, sports bars, even a bluegrass bar. Dr. Generosity's was a poetry bar. That fact aside, I don't remember anything particularly distinctive about it, not that I was ever in there more than once or twice. A fairly wide room, when you first walked in, tables spread around, and then the bar itself in the middle towards the back. I don't remember sawdust on the floor or an odor of peanuts, like there was at McSorley's, the long running establishment in the East Village. Were there framed, autographed glossies of famous poets on the walls, smiling in their Oxford shirts and fedoras, suit jackets slung over their shoulders? Probably not.

A guy named Ray Freed, a poet and a waiter, ran a series of poetry readings at the bar for a number of years. He also published some chapbooks under the Doctor Generosity Press imprint; I have one, Spencer Holst's On Demons, with drawings by Beate Wheeler, which was published in 1970. But I didn't buy it at the bar, and I didn't know who Ray Freed was at the time. The only reason I ever knew anything about the place was because a group of friends and I once went there to hear Mark Strand read.

Strand's name first came to my attention when I read a poem of his in an anthology I found on the shelves of my high school library. It was the early '70s, and high school libraries didn't really know how to react to all this youth culture that was suddenly popping up all over, and so they were buying some very strange things with titles like Killing Time: A Guide to Life in the Happy Valley that the librarians probably couldn't make heads or tails of but that sounded like they might have something to do with all these changes that they were hearing about, and it was in that anthology or a similar one that I found Strand's poem “Eating Poetry,” which amused me sufficiently that I went to our local public library, which had a better than average poetry section, and found Strand's collections Reasons for Moving and Darker, both of which I came to know almost verbatim for a while.

I don't remember anymore whether I bought Strand's slender paperback volume of translations from the Brazilian modernist poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade after the reading at Generosity's or before. A little before, I think, but in any case it was around the same time. Souvenir of the Ancient World was published, in an edition of 500 copies printed letterpress by Samuel Antupit, by Antaeus Editions, an imprint briefly used by Daniel Halpern, the publisher of Ecco Press and Antaeus magazine, which, at least in its heyday in the '70s, was about as interesting a literary quarterly as any you could find. I bought it at the Gotham for five dollars; the pencilled price is still on the first page.

So when Strand stepped to the podium to read, on the heels of the much less interesting Howard Moss, a fellow poet who is now long dead, I was probably already familiar with his translations of Drummond, poems like “The Elephant” and “The Phantom Girl of Belo Horizonte,” both of which I'm fairly sure he read that day, or “Quadrille,” which is brief enough to quote in its entirety:
John loved Teresa who loved Raymond
who loved Mary who loved Jack who loved Lily
who didn't love anybody.
John went to the United States, Teresa to a convent
Raymond died in an accident, Mary became an old maid,
Jack committed suicide and Lily married J. Pinto Fernandez
who didn't figure into the story.
Strand was, and most likely still is, a mesmerizing reader: he spoke to the hushed saloon in a sonorous, measured voice, with a delivery that was dramatic without ever being hokey. It didn't hurt that he was tall and good looking and assured; the women must have been lining up for him, maybe some of the men as well. He must have read some of his own work on that particular day, but if so I have no recollection of it; it's the translations he read that have stayed with me when I think back on that day.

Regarded as one of the foremost poets Brazil has produced, Carlos Drummond de Andrade was born in Itabira in 1902 and died in Rio de Janeiro in 1987. In addition to Strand's versions, several other English-language translations have been made of selections of his work, with mixed results. There is much that remains untranslated. From what I've been told a good deal of his early work is “proletarian” in nature, not surprising for a lifelong socialist who was raised in a mining town. Though he never abandoned his political affiliation, in later works he turned to more universal matters as well, notably love, longing, and the inevitable approach of oblivion, and it was poems along those lines that Strand picked out to adapt.

Drummond could be very funny, in a sweet, dapper sort of way, and he could be wistful and haunting; frequently he is both at once. At his best, he perfectly captures both the lightness and the weight of being, as in this poem called “Your Shoulders Hold Up the World”:
A time comes when you can no longer say: my God.
A time of total cleaning up.
A time when we no longer can say: my love.
Because love proved useless.
And the eyes don't cry.
And the hands do only rough work.
And the heart is dry.

Women knock at your door in vain, you won't open.
You remain alone, the light turned off,
and your enormous eyes shine in the dark.
It is obvious you no longer know how to suffer.
And you want nothing from your friends.

Who cares if old age comes, what is old age?
Your shoulders are holding up the world
and it's lighter than a child's hand.
Wars, famine, family fights inside buildings
prove only that life goes on
and nobody will ever be free.
Some (the delicate ones) judging the spectacle cruel
will prefer to die.
A time comes when death doesn't help.
A time comes when life is an order.
Just life, without any escapes.
The interesting thing about that one is that Strand apparently had second thoughts about how he translated it. The problem was that the line “and nobody will ever be free” isn't really what the original (e nem todos se libertaram ainda) means, and when Strand's translations of Drummond de Andrade were reprinted in a later collection (Looking for Poetry, 2002), it was revised to the more accurate, less fatalistic, and infinitely less memorable “and not everybody has freed himself yet,” proving that, in poetry at least, when a translator finds himself caught between sense and sound, he should come down firmly on the side of the latter.

One of my favorite Strand renditions of Drummond is the poem called “Residue.” It's too long to include in full here, at least under any reasonable interpretation of “fair use,” but basically it's an enumeration of things that are left over, in a variety of contexts, along with the poet's rather desperate wish that, when he is gone, something of himself might remain as well. The poem begins with these two stanzas:
From everything a little remained.
From my fear. From your disgust.
From stifled cries. From the rose
a little remained.

A little remained of light
caught inside the hat.
In the eyes of the pimp
a little remained of tenderness, very little.
And so forth. My favorite bits may be this one:
A little remains dangling
in the mouths of rivers,
just a little, and the fish
don't avoid it, which is very unusual.
and of course the final stanza:
Still, horribly, from everything a little remains,
under the rhythmic waves
under the clouds and the wind
under the bridges and under the tunnels
under the flames and under the sarcasm
under the phlegm and under the vomit
under the cry from the dungeon, the guy they forgot
under the spectacle and under the scarlet death
under the libraries, asylums, victorious churches
under yourself and under your feet already hard
under the ties of family, the ties of class,
from everything a little always remains.
Sometimes a button. Sometimes a rat.
Those last two lines, I think, pretty much say all there is to say.

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