Artwork by Gonçalo Ivo
Kerry Shawn Keys photo by Andrius Konickis
by Lêdo Ivo
Kerry Shawn Keys
with José Carlos Dias
Translator's Note and Introduction
by Kerry Shawn Keys
Lêdo Ivo passed his childhood in Maceió, a port and provincial capital in the Northwest of Brazil. Port and peninsula. Blue sea steeped with boats and fish, brown earth swimming with sugar and coconuts, and the poet like the crabs that people his poems, always negotiating these two realms held together by the sun during the day, and strung together at night by a constellation of sex and stars. And though this city in all its backwater seediness, and the surrounding countryside in its torrid loveliness, are an inseparable part of Ivo’s poetry, its only later in his novel, Snakes Nest (New Directions), that this lushness takes on a social character and a history, a colorful if not religious decadence. The poetry stays personal, and when it strays, it strays mostly into satire, a satire that lives on loss and disillusion.
Like so many of his generation, Ivo left his hometown when nearly twenty to go to Rio de Janeiro. There he worked as a journalist, and continued writing the brilliant and romantic poems that he was acclaimed for as an adolescent. But he never really shook the dirt off his provincial roots. He never wanted to. However, he did shake off much of the sentimental swans-down so characteristic of the narrowly regional. Unlike the wealthy, parlor Bolshevik writers of that period, Ivo was rarely seduced by the universe of politics or the universal ideas that shunned the hardwood of life and community traditions for dialectics at the Sorbonne or Cambridge. For Ivo, the commonplace things around him became the windows and doors, the gates of his vision and existential travels. Objects were sacred objects; things were the stuff of his dreams, the clay in the kiln was shaped by the right hand of a non-existent God and the left hand of man.
Perhaps it was Ivos fundamentally religious nature that saved him, that sustained him in the huge metropolis of Rio. Though it frightened his critics and the intellectual, urban elite, his poetry, his incredible verbosity and brilliance, his undeniable gift have finally distinguished him as Brazils most important poet. Ivo managed to slip through the excessive formalism of his generation, and was never later seduced by the schools of poetry spawned by the wonderful poet, João Cabral de Melo Neto, or the Concretismo poets of Saõ Paulo who were belatedly worshipping at the foot of Ezra Pound while at the same time trying to incorporate the pyrotechnics of Apollinaire. Lêdo Ivo, to the contrary, was the student of Melville and Hawthorne, and later, much to his advantage, William Carlos Williams. Like Williams, he never exiled his heart from the land of his birth.
When I first met Lêdo Ivo in 1974 in Rio de Janeiro, I was a young poet of 28 who had shipped off to Brazil for the adventure of it, for the samba, for the rainforest, for the beaches, for the exotic but earthy ambience sensed in the music and especially in the film, Black Orpheus. I wasnt disappointed. It took only a few months for us to find each other, and I immediately knew that this man was no ordinary man, that in his nervous exuberance and hospitality, his endless monologues about poetry and world literature, his enthusiasm for Rimbaud, Faulkner, and Williams, there was some kind of battle going on, a very real battle with nothing theoretical in it, and the prize would be a shot at eternity. A strange but appropriate prize for a man who disdained his own schooling, who tried to steer me away from involvement with African-Brazilian ceremonies, who claimed that Gods did not exist, but carried on a conversation with a non-existent God in his poetry, a conversation almost as insistent as Captain Ahabs. And the materials of this discourse were not just the language and the rhetoric of Portuguese of which he is indeed a master, but the very things around him, the sensual things, the mundane things, the elemental odes of his daily existence. He often spoke of Neruda and Williams, but more of the latter, and yet I think that he has little in common with them, that these poets were more the bast and ballast that kept his own appetite for transcendence in check, that their example allowed him to turn and bring out of the grain of his words so that they wouldnt disappear into pure sound, the pure nostalgia of a soul lost in the walled-in jungle of Guanabara Bay.
Over the years the power of Ivos poetry has not diminished. If anything, his travels in the States and Europe, his long engagement with Edward Hopper and other American realists, his familys move to a forested area near Rio, his deep involvement with his lovely, now deceased wife, Lêda , and the incredibly tactile paintings of his son, Gonçalo, only strengthened his sensibility, renewed and redefined his love for the tropics, Minha Terra, as he calls it, his homeland of images. He still writes the longer poems, but increasingly, short, pithy aphorisms.
And now suddenly the long poem, Requiem (2008), which is in a sense a string of pearls evoking and invoking his life as a poet, his debts, his testimony, his tropical turf. And indeed, Requiem was awarded the Casa de las Americas award in the category of testimonial works. Requiem was finished about 2006, and I received a letter along with the typewritten manuscript from Lêdo Ivo asking me to translate it. Now I translate mostly from Lithuanian and so I hesitated, not sure if I should tackle such a masterpiece, and then the Warsaw-based, Portuguese publisher and lecturer José Carlos Dias came to my rescue, and we worked on it together for several months while Lêdo played a bit with the text in Portuguese. And the result is this text in English, though the poem that saw the light in Havana may have a few minor alterations, given the poets love to tinker.
Lêdo Ivo was born in 1924, and the poem attempts to encompass that lifetime! His words these last decades have the confidence of one who has become a classic in his own time, a man who can write odes for junkyards and dead birds, and sonnets for crabs – sonnets whose fragrance may be a memory, but whose smell is still the sugar and flesh, the landsend of salt and water and sky that pass through the gates of his sensibility and that have always been the subject of his poetry and ferocious imagination.
Here I am, waiting for the silence. Before the rotten shipyard I catch only a glimpse of the flotsam left over from the illumination. Like all leftovers, it bears the mark of things hidden forever or of those interred at the top of the dunes; like the letters branded in fire on the flank of a horse stolen by a gipsy, or a
birthmark on a much-beloved hip. Now, night descends for good. My weary gaze follows the canoe moving away from the mangroves. A light in the salt marsh. A crab in the mud. And life evaporates like the souls in a heaven that doesnt shelter a single god. Every landscape I saw has crumbled into corroded postcards.
And a dirty fingernail, dressed in black, takes the place of an ancient hand. The endless doors of the docks that stored braided onions and sacks of sugar shrink in the darkness, reduced to a single door, refractory to the dazzling clarity of daybreak. At the Sand Bar of Saint Miguel, facing the sea, only now I have understood: the longest day of a man lasts less than a bolt of lightning. The hours will no longer be celebrated among the constellations. Sky and earth will disappear in the ashes born out of the coming days and nights stolen by death. And everything I loved, dissolves. The scarlet cloud softly lands between the stucco huts and
the wave-torn sea. The time has come to say goodbye to the dark water that roars in the darkness of the lagoon, and to the planetary wind that dries the fish hanging from the poles of the thatched huts, and to the virgin forest descending to the sea along the steep coastline of my lost homeland. Eternity passes like the wind. Only time is eternal. Ive always been here amid my decimated people, and beyond the dunes my hands made the golden anthropophagical bonfire of the awesome feast. A night of ashes now follows the clamor and the joy. The sea douses all the shipwrecks and every fire quenches itself,
the whole golden fire scatters and dies down into the silence of the world. Here, in the water and earth of my continual births, my shadow roams through the wrecks of ships lost or dreamt. And I search in vain the transgressed waters for the chastity of the clear and intact water that emerges from
the sea at the break of dawn in the heart of the muted night. Oh! gate promised as lifes comfort, after such filth and such splendour! In this final night, the heavenly bonfires burn up all hope and bury in ash the foolish dreams of earthly souls and the death rattle that suppresses any paradise. In the crematory-night, death is a bonfire.
Here I am, waiting for the silence.
Before the rotten shipyard
I catch only a glimpse of the flotsam
left over from the illumination.
Like all leftovers, it bears the mark
of things hidden forever
or of those interred at the top of the dunes;
like the letters branded in fire
on the flank of a horse stolen by a gipsy, or
on a much-beloved hip.
Now, night descends for good.
My weary gaze follows the canoe
moving away from the mangroves.
A light in the salt marsh. A crab in the mud.
And life evaporates like the souls
in a heaven that doesnt shelter a single god.
Every landscape I saw has crumbled
into corroded postcards. And a dirty fingernail, dressed in black,
takes the place of an ancient hand. The endless doors
of the docks that stored braided onions and sacks of sugar
shrink in the darkness, reduced to a single door,
refractory to the dazzling clarity of daybreak.
At the Sand Bar of Saint Miguel, facing the sea,
only now I have understood:
the longest day of a man
lasts less than a bolt of lightning.
The hours will no longer be celebrated
among the constellations.
Sky and earth will disappear
in the ashes born out of the coming
days and nights stolen by death.
And everything I loved, dissolves.
The scarlet cloud softly lands
between the stucco huts and the wave-torn sea.
The time has come to say goodbye to the dark water
that roars in the darkness of the lagoon,
and to the planetary wind that dries the fish
hanging from the poles of the thatched huts,
and to the virgin forest descending to the sea
along the steep coastline of my lost homeland.
Eternity passes like the wind.
Only time is eternal. Ive always been here
amid my decimated people,
and beyond the dunes my hands made
the golden anthropophagical bonfire
of the awesome feast. A night of ashes
now follows the clamor and the joy.
The sea douses all the shipwrecks
and every fire quenches itself, the whole golden fire
scatters and dies down into the silence of the world.
Here, in the water and earth of my continual births,
my shadow roams through the wrecks
of ships lost or dreamt.
And I search in vain the transgressed waters
for the chastity of the clear and intact water
that emerges from the sea at the break of dawn
in the heart of the muted night.
Oh! gate promised as lifes comfort,
after such filth and such splendour!
In this final night, the heavenly bonfires
burn up all hope and bury in ash
the foolish dreams of earthly souls
and the death rattle that suppresses any paradise.
In the crematory-night, death is a bonfire.
Beyond the cold and heat
and the impetuous cockroaches that spread like petals
in the abandoned granary
and the funeral bells in the morning of childhood
and the swinging lights of the trucks slowly crossing the cane fields
scaring away the raccoons,
and beyond the baskets open like corollas
in order to collect the remains of the day mutilated by hates and wars,
and far from the fallen nests on the winter ground
and the waters of the unyielding rains that suddenly disappear
on the great table of the primordial sea
and the feathery crystal-clear moons that rule the passage of the mullets,
there is a nowhere which dispenses with begging and hope
and frightens off solemnity and reverence.
Beyond the dreams visited by the restless sea
and the fetid dark of the cesspool and the solar clarity
where bewildered we move
like flies made dizzy by the swelter of summer,
a non-space waits for us. The day
crawls in hours that open to the landscape like windows.
The noise of the world reaches the shore
and encircles the salt flats, the treacherous reefs of shellfish,
and lagoons of sugar.
Beyond reality, there are other realities
that unfold like rungs. Our steps
climb up and down the ladder in the miserable day,
in the gentle night.
They are like dreams that are tributaries of other dreams
or open windows to the sea.
We dont know where we are. We dont know what we are.
We know nothing but the existence of a night
pure and empty, waiting for us. An untouchable night
beyond fire and ice and any hope.
With its sinister hand, death crushes
our dazzling insect dreams,
and pours the purity of the water inside the vase
as the flowers fragmented promised disaster.
Death, always death, bugging us
with the buzzing of a funeral fly.
Ive always loved daybreak. The prow of the ship,
the clarity that moves forward between the sparse shadows,
the lingering murmur of life in the train stations.
A bonfire of words breaks out in the square.
A black fjord of a train crosses the city.
Day spills the syllables of the world onto the sidewalks.
Ive always loved the thunder that tears the afternoon apart,
the rust and the rain, love that ends
and the smoke that rises from screeching tires.
The idiotic days pass like bridges.
Statues fly like birds.
The tightest doors open like lips.
Ive always loved what passes by: crowded taxis,
the whistles of trains, stray clouds
and the leaves dragged by the wind.
Hail punishes the pyramids of death.
The brothels door cracks in the sultry weather.
A yellow sunset enfolds the shipyard.
Ive always loved junk, the form destroyed
by time, rank as a tidal pool.
Ive always loved the weevil hidden in the silos.
The din of torrential rain makes the night clearer
and unfolds between the rocks the beautiful banners
of a dream accompanying a dismantled sun.
And Ive always loved the love that is like an artichokes,
something that you peel, something that conceals
a green unpeelable heart.
At the shipyard of Sao Miguel dos Campos
the sea gives back to the sea the claimed spoils
of the lost vertebrae of the ships.
Ive always loved the thunder that awakens those who are asleep.
The door of my house is open to the thunderstorm
and to the hours that lose their scales like a fish.
Ive always loved the fog that hides the landscape,
mannequins, scarecrows, broken mirrors.
Ive always loved rust, erosion, and junk.
Containers are deposited in ships holds like baskets of flowers.
The line separating land from sea flashes like lightning.
On the immense counter of the world there is division and commerce.
Ive always loved the piers that support the bridges,
ships leaving port, the lighthouses and the hoists.
Ive always loved the Ocean and the semaphores.
Where the dead live, I will live someday,
in that nowhere place that the fleeting gods
reserved with the ashes, nothing and nobody.
And Ive always loved snow falling among the plane trees
that hem the Seine, while the boats
pass slowly and white under the bridges.
The clear anthill of clear waters
bursts in the morning under the brilliant
blue sky braced by the birds.
Ive always loved the mirrors of barbershops,
the flower stands, the newspaper kiosks,
the vegetables in the gondolas of the supermarkets.
Day is a coin oxidized by chimeras.
And the bridges shake at the passage of the dusty buses
that accomplish the migrations of misery and death.
Ive always loved to listen to the noises of the world:
the golden humming of the bee in the dung,
the noisy day and the wandering wind.
The ships whistle. Its time to leave.
Each closed door is a port to be opened
by the triumphant wind that lacerates the ocean.
Ive always loved the light of the mangled sun
that nests in the mangroves, the fluvial light of the day
over the dunes that walk the horizon at night.
He who has the key to dreams opens any door.
He who sails sleeping reaches any pier
and on the ships sees the abolition of death.
And Ive always heard the voice that calls me in the dark,
the voice on the other side, coming from other worlds
that crumble in the air, licked by the fog.
Ive always loved this voice which is a no voice,
a whisper of nothing, startled ash,
a grain of sand that rasps on the endless beach.
The foliage of the night covers me while I sleep,
shroud of a pure sun always seeking the dark,
murmur of a fountain, white stone of a wall.
And Ive always loved time and intemperate weather,
the termite that thrives in the nudity of matter,
in the pale colonies of the plundered night.
Fortune decided that I would always find myself
when lost, even in a shipwreck
which is always the work of the wind.
Ive always loved what lives in the black water of the mangroves.
Ive always loved what is born. Ive always loved what dies
when the night collapses over the houses of men.
The lights of the airport hurry like harlequins.
At the railroad crossings, the whistling freight trains
carry mannequins to supply our dreams.
And I am the one that departs. And stays. And flies. And remains.
A beam of a lighthouse divides the universe.
My hand hunts in the dark for a nuptial body.
I lick the secretive salt of the barely opened shells.
The lingering silence between roots and lianas
opens a solar path in an aqueduct.
Sultry weather sustains the clarity.
Day is a shattered lightning bolt.
A shadowy cone eclipses me from myself.
And the day passes like an ant. The days pass
like the breeze in unfurled sails.
The days pass and always bring death.
I say goodbye to myself in the vespertide of darkness.
And now the night descends. With it, the lost cause.
My hand no longer touches the beloveds body.
A dark sun illuminates the night of my soul
but I want the other sun, the great clarity
of the solid day opening like a door.
I only feel complete with my shadow
and the mask of everything I ceased being.
My uninhabitable sun rises in any horizon.
Only to the wind that blows do I trust my amazement.
I need to be exact and impenetrable
so I can be understood by the passing day.
The flight of the falcon accompanies my steps
towards life, towards death,
under the indifference of an imperishable sky.
I see death hidden in a sunbeam:
the remains of the afterglow, the nest of no bird
and abolition of flight over any plateau.
Happy are those who depart.
Not the ones who reach the rotten ports.
Happy those who depart and never come back.
For I stay always half way
and my journey remains unfinished.
Happy are those who dont know the final station.
Happy those who disappear in the fog,
those who open windows at dawn,
those who light the lights of the airfields.
Happy are those who cross the bridges
when the afternoon lands among the refineries like a bird.
Happy those who possess an inattentive soul.
Happy are those who know that, at the end of the passage,
Nothing awaits them, like a scarecrow in a corn field.
Happy those who only find themselves when windborne or lost.
Happy are those who have lived more than one life.
Happy are those who have lived countless lives.
Happy those who vanish when circuses pull up their tents.
Happy those who know that each fountain is a secret.
Happy are those who love storms.
Happy those who dream of illuminated trains.
Happy those who loved bodies and not souls,
who heard the hoot of white owls in the silence of the night.
Happy are those who found a lost syllable in the dew of the grass.
Happy those who crossed the obscure night and the untimely fog,
who saw the crackling fire dancing in the big bonfires of June,
happy those who watched the sky open like an altar cloth
to welcome the flight of the falcon.
Happy those who live on the outlying islands
and are surrounded at nightfall by a cloud of leaf-cutter ants.
Happy those who just sat around and then one day left.
Words follow me like dogs
when I walk among the constellations.
I rise like the day, and I die at nightfall.
I am reborn from myself and to myself I return
with the promise of another dawn.
In the circle of time, I pass on and I stay.
I dawn and grow dark among the galaxies
and between two suns I drink my eternity.
Added or divided, always I multiply myself
when the constellations fly in the sky like birds
and the truth of the world is stored in the hold of the ships.
I am the wind that blows in Maceió
and the mullet imprisioned in the fishtrap of the sea.
Night is a door that closes
when I pass. Day is a shipmasters atlas.
Before sleep and the dream, I sip the silence of the mountains
and cross the border where death is hiding
like a fox in the forest.
Along the way, Ive always listened to
the endless seas murmuring of syllables.
At colds eve and at the end of mystery,
I search once again for the rigging of the shipyard
and I cant even find my own shadow
sucked up by the clouds of the crimson sunset.
The sea advances like a sword.
For this journey I bring nothing
but whats left of me,
the wreck that verifies my shipwreck.
I walked in the crowd. I listened to the noises of the world
in the voice of the demagogue, in the booming reggae, in the cry of the street peddler,
in the turbines of a jetplane, in the cursing
of the impatient poor at a bus stop, in the whisper
of love that clears the darkness,
in the flashing rain.
I talked with the stone and I came to know
its silence and thickness; and a tree of foam
blossomed for me in the brightness of morning.
I watched the wind blow in the lagoons
and circle the misery of the world.
Like a lumberjack, I ended my day and waited for night.
Night came and blunted the axe that leaned against the wall,
and the woodpile stayed in the shed until transformed into fragrant ash.
I saw the lame horse coming down the hill and neigh under the starlight.
I tried to open the door that is always closed.
I crossed the bridges of the big cities
and breathed love, and drank the universe
and saw the sea once more, a fullness like wine and bread.
I saw the lights of Europe lighting up
as night slowly fell.
I was a man among men, a visage among many,
and now Im alone.
I was always love itself in the unforgettable bed,
and now my wandering hand only finds darkness
where before there was the beloved body.
A mute ocean surrounds me
and its white like a shroud.
And the rain falls and washes
the latrines of death.
Sea, drums and hammer, music and salt of life,
huge resounding sea, here I am at your side!
Next to the bridge of the shipyard that creaks above the waves,
I long for the silence of the fish that cross the fiery red tentacle
of the coral reefs,
for the chasteness of the moon that rises in the pale sky and for the vigil of the sea
that invites me to be eternal,
and for the solitude of the sunken ships
that, in crustacean beds, keep the coins lost in the shipwrecks
and the lolling mew of the seagulls.
Everything I said to the foaming tide and to the radiant seaweed
was erased by the wind that nestled between the warehouses
and followed the sudden silence of the rain falling in the estuary
and moistening the damaged anchors
of the ships that hide in their rusty holds
the coupled smell of salt
and the dark hammering of the waters.
In the shipyard that jibs like a boat
when the dripping branches reach the shoals
where the dreams of men toss in graveyards of lime
and the holy sewers sip the summer rains,
I claim what Ive lost on the long passage.
Where are the madmen of my childhood,
the madmen that escaped and danced in the asylum devastated
by the sun?
Where are my ships and the light of the lighthouse?
Next to the waves that die and are reborn,
the eternal return and eternal movement,
once again I call you but you dont answer.
Now, only in my dreams I see your shadow.
Surely, you have flown like a bird into the darkness
and you went beyond the sun and the furtive thunder
and the clarity of the water. Like all of the dead
you are now where you are not,
in the nowhere that excludes all hope.
Only death teaches that angels dont exist.
All that I lost, I lost forever.
Day falls in love with itself
like a naked body in a mirror.
Time, composition of the water that flows
in a river of rumors and desires.
Loud cry of being! The blush of dawn
in the highest sky, in clouds that are doors
in the glacial flight
far from fear and horror.
And the whiteness of the world, snow and ice
dawning into white sculptures
at a height without vertigo.
Under the dawn-white precipice of the clouds
the earth holds our destitution.
And an insolent death follows the footsteps
of men that walk beneath the sun
toward the supreme night, toward the unruly sea.
We are not in a hurry to die, yet nevertheless we die
in the hurtling day.
And here I am, placid as the water of the cisterns.
And death is an impatient dawn,
and bursts from the wide open sky
towards the roaring dream of life.
I always lacked wisdom.
Throughout my life, I have learned little,
and now, before the exact and visible ocean, before the great prosodic sea
I know nothing about the passage.
After so many trips, this is the final frontier
that I have to overcome.
The boat without a boatman rocks on the slimy water.
And I am the dark mud full of miasmas
that supports the pile dwellings of misery and death.
I only got to know the endless rain
and that wind which drags the wind itself
in the delirious day, in the glowering night.
I watched the tide moving forward in the peninsula
and the sea coming to meet me like an invitation,
the feminine sea that fondled my feet.
There is a knowledge that escapes my footsteps
even when I step on the rotten boards of the shipyard
and look into my shadow for the prow of ships.
Time is the lord of truth and of the lie.
I say goodbye to the sultry weather. Its time for the arrival
of that migratory bird that only shows up in winter
and disturbs the sedentary world with its strident scream.
Oh clarity, farewell! I bid adieu to the sun,
to the incomparable sea and the untimely night.
I have lived without learning that everything is loss and passage
and that the breakers erase the names of the ships
and take to the offing the rumble of life.
Now the silence of the world seals my soul.
The rosy ray of the rosy sunrise
points to the dark night.
Separated from myself by death,
that shell that doesnt stow away the noise of the sea,
its here in the dark mud of the salt marsh
that my long road between two nothings ends.