After reading Manoel de Barros’s stunning and exuberant collection, Birds for a Demolition (translated by Idra Novey, Carnegie Mellon Press, 2010), I was shocked to discover that this was the Portuguese poet’s first collection translated into English (though individual poems have been published in journals). His poems feel like such a seamless part of the twentieth-century canon, I was surprised I had never read his work or studied him in a class. These surreal, “leaping” poems celebrate the absurd and irrational, glorify dirt and waste. The collection spans the ninety-one-year-old poet’s career, sampling poems from 1960 to 2009, and every one feels fresh. This book brims with joy; with playful, Romantic, nonsensical language and the imagery of a child’s mind: a splash of clear river water in the face.
Though de Barros pays homage to influences like French surrealists Baudelaire and Valéry, I felt a flurry of recognitions and associations between de Barros and a host of other possible influences. These unnamed poets seem to flutter around the book, like so many attendant butterflies; I would read a line and see Wallace Stevens land on my finger, fellow Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa flapping by, Wittgenstein emerging from a cocoon, Whitman laying eggs.
Perhaps I’ve stretched the metaphor a bit far, but these connections are impossible to ignore, most particularly the connection to Stevens. Like Stevens, de Barros is a philosophical poet obsessed with rescuing language from its debris of overused meanings. Hence his recurring use of the “un-” prefix, as in “An Education of Invention”: “To uninvent objects. / The comb, for example. / To give the comb abilities of not combing. ... / To use some words until they belong to no language.” Here de Barros has similar concerns as Stevens: “Begin, ephebe, by perceiving the idea / Of this invention, this invented world,” and “There is a project for the sun. The sun / must bear no name.” De Barros takes on the project of unnaming with full force: “In the evenings, an old man plays his flute / to invert the sunsets.” The human being is ascribed a god-like agency, an alchemical ability to influence nature through language; de Barros flips the sunset like a switch, and I am reminded of Stevens’s jar in Tennessee to which the landscape rushes when it is placed on a hill.
The connections to Stevens are almost too many to list, but I’ll add that “And when possessed by stone, / I’ll develop a mineral wisdom, as well” mirrors Stevens’s “One must have a mind of winter / to regard the frost ... ” in “The Snow Man.” De Barros is Stevens’s “Man on the Dump” (“The dump / is full of images”), sifting through a wasteland of language to resurrect a primordial knowledge; in “Filth,” de Barros declares: “I prefer the bleak words that live in the corners / of kitchens--filth, grit, tin cans-- / over those that live in fraternities-- / words like excellence, prominent, majestic.” This is a poetry of dirt; not simply in service of a Romantic love of the natural world (which is present as well), but in serious pursuit of the original in language, of stripped down origins, a peeling back of layers of connotations until a thing can be seen in and for itself: “I want to advance to the beginning. / To arrive at the infancy of words.”
This emphasis on simplicity, on a return to a kind of infancy, is a stripping away of the layers of meaning in language toward the notion of nothingness. His poem, “The Book about Nothing,” recalls both Wittgenstein’s philosophical aphorisms and those of Pessoa. Like Pessoa’s nowhere man of his Book of Disquiet (“Nothing had ever obliged him to do anything. ... By day I am nothing, and by night I am I.”), de Barros states: “What has most presence in me is what is missing” and “Inertia is my principle act.” Nothingness is the clean slate de Barros seeks, the ground from which life grows. Like Pessoa, who fragmented himself into various pseudonyms and personas, de Barros deconstructs but then reconstructs the self: “With pieces of Manoel I assemble an astonished being.”
The astonished being that emerges from this reconstructed self reveals an expansive inclusiveness, in which the self can become anything in the world around it. Though I do not know for sure which poets de Barros read and therefore might have been influenced by, it is hard not to see the connection in this inclusiveness to Whitman’s: “I accommodate the clouds in my eye. / ... I evolve my state of being until I am alongside a rock” and “I’m various people undone.” De barros takes Whitman’s praise of the earth-bound self and adds a dash of mischievousness and sarcasm: “It isn’t bragging when I explain / I have no splendor / I’m more concerned with rust / than with luster.” And like Whitman he exalts the unexalted: “It’s in the lowly I see exuberance,” “I have to monumentalize the poor things of the ground, pissed on by the dew,” and (Whitman would be cheering from the grave): “Park some shit with the sublime.”
I do not mean to overemphasize the role of influence in de Barros’s work. The profusion of connections to other writers clearly serves the poet’s visionary project and places him in the company of great poets, whether de Barros was aware of these connections or not. Likewise many contemporary poets are connected to de Barros in turn, including John Ashbery, Charles Bernstein, Mary Ruefle, among others; whether these poets are aware of his work or not, they are members of his poetic family. De Barros’s startling juxtapositions, his tongue-in-cheek attitude, his commitment to the absurd, his process of “verbal delirium,” lift his poetry to the level of the ecstatic. De Barros asserts: “A frog is a piece of the ground that jumps,” and the same can be said of his poetry. Though it is grounded in the earth, his poetry leaps from thing to idea, concrete object to abstraction and back again, playing tricks on the eye. “In the bone of the lunatic’s speech are the lilies,” de Barros tells us, with a wink. Through the language of nonsense, our poet offers us flowers, presents to us a reassembled world. It is an upside down universe, to be sure, a hall of funhouse mirrors, but isn’t reality more strange than poetry? This collection should fix de Barros in the canon of twentieth-century poets who revolutionized our way of seeing and speaking the world; indeed, who rescued it for us.