Charles Bernstein: De Campos Thou Art Translated (Knot)

Posted by Lidya Endzo Kun iLLa On 6:11 AM
[December 2003, published in the Poetry Society of America's Crosscurrents]

I do not guide because I do not guide because I can not guide and don't ask me for mementos just dwell on this moment and demand my commandment and do not fly just defy do not confide defile for between yes and no I for one prefer the no in the knowing of yes place the no in the ee of me place the no the no will be yours to know.
-- Haroldo de Campos, tr. A. S. Bessa

Haroldo de Campos is a defining figure for the poetry of the Americas. His work is essential not just to an understanding of Brazilian poetry but also to the geography -- conceptual, intellectual, cultural, and social -- of postwar poetry in the world at large. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say -- the world at small, for de Campos is determinately peripheral to the large-scale cultural and economic forces that have, more often than not, wrecked havoc on the possibilities for poetry’s indomitable sprit as local, resistant, rebarbative, intractable, radiant; as infra- and cross-cultural rather than pan-cultural; as intellectual fire rather than sentimental noise.

Haroldo de Campos died on August 16, 2003, at the age of 73, just months before a planned trip to the U.S. However, he was able to see the manuscript of Novas, a selection of his poems and essays, edited by A. S. Bessa and Odile Cisneros, which is forthcoming from Northwestern University Press.

On January 12, 2002, Bessa and Pablo Helguera brought a group of us together at the Guggenheim Museum, which was then presenting its gigantic show of art from Brazil, to talk about de Campos’s work. The following remarks are adapted from that talk.

De Campos is best known as one of the inventors of Concrete poetry in the 1950s. But concrete, or visual, poetry is only one aspect of de Campos’s work and his identification with this movement may obscure his overall achievement. The dynamic of this overshadowing, however, is a central part of the social meaning of his work. De Campos wrote literary and political essays, which often appeared in São Paulo’s daily newspapers. He also created poems in many new and old forms, including abstract lyrics (resembling in some ways the early work of Clark Coolidge, such as that collected in Space) and a new form of prose poetry that he called Galáxias, which is characterized by the pervasive use of portmanteau words (along the lines of late Joyce) and absence of periods, and is possibly his greatest literary achievement. Yet perhaps de Campos’s most resonant work was his writing about, and his practice of, translation, what he called transcreation. Indeed, the poetics and politics of trans- and re-creation informs not just de Campos’s incredible range of translations into Portuguese -- Genesis and Ecclesiastes, Homer and Dante, Joyce and Pound, Mallarmé and Mayakovsky -- but his work overall.

De Campos believed that translation was a key issue for Brazilian modernism. And Brazil itself is a necessary starting point for consideration of de Campos as poet and transcreator. I approach this topic with both enthusiasm and trepidation, for what I know about Brazil is determined, to a great extent, by what has been exported; indeed, what’s available to me in translation.

The problem is translating de Campos without losing the Brazilian. According to de Campos, the literary work in Brazil starts full-blown with the Baroque and you can experience this in a very striking way at the Guggenheim show. After ascending through floors and floors of Baroque art, all of a sudden you end up in a display of formalist modernism. There is practically no transition. Speaking today amidst this profusion of Brazilian art, we can see that de Campos is both Baroque and anti-Baroque. For de Campos, however, it is perhaps more cogent to speak of polyglotism, or what might also be called the syncretic. Indeed, the tensions among the polyglot, the multilingual, and the syncretic is a manifestation of the overlay of a reductive yet elegant modernist formalism superimposed on a Baroque foundation. And indeed this is the back story of de Campos’s poetry.

At the Guggenheim, such cultural contradictions were displayed in the most dramatic way in the conflict between the Norman Rockwell show, in the new side wing of the museum, and the Brazil show in the main atrium. The Rockwell show suggests a vision of America which is opposite to the syncretic and polyglot: an art of America not the Americas. Rockwell is constantly reiterating a unified and idealized image of what American (United States) culture can be; looking at these images brings this America into being. On the Brazilian side, there is no similar singular image of national unity.

The first book of poetry published by a Brazilian author was Música do Parnasso by Manuel Botelho de Oliveira (1636-1671); it was written in four languages -- Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, and Latin. If one reads that book as a virtual ground for de Campos’s project, it puts into play a very different framework than for those of his North and South American contemporaries who conceive of poetry as monolingual. But de Campos’s polylingualism is not simply a measure of his internationalism -- for both the apparent extroverted internationalism of Concrete poetry and of transcreation has another, intensely introverted, dimension, which is a crucial dynamic of de Campos’s work.

In the Brazilian modernism of the early 1920s, there was a focus on the specificity of Brazil but also on the fact that Brazil -- its culture, its art -- was unknown to the outside world. And at this point a fundamental conflict emerges between exporting and refusing to export “Brazil.” The fear of exporting culture is that one may end up extracting, reducing, translating (away), sacrificing the heart for a hollow representation. Moreover, there is the sense that one must have a culture in order to be in dialogue with other cultures; so, first, there is the need to build your culture into something substantial. Dialogue, in other words, export, comes into conflict with self-development. Or put it this way: Internationalism comes into conflict with willed isolation, the insistence on cultural solitude, which necessarily entails remaining unknown to the outside world. This issue, so central for de Campos, and other Brazilian poets, was addressed, in the 1920s, by the Brazilian poet Oswald de Andrade (1890-1954), when he writes of anthropophagy or cannibalism. Cannibalism is a way to deal with that which is external. While related to both translation and assimilation, cannibalism goes further: by eating that which is outside, ingesting it so that it becomes a part of you, it ceases to be external. By digesting, you absorb.

In 1952, when he was twenty-three years old, de Campos co-founded the Concrete poetry movement, the most visible Brazilian international literary export up until that time, and, as a result, also very well known, even if initially controversial, inside Brazil. Simultaneously, he was writing neo-Baroque poems, poems that remain unknown outside Brazil. Concrete poetry was a successful Brazilian export: it became part of, insofar as it could be assimilated to, the international modernist style. You can look at a Concrete poem and get the sense you understand it, without knowing Portuguese or anything about Brazil, or indeed anything about the author. The design of the words on the page, the evident lyric wit, made de Campos’s Concrete poems tremendously appealing. In its initial guise of minimalist reduction, these poems look international, suggesting a utopian possibility for postwar literary modernism, connected, for example, with both the architectural style and left politics of Oscar Niemeyer. The fact that a radically experimental visual poetry has been Brazil’s best-known poetry export, and as a result achieved a significant measure of acceptance within Brazil, reverses the dynamic in almost all other places, where comparable forms of innovative poetry work have been the among the most marginalized.

The situation of Concrete poetry echoes the double-bind of Russian Futurist Velimir Khlebnikov’s zaum (transrational) poetry. On the one hand, zaum was able to transcend language barriers, as a kind of Esperanto. Everyone would be able to understand transense or made-up words because nobody could understand them. In other words, like Concrete poetry, it appears to needs no translation. On the other hand, in its materializing of the word, zaum is completely opaque: untranslatable. It is this other side of the coin that is related to de Campos’s turn from his earlier sleek international modernism to Baroque transcreation, as he moved toward a capacious opacity by a process of absorption and cannibalization. Within the light of de Campos’s subsequent work, his Concrete poetry takes on a double life, for its very lucidity is the surface reflection of its refractory, ludic otherness; it’s like the sun shining on the surface of a body of water whose depth has not yet been sounded. Indeed, in many of de Campos’s poems, an immediately appealing play of sound, on the order of sound poetry for the non-Portuguese-speaking listener, doubles with a semantic complexity unavailable in the sounds themselves.

In other words, I keep coming back to that phrase, in other words we have to translate even, especially, de Campos’s translations. The words alone are not enough, what is required is an act of cultural transcreation and poetic exchange. If I were to situate de Campos within an American poetry context, the contemporaries of his that would come to mind immediately would be Robert Creeley, Jackson Mac Low, Susan Howe, Jerome Rothenberg, and David Antin.

In considering Brazil’s export culture, among the best known work is the bossa nova, as created in the magnificent rhythmic asymmetries and lyric understatement of Antonio Carlos Jobim (1925-1994) and Vinicius de Moraes (1913-1980), both roughly contemporary with de Campos, and continuing on with what has come to be called MPB (Música Popular Brasileira). Indeed, de Campos’s movement away from assimilatable export, as he backed away from the window onto (or out of?) Brazil provided by international abstraction, might be contrasted to the Tropicalismo of that most gifted singer/songwriter/poet Caetano Veloso (born in 1942), who has achieved a phenomenal international success over the past two decades.

Haroldo’s brother, and fellow Concrete poet, Augusto de Campos created a small storm among Brazil’s innovative poets by once suggesting the Tropicalismo was more interesting than any of their work. I don’t know what Haroldo thought of this, but I read his approach as being quite different. For Haroldo, the 1950s crystallized a moment of political possibility, of utopian extroversion; after that, he turned toward a non-utopian grappling with social complexity -- what he called "sign materialism." Sign materialism provides a way to read his journey from Concrete poetry to linguistic concretion by means of transcreation. Translation then becomes a bridge, going back to his earliest work and drawing on his interest in Pound’s, Zukofsky’s, and Benjamin’s radical approaches to translation. What de Campos calls transcreation is, in effect, re-creation: in translating the poet (cannibalistically) creates an original work in his or her own right, one no longer beholding to the source.

Thinking of this in terms of dependency, and in terms of Brazil, trancreation/re-creation becomes a metaphor for refusing dependency. The poet resists exporting; resists, that is, becoming dependent on what’s exportable. At the same time, the poet resists importing; resists, that is, developing a subsidiary relation to the powerful literatures beyond. Trancreation is a means of appropriating and remaking in one’s own right. In the process, the work made becomes refractory, opaque. It must itself be translated and yet it can’t be translated. De Campos’s translations are not subsidiary or secondary to some original but have themselves become original work. De Campos’s elaborations and extensions around a shifting center are the Baroque element of his work, with its insistence on the materiality of its languages and holding to its own specific gravity. It comes to this: de Campos’s work resists translatability through its cultural and linguistic thickness. In this way, de Campos reverses any reductive understanding of his internationalism. The work exemplifies what de Campos calls concretion, in contradistinction to "concrete": a neo-Baroque complexity that stands with its back askew to the internationally absorbable simplification represented by his best-known work, his primary export item, "Concrete Poetry." The work of de Campos is a dream of and by translation, but with no bottom language.

De Campos thou art translated (knot).

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