Birds for a Demolition is a deceptively slight book of deceptively simple poems. Poems that at first glance seem embedded in the natural world, in the landscape of Brazil, in the language of the wetlands. But this is in fact an expansive collection, spanning more than forty years of Manoel de Barros’s illustrious career and a breadth of styles and subjects. Idra Novey’s first triumph in this book is the selection of these poems, which make clear the development of the poets trajectory, while elucidating de Barros’s unwavering interest in language and the poetic self. Her second is her successful performance, as she put it in an interview with Subtropics, of de Barros’s voice in English.
These sparse poems are poems of “re” and poems of “un.” Poems that reinvent the natural world, that undo the poetic self, that redraw the relationship between language and nature and undermine it. “Before anything else a poem is an un-utensil.” (“from Thrush in Darkness III”). Or take sections II and III of “An Education on Invention”:
To uninvent objects.
The comb, for example.
To give the comb the abilities of not combing.
Until it is left with the inclination to be a begonia.
Or a gravanha.
To use some words until they belong to no language.
To repeat and repeat—until altered.
To repeat is a gift for flare.
There is an echo of Auden’s aphoristic “poetry makes nothing happen” in all this repeating to undo. And it is the kind of nothing that is replete with intent. It is the poetic nothing that requires sharp precision in language to inscribe. It is seeing anew the everyday; the ability to alchemize language into thing and thing into nothing.
What I don’t know how to construct I unbuild in phrases.
To make nothing appear.
(What it demonstrates is that man is a dark well.
From here, above, one can’t see that nothing.
But when you arrive at the bottom of the well, there it is.)
To lose that nothing is an impoverishment.
(“Desiring to Be”)
The empty space that is at the heart of this book reflects in part the emptiness of the Brazilian countryside, deserted as millions move to cities chasing a dream of a better life. There is melancholy rooted in this unbuilding, in the movement of nature over the constructions of man, but there is beauty and silence also in the nothing.
Grounds besieged by abandon, given over to poverty.
bq. Where men will have the strength of poverty.
bq. And the ruins will bear fruit.
(“Six or Thirteen Things I Learned About Myself”)
The fruit of the ruins for de Barros seems to be the poetry, though that too is fraught with denial, undoing, and nothingness. Being a poet, de Barros is justly concerned with what poetry is, how language works (or doesn’t), and what that means for the poet. The aphorisms Novey creates in his voice are eminently quotable:
A poet is a creature who licks words and gets delirious.
(“Six or Thirteen Things I Learned About Myself”)
Poetry is to flap without wings.
(“An Education on Invention”)
There are many serious ways to say nothing, but only poetry is true.
(“The Book about Nothing”)
But the slightly self-deprecating tone, the derisive pithiness that underlies this navel-gazing concern gets a bit tiresome. “The artist is nature’s error.” de Barros says later in “The Book about Nothing.” The sense that poetry always falls short of the thing it wishes to be, that the language can never fully alchemize, the emphasis on lack which seems intended to soften the potential for ostentation with humor, only serves as an irritant.
Where the book is most powerful is where the power of language and the power of nature combine. In “from Song of Seeing” the subject of the poem, perhaps a stand-in for the poet, spends years living in nature like a bird until he gains the ability to observe “things the way birds observed them. / All the unnamed things.” The power to name, to create and transform the natural world, is celebrated. But that power transforms the poet, the namer as well.
And, if he wanted to end up a bee, it was only a matter
of opening the word bee
and stepping inside it.
As if it were the infancy of language.
These poems are tightly packed, sharp little lyrics cutting through the world. And it is a testament to Novey’s poetic sensibilities as a translator that they are so dense, and yet so light. That the voice is varied, yet consistent. That the poems invent in English without sounding stilted. She does this exquisitely in “Small World.”
Here, if the horizon reddens a little,
the beetles think it’s a fire.
Where the river starts a fish,
river me a thing
River me a frog
River me a tree.
Novey brilliantly performs de Barros’ simultaneous un- and re-construction of himself and the natural world through language. Packed with luminous, inventive and often witty verse, A Demolition of Birds preserves the nothing at the core of poetry, nature and being.
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