My impulse to live and toil and evolve inside someone else’s words is sparked by a desire for intimacy. Living in Brazil for 18 months in the late 1970s, I haunted bookstores and combed through literary journals, aching to find a voice that was irresistible, larger, different than mine, one that challenged me to find a way to haul it—still fully alive—into English.
Unexpectedly, the first Adélia Prado poem that I encountered was in English—awkwardly translated by Brazilian students for a college literary magazine—but it told me all I needed to know. I ordered her books and dove in. Here’s my rendition of that first poem I read:
The chickens open their beaks in alarm
and stop, with that knack they have,
immobile—I was going to say immoral—
wattles and coxcombs stark red,
only the arteries quivering in their necks.
A woman startled by sex,
(The Alphabet in the Park, 1990)
Five years later, thanks to a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, I arrived on the poet’s doorstep after a long and dusty bus ride from Rio de Janeiro with a fat sheaf of translations peppered with queries. To my horror, when Adélia opened the door, instead of hello, I blurted: “Estou faminta!” (I’m famished). Nothing could have made her happier. We dissolved into laughter, and she sat me down to a plate of rice and beans.
I hadn’t yet read the poem in which she writes: “Forty years old: I don’t want a knife / or even cheese—I want hunger.”
In poetry, the use of a traditional form can function as a useful mask, and we’re taught not to assume that a first-person speaker is the poet; this first-person speaker could be nothing but. This was a voice I had to translate. (I still marvel at my luck that nobody got there first!) And I could never have imagined the bond that would result over 40 years, our families intertwined, my life in poetry interrupted and enriched by years of stretching to be Adélia’s voice in English.
Early in our first weeks together, she brought out the recent 13-poem supplement that had appeared in The American Poetry Review and asked me to translate them back into Portuguese so she could see what I had done. I trembled in my boots. One minute she’d be humming with approval, and the next she’d wonder why I had diverged from her metaphor.
A few days later, Adélia asked to see some of my own work. I had only a single poem in Portuguese, translated by Ivan Angelo, whose novel I had translated in turn. On second reading, she stabbed the page: “What’s going on here?” I explained the original lines. “Oh!” she exclaimed. “He translated your words but missed your intention!” What a huge gift to us both, this moment, so early on. It has spurred her to respond to the barrage of questions I bring on each visit—and, sworn to be loyal to the feeling and intent of her words, I am entrusted to construe them in English as I see fit.
My goals in translating Adélia’s work continue to be: to convey a language that is highly colloquial, even jaunty, but also thoroughly genuine and urgent; to make living, inviting, disconcerting poems in English; to be as flexible and inventive in my solutions as her work is by nature and strategy; and—above and beyond all considerations of language—to be faithful to the emotions that made the poem happen.
Adélia Prado burst onto Brazil’s poetry scene in her 40s, when the manuscript of her first book—Bagagem (1976)—was passed along to the great modernist poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade, who famously declared, “Adélia is lyrical, biblical, existential; she makes poetry as naturally as nature makes weather.” In the introduction to the book, Margarida Salomão wrote, “This is poetry before which critical discourse shrinks back, ashamed of all the abstractions, labels, and schematics at hand, leaving to the reader’s fascination this territory in which exuberance and clarity are not yet separated.” By 1998, Prado was ranked fourth on the National Library’s “List of Twenty” foremost living poets. The same year, her poems were adapted into a one-woman show starring Fernanda Montenegro, the grande dame of Brazilian stage and screen.
When I began sending out my translations in the 1980s, they were greeted with similar exhilaration. Carolyn Forché proclaimed Prado “a major poet of the Americas.” A winery called Stag’s Leap used a line of hers to market a Cabernet. In 2013, presenting Prado with the Griffin Trust’s prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award, with a throng of thousands in attendance, Robert Hass announced that “Brazil has produced what might seem impossible: a really sexy, mystical, Catholic poet.” A very private person and nervous traveler, Adélia herself is a bit dismayed at all the to-do. While she has traveled abroad for festivals and readings, she prefers to remain in the hills of Minas Gerais, out of the limelight.
Adélia believes that poetry is “the most human form of communication.” Hers may be the shortest ars poetica ever: Das tripas, / coração (From the guts, / heart). Judging by where a poem begins, it’s nearly impossible to tell where it will end up (“Who am I to organize the flight of the poem?”). Her work proceeds by associative leaps, full of contradictory impulses—just as we do. One image or emotional event takes precedence over another, moving from delight to darkness, abundance to despair, until finally something tips the balance—delivering us to a single moment’s pure “nowness” and its sometimes surprising residue. No wonder Prado’s poems insist not only on the intermingling of mysticism and carnality, but on their connectedness. (“It’s the soul that’s erotic.”) Asked whether her faith ever quarrels with her poetry, her answer is passionate: “No, I’ve found God more deeply in poetry than in doctrine…. Poetry liberated my faith. Poetry saved me.”
Felipa still warm in the coffin
and what springs to mind
are the pots and pans she scoured until they shined.
Just because she died—at the age I am now—
she’ll never gather dust like a fossil in a museum.
Neither will her way of putting the lid on any subject:
“It’s a problem, Sister.”
There’s the the back, the baggage, and the bearing.
But the bearing—how tangible is that?
And if it’s abstract, why does it hurt so?
Felipa set up thrift sales for mothers from the fringes:
“The poor things, you have no idea,
it’s a problem, Sister!”
Metaphorically speaking, Felipa is now
“resting in her final bed.”
As if I weren’t mortal, I pray for her soul,
and act more broken up than her relatives,
desperate to shake off my greed:
Who’s going get that gold cross she so rarely wore?
I need a retreat, my glucose is sky high,
and even with a pill it takes forever to fall asleep.
Lord, have mercy.
I ask because I’m alive
and wild for sugar.
I put a period at the end of the poem
and began to lick it, to the point of devouring.
Strange thoughts overtook me:
food made of sand
on a silver tray,
a book with my name on it
and not a word of it mine.
Fear can blow us to pieces,
we carry it with the zeal of someone
bearing his cross.
Which is why Your justice is Jesus,
the Lamb you abandoned.
So why would one of us brave
even to raise our eyes to You?
The grass grows without consulting me,
there’s no effort in the cosmos,
everything just follows along,
like me, now, doing what I know to do
since I came into the world.
since not even this clamor is mine.
Love took on the flesh of the hours
and sat between us.
He was himself the seat, the air, the tone of voice:
“Do you truly care for me?”
Between question and answer, I looked at a finger,
mine, this very one that took shape
inside my mother, at her expense,
and which, with nowhere else to go, remains with me,
obliging and needy.
Where are you now, Mama?
I’m so grateful, miss you so…
“It was a simple question,” said my fiancé.
“Why this burst of tears?”
Wake up, exhausted body;
praise with your mouth the perfect scar,
the self-cleaning liver,
the exalted life.
Praise with your tongue of clay,
miserable and eternal thing,
praise impure and arrogant blood—
you know I love you: Praise, therefore.
The luck that awaits you
will compensate for every shame,
all the agony of being human.
Half the day gone
and the heat in my body hasn’t quit.
He came for Sunday dinner.
While my mother was cooking,
he sidled up and whispered:
“I want to talk with you.”
Let’s go over there, I said, ablaze,
fearful someone would notice.
He’d arrived carrying a plucked chicken
—which didn’t dim my interest—
as if testing me:
“The soul closes its door to those
who don’t love the body.”
Ai! I hope Papa didn’t notice me gulping for air,
or he’d surely send his bloodhound nose
after what was flooding through me.
That’s where dream ended—where I’m still
feverish and virgin.