August 12, 2022

João Cabral de Melo Neto (Brazil) 1920-1999

João Cabral de Melo Neto (Brazil)



Born in Recife, Brazil in 1920, Melo Neto is the acknowledged leader of the Brazilian poets of his generation. His early work was a reaction, in part, to the intense verbal experimentation and the ethnocentrism of the early Brazilian modernists. Influenced by Manuel Bandeira and Carlos Drummond de Andrade, as well as by Americans and French writers such as Marianne Moore and Paul Valéry, Melo Neto worked toward a highly personal, vaguely surrealist poetry. His first book, Pedro do Sono, was privately published in Recife in 1942.

     Following this book, however, he moved quickly away from that poetic position, working toward a new theory of poetic process. Over the next several years, Melo Neto began to see poetry as a highly and personal and self-conscious act, stressing the formal, geometric aspects of his writing. Having moved to Rio de Janeiro in 1942, three years later he joined the diplomatic service, and in 1945 was assigned to his first diplomatic post in Barcelona, Spain. In 1950 he was sent to the Brazilian mission in London, and over the next several years, served there until he was appointed the head of Brazil's Ministry of Agriculture in 1961. During these years some of Melo Neto's major works appeared, including Psicologia da composição (Psychology of composition), O cão sem plumas (The dog without feathers), O rio (The river), which won the Premio José Anchieta award for poetry, Paisagens com figuras (Landscapes in with figures), Morte e vida servina ("Death and Life of a Severino"), and Quaderna (Fourspot).

     Morte e vida servina, in particular, marked a turn from the more intellectualized works of form to issues of social consciousness, exemplified in this verse drama drawn from Northeastern Brazilian folk traditions and stories. Melo Neto, himself saw this as a synthesis, expressed in "Education by Stone," whereby he worked to get the more elemental aspects of nature and culture.

     In the mid-1960s, Melo Neto returned to diplomatic service, spending periods of time in Geneva, Barcelona, and Paraguay. He was appointed ambassador to Senegal in 1972, and began ambassador to Honduras, in 1982. During this period he continued to write and publish new books. He was elected to the Brazilian Academy of Letters in 1968. In 1988 he returned to Rio de Janeiro. He was awarded the Camões Prize in 1991, the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 1992, and the State of São Paulo Literary Prize the same year.




Pedra do sono (Recife: privately printed, 1942); Os três mal-amados (published in Revista do Brazil, 1943); O engenheiro (Rio de Janeiro: Amigos da Poesia, 1945); Psicologia da composição com a fábula de Anfion e Antiode (Barcelona: O Livro Inconsútil, 1947); O cão sem plumas (Barcelona: O Livro Inconsútil, 1950); Poemas reunidos (Rio de Janeiro: Ordenou, 1954); O rio ou relação da viagem que faz o Capibaribe de sua nascente à cidade do Recife (São Paulo: Comissão do IV Contenário da Cidade de São Paulo, 1954); Pregão turistico (Recife: Aloísio Magelhães, 1955); Duas águas (Rio de Janeiro: José Olympio); Aniki Bobó (Recife: Aloísio Magalhães, 1958); Quaderna (Lisbon: Guimarães, 1960); Dois parlamentos (Madrid: Editora do Autor); Terceira feira (Rio de Janeiro: Editora do Autor, 1961); Poemas escolhidos (Lisbon: Portugália, 1963); Antologia poética (Rio de Janeiro: Editora do Autor, 1965); Morte e vida serverina (São Paulo: Teatro da Universidade Católica de São Paulo, 1965); Morte e vida severino e outros poemas em voz alta (Rio de Janeiro: Editora do Autor, 1966); A educação pela pedra (Rio de Janeiro: Editora do Autor, 1966); Funeral de um lavrador (São Paulo: Editora Musical Arlequim, 1967); Poesias completas (1940-1965) (Rio de Janeiro: Sabiá, 1968); Museum de tudo (1966-1974) (Rio de Janeiro: José Olympio, 1975); A escola das facas (Rio de Janeiro: José Olympio, 1980); Poesia critica (Rio de Janeiro: José Olympio, 1982); Auto do frade (José Olympio, 1984); Argestes (Rio de Janeiro: Nova Fronteira, 1985); Os melhores poemas de João Cabral (Rio de Janeiro: Global, 1985); Crime na Calle Relator (Rio de Janeiro: Nova Fronteira, 1987); Museu de tudo e depois (Rio de Janeiro: Nova Fronteira, 1988); Poemas pernambucanos (Rio de Janeiro: Nova Fronteira, 1988); Sevilha andando (Rio de Janeiro: Nova Fronteira, 1989); Primeiros poemas (Rio de Janeiro: Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro)





Selections in Modern Brazilian Poetry, ed. by John Nist (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1962); The Rebounding Stone, trans. by A. B. M. Cadaxa (London: Outposts, 1967); selections in An Anthology of Twentieth Century Brazilian Poetry, ed. by Elizabeth Bishop (Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press [University Press of New England], 1972; Selected Poetry 1937-1990, ed. by Dejal Kadir (Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press [University Press of New England], 1994



Priandello II


I know there are millions of men

mixing themselves up this moment.

The director took hold of all consciousnesses

and keeps them in this bag of hornets.

Then, he multiplied them

not quite as bread was multiplied

by ten, by forty thousand.

His gesture was as if distributing flowers.

A monk, a pianist, a wagon driver was my lot.

I was a failed artist

who had exhausted all the backstages

I felt as tired as the horses

of those who are not heroes

I will be a monk

a wagon driver and a pianist

and I shall have to hang myself three times.


Translated from the Portuguese by Richardo da Silveira Lobo Sternberg



Daily Space


In the daily space

the shadow eats the orange

the orange throws itself into the river,

it's not a river, it's the sea

overflowing from my eye.


In the daily space

born out of the clock

I see hands not words,

late at night I dream up the woman,

I have the woman and the fish.


In the daily space

I forget the home the sea

I lose hunger memory

I kill myself uselessly

in the daily space.


Translated from the Portuguese by W. S. Merwin


(Pedra do sono, 1942)




Within the Loss of Memory

To José Guimarães de Araújo


Within the loss of memory

a blue woman reclined

hiding in her arms one

of those cold birds

that the moon floats late at night

on the naked shoulders of the portrait.


And from the portrait two flowers grew

(two eyes two breasts two clarinets)

that at certain hours of the day

grew prodigiously

so that the bicycles of my desperation

might run over her hair.


And on the bicycles that were poems

my hallucinated friends arrived.

Seated in apparent disorder

swallowing their watches with regularity

while the hierophant armed as horseman

uselessly moved his one arm.


Translated from the Portuguese by Djelal Kadir


(Pedra do sono, 1942)




(Landscape of the Capibaribe River)


§ The city is crossed by the river

as a street

is crossed by a dog,

a piece of fruit

by a sword.


§ The river called to mind

a dog's docile tongue,

or a dog's sad belly,

or that other river

which is the dirty wet cloth

of a dog's two eyes.


§ The river was

like a dog without feathers.

It knew nothing of the blue rain,

of the rose-colored fountain,

of the water in a water glass,

of the water in pitchers,

of the fish in the water,

of the breeze on the water.


§ It knew the crabs

of mud and rust.

It knew silt

like a mucous membrane.

It must have known the octopus,

and surely knew

the feverish woman living in oysters.


§ The river

never opens up to fish,

to the shimmer,

to the knifely unrest

existing in fish.

It never opens up in fish.


§ It opens up in flowers,

poor and black

like black men and women.

It opens up into a flora

as squalid and beggarly

as the blacks who must beg.

It opens up in hard-leafed

mangroves, kinky

as a black man's hair.


§ Smooth like the belly

of the pregnant dog,

the river swells

without ever bursting.

The river's childbirth

is like a dog's,

fluid and invertebrate.


§ And I never saw it seethe

(as bread when rising


In silence

the river bears its bloating poverty,

pregnant with black earth.


§ It yields in silence:

in black earthern capes,

in black earthen boots or gloves

for the foot or hand

that plunges in.


§ As sometimes happens

with dogs, the river

seemed to stagnate.

Its waters would turn

thicker and warmer,

flowing with the thick

warm waves

of a snake.


§ It had something

of a crazy man's stagnation.

Something of the stagnation

of hospitals, prisons, asylums,

of the dirty and smothered life

(dirty, smothering laundry)

it trudged through.


§ Something of the stagnation

of decayed palaces,


by mold and mistletoe.

Something of the stagnation

of obese trees

dripping a thousand sugars

from the Pernambuco dining rooms

it trudges through.


§ (It is there,

with their backs to the river,

that the city's "cultured families"

brood over the fat eggs

of their prose.

In the complete peace of their kitchens

they viciously stir

their pots

of sticky indolence.)


§ Could the river's water

be the fruit of some tree?

Why did it seem

like ripened water?

Why the flies always

above it, as it about to land?


§ Did any part of the river

ever cascade in joy?

Was it ever, anywhere,

a song or fountain?

Why then

were its eyes painted blue

on maps?


Translated from the Portuguese by Richard Zenith


(O cão sem plumas, 1950)




Written with the Body


Such is her composition

and articulate syntax

that she is apprehended

only in the sum, never in parts.


There is no single term

where attention is arrested;

or that, however significant,

exclusively holds her key.


Nor can she be parsed

like a sentence; impossible

to derive a paraphrase

from what in her is sense.


And just as, only complete

is she capable of revelation,

only another body, complete,

has the faculty to apprehend her.


Only a body in its completeness

undivided by analysis

can engage in the corps a corps

needed by whomever, not reducing,


wants to capture all the themes

inscribed in that body-phrase

that she, composure intact,

reveals with such intensity.





Seen from afar, lik a Mondrian

reproduced in a magazine,

she betrays only the indifferent

perfection of geometry.


Up close, however, the original,

seen before as cold correctness,

free of the interfering camera

of distance and its lens;


up close, however, the close eye

free of extraneous retinas;

up close, when sight is tactile;

to the quick and naked eye


one can discern in her

an unsuspected energy

revealed by the Mondrian

when seen in the canvas.


Yet in one respect

she differs from a Mondrain:

what in her is vibrant

and goes unnoticed from afar


can forego the flame of colors

without which a Mondrian is static,

can vibrate with the white texture

of wholesome skin, or canvas.


When he is dressed with only

her smooth nakedness

he feels more than undressed:

feels more completely so.



He is, in fact, undressed

save for the clothese which she is

but these he does not wear:

internal ones slip off.


When the body dresses itself

with she-clothes, with she-silk

it feels itself more defined

than it does when wearing clothes.


It feels itself more than undressed

for its secret skin

soon unravels and it assumes

her skin, which she lets him borrow.


But the borrowed skin also

does not last long as clothes

for very easily she too

unravels and is divested


until she's left with nothing,

neither skin, nor silk:

all is mingled, common

nakedness, without boundaries.




She is, when she is not here,

held by an outside memory.

Outside: as if she were held

by an external type of memory.


A memory for the body,

external to it, like a purse.

Like a purse, certain gestures

cause it to touch the body.


A memory external to the body

not the one growing inside;

and that, since intended for the body,

carries corporeal presences.


So it is within this memory

that she, unexpectedly, is embodied

in the presence, thingness, volume

of a body, solidly there


and that is now dense volume

in the arms and held by them,

and that is now hollow volume

that surrounds and shelters the body


as something that was both dense

and hollow at the same time

that the body had, where it was

as if the having and the being were one.


Translated from the Portuguese by Ricardo da Silveira Lobo Sternberg


(Serial, collected in Terceira feira, 1961)



Education by Stone


An education by stone: through lessons,

to learn from the stone: to go to it often,

to catch its level, impersonal voice

(by its choice of words it begins its classes).

The lesson in morals, the stone's cold resistance

to flow, to flowing, to being hammered:

the lesson in poetics, its concrete flesh:

in economics, how to grow dense compactly;

lessons from the stone, (from without to within,

dumb primer), for the routine speller of spells.


Another education by stone: in the backlands

(from within to without and pre-didactic place).

In the backlands stone does not know how to lecture,

and, even if it did would teach nothing:

you don't learn the stone, there: there, the stone,

born stone, penetrates the soul.


Translated from the Portuguese by James Wright


(A educação pela pedra, 1966)





"Pirandello II," "Daily Space," "Within the Loss of Memory," "Landscape of the Capibaribe River," and "Education by Stone"

Reprinted from Selected Poetry, 1937-1990, edited by Djeal Kadir, and trans. by Ricardo de Silveira Lobo Sternberg, W. S. Merwin, Djelal Kadir, Richard Zenith, and James Wright (Middleton: Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1994). Copyright ©1994 by Wesleyan University Press. Reprinted by permission of the University Press of New England.


For a performance of Melo Neto's "Morte e vida severina" by the author in Portuguese, click:

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