Book Review: Multitudinous Heart
by Carlos Drummond de Andrade
translated from the Portuguese by Richard Zenith
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015
Readers old enough to remember Travelling in the Family, a 1986 translation of some works by the great Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade, will remember it fondly. It featured a lively selection of the poet’s work, in translations by Elizabeth Bishop, Mark Strand, Thomas Colchie, and Gregory Rabassa, and a fine, informative Introduction, and it served as the first exposure most English-language readers had to the strange, often dreamy brand of modernism Drummond’s work embodies. Those readers will heartily welcome Multitudinous Heart, the generous new edition of Drummond’s work from Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and readers who missed Travelling in the Family will make the acquaintance of this poet. The new volume has a much broader selection from Drummond’s six decades of published work; it’s presented with facing-page Portuguese and an uncredited Introduction presumably by the volume’s translator, Richard Zenith. The Introduction isn’t all that rigorous (“But words, of course, are not just sounds and graphic figures. They stand for things …”), but the translations themselves are clear as glass. Short of learning the Portuguese, this new volume is the closest monoglot readers will yet be brought to Drummond’s art.
It’s at times an odd art, and this volume does a wonderful job of showing its evolution. In “The Lake” from the 1930 volume Some Poetry, for example, the presentation is strictly simple, a back-and-forth incantation (one with a chip on its shoulder, since Drummond came from a landlocked region):
I never saw the sea.
I don’t know if it’s pretty.
I don’t know if it’s rough.
The sea doesn’t matter to me.
I saw the lake.
Yes, the lake.
The lake is large
and also calm.
The rain of colors
from the exploding afternoon (“tarde que explode”)
makes the lake shimmer
makes it a lake painted
by every color.
I never saw the sea.
I saw the lake …
Over a decade later, in 1942’s Jose, we find a wiser and slightly sadder (but also, appealingly, more playful) poet in, for instance, “Sadness in Heaven”:
There’s also a melancholy hour in heaven.
A difficult hour, when souls are seized by doubt (“em que a duvida penetra as almas”)
“Why did I make the world?” God asks himself,
and answers, “I don’t know.”
The angels glare at him,
and feathers fall.
All the hypotheses – grace, eternity, love –
are feathers and fall.
One more feather, and heaven will collapses.
Softly, with no bang to announce
the moment between everything and nothing,
the sadness of God …
It’s in later excerpted volumes that the brilliance securing Drummond’s immortality becomes more obvious, in longer works like “The Table” and the richly sad “The Machine of the World” (both from 1951’s Clear Enigma), and as the poet ages, his lightheartedness becomes more astringent and winning, as in “Chaos in the Bedroom” from 1954’s Farmer in the Clouds:
Reaching the dangerous curve of my fifties
I skidded into this love. How dire!
How sensitive and secret a petal
torments me and makes me synthesize
this flower whose growth is a mystery: love
in the quintessence of the word, and mum
with natural silence, too busy plucking
and loving to accommodate the ambiguous
cloud that dissipates in that object
still hazier than a cloud and more
taboo: the body! The body, the body,
the ultimate truth, that unruly thirst,
and in my bed the wild horse bucks,
thumping the chest of a man in love.
“In the world according to Drummond,” that uncredited new Introduction points out, “everyone is ultimately a misfit, and this shared condition becomes a basis for communion … On rare occasions they find each other; they always keep looking and hoping.” This is a deceptively simple insight, and it effectively lays bare the yearning at the heart of Drummond’s work. Multitudinous Heart is an outstanding calling-card for that work.