Francisco Alvim by Antonio Sergio Bessa

BOMB 102 Winter 2008
102 Winter 2008 Body

Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing

​Francisco Alvim

Francisco Alvim, 1997.

After its inauguration in 1960, the city of Brasília, an artificially engineered center for the federal government with no local economy, projected to the nation an image of a sterile environment lacking in tradition and culture. With the progressive dismantling of the military grip on power in the late 1970s, however, culture in Brasília all of a sudden became surprisingly alive, in ways different from the traditional models proposed by Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. The considerable concentration of intellectual capital helped the city feel more like a university campus than a center of government power. In the early 1980s, a typical Friday night party would bring together a number of scholars from the University of Brasília, diplomats, and visiting as well as local luminaries, like the artist Athos Bulcão, who designed most of the mosaic surfaces for Oscar Niemayer’s buildings. It was around that time that I met Francisco Alvim, who had moved to the city in 1979 after a five-year hiatus from a distinguished diplomatic career.

Alvim cannot simply be characterized as a “poet from Brasília,” because his intermittent relationship with that city has been punctuated by extended periods abroad—in France, Spain, Holland, and Costa Rica—as a member of the Brazilian diplomatic corps. Neither can one describe him as a poet from Minas Gerais, his birthplace, an area steeped in literary traditions, and home to Carlos Drummond de Andrade, a poet to whom Alvim has often been compared. Least of all, one cannot claim Alvim as a product of Rio de Janeiro, although he wrote his first books of poetry in that city. Nevertheless, in approaching Alvim, one will inevitably be led to consider these three locations and their distinct cultures as a tripartite basis from which his poetry springs forth. The enduring power of Alvim’s work comes perhaps from a sense of dislocation, the nostalgia of having belonged somewhere while living in different places. In his first book, Sol dos cegos (Sun of the Blind, 1968), the poet’s attention appears split between the placidity of Minas and the urban frenzy of Rio, as one micro-collection, Fazenda (Farm), recollects country life through lakes, mountains, and orchards, while another, Cidade (City), juxtaposes images of smoky bars, grass growing amidst asphalt, and the sound of a “sax and clarinet / in the quiet night.” Cryptic observations about power, authority, and the workplace start to appear in the next two books, Passatempo (Pastime, 1974), and Dia sim, dia não (Some Days Yes, Some Not, 1978), threatening to obscure the purely lyrical tenor of the earlier work. A balance of sorts is suddenly achieved around 1981, with Lago, Montanha (Lake, Mountain), a remarkable collection in which the anecdotal fuses with the lyrical to produce a poetry where the urban landscape is captured not without a tinge of ennui—the line “O nada a anotar” (nothingness to be notated), comprises the entire poem Diário (Diary)—filtered through the sensibility of an outsider. The next two collections, O Corpo Fora (The Body Outside, 1988), and Elefante , display Alvim’s mastery of this hard-won style through a series of exquisitely phrased poems that marry the vernacular of these many places to a rich tradition in Brazilian literature that includes Manuel Bandeira, Carlos Drummond de Andrade, and João Cabral de Melo Neto.

Francisco Alvim was born in 1938 in Araxá, a small city in Minas Gerais famous for its mineral springs. His father, the local mayor for ten years, relocated the family to Rio in 1940 in response to an invitation from then President Getúlio Vargas to run the retirement fund for employees in the private sector. His allegiance to Vargas, a populist dictator who twice held power as president, was broken within a few years, and the family returned to Minas Gerais, where his father took a central role as one of the organizers of the insurgent democratic government that opposed Vargas. In 1953, Alvim returned to Rio, where he completed his high school degree and entered law school, which he quit to pursue diplomacy. He graduated from Instituto Rio Branco, the governmental school for diplomatic training, in 1964, the year the military expelled president João Gulart from power and abolished elections for the next 20 years.

Antonio Sergio BessaYou began your double life, in poetry and diplomacy, at a moment of great political and cultural change, both in Brazil with the military junta, and abroad. Tell me about the unfolding of that early period that brought you from Minas Gerais to Rio de Janeiro, and later to Brasília.

Francisco Alvim I was impacted by the political realities of the period (the end of the 1950s and throughout the ’60s): the gloomy, tragic tenure of the Getúlio Vargas administration, which ended with his suicide; the optimism and utopian atmosphere under Juscelino Kubitschek; the opera buffa under Jânio Quadros; the debacle of João Goulart, and, later, the long succession of military dictators. All that against the backdrop of the Cold War, with Dien Bien Phu, the Korean War, later, Vietnam, and, most especially, Cuba. On a personal level, my first exposure to the poetry of the period occurred under the influence of my sister Maria Ângela Alvim, a great poet in her own right who died young, at age 33. My first intellectual connections were fostered in the environment of great cultural excitement of the 1960s when I was in my twenties. The Nouvelle Vague, American pop, and all the late avant-gardes, the Cinema Novo with Joaquim Pedro de Andrade and Glauber Rocha, along with my own growing interest in Brazilian literature, especially the modernist poets and novelists like Manuel Bandeira, Oswald de Andrade, Raul Bopp, Jorge de Lima, and Mário de Andrade, and the generation that followed with Carlos Drummond de Andrade and later Guimarães Rosa, Clarice Lispector, and Dalton Trevisan. The first contacts with the writings of Charles Baudelaire, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Marcel Proust, and James Joyce. And above all, the many parties, the ongoing party of the era. Amid the bouts of anguish and depression, there was an endless energy, a great joy. Eros was a powerful presence.

ASB I am curious about your involvement with the so-called “marginal poetry,” in the 1970s. Could you comment on it?

FA When I returned to Brazil in 1971, after a stay in Paris, I stumbled upon a curious little book at a newsstand in Rio which I bought and devoured immediately. It was my first contact with the writings of Waly Salomão, his first book, Me segura qu’eu vou dar um troço (Hold Me Back, I’m About To Throw A Fit). I was taken by it for several reasons: the extraordinary vital force it contained; the confidence and joy with one’s own life experience; the pact with authenticity; the contrast between the strength and fearlessness of his sensibility and its great delicacy; the absence of arrogance and of that kind of juvenile satisfaction with oneself; the distinguished continuity it created in regards to modernism.

This book was a powerful text that felt like a lighthouse, casting its beam away from the mesmerizing eye of the big anaconda that was killing Brazil a thousand times over. A little book by a great poet, a breviary of incitement to life in a time of blackout. I came out of this reading reassured that poetry, as it indeed could not have been otherwise, went on. Obvious discovery, because I’ve never believed that the historical time had the power to eliminate poetry, although it can certainly kill poets. Much more so than history’s cruelties, what can actually bring an end to poetry (which dies only to resuscitate later on) is the lack of response to the succession of impasses it continuously arrives at. In short, Me segura announced the poetry that had already begun to emerge from various sources in Rio de Janeiro and, a little later, in many places in Brazil.

ASB Marginal poetry was an interesting phenomenon for many reasons, including its national scope. Contrary to previous manifestations that centered mainly in São Paulo and Rio, the so-called marginal poetry of the 1970s popped up all over the country. From your point of view, how did it take shape?

FA The first critic to embrace this poetry was Heloísa Buarque de Hollanda, who helped not only to identify and disseminate it, but also to develop it, thanks to her ever-open spirit, not only to artistic invention, but also to the innovative dimension that that generation, to which she felt she belonged, brought to it in the way they lived life. She highlighted, with acumen, the element of this poetry constituting its ability to impact the reader: the shift toward a poetics of the everyday life—so as to bring it to the cluster of meanings (or their absence) at the core of everyone’s experience—and toward the political sense of those times. That poetry brought politics inside the one-on-one encounters with life, and made believable the literary transposition of the historic dimension of this experience. Verses such as (and I quote by heart): “Bateu uma brisa irresponsável e vim te ver” (An irresponsible breeze blew over and I came to see you), Ronaldo Santos. “Mais um berro histérico e mato um” (Another hysterical scream and I kill somebody), Charles. “Cheiro de porrada no ar” (Smell of a brawl in the air), Chacal. “Esta primavera / não é flor que se cheire” (This spring / is no wallflower), Eudoro Augusto. “Ai que saudades que tenho / de meus negros verdes anos” (Oh! How I do miss / my black green years), Cacaso. “E medo é coisa que não se diz” (And fear is one thing one shouldn’t utter), Luís Olavo Fontes. They say very little, almost nothing, but they say, as Roberto Schwarz remarked about another poet of the period. He could have said the same about any of the poets I quoted from, indeed even about himself as the author of a brilliant book of poetry published in that period Corações veteranos (Veteran Hearts).

ASB And how did you, a career diplomat, become involved with this group?

FA Waly Salomão and the contact with the poets from the 1970s continued a previous experience, which started during the transition from the ’50s to the ’60s: my friendship with poet Carlos Felipe Saldanha, aka Zuca Sardan. The poetry of Carlos Felipe has always stunned me; his apologues, fables, “spholhettos” (pamphlet poetry) and imbroglios, as well as the drawings that illustrate them, make up a vivid and profound commentary on human ventures and misadventures of an originality unheard of in our literature, and which maintains a notable affinity with the poetry of the decade we are talking about.

ASB Zuca Sardan is a case apart. And I cannot think of anyone to compare him with, because although his mixing of text and image is definitely ensconced within a certain tradition, his output is totally unique and personal. At the same time that you may identify some of his sources and references, the material also denotes a great individuality behind it.

FA Carlos Felipe is a humorist, in the tradition of the great ones. His stance goes beyond irony because unlike irony, it doesn’t limit itself to respond, with counterattacks, to the blows coming from existence. Humor has a more developed ability of imagination and intelligence, and I’m talking about the humor of great humorists like Machado de Assis, Shakespeare, Nabokov, Nelson Rodrigues, Flaubert, Lewis Carroll. That’s the family he belongs to. Humor establishes a greater distance from reality than irony, which is always involved in a direct one-on-one relationship with the real. A deeper perception comes out of humor, one which apparent frivolity can only accentuate, and a greater empathy with the human species. The sonic power of this work is amazing, through articulate procedures around an apparently childish diction, at one time convincing and fake, the poet performs, in a magic-lantern and trapdoor atmosphere, a neverending little theater of adventures. It has also to do with the libertarian critical spirit, the impersonal eroticism of seventeenth century France. It reminds one of the ancien régime. It can be cruel. To our fortune, literature creates, inside the objective reality of life, another reality that is more essential, a space for the struggle and affirmation of truth and human happiness. Entry into this space was granted to me, in great part, through my friendship with Carlos Felipe; in it, limits imposed by the other “reality” are not recognized, much less those of a professional nature.

ASB I wonder whether the cultural effervescence during the 1960s was somehow inhibiting. Did you feel any pressure to give continuity to what had developed in poetry in the previous decade? I am thinking mostly of the Concrete poetry movement, which made such an impact on our culture. Was your poetry in some way a response to Concretism?

FA When I think about what happened in the ’60s, as it relates to the evolution of my work, I think about an important question that was brought up by the Concretist movement, within the debate that evolved around it, mostly in the pages of the literary supplement of the Jornal do Brasil under the direction of poet Mario Faustino. It is the question of the poet’s subjectivity in the new times, which emerged in a way that was both indirect and less obvious; a question of which I became fully aware only much later, and that at the time threw me into a great inner turmoil. Although I resisted their theory, the Concrete poets, along with Faustino, brought up the relevant and pressing problem of the lyrical subject, of the poem’s elocution by a subject who was already not the same as before, even the most recent one proposed by the modernists. On my end, I was for a poetry of verse, of the verse inherited from the modernists, both in its ideology and form—because to me the referential, the link with the world and with everyone’s life seemed extremely important, indispensable. But the Concrete poets rejected and disregarded personal experience and the value of the word as a referent. They came from a materialist view of the word and the poem, which I did not identify with. And Mario Faustino, I must add, didn’t follow them there, nor in several other issues, for that matter.

ASB Who did you identify with then?

FA I aspired to give continuity to the modernists’ voice, but there was a problem of an insurmountable nature: the modernists’ voice was already starting to sound stale, as a linguistic and symbolic system closed within the limits of its accomplishments. Furthermore, history was moving ahead, and fractured new realities were emerging, tossing fragments onto the poet’s antennas. The Brazilian modernist tradition was so powerful, though, that it even provided poems to signal the way to those who were coming, and who identified with it. From poems dealing with the prosaic and the banal in everyday life, to others that operated on an entirely different plane, in contact with stellar pulsations, derived from immeasurable and telluric potencies. I’m referring to the extraordinary Cobra Norato (Norato the Snake) by Raul Bopp, which will only find equivalents decades later in João Cabral de Melo Neto’s O Cão sem plumas (The Featherless Dog), and also in Jorge de Lima’s Invenção de Orfeu (Invention of Orpheus) and Livro de Sonetos (Book of Sonnets)—poems that proposed to situate the poet’s voice in a different place, outside the poet, so to speak, out in the air, at the will of cosmic winds and the speeches of the world. My tactic, I felt, was different from that of the late avant-garde of Concretism. On the one hand, it was more psychological; I never lost interest in the human experience and the tension that this experience creates with expression, with speech. Out of the psychological nature of this play, emerges a rhythm in which ellipsis marks the beat….

ASB Raul Bopp is the great forgotten name of Brazilian modernism. I find it interesting that you often mention Cobra Norato and that Waly Salomão also pays homage to him in his great poem “Estética da recepção” (Reception Theory). Could you elaborate on the lessons you learned from Cobra Norato?

FA Bopp’s extraordinary poetic intelligence always amazes me. Intelligence in the sense of his ability to create an unbelievably clear object of art; a poem that is a vivid construction, harmonious and serene, starting from a thematic and symbolic materiality, dominated by an absolute presence of the senses, stupefying and obscure. A game of abstraction and concretion; a duality that manifests itself in Cobra Norato in a different way, but which, in essence, is the same duality we find in O Cão sem plumas; a creation serene to such a degree that it can set its own temporal flow, internally, that confuses into river and serpent; a mix of flowing water and archetypal flesh, flesh of the beastmonster of all latitudes and of all myths; the torpor of all muscles, the smoke of marijuana in and out of the lungs of the cosmos and of the narrator-beastman, which will resurge much later in Guimarães Rosa’s “Meu tio o Iauretê” (My Uncle, the Panther Chaser) and “Bicho Mau” (Evil Animal); the mixing of everything—heavens, earth and water, just like I saw it when I landed, for the first time, in the evening, in the Amazon. The mystery of the author of the poem being a gaucho: the surprising and precise eye of the Pampas, its vast intelligence, its emptiness absorbing the colossal forest; the latitudes embodying themselves, the south engulfing the north, or allowing itself to be engulfed by it.

I feel tempted to establish an absurd affinity between Cobra Norato and other works from another era in our literature, when identifying in the poem a certain neoclassical trait, certainly not the neoclassicism of our Parnassian poets, but of the prose of one of their contemporaries, the Viscount of Taunay of A retirada da laguna (The Withdrawal from Laguna)—a prose, written in French, at the same time luminous and gloomy, dry and constructed, in the anti-ornamental realism of a war report. This comparison would perhaps allow one to distinguish with greater clarity the building element that articulates the poem, one whose oneiric nature does not exclude, paradoxically, the sharpness of line and design, in contrast with the pictorial mass of a work like Invenção de Orfeu, for instance.

Cobra Norato is one of the vertices of this triangle of gigantic poems which Brazil has created; poems of transfiguration and vertigo; continent-poems, where everything fits in and nothingness is kept out. To which I would add, in a diverse (and perhaps, adverse) plane those of my sister. It’s not a matter of learning with them. They are poems in which, in reality, the teaching function doesn’t belong. Their nature is that of a revelation, only comparable, I imagine—on an absolutely distinct stratum, of man, and not of God—to religious mysticism. What I just said is not entirely true: whoever shall seek elements of Cobra Norato in my poems “Paralaxe,” from Sol dos cegos, or “Elefante” from my last book, will find it.

ASB Let’s go back to the issue of subjectivity in your work. Did the search for a new subjectivity lead you to the “other”? You mentioned your readings of Eliot and Pound, and as you know, a major part of their poetry is a kind of collage of other poems and voices. Is that what attracted you to their work?

FA No doubt. What I found in Eliot and Pound was a voice coming from a new, crushed subjectivity, which had already emerged, splendidly and movingly, in Baudelaire. My feeling is that, in our time, this subjectivity became manifest in poetry in two ways: via material things, of the thing-thing and the word-thing, and via man. “Via” here is meant as channel, as in voice, or speech, and of course writing. Via man, it became pluralistic and fragmented, because today man is a being without individuality, and the world, a reality imploded into a thousand fragments. Thus the shrapnel of voice, voice which is also, above all, a desperate attempt—inexorably failed—to hear itself and the other’s voice.

In Pound and Eliot I found a subjectivity that felt akin to mine, which I experienced simultaneously inside and outside myself. A subjectivity that reminded me, not without irony, of the image often invoked to convey divinity—a presence that is both at the center and in all parts of a circle or a sphere; and also outside this sphere or circle. A being not-being and vice versa.

ASB And how was that incorporated into your poetry?

FA The translation of all that was the emergence of different personas, which enabled an escape from the previous, totalizing lyric I, which, in my view, was no longer up to the task. But persona was not the voice that would give shape to the anecdotal style in Brazilian modernism. The anecdotal, a fundamental characteristic in our culture, becomes poetry only when re-created as ellipsis. I use ellipsis as a tool to hollow the episodic with gaps, on which the poem’s psychological and material rhythms depend. In my opinion, the anecdotal in Brazilian modernism goes beyond the creation of persona in expressing the breakdown of individuality and identity. But I must add that there is plenty of anecdotal in Eliot, and above all in Pound (as well as in Dante; in fact, the history of this tradition comes from way back). What I did was to walk toward this modernist trend, not only ours, but also the one which appeared in the literatures to which I had access—Baudelaire, Eliot, Pound. At any rate, the voice, in my case, is not that of a persona, although it wouldn’t be wrong to consider it on the same level as characters’ speech. Deep inside (or on the surface), it is, (or wants to be) a voice without a speaker, or, if it corresponds to someone’s speech, it comes from a nobody without speech.

ASB Your work has often been compared to that of the great modernist poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade. Like you, he came from Minas Gerais and had a long life as a civil servant. Can we discuss the relationship of your poetics and his legacy?

FA Drummond never loses sight of man. He narrates man. This question of narrative, as it relates to the transposition of the narrative function to the poem, is important in my poetry. I think it comes from him, and from my fascination with prose, especially nineteenth-century French prose. I was an avid, if often immature, reader of Stendhal, Balzac, Flaubert, and Proust.

ASB In “A Coisa Simple” (The Simple Thing), Drummond comments on the difficulty to achieve a writing that is clear, transparent, unadorned. I wonder whether in your poetry you strive to attain the same?

FA Drummond speaks several times, indeed, of simplicity, and he abhorred obscurity in poetry, which he tended to associate with pretentiousness and cheating. I suppose this need for clarity derives from the eminently moral character of the Drummondian poetry, a preoccupation that I also share with him, and which, in fact, was instilled in me by his poetry. Moral not in the sense of a pre-established set of laws, but a higher moral, a restorative one, which one discovers and formulates step by step, and which, in a certain way, also incorporates evil; a morality that seeks to open existence up to new spaces of freedom, truth and—why not say it—happiness. Utopia?

The search for clarity is certainly an important idea, and it should be pursued by whoever relates to it. But I feel that in these particulars I don’t follow Drummond. That doesn’t mean I don’t have simple and accessible poems. But I do not voluntarily seek either simplicity or clarity. Poetry for me is essentially something beyond understanding, an obscure force, even in the sense of shadows, of darkness, of extinction. It does not subject itself to any core of a priori ideas or intentions. It is, ideally, Adamic speech, pronounced and erased at the pace of its own elocution. Poetry surprises even at that, for it is one thing and, simultaneously, also its opposite.

Discovering this impossibility to enunciate the poem’s language more than once, regardless of the reappearance of forms and wordings and the impossibility of recovering the poem in its unique speech, might justify following it in all its simultaneous instants of birth and death. Like life’s instants, which sparkle and fade away. It doesn’t matter whether, at the reading level, a poem is accessible or hermetic. In reality, it is a hermetic speech and perhaps something even harder: it may be just one step short of aphasia.

ASB There is, however, quite a lot of ordinary speech in your poetry.

FA There’s nothing more abundant in this world than conversation, so I tune in my ears and try to listen.

ASB In his review of Elefante for the New Left Review, Roberto Schwarz wrote that your work reflects the “diverse voices of the people,” which reminds me of Bakhtin’s idea of polyphony in Dostoevsky where the text presents several voices instead of one central narrator.

FA I read very little Bakhtin but the idea of polyphony impressed me quite a lot, an ex-centric voice, which by refraction concentrates interlocutions, as if they were sound waves floating on the mind. I related entirely to it, although, if I recall it well, Bakhtin assigned polyphony to prose, and reserved poetry to monophony.

ASB Yes, that is correct, but you might agree that more recent poetics have aimed at polyphony, like the Language poets in the US, such as Susan Howe, or Bruce Andrews, for instance, or poets like Waly Salomão in Brazil. In one of the poems in Algaravias: Câmara de Ecos (Chatter: Echo Chamber), Salomão writes that he wants to be a “polyphonic poet” when he grows up.

FA You are right about Waly. Polyphony is in fact one of the notable aspects of his imposing poetry. His poetry reminds me of Glauber Rocha’s Terra em Transe (Earth Entranced): polyphonic, and even more, protean since his poems subvert many genres and range from the essayistic to the purest lyricism, and at times attain the epic. They owe their openness to Waly’s fantastic hunger for the world. My poems are far from this dynamism. They are stale waters where, here and then, one sees the reflection of a face, perhaps the result of a multitudinous narcissism, as if the face of one individual were the faces of all people.


Translated from the Portuguese by Claudio Brandt.

Antonio Sergio Bessa is a writer, translator, and scholar of concrete poetry. He is director of curatorial and education programs at the Bronx Museum. His books include Novas: Selected Writings of Haroldo de Campos (Northwestern University Press) and Öyvind Fahlström: The Art of Writing, forthcoming from Northwestern. Bessa’s Portuguese translation of Susan Howe’s Pierce-Arrow was published in Brazil by Lumme Editor in Spring of 2008.

Originally published in

BOMB 102, Winter 2008

Featuring interviews with the Campana Brothers, Cao Guimaraes and Marila Dardot, Ernesto Neto, OsGemeos, Bernardo Carvalho, Francisco Alvim, Lygia Fagundes Telles and Manuel Alegre, Karim Ainouz, Arnaldo Antunes, and Paulo Mendes Da Rocha.

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102 Winter 2008 Body