One Poem by Alice Sant'Anna

Translated by Eric M. B. Becker

Speak Low by Alice Sant'Anna

From speak low

in japan there are four hundred sixty-five

colors catalogued with names

that people use day in day out

the color of faded flowers

the color of sunflower

the color of silver

the color of oil

the color of sand

the color of tea leaves

in all there are thirteen hundred

including those without a name

the color of this tree: fire red?

scarlet, desperation red?

the neighbor demonstrates how to poach an egg

water in the frying pan just before it boils

stir the water with a spoon

and toss the egg into the twister

three minutes later

you have your egg creamy

on the inside

when waking up

the cup near the cushioned pillow

the walls covered in polka-dots

she wouldn’t be surprised

no matter where she was

perhaps in a hotel room perhaps

at the home of her oldest friend from school

the one with the giant dog

or was it a horse

she can’t forget to trim her nails

these extremities that grow and weigh her down

the fingernails

toes and bangs

the tips of her hair

scattered round the sink

two full moons of cottonballs

atop streaming eyes

her name in hebrew

means golden jewel

his name in german means

he who holds the key to the dungeon

he who controls

who gets in who

leaves who stays 

in japan no one worships nature

the way it is

it must be conquered first to be offered

back to the gods

carefully wrapped like a gift

the precise angle of the branch stretching upward

the dew from the flower that’s just

been picked

the slime on stones

wet just so

eyes when they wake

are sorrow-filled eyes

in the field a crow draws closer curious

about three little girls

as though they were specks of food

it took a closer look

reconsidered

and continued its flight 

before long you too

will be off

that night we crumbled cookies

into tiny little parts

until our fingers were sore

to make the pie crust

to beat the eggwhites

to put the pie in the bain-marie

wait for the pie to cool

sundays stretch on

this time next week

we’ll make pudding

but hey, listen, what do you call

the color of this tree:

effusive red? exhuberance red?

when i lived in brasil, she says

people would tell me the same stories

over and over

it would drive me wild

to listen to the same story

only later did i realize

there’s no need to get to

the point all the time

they repeat the same story

a way to be together

to stay together

the bed in the same room as the refrigerator

at night its pregnant buzz

dreams interrupted by this chatter

of household appliances

she can’t forget to buy milk

paper towels and a few vegetables

after that cream of chicken soup

from a can, unfit for consumption

she’s resolved to eat better

torment red? intemperance red?

crustacean red?

when i still lived in brazil, she says

there was a mute boy

who never stopped talking

he’d knock on the window

each afternoon

and when we’d all gone hush

pretending no one was home

when the mute boy began to talk

he never stopped

the glow of the clock

in the middle of the night

shoes rent asunder

at the front door

the morning sun creeps through the blinds

that don’t block the light

a thin layer of sweat

last night, i did not dream

she noticed a fresh freckle on her cheek

a souvenir

a tattoo

that time saw to

back inside the house

is it the void she hears or is it silence?

one winter, he says, it was so cold

a friend used a coat

that left only his eyes uncovered

and his eyeballs

froze

another winter, he says, or summer

i traveled to a city

where hundreds of lobsters

were tossed inside a gigantic pot


speak low is available for purchase here.

This book—the third collection from the thirty-two year-old from Rio de Janeiro, widely hailed as a revelation in Brazilian poetry—was the result of a Masters in Literature at PUC-Rio, written during a Visiting Felow at Brown University in 2013. Other collections include Dobradura and Rabo de baleia (published in English as Tail of the Whale, Toad Press, 2016), which won the 2013 APCA Poetry Prize from the São Paulo Art Critics’ Association. Sant’Anna’s other publications include the chapbook Pingue-Pongue with esteemed Brazilian poet Armando Freitas Filho, as well as a collection of her entire oeuvre to date, published in Portugal as Aula de natação in 2018. She has co-edited Brazilian literary magazine Serrote since 2010 and since 2016 works as an editor at publishing house Companhia das Letras. Her work has been translated into Spanish and English and she has been a guest at literary festivals in Sweden, Latvia, France, USA, and elsewhere.

Eric M. B. Becker is editor of Words without Borders and an award-winning literary translator from the Portuguese. He has earned fellowships and residencies from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Fulbright Commission, PEN America, and the Louis Armstrong House Museum. In 2019, his translation of Mia Couto’s Rain and Other Stories received honorable mention from the Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Prize, and his translation of Djaimilia Pereira de Almeida’s That Hair (Tin House 2020) is a finalist for the 2021 PEN Translation Prize. He is a cofounder of the transatlantic Pessoa Festival. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Freeman’s, and other publications.


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