Postmodernity’s Ironic Blender
I admit I judged the book by its cover. Not even its cover—its spine. Rilke Shake. The title was irresistible.
Inside, I found poems equally delicious to read. Angélica Freitas’s debut collection faces head-on with humor the task of any young poet and person: to forge an identity, to find a language. How do you do this in the globalized, technologized 21st century? Where do you want to fit in? What if you’re stuck in the south of Brazil, smitten with Gertrude Stein, and have not only Manuel Bandeira but also Alice B. Toklas to contend with?
Taking on the literary canon as a thematic struggle, the poems offer a refreshing interpretation of poetry itself as a shake of languages, words, tradition, and a measure of delight, whirred in postmodernity’s ironic blender. In defunct bookstores, Parisian parks, anonymous apartments, and ’50s-style diners in Porto Alegre, the poet praises, blames, and pokes fun at icons of Brazilian and world poetry, concocting her own canon and literary style from the universe of possibilities. Play—with all kinds of received ideas about language and form, whether that of nation, region, gender, or poem—drives the work.
Rilke Shake provides wonderful challenges for the translator. Preserving the sense of play found in rhyme, sound, and multiple meanings keeps me in mind of the part of translation that is about sheer invention. The text also dabbles in multilingualism, mixing English, Spanish, French, and German into a Brazilian Portuguese that itself is regionally distinctive. Freitas often uses grammar and expressions particular to Southern Brazil, where she lives. In my translations, I try to retain the linguistic diversity. This is a shake, but it needn’t be homogenized.
One joy of translating this book is the chance to introduce readers to the modern tradition in Brazilian poetry. Rilke Shake constantly alludes to Brazilian literary history. For example, an untitled poem in which the speaker imagines hiding behind a moustache picks up on “the man behind the moustache” (“[o] homem atrás do bigode”) from Carlos Drummond de Andrade’s “Poema de sete faces” (“Seven-Sided Poem,” as translated by Elizabeth Bishop)—and turns this classic modernist line on its head. In one swift gesture, the so-canonical-as-to-be-invisible male poet is replaced by the female poet/speaker in her reverie about wearing the perfect disguise: “A little stache to get out / and see the world yet not be seen.”
But the poem doesn’t side with male privilege in the end. Instead, it suggests an alternative. The Portuguese rhyme scheme parallels this idea. Lines end in –ar and –er words that cluster around the two verbs for being—estar and ser—and emphasize the contrast between them. In the last stanza, however, all traces of these main modes of being are gone; the lines end in –ir and –or. How can I suggest this form in English, which only has one verb “to be,” for starters? I’m experimenting with creating a formal structure in the translation that adds levels of resonance to the poem.
Blending is the challenge of our time. Freitas’s shake provides a way to make the difficult questions of the relationship between the self and the other, the specific and the universal, the local and the global, go down easy.