In the early 90’s, Hilda Hilst, like many other Latin American writers, regularly penned a newspaper column. Published as the collection Cascos e Carícias (Crusts and Caresses), her cronicas are as visionary, scathing, and hilarious as her books. Hilst’s fiction, poetry, and drama might seem hermetic at first glance, so it’s interesting how often she reflects on politics at a time when Brazil was plagued by national debt, inflation, and corruption scandals. I’m especially intrigued by the connection this example (my translation) makes between sexual/colonial aggression, submission, and marginalization:
System, Form and Cucumber
When Plato was asked which existing governments and systems were most conducive and useful for our knowledge, he responded: “None of the present ones.” I, a mere poet, would say the same today. But the poet doesn’t exist. That last phrase reminds me of a story: Queen Victoria—angry because the Bolivian dictator Mariano Melgarejo not only forced the ambassador of Britan to drink a barrel of chocolate as punishment for refusing a glass of chicha (an alcoholic drink), but also made the ambassador ride a donkey backwards on the main street of La Paz—Queen Victoria, as I was saying, asked for a map of Latin America, drew a line over Bolivia, and prophesied: Bolivia doesn’t exist. I would also say: poets and Latin Americans don’t exist. Yes, they exist to be ransacked. Under any form of government, presidentialism, parliamentarism, or (!?!) monarchism, we, Brazilians, Latin Americans, will always be ransacked.
Ah… how sadly truthful is the fragment from the book Tu não te moves de ti, whose author is this modest writer of cronicas in her spare time, yes, myself, the one who’s been stoned (pooooor thing!). Cut out the following (purchasing the book would be too much to ask!) and, please, don’t forget it this time:
“…I’m a man, I trip up, I lie on my belly, on my belly, ready to be used, ransacked, adjusted to my Latinness, yes this one real, this one on my belly, the countless infinite cosmic fornications in all my Brazilianess, me on my belly, vilified, a thousand bucks in my acosmic hole, handing over everything, my rich depths from within, my soul, ah, much like Mr. Silva, so thick, kicking the ball, singing, rich people abroad call you a bum, oh Mr. Silva the Brazilian,
Mr. Macho Silva, hoho hoho, while you fornicate asslike your women singing, kicking the ball, what a big cucumber, Mr. Silva, on your turntable, your poor junctures breaking, handing over your iron, your blood, your head, hidden, by the touch, half-blind, conceding, always conceding, ah, Great Ransacked One, great poor ransacked macho, on your belly, on your knees, how long conceding and pretending, green-yellow victim, loved macho entirely on your belly flexing, on all fours, multiplied in emptinesses, in ais, in multi-irrationals, mouth of misery, I exteriorize myself stuck to my History, she swallowing me, me swallowed by all chimeras.”
Did you hurt yourself, reader? Did you scandalize yourself, reader? (pooooor thing!)
Hilst’s sign-off—an acknowledgment of the degradation that literature, too, can inflict—reminds me once again of poetry’s ability to turn its own negligibility into a space of permissiveness, of potency, beyond the mandates of preconceived systems and forms. By taunting the “hurt” or “scandalized” reader, Hilst deftly undermines a potentially imperialist ethics of reading based on the prowess of enlightened states such as ‘thinkership’. Instead, the reader, like the poet, becomes a vessel—a “pooooor thing”—used and abused as a passive orifice to the phallic fruit (cucumber) of those higher up in the power structure.
The cronica thus illustrates the reversal of the power bottom—a writer whose submissiveness within the culture is the very thing that permits and spreads her voracity, her agility, her “multi-irrational” contagion and disease. Her mouths and holes multiply in me, forcing leaps of an imagination whose violation only gives it more reach.
On her website, Violeta Luna offers the following description of her arresting performance piece “Requiem for a Lost Land”:
Requiem is a performative intervention by way of ritual, to remember the killings committed in the “war on drugs” initiative from the central government in Mexico.
The bilingual title makes reference to the bi-national reality of the “war against drugs.” Requiem is an attempt, from the space of performance art, to open with a coroner’s knife the very same discourse of death broadcasted by those in power under the guise of “national security.” Inside its rotten entrails, we re-discover the daily suffering of the common citizen, the most affected by a vicious and pathological decision of the state that has nothing to do with his or her well-being, and much to do with some of the darker designs of power that Mexico has seen in its history, with unconditional support from the US.
Through Luna’s ritual, a kind of Mother Death emerges as a simultaneously contemporary, prophetic, and ancestral figure: her head leaks the blood of narco-victims (estimated to number from 60,000-100,000) so that the fluid becomes her own, the motherland’s, and Mother Earth’s. In the performance I saw at the Hemispheric Institute’s Encuentro, Luna even distributed soil to audience members. Much in the same way that Raúl Zurita’s poem continues to be scrawled into the Atacama desert by villagers, the audience spread the soil within the piece’s cocaine border in what amounted to an ongoing, ever-repeating burial rite performed on contaminated, militarized land. (continue reading…)
In Defense of Extreme Difference: Some Thoughts on Peripheries, Cannibalism, La Pocha Nostra, and the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics’ 8th Encuentro
Last week I had the privilege of attending an artistic/activist/academic conference I didn’t know could exist in the hyper-fragmented world we live in. Unlike most conferences I’ve attended, the Hemispheric Institute’s eight-day smorgasbord here in São Paulo invigorated as much as it exhausted me. Beyond lectures and roundtables, the conference also offered teach-ins and work groups in addition to the intense schedule of the performances themselves. Actually, in my work group we even created our own performances. For me the conference was an experience in “extreme culture”—a term used by Guillermo Gómez-Peña, one of the artists who epitomizes the border-defying, periphery-prizing spirit of the Hemi (as it is affectionately called). I think poets of the Montevidayan variety, in particular, stake a claim in the extremities and peripheries being celebrated at the Hemi Encuentro. It’s one of those art spaces where people constantly use the word “poetics” without ever mentioning poets or poetry.
Maybe &Now would be US poetry’s equivalent to the Hemi Encuentro, except without what I consider to be one of the latter’s extreme aspects: its ambitiously politicized continental scope, as reflected in how much the event tends to provincialize the US. While the talks were translated from or into Portuguese, Spanish, and English, the performances conducted in Portuguese or Spanish were left untranslated. My work group, where I talked about horse bestiality as an expression of gender, was in Portuguese. This marginalization of the lingua franca, I think, partly reflects a commitment to countering US-American hegemony. People at the conference were very conscious about the imposition of the term “performance” as a US-American export.
Yet, I think the inherent radicalness of much contemporary performance art—or arte accíon as some Latin Americans call it—provides organic reasons for the Hemi’s decentering of the US. Such an anti-colonial impulse, I’d argue, is vital to the making of provocative art, or art that resists being boxed in and made legible as mere representation, seeking a process and practice-based disorientation of bodies instead of the identity politics being viciously co-opted by the state/market (see Craig Santos Perez on the White House’s selection of inaugural poet Richard Blanco). (continue reading…)
My best friends since moving back to Brazil have been Clarice Lispector’s cronicas, which she wrote for Jornal do Brasil in the late 60’s and early 70’s. They are hardly cronicas, actually, and more like personal blog posts in the style of Bhanu Kapil or Kate Zambreno. I was struck by how much the following passage I translated addresses some of Montevidayo’s recurrent themes: bad/good taste, counterfeitness, sincerity, and gaudy feathers (which here would evoke the populism of Carnival):
A friend of mine said that there’s a charlatan in all of us. I agreed. I feel a charlatan spying on me from within. She only doesn’t win because, first of all, she’s not real, and because my honesty is nauseatingly base. There’s something else that looks over my shoulder and makes me smile: bad taste. Ah, how often I feel like giving into bad taste. Bad taste in what? Well, the possibilities are limitless, simply limitless. From the moment you use the wrong word exactly when it sounds the worst to the moment when beautiful, truthful words unsettle and shock an unsuspecting listener. Bad taste in what else? How you dress, for example. Not necessarily anything as obvious as the equivalent of feathers. I don’t know how to describe it, but I’d know perfectly well how to wear bad taste. And what about in writing? As the line between bad taste and the truth is almost invisible, it’s very tempting. And even if just because a certain kind of good taste in literature is worse than bad taste. Sometimes, for the sheer pleasure of it, I tread on this fine line.
How is it that I’m a charlatan? In all sincerity, I went along thinking I had my life settled. For example, I studied law, fooling myself and everyone else. No, more myself than anyone. In doing so, I was sincere: I studied law because I wanted prison reform in Brazil.
The charlatan is a counterfeit of herself. What exactly am I saying? Something that already escapes me. Does the charlatan compromise herself? I don’t know, but I know that sometimes charlatanism hurts deeply. It gets in the way in the gravest of situations. It makes you want to stop existing exactly when you most forcefully exist.
I was told that a critic called Guimaraes Rosa and myself a hoax, or essentially charlatans. That critic won’t understand anything I’m saying here. This is something else. I’m talking about something profound, even if it doesn’t seem like it, even though I too am sadly playing a little with the topic.
I wonder what to make of Lispector’s mention of a painful charlatanism? It seems categorically different from the charlatanism described in the first paragraph. Maybe she’s talking about a certain kind of restraint—a conservatism of expression that is inherently cynical and limiting, perhaps in contrast with the “limitless possibilities” of unbridled bad taste, or what it is to let oneself “play” with a “profound” topic.
A few weeks before the Sandy Hook headlines, I saw an exhibit at the São Paulo Biennial that already suffused the figure of the Child in death and ill inheritance, as well as the powers of susceptibility with which all children radiate.
If the orphans of Eduardo Gil’s “Urine Readings” appear as mere adumbrations of children, they do so by invoking the negative space of a meaningful future. Here the cliché wonder of the child is completely imbued with foreboding. While interpreting a mattress, one psychic said something like, “You can tell—and it’s difficult for me to say this, because these are children—some of the ones who slept here were so scared that they didn’t even let themselves pee.” (continue reading…)
Before embarking on her pornographic trilogy (whose first book I’ve written about as “porn for children”), Hilda Hilst had to meet her calling. She had to profane the sacred, tearing God out of a birdshit-ridden sky. The result was The Obscene Madame D, her first work to appear in English via a unique partnership between Nightboat and the Rio-based A Bolha, and co-translators Nathanaël and Rachel Gontijo Araújo.
“What is obscene?” Hilst once asked in an interview. “To this day nobody knows what’s obscene. Obscenity, to me, is poverty, hunger, cruelty. Our era is obscene.” Hilst’s pronouncement finds resonance in the very mega city where she lived before secluding herself with nearly 100 dogs in a rural refuge known as Casa do Sol. São Paulo, a city where wealth and destitution brutally clash, happens to be the birthplace of pichação—a practice of class warfare in which young, poor Brazilians scale and spray-paint the facades of monuments, chic high-rises, and government buildings. As an NY Times article points out, pichação can be fatal. While defacing structures, gang members not only risk falling to their deaths from dizzying heights but are prone to brawls with rival groups who are also vying for prized buildings. The drama of these stakes is, to say the least, notable. The pichador, you might say, is ready to die for his art-crime, itself a visionary execution at once urgent and extravagant. Because it smears that which is exalted—literally staining upward mobility with the threat of precarity—his weapon bleeds out societal extremes with its own brand of crude, black scarring. (continue reading…)
I am drawn today to “Las meninas,” surely one of the most mystifying leertexts of the Western canon. I’m thinking about a standard interpretation of this painting: how it registers, absorbs, and destroys itself as well as the viewer, who is figured as the king in the doorway, the “Master” of the gaze.
Then there are the girls aglow beneath all that empty dark space. Isn’t their gaze at least as penetrating as the painter’s?
If the painting occupies us like a phallus as it closes the distance between viewer and canvas, I’m tempted to ask,
but what about the children?
For me, the girls are the excessive remainder of the image. They are the violent birthing of seedlings commanded by the sun, or perhaps a fluorescent bulb. As Genet wrote, “the violence of a bud bursting forth–against all expectation and against every impediment–always moves us.” Having already decentered all adults within the frame, men and women alike, the girls and their dog thus radiate a frightening possibility. What if their gaze were about to break off; what if their secretive canine-child alliance were pregnant with us as its commandments. Guided only by the misty promise of emergence and incipience, of a feeling of suspension at the cusp of revelation, we are lucky to embody such birth again and again without ever growing up. This is, I think, the call of arrested development. As the painting devours me, must I not always push out of its belly/doorway, compelled to ‘throw shade’ back at its gaze by emitting my own optic blast: (continue reading…)
I was skimming Benjamin Moser’s biography of Clarice Lispector when I found some hot literary goss to share–a page right out of the binder full of women. After Elizabeth Bishop translated and hung out with Clarice Lispector in Brazil, she wrote the following in correspondence with Robert Lowell:
”She’s the most non-literary writer I’ve ever known, and ‘never cracks a book’ as we used to say–She’s never read anything, that I can discover–I think she’s a ‘self-taught’ writer, like a primitive painter.”
Bishop called Lispector’s novels “NOT good,” though she liked her short stories. She added, “Actually I think [Lispector] is better than J.L. Borges–who is good, but not all that good! The only South American reading I really care for is anthropology and the old chronicles, anyway–and maybe Pablo Neruda, when he isn’t being too violently anti-U.S.”
Moser goes on to say:
In one sense, Bishop was spectacularly off the mark. Clarice’s higher education, her work as a journalist, her experience in the foreign service, her knowledge of languages, and her practice living on three continents made her, apart from her own artistic achievement, one of the most sophisticated women of her generation, and not only in Brazil. She was widely and deeply read, as the numerous allusions in her writing and correspondence prove. Autran Dourado, one of Brazil’s leading novelists and intellectuals, recalls long Sundays spent with Clarice in complicated philosophical discussions ranging from Spinoza to Nietzsche.
In another sense, however, being a “primitive painter,’ “the most non-literary writer I’ve ever known,” was a goal of Clarice’s. She placed no value on learnedness or sophistication. From Naples she had written Natércia Freire of her impatience with diplomatic life: “At the end of it all you end up ‘educated.’ But that’s not my style. I never minded being ignorant.” She was interested in a different kind of knowledge, one that had nothing to do with advanced reading or philosophy. Suspecting that the answers to the “mute and intense question” that had troubled her as an adolescent–”what is the world like? and why this world?”– could not be discovered intellectually, she sought a higher kind of understanding. “You ought to know,” a Spanish cabbalist muttered at the end of the thirteenth century, “that these philosophers whose wisdom you are praising, end where we begin.”
The Manifestos of Roberto Piva, featuring “dethroned emperors, deaf nuns, lowborn thugs with hemorrhoids”
A while back I posted parts of my essay about Roberto Piva, a magnificent Brazilian poet I turn to when I need a punch in the face. Although there are no full-length collections of Piva’s work published in English yet, Chris Daniels has graciously translated several manifestos here. Please sample two tantalizing morsels (written in the 60′s) below and then check out the rest.
THE MINOTAUR OF MINUTES
The cardinal points of our elements are: betrayal, incomprehension of the utility of windowpanes, Totem’s rollercoaster violence, breaking with the labyrinth & nerves of the narrow beak of Logic, against your sugared ecstasy, you doglike beings who feel a need for infinity, we the short circuit, darkness & shock against your cute lyric message, against spangles for caracoles, against the vagina for the anus, against specters for phantasms, against stairways for railways, against Eliot for the Marquis de Sade, against polenta for ragu, we are perfectly schizophrenic, we know by our paranoia that we must draw away from the three-striped flag whose representatives are the poetry-embroiderers strewn all over the city.
MACHINE FOR MURDERING TIME
Here we hurl ourselves into the attack on the immortal soul of cabinets. We’re looking for friends who aren’t serious: macumbeiros, trustworthy madmen, dethroned emperors, deaf nuns, lowborn thugs with hemorrhoids & all who loathe monochrome dreams of Arcadian poetry. We know very well that the tenderness of little ribbons is a protozoan luxury. Be violent as gastritis. Down with gilded butterflies. Behold the glittering contents of latrines.
Confessionalism and Horse Fucking in the Necropastoral of Louise Glück, “Equus,” and Enumclaw, Washington
For my third annual post on art and the animal, I’m going to explore the moist, shadowy field where two taboos collide. Bestiality (actual and representational) and Confessionalism (poetic, Catholic, psychiatric, juridical) have been on my mind lately.