Manoel de Barros’s “Birds for a Demolition”

Reviewed by E.C. Belli

Image of Manoel de Barros’s “Birds for a Demolition”

“To use some words until they belong to no language.”
—Manoel de Barros

Birds for a Demolition is the first translation of Brazilian poet Manoel de Barros’s work to appear in English. In these thirty or so poems, selected from the different collections that have punctuated the poet’s long career, spanning from the 1960s to the present day—readers will find  their views of Brazil challenged. As prize-winning poet and translator Idra Novey explains in her introduction, “In the U.S. what we hear of Brazil is most often the brutal violence taking place in Rio and São Paulo, but Barros writes of the vast rest of the country—the wetlands and rivers the millions of migrants to Brazil’s cities are abandoning for the lack of economic opportunities there . . . What the reader experiences are the houses those migrants leave behind, the fungi blooming on their walls and the vines taking over their verandas. Barros shows the poverty and solitude of rural life, but also its sensuality . . .”

Traveling through the landscape built by Barros is not an experience soon forgotten. His poems are all at once small bestiaries and collections of aphorisms, full of indubitable truths and made up of intensely, sometimes fragmented, lyrical moments in plain language; these poems are constantly raising the stakes of surreal, sensory delight. In his world, there is a man who has “a tree…thickening in his voice” and “in the evenings, an old man plays his flute, / to invert the sunsets.” For the poet reader, there is much to be learned about poetry itself, such as the fact that “nobody fathers a poem without dying,” that “there are many ways to say nothing, but only poetry is true,” and finally—and perhaps most importantly—that “poetry is to flap without wings.”

The generosity with which Barros shares his tribulations (as a man), and the intelligence and effortlessness with which he encapsulates those tribulations (as a poet), make him both a familiar and irresistible figure. In “Day Three,” he writes:

What I have is the ache of an extracted conch.
An ache of pieces that won’t return.
I’m various people undone.

Or, in the eponymous poem pulled from The Book About Nothing (1996), he shares, “What has the most presence in me is what I’m missing. / The best way I found to know myself was doing the opposite.”

Additionally, there is a perverse joy in our being able to witness the world of man decaying at a slow rate, while nature confirms itself as a conquering force. Our defeat is explored repeatedly in “Job, Anew,” one of the first poems in the collection:

Inside his landscape
—between stone and himself—
a mollusk grew.

Moss bloomed . . .
Crept up to my lips,
ate around my mouth
leaving a ruined room.

. . .

It was good
to be like a rush
long in the ground: dry and hollow.
Full of sand, ants, sleep.
To be stone under shade (a meal for mosses)
To be soft fruit on the ground, relinquished
to things . . .
 

Barros is in the business of building monuments—monuments as a stay against ever-blooming ruin. And that may be the most interesting aspect of his work: taking the most human thing, language, and—even while making his subject ruin and decay in the human world—creating lasting memorials in the reader’s mind, in the form of an image, a line, or an entire poem.