When it comes to reading poetry, I am generally not a fan of selected and collected volumes. I tell myself that this is because I prefer, instead, to come to know a poet and his/her work through individual collections, to encounter the poems as they entered the world in slim volumes of related work. This may be it, or it may be that I find any more than about seventy pages of poetry too much to digest at one time. By the time I get to the hundred-and-first poem by the same poet, I’m thinking, Yeah, yeah, I get it already. Still, as one with many holes in her poetry education, I’ve learned to live with selected and collected volumes in certain cases in order to fill the holes. Thus did I undertake to read Multitudinous Heart, the selected poems of Carlos Drummond de Andrade. And although I struggled, yes, at the hundred-and-first poem and occasionally thereafter, to maintain the attention and energy poetry requires of its reader, I was also rewarded by the way a selected volume illuminates a poet’s body of work over time.
Carlos Drummond de Andrade was a—some would say the—leading Brazilian poet of the 20th century. Born into a wealthy ranching family near Itabira, in the mining region of Minas Gerais, he began writing as a young man just as Modernism was taking hold in the Brazilian literary scene. Apprenticing himself to established writers, he committed to the writing life even while undertaking a long career as a civil servant. Readers of English came to know his work primarily through translations by Elizabeth Bishop and Mark Strand, who separately published brief selections of Drummond’s poems. Multitudinous Heart expands significantly on the range of Drummond’s work available in English.
To encounter Drummond’s work in this volume is to experience the diversity of subjects he engaged with, as well as the multiple registers in which his poems found voice. Drummond wrote about identity, family, and memories of Itabira, with a particular concern for examining the fundamental nature of the self. He wrote poems that were overtly political, as well as metaphysical works. As his range of subjects was wide, so too was the variety of registers in which he wrote: from the melancholic to the ecstatic; from the romantic to the skeptical. Still, despite the diverse nature of his work, the reader detects a certain fundamental stance: that of the dissatisfied questioner who stands a little outside his life and interrogates it.
One of Drummond’s preoccupations is the fundamental nature of the self. An early poems begins, “When I was born, one of those twisted / angels who live in the shadows said: / ‘Carlos, get ready to be a misfit in life!’.” This sense of being an outsider pervades his work, but in a way that invites rather than excludes. That is, it is more an admission of the complexity and uncertainty that accompanies living an examined life, than a self-interested stance. In this way, anyone who attempts to live an examined life feels at home with Drummond’s misfit persona.
Drummond devoted his work to examining not just life, but a particular life: his own. This is the life that began on the ranch in Itabira, where,
My father rode off on his horse to the fields.
My mother sat in a chair and sewed.
My little brother slept.
And I, on my own among the mango trees,
read the story of Robinson Crusoe.
A long story that never ends.
It was a life that unfolded in particular places—“and the wind came from Minas Gerais”— and included particular people: his family, the family’s “old black maid,” and “João (who) loved Teresa who loved Raimundo / who loved Maria who loved Joaquim who loved Lili / who didn’t love anyone.” This commitment to a particular life lends authenticity to the poems and urgency to the poet’s questions and longings.
While deeply interested in memory and identity, Drummond’s work also engages overtly with the world, especially where the political intersects with the personal. In his poem, “Feeling of the World,” he admits, “I have just two hands / and the feeling of the world, / but I’m teeming with slaves,” a reference to his family’s slave-owning past and the complicity and helplessness he feels in the face of this injustice. In “International Symposium on Fear” he laments a society that values fear over love, and in “Elegy 1938” he explores the futility of one person’s actions amidst a capitalist system: “You accept the rain, the war, unemployment, and unfair distribution / because you can’t, by yourself, blow up the island of Manhattan.”
Another of Drummond’s particular concerns is concept of time. He seems to both embrace it, and to reject it: time as inevitable deliverer of mortality versus time as impotent construct. In “Verses on the Brink of Evening” he seems to accept his powerlessness in the face of time and mortality: “I feel time’s heavy hand weigh down / on me. Wrinkles, bad teeth, baldness… .” Again in “Chaos in the Bedroom” he writes: “the body, the body // the ultimate truth, / that unruly thirst”—and what is a body if not temporary? Then there’s “May Afternoon,” in which he seems to divorce himself from time: “All I ask of you, May afternoon / is that you endure, irreversible, in time and outside it”; and “Field of Flowers” where “outside of time I drag my remains, / alive in this declining, confounding light.”
Throughout this body of work, the poems unfold in a variety of registers. In some poems Drummond is melancholic: “All the hypotheses—grace, eternity, love— / are feathers and fall.” In others, he’s ecstatic: “But I know / that for ages we’ve been crying / Yes! to the eternal.” He makes use of irony, humor, and despair, sometimes all within the same poem. Underneath the tonal shifts, however, an urgent, questioning voice persists in asking what the meaning of a particular life can possibly be, and usually comes up with not much: “O explanation of my life, / you’ve remained, among stern idols, / beyond the pale of my irony, / like an object lost on the street.”
In the end, what I want most from a volume of poetry, whether a single collection or a comprehensive volume, is that something of the poems stays with me once I’ve finished reading. Drummond’s work answers that call. What will persist in me from Multitudinous Heart? A sense of permission to work in a variety of registers and across a range of subjects, as well as the necessity of claiming the particulars of a life as a means to the universal (and now I am thinking of João, Teresa, Raimundo, Maria, Joaquim, and Lili, and wondering how it turned out, besides Joaquim committing suicide and Lili marrying “J. Pinto Fernandes, / who had nothing to do with the story”). Also, this poem, “Porcelain,” in its entirety:
The shards of life, glued together, form a strange teacup.
it quietly observes us from the sideboard.
I find Drummond’s work summed up in the image of that strange, imperfect teacup looking at us sidelong. It’s an image that embodies his misfit persona, his stance, his questions, arguments, and longings: Drummond the melancholic and the ecstatic, Drummond the romantic and the skeptic, Drummond the individual and the cog in the wheel; Drummond and his “discontent with the malformed world.”