Reviewed by William Allegrezza
by Paulo Leminski
translated by Charles A. Perrone and Ivan Justen Santana
New London Librarium
Paperback, 348 pages, April 2022, ISBN-13:978-1947074651
Finding the work of the twentieth-century Brazilian poet Paulo Leminski in an English translation has been a challenge up to this point. Bits and pieces have been translated in anthologies, and references to his work show up in later Brazilian poets, but All Poetry is the first major translation of his work, which is hard to believe considering its source texts sold over 200,000 copies in Brazil. In comparison, Ada Limón, the current U.S. poet laureate, had two popular books and was celebrated for selling 55,000 copies of them combined. Even though Leminski only lived to 45, he is considered a major force in Brazilian literature whose influence is felt across recent poetry, so English readers should celebrate having access to his work.
This collection is based on Toda Poesia, a collected edition that showcased the variety of his work. On one page he uses traditional Japanese forms; on another he uses visual poetry. He is erudite and humorous, self-deprecating and profoundly deep.
nothin the sun
everything the moon
more chic by the hour
there is no rain
to fade his flower
Is this simplicity or brilliance? As readers, we are left to decide, for Leminski is a bit of the wild child. He references writers ranging from Basho to Dante, throws in bits of other languages into his work, and seems intimately familiar with the haikai tradition; he then turns around in the next poem and makes fun of himself or the poetic tradition.
Even with the self-humor, the reader can see themes that stand out, such as in “one day” which provides commentary on his place in the literary community and mirrors the anxiety many writers feel about how they will be perceived.
we were going to be homer
our work no less than an iliad
the going getting rougher
maybe you could be a rimbaud
and ungaretti some fernando pessoa
a lorca and éluard a ginsberg
we ended up the small provincial poet
we’d always been
behind so many masks
that time treated like flowers.
This poem is narratively clear, aware of the poetic tradition, yet the poet feels the pressure of tradition. Like most writers, the speaker wanted to create a grand work, but not after trying, the speaker feels like just a local writer.
The translators kept the original preface written by Leminski’s wife and fellow writer Alice Ruiz, and they have added an afterward that helps the reader understand the trajectory of Leminski’s poetry. With the many visual poems, we can see how his work ties to the strong trend towards visual poetry in twentieth-century writing, but there are entire sections of haikus or senryus that are distinctly Leminski pieces in their depth, humor, and/or irreverence.
this highway can go far
but if it really goes
it will be greatly missed.
This poem plays on idiomatic language but also provides a commentary on the nature of travel and the ties that bind us.
Ultimately, this collection brings a great new poet to light from a country that often gets overlooked in English writing. Even more though, the variety of the work shows us that Leminiski is a poet who lived through poetry. He thought, breathed, and dreamed poetically, and the reader can delve into that life by experiencing the stages of it in this collection. Additionally, the translators have crafted accessible but aware translations that allow us to hear Leminski distinctly in English. This is a collection that should be on any shelf, especially the shelves of anyone interested in Brazilian poetry.
About the reviewer: William Allegrezza edits the press Moria Books, Moss Trill, and teaches at Indiana University Northwest. He has published many poetry books, poetry reviews, articles, translations, short stories, and poems. He founded and curated series A, a reading series in Chicago, from 2006-2010. He occasionally posts to p-ramblings.