"did you bring the key?"

Reading Carlos Drummond de Andrade in class:

“In the middle of the road there was a stone
there was a stone in the middle of the road
there was a stone
in the middle of the road there was a stone.

Never should I forget this event
in the life of my fatigued retinas.
Never should I forget that in the middle of the road
there was a stone
there was a stone in the middle of the road
in the middle of the road there was a stone.”

I read an antipoetic quality in his poems, in the style of the Chilean poet, Parra. A sensibility in which one can no longer recite the praises of nature, nor celebrate humankind, nor glorify divinity, etc. Even the most banal becomes subject. The stone is both interruption and obstruction. Karen mentioned the Steinian quality of this poem, and it does seem that a stone is a stone is a stone is a stone. The “middle of the road” establishes the trope of a Dante-esqe journey. But here, there is no guide, no hell, no paradise. Just the stone and the astonished perception of the stone.

“A time comes when you no longer can say: my God.
A time of total cleaning up.
A time when you no longer can say: my love.
Because love proved useless.
And the eyes don’t cry.
And the hands do only rough work.
And the heart is dry.


Wars, famine, family fights inside buildings
prove only that life goes on
and not everybody has freed himself yet.
Some (the delicate ones) judging the spectacle cruel
will prefer to die.
A time comes when death doesn’t help.
A time comes when life is an order.
Just life, without any escapes.”

[“Your shoulders hold up the world”)

The uselessness of traditional tropes of salvation in a time when even death doesn’t help, give many of Drummond’s poems a feeling of no escape.

“Father dead, love one dead.
Aunt dead, brother born dead.
Cousins dead, friend dead.
Grandfather dead, mother dead
(hands white, portrait on the wall always
crooked, speck of dust in the eyes).
Acquaintance dead, teacher dead.

Enemy dead.

Fiancee dead, girl friends dead.
Engineer dead, passender dead.
Unrecognizable body dead: a man’s? an animal’s?
Dog dead, bird dead.
Rosebush dead, orange trees dead.
Air dead, bay dead.
Hope, patience, eyes, sleep, movement of hands: dead.”

[“Motionless Faces”]

Ah the bankrupcies of modern life! Many of Drummond’s poems bring us into contact with the “stone” in the middle of the road, the undeniable, unescapable fact of life where even death is useless and all things already dead. This is not utopian poetry, not poetry interested in “perfecting the future” or of “engendering the Infinite” with inclusive, dramatic “othering.” The DADA’s make a similar nihilistic move as Drummond, and their way out is into poetry itself and the spontaneity and joy it brings to life. Drummond offers us something different:

“Don’t write poems about what’s happening.
Nothing is born or dies in poetry’s presence.
Next to it, life is a static sun
without warmth or light.
Friendships, birthdays, personal matter don’t count.
Don’t write poems with the body, and comfortable body objects to lyrical outpouring.
Your anger, your grimace of pleasure or pain in the dark mean nothing.
Don’t show off your feelings
that are slow in coming around and take advantage of doubt.
What you think and feel are not poetry yet.

Don’t sing about your city, leave it in peace.
Song is not the movement of machines or the secret of houses.
It is not music heard in passing, noise of the sea in streets that skirt the boders of foam.
Song is not nature
or men in society.
Rain and night, fatigue and hope, mean nothing to it.
Poetry (you don’t get it from things)
leaves out subject and object.

Don’t dramatize, don’t invoke
don’t question, don’t waste time lying.
Don’t get upset.
Your ivory yacht, your diamond shoe,
your mazurkas and tirades, your family skeletons,
all of them worthless, disappear in the curve of time.

Don’t bring up
your sad and buried childhood.
Don’t waver between the mirror
and a fading memory.
What faded was not poetry.
What broke was not crystal.

Enter the kingdom of words as if you were deaf.
Poems are there that want to be written.
They are dormant, but don’t be let down,
their virginal surfaces are fresh and serene.
They are alone and mute, in dictionary condition.
Live with your poems before you write them.
If they’re vague, be patient. If they offend, be calm.
Wait until each one comes into its own and demolishes
with its command of words
and its command of silence.
Don’t force poems to let go of limbo.
Don’t pick up lost poems from the ground.
Don’t fawn over poems. Accept them
as you would their final and definitive form,
distilled in space.

Come close and consider the words.
With a plain face hiding thousands of other faces
and with no interest in your response,
whether weak or strong,
each word asks:
Did you bring the key?

Take note:
words hide in the night
in caves of music and image.
Still humid and pregnant with sleep
they turn in a winding river and by neglect are transformed.”

[“Looking for Poetry”]

This poem rejects approaching the poem with any preconception. Rejects Apollinaire, Whitman, Tzara, Pessoa, Marinetti — Drummond’s negative method allows the poet to discover a kind of “deafness” through which to enter the kingdom. Sounds both a bit like Duncan and Levertov.


4 thoughts on “"did you bring the key?"

  1. And a bit like Jack Spicer, accessing that which others cannot hear (the aliens, or whatever else) or were deaf to and finding poetry in this Other.

  2. I think you have to read this poem in counterpoint (ala Ortiz) to Ecclesiates 3: 1–8

    To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
    A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
    A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
    A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
    A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing.
    A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
    A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
    A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.

    Andrade certainly invokes Biblical time–famine, wars. love, death and God himself appear (and are summarily dismissed). Ecclesiates and Andrade are both epic in their universality–both want to offer us a way of reading the world that resists subjective ownership. That is, they speak to humanity to the farthest remove. Nation and self in all possible permutations become subsumed by the epic history.

    But, of course, the two texts are doing very different things. If Ecclesiates has a reconcilitory function (we are meant to read it and rest in the assurance of divine purpose behind the dialectic), Andrade denies us “the traditional tropes of salvation,” as you say. The plight of modernity emerges in the poem as “just life, without any escapes” (no dialectical resolution here), a life which ultimately leads to death. But if Ecclesiates promises that death is part of life and can even makes us more than human through the gift of salvation & eternal life, Andrade’s conception of death denies the subject their very own humanity. “Unrecognizable body dead: a man’s? an animal’s?” The equivocality of this moment in the poem screams for a Marxist reading…

    The difference between a Marxist reading that looks to the rise of industrial capitalism as a source of alienation from the self (industrialization, growth of the city & middle class, increasing mechanization of work, changing gender roles, increased interracial contact…) and typical reading of the pessimism apparent in the inevitability of history as portrayed in Ecclesiates is that Ecclesiates not only suggests that we find comfort in the predictable (divinely created) rotation(s) of life, but also that we anticipate the coming of a savior who can redeem humanity and thus take us beyond death, beyond war, beyond the dialectic.

    Andrade, on the other hand, tells us bluntly that “hope” is “dead.” Poetry, though, lives on. It lives, in fact, so vitally that Andrade must leave us a lengthy litany of ‘what not to write’ in the style of a manifesto. His words suggest, to me, a reaction against proliferation. Andrade seems to struggle against a sacrilegious mass culture, ranting against the increasing popularization (and bastardization, it seems) of literature in the early 20th c. I think this can be read as another way in which his nihilism manifests itself–a desire to erase the volumes, eliminate everything except the moment of close contact between poet and “the words.”

    And here’s where the contrapuntal discourses would converge on each other, because what is the great invitation of the Bible but to “come close and consider the words”? Andrade’s poem is a prayer. A prayer to no God, a prayer that invokes its audience only to erase it, but a prayer nonetheless.

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