Poetry of Memory


Título do trabalho: “Ricardo Sternberg’s poetry of memory: seeds from Brazil above ‘snowbound yard’”

Autora: Maria Lúcia Milléo Martins


A carioca-Canadian, Ricardo Sternberg offers us a taste of his harvest, out of “seeds brought back from Brazil.” Like seeds, memory casts its roots in space depending on the action of time, as Gaston Bachelard says, to be “concretized as a result of long sojourn.” Thus, the finest specimens of memory only unfurl when sufficiently shaped by time. Or, as Carlos Drummond de Andrade, another poet of memory, puts it: “This landscape? It doesn’t exist. What / exists is the vacant space for sowing / with retrospective landscape.” Beginning with this dialectics of poetry and memory, this study examines Sternberg’s recollections of Brazil, which vividly combine family memories and fragments of the country’s cultural history.


Título do trabalho: “Ricardo Sternberg’s poetry of memory: seeds from Brazil above ‘snowbound yard’”

Autora: Maria Lúcia Milléo Martins

Born in Rio de Janeiro, Ricardo Sternberg left Brazil at fifteen and is currently professor of Brazilian and Portuguese Literature at the University of Toronto. His work as a poet is gathered in three collections, the latest—Bamboo Church—recently published. Among Sternberg’s many links with Brazil, two are coincidentally mine: Elizabeth Bishop and Carlos Drummond de Andrade. Having met Bishop while both lived in Brazil, Sternberg joins her in a lecture at Bristol Community College, in the late seventies, to talk about Brazilian poetry and music. Bishop’s notes for the event, including unpublished translations of Brazilian artists, are held in her archives at Vassar.1 The second link is Sternberg’s study on Drummond, The Unquiet Self: Self and Society in the Poetry of Carlos Drummond de Andrade, essential for my dissertation on Bishop and Drummond. Like these two poets, Sternberg confirms that poetry is above all the art of memory. The lines from the poem “New Leaves”2 appropriated in the title of this study illustrate the dynamics of his art, in this case result of Brazilian “seeds” taken to sprout elsewhere:

Brought from the tropics 
then in obedience
to a sweet injunction, 
the closed fist of a seed

unfurls a green banner 
among the cacti on a sill
above my snowbound yard. (23-41)

Sufficiently ripen by time, “the closed fist” of seeds unfurls childhood memories, revealing significant features of Brazilian cultural history.

Memory, that “strange thing,” says Gaston Bachelard,

does not record concrete duration, in the Bergsonian sense of the word. We are unable to relive duration that has been destroyed. We can only think of it, in the line of an abstract time that is deprived of all thickness. The finest specimens of fossilized duration concretized as a result of long sojourn, are to be found in and through space. (9)

Bachelard explains that localizing a memory in time is the biographer’s task in the creation of “external history, for external use.” But, for the hermeneutics of intimacy, localization in space is “more urgent than determination of dates.” Thus, memory casts its roots in space, and the more securely fixed, the sounder it is. But yet fixed in space, memory depends on time’s chisel to the survival of its “finest specimens.”

“A stone is only stone / in the long ripening,” says Drummond in “Paisagem: Como se Faz” (“Landscape: How to Make It”). The immediately seen does not exist, for “all is later”:

now seeing doesn’t see; seeing collects 
filaments of path, of horizon,
and doesn’t even notice it collects them 
to one day weave tapestries

which are photographs
of unnoticed, visited land. (my translation)3

Curiously, one of Sternberg’s first tapestries of Brazil begins with “thread and needle” and the insistent voice of his aunt, “Sinhazinha,” asking: “child, thread this for me.” In the creative space-time distance, the scene gains a dream-like atmosphere. The house becomes an “aquarium” where “Sinhá,” “lost among the ferns, [is] sewing and muttering prayers / oblivious to bright fish / threading in and out her hair” (12-15). As Bachelard notes, it is in the realm of dreams and not of facts that childhood “remains alive and poetically useful within us”(16). The oneiric vision, however, does not exclude reflection: “Sancturay of boredom, that house / was a world, a system complete, / self- sufficient as the aquarium” (18-20). Likewise, dream and reality converge in the consciousness of differences, in the juxtaposition of the female sanctuary to the great- uncle’s world “policing the stones in his garden, / the mangoes on his trees” and speaking of “the emperor” (3-5).

In another poem, “Tia,” the female universe appears stiched with the humor of transgression. “Myopic, rheumatic, prone / to spells of dizziness,” the aunt almost faints under the mango trees. But regaining her balance, smiles saying “Tarzan.” As Silviano Santiago observes about Drummond’s childhood memories, “among mango trees, all adventures are possible” (61). Transgression is also insinuated in the aunt’s domestic altar where she keeps her patron, St. Francis—“A bird to each shoulder, / the wolf curled at his feet,” becoming explicit on the last lines:

When I left for the States at 
fifteen, she whispered
she would be gone
long before my return. And was.
But in my dreams she knits 
a dream that has no end:
in a perfumed forest,
a parrot squacking on his shoulder, 
Tarzan bows to St. Francis,
swings from a vine,
and steps to her back porch. (53-63)

The family rituals revived in these poems reveal not only a private inventory but relevant traits of Brazilian cultural history, at the time deeply rooted in patriarchy and catholic indoctrination. Sternberg’s female portraits here resemble Drummond’s in the poem “Image, Land, Memory,”4 where women emerge from “the pool of time” with their “heavy grosgrain of mass dresses,” “sylvan scent,” and “melancholic ambiguity” at windows opening “to impossible seas of freedom.” In Sternberg’s poems, both aunts’attitudes in surrendering to an “aquarium” life or to voyerism signal a repressive order. But this is not what prevails in the mythical view of these women, sewing or knitting dreams that have “no end” and whose charm, surpassing family bonds, reaches the realm of enchantment.

“Paulito’s Birds,”5 another family portrait, also keeps the atmosphere of enchantment:

In dozens of plain cages 
each with its mirror and bell 
my great uncle raised birds
but the steepled bamboo church 
with a nest in its hollow pulpit 
he, the fierce atheist,
kept for the mating pair. (1-7)

“Acolyte,” the poet followed him in his “cerimonious, almost sacramental” gesture of feeding the birds. The rituals in the poem illustrate Rosemary Sullivan’s observation about the book Bamboo Church, “a celebration of the sacred and sensual things of this earth.” By celebrating the union of these elements, “Tia” and “Paulito’s Birds” reveal perhaps one of the most characteristic Brazilian traits, inheritance of primitive nakedness clothed with Christianity. Tarzan bowing to St. Francis and the bamboo church sheltering the birds for mating allegorize this feature. Widely represented in Brazilian art, Drummond’s poetry in particular, the communion of the sensual and the sacred persists even in the cliché of the Brazilian “cult” to sensuality.

At the end of “Paulito’s Birds,” “the fierce atheist” gains his sanctuary when revered as:

wizard, magus, bruxo,
who, against ransom not received, 
holds locked in this spell
of feathers and birdseed,
the children of his kingdom. (31-35)

The spell or mythical halo involving these family portraits and the initial idea of “seeds brought back from Brazil” reminds me of a comment by Bishop about the ripening of her “family monuments.” She explains that they sank into the earth year by year silently, “but becoming only more firm, and inscribed with meanings gradually legible, likeletters written in ‘magic ink.’”6

Aunt Dolores, a monument that in fact was not Dolores nor aunt, is inscribed with the magic of her dance:

Such a wealth of buttocks 
would have slowed the walk
of anyone but (praise be to God!) 
it proved mere ballast
to the strut of Aunt Dolores. (“First Dance” 1-5)

Dancer of all rhythms, “when music revved her hips / she moved and still would move / long after the exhausted boys / had surrendered the floor…” (6-9). Aunt Dolores, who literally dances all along the poem, particularly reveals her power of seduction when hold by “a tiny god,” her husband “half her size”:

His moves pared now 
into a sizzling stance:
a suggestive sway of the hips, 
a licentious thrust of the belly,

the head thrown back, towards heaven, 
a rooster, set to let loose
the fierce light of a brand new day. (31-37)

In a comment on the poem published in Flyway, Sternberg states that the couple is “loosely based not on aunt and uncle but neighbours in Rio,” and explains:

As a boy they struck me as wonderfully odd. I sensed a strange sexual energy in the household but perhaps that was only me, one eye on the mother, one eye on the daughter, projecting. She was large, loud, generous of bosom and buttocks; he was small, tidy, a dentist. The marriage in question might have been of their daughter, Regina who taught voice and piano at home so that my memory of playing soccer carries a sound track, overrinding the din of our game, the do-re-mis of Regina warming her vocal cords.7

Among the poems in Bamboo Church, this is for Carmen Oliveira one of the most “brasilianos.” She points out the resemblance of Aunt Dolores to Chico Buarque’s female character with “a hurricane in the hips.”8 Sternberg confirms that, having written the line “music revved her hips,” soon recognized its filiation. Correspondences not only apply to the dancing sensuality attributed to Brazilian women but allegorically to a country essentially musical (as it is confirmed by the memory of playing soccer with “sound track”).

The final question in the poem demonstrates, as Bachelard believes, memory’s impossibility to retrieve the “concrete duration” of what has been lost:

When since 
have I so been whirled
or returned to that space
a body learns to inhabit
in the lull between two beats? 
Locked within her arms
I was danced. (46-52)

Space thus prevails over time, even if this means inhabiting “in the lull between two beats.”

Outside the family circle, characters belonging to the collective memory also gain room in Sternberg’s gallery of portraits. In the poem “Ana-Louca,” Sternberg recreates a familiar type, “antic-prone and crazy,” who roams the streets cursing and begging.

Different from mad women in “attics,” who usually belong to more privileged social classes, Ana-Louca embodies the typical madness of women doomed to a life of extreme poverty. “Breast-feeding her dolls,” or offering “her litany of curses and profanities / to no one in particular,” she demands “that which habit / had made hers by right”:

the warmed leftovers
she wolfed down, standing 
against the green backdoor.
Finished, she rattled thanks
from the gates and was gone. (12-16)

The final image in the poem shows Ana-Louca sleeping by the docks: “a grizzled girl / lulled by the ocean’s rhythm / as if cradled in its blue arm” (21-23). Like Drummond and Bishop, Sternberg avoids judgement and the worn-out rethoric for social changes, investing in the power of image—“the fury of imagination,” as Charles Simic puts it.

The initial image of Ana-Louca “breast-feeding her dolls” and the final scene tell more about the tragedy of abandonment than any detailed account could possibly do. Although human types like this may be found anywhere in the world, the naming points out to the local, and specially to a time in which the slow pace of life allowed this intimacy of contemplation.

Besides human portraits, the Brazilian seeds also unfurl landscape in poems like “Guaratiba” and “Elephant Rock Beach.” In the former, Sternberg uses the sea’s dynamics to explain poetic creation. Surrendered by the insistent hammering of Guaratiba’s waves, “spellbound,” the poet falls sleep: “a blue pulse / in the pillowed ear.” In “Elephant Rock Beach,” the “slack slap of waves” hauls the character in the poem, “asleep, / to beach him, younger by decades, / on some Brazilian shore.” The oneiric displacement alternates with the consciousness of reality, reality “by far the stranger dream: / that he should now awake / in English, conscious of a life / that does not appear his own” (14-17). The poem ends with the image of the rock turning into “a wash of kelp and foam” ready to “spout” them (character and family) awake, back home—in the ironic inversion, the shore of memory. While Guaratiba’s waves mimic memory’s continual pulse, the waters here enact the violence in which the past floods the present. As in Drummond’s recipe, the landscape is completed when, “at the margin of pictures,

documents, / … more than we exist / things exist violently: they inhabit us / and look at us, they stare at us.”

Be it the wash of foam, the “blue pulse” or the seed unfurling a “green banner,” the memory of Brazil takes shape in Sternberg’s poetry with the rigorous clarity of time. In weaving spaces of intimacy with threads of collective memory, Sternberg offers us “luminous details” of Brazilian cultural history—the term used here as in Ezra Pound’s poetics of fragments. Pound believed, as Michael Bernstein explains, that “the most fundamental truths, even about as multiple and various a subject as human culture, could be grasped (and hence communicated) by means of individual and even fragmentary ‘luminous details’” (36). Not less luminous, the fragments of personal memory— collection of “long ago broken china”—leave us this taste of visit to the “museum of dream.”


1 Elizabeth Bishop Collection, Notes and Notebooks, Vassar College Library.

2 “New Leaves” as well as “Thread and Needle,” “Tia,” “Ana-Louca,” and “Guaratiba,” discussed further, are published in The Invention of Honey (Montreal: Signal Editions, 1990).

3 This translation is published in Metamorphoses: The journal of the five-college seminar on literary translation 5. 1 (1996): 72-75. The original is from Carlos Drummond de Andrade: Poesia e Prosa (Rio de Janeiro: Editora Nova Aguilar, 1992), 393-394.

4 Published in Drummond’s last poetry collection, entitled Farewell (Rio de Janeiro: Editora Record, 1996), 63-67.

5 “Paulito’s Birds,” “First Dance” and “Elephant Rock Beach,” subsequently discussed, are from Bamboo Church (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2003).

6 Quoted in David Kalstone, Becoming a Poet: Elizabeth Bishop with Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell

(New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1989), 23.

7 Sternberg sent this fragment by e-mail in response to my questions on his poetry, 19 Oct. 2003.

8 E-mail from Carmen Oliveira, 25 Sep. 2003. I am grateful for her help, indispensable to my analysis.


Andrade, Carlos Drummond. Poesia e Prosa. Rio de Janeiro: Editora Nova Aguilar, 1992.

      . Farewell. Rio de Janeiro: Editora Record, 1996.

Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Translated by Maria Jolas. Boston: Beacon, 1969.

Bernstein, Michael André. The Tale of the Tribe. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1980.

Santiago, Silviano. Carlos Drummond de Andrade. Petrópolis: Editora Vozes, 1976. Sternberg, Bamboo Church. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2003.

      . The Invention of Honey. Montreal: Signal Editions, 1990.

      . The Unquiet Self: Self and Society in the Poetry of Carlos Drummond de Andrade.

Valencia: Albatros Hispanofila Ediciones, 1986.

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