Five Poems from Fiat Lux by Paula Abramo

Introduction of the anarchist baker Bortolo Scarmagnan

 

                                        strike the match

                                        okay I’m striking it

 

Struck roughly, the match fires up the oven.

The century is almost over; just five hours left

give or take a few before dawn.

The hour doesn’t matter, what matters

is the glacial rolling of the sky

down the rivers. And the oven, today,

somewhere in Venice.

What matters today is the oven’s vaulted dome.

Flour turns into bread, and bread is flesh.

Bread is these thighs waking up

in the middle of the night

brushed by another’s legs

and then slipping away before daybreak

to fire up the oven and the wood.

But when the sun rises, the bread won’t do.

The constellations, sifted over the ground, do not shine

when everything is shattered by gendarmes

and a steamship offers the only way out.

Requiem for the embaúbas

 

                                        permission to speak of hunger

                                        that tasteless loudmouth

                                        hunger is no more

                                        says the lawyer, esquire,

                                        as he lights a cigarette

                                        that idly dies

                                        alongside a swivel chair that twirls

                                        glassware

                                        routines

                                        fruits of polished perpetuity

                                        in a blue bowl

 

                                        why harp on that old matter

                                        now that naturalism

                                        now that revolution

                                        and rats it’s well known

                                        it’s been said often enough

                                        and well enough

                                        hunger is démodé

                                        better to speak of love

                                        much better

  

                                        permission to state that it brings cramps

                                        that hunger spreads

                                        like leprosy

                                        in outbreaks of amber

                                        in the middle of the night

                                        in the middle of the day hunger

                                        polyeidetic variegated iridescent

 

                                        beyond its fearful retinue

                                        of skeletal cows

                                        and swollen children

                                        permission to speak of hunger without cramps

                                        the gray hunger of time

                                        to think of hunger

                                        to say

                                        the word hunger

                                        with its mouth open

                                        and then think:

                                        of time

                                        of books of

                                        crustaceans of brilliant hues

                                        and yes of flowers

                                        of flowers too

                                        and of space to portray their colorful

                                        disorder

                                        in another way

 

Ants, thousands and thousands, billions,

blackening the myrmecophytic trunk,

piling into the knots, swarming along the gigantic leaves,

the sparse gigantic leaves, superlative asterisks

of the embaúba. Density of its wood: 0.02.

Ideal for laminating, for slicing

into the finest of shards, parallelipipeds,

and so they fall, these trunks,

they roll — never that tall —

and, therefore, roll

as if they had grown for this purpose

only for this.

The fine layer of moss around the trunks

is soaked with mud,

and now, without asterisks, without ants,

leaving mere stumps behind,

they roll, mutilated cylinders,

down to the creeks

where the next flood will sweep them toward the sea. And they go on rolling

water-borne, juxtaposed,

the scales of some giant reptile,

blending their perfumes with those of nobler hardwoods

in the organic soup of the Amazon.

Then they arrive

at a place of men not necessarily

muscular, but yes,

well-fed, and cranes, and shivers of fever,

as there always are.

The trunks are loaded

onto the truck, loaded

onto the ship, set sail

and travel south

to Santos and other ports.

In memory of Anna Stefania Lauff, match factory girl

 

                                        the word joy does not say

                                        leap into the middle of the puddle in full sun

                                        does not say morning dip in the iris of your eye

                                        jacaranda flowers above and below does not say

                                        look there’s the sea

                                        doesn’t sink its feet

                                        in the sand every so often

                                        doesn’t know, with the day’s first sip of coffee,

                                                    the word pain

                                                    ought to

                                                   be banned

                                        whoever writes pain has to

                                        clarify

                                        where and when and why and whether it radiates

                                        stabs cuts reeks or chafes inside or out

                                        or both

                                        whether it emerges for instance in a crazed impulse to smash

                                                   everything against the wall

                                        or in barely perceptible nausea                     

                                        or in the paralysis of a reptile suddenly aware of a cat

                                                   otherwise what is it?

                                                   a calligraphic discharge of guilt

                                                   the easy justification of verse

                                        on the other hand

                                        the word match

                                        hints at something quick and fricative

                                        two or three fingers clasped together the word

                                        match

                                        hints at a tiny fire

                                        but neither explains verbi gratia that:

 

 

In principio creavit deus caelum

et terram.

And the earth

was

void.

For God said:

…………Produtos tradicionais de Companhia Fiat Lux

…………matches you can count on,

…………há mais de vinte anos fabricando

…………and distributing

…………matches

…………throughout Brazil.

 

And God said:

……………………The girl gets half: a minor’s pay,

……………………that’s minor pay,

……………………and someday,

……………………if she buckles down,

……………………and springs for two years’ instruction,

……………………she can become a matchmaker’s apprentice.

……………………Not just anyone.

 

And said:

…………The brands Olho,

…………Pinheiro

…………and Beija-flor.

…………Proof against the humidity

…………do nosso clima

…………traiçoeiro.

 

And said:

……………………Besides

……………………she doesn’t speak

……………………Portuguese

……………………and the country she comes from,

……………………who knows whether it ever existed

……………………at all?

 

And he said:

…………Confie na mais alta

…………qualidade

…………of Swedish industry

  

And said:                     Phosphonecrosis?

                                        Nonsense.

                                        Antimony

                                        potassium chlorate

                                        crimson allotropy

                                        of the most fundamental

                                        element.

                                        Your daughter is going to

                                        grind a little glass,

                                        that’s all.

 

And he said:

…………Little sticks of embaúba wood,

…………in several sizes.

…………Little boxes

…………in several attractive

…………collectible designs.

 

And said:

                                        From eight to six

                                        and bring her own food

                                        or money.

 

And God said:

…………Fiat Lux

…………Let there be light

…………always thinking

…………of our sweet

…………and coquettish

…………donas de casa

…………brasileiras.

Bucolic interlude

 

                                        it’s not that they’re always the same

                                        the circumstances

                                        surrounding the brief lifespan of the match

                                        the fingers that strike it come in many forms

                                        left-handed, sinister,

                                        mutilated

                                        sheathed in scent

                                        calloused in a pattern

                                        that’s always unique

                                        that announces an occupation

                                        through a particular distinctive

                                        grime

                                        ink? soil? grease? blood?

                                        —but always more or less in a hurry

                                        fingers firm, careless, or affected

                                        as they strike the match

                                        to make things happen

 

 

Certain stories unfold only in cloud forests

or places like them

farther to the south, where the sierras

don’t amount to much, just hills,

undulating, quasi-maternal,

darkly lined with coffee trees.

There, dinner is made

out of amphibians

caught during the night

a dismembered mass of legs and onions

floating in broth.

Like warty fruits

harvested from puddles.

 

The tropics have certain charms. Like

the offspring of Hungarian immigrants

who hunt frogs

for soup

made with coconut milk

in a town with an unlikely name

—Solemar—

where pyramid

church towers

taste of Budapest, of Lugoj,

of places glimpsed through the slits

of an armored train,

a town on a coast in the Antipodes,

where they chat

on the porch-front

in Romanian,

conspire in Hungarian, cook

in German, ponder, weave

memories of snow

in the mosquito afternoon

amid cup after cup of coffee with brown sugar

and chilled juice of sugar cane,

jaca, manga, cashew fruit

flavored with spearmint

as evening falls.

Hic incipit vita nova. Maria Zélia political prison, 1935

 

                                        fiat

                                        mirrors facing mirrors

                                        facing mirrors

                                        and only through the blue is the intangible illuminated

                                        a pathway that slides

                                        at a slant

                                        through long corridors

                                        colonnades

                                        floor tiles

                                        that finally

                                        circles back?

                                        a giant wheel

                                        of repeated things?

                                        in which, nonetheless,

                                        minor differences

                                        important for practical effects

                                        could be seen

                                        if it were possible to toss, there, a match?

                                        between one episode and the next

                                        cigarette butts

                                        twisted letter openers

                                        a typewriter

                                        missing its keys

                                        a miniature horse

                                        boxes of matches

                                        tiny reflections

                                        of the faint light of the match 

                                        that isn’t there —

                                        would they indicate advance or retreat?

 

 

Stains on the pages of the book;

maps of minor flowerings of mold

gradual and slow

inside the cupboards

silent signs of the passage

of two or three termites

next to the name

Blasio Demetrio,

translator of Dante

in the prison,

and next to the name

Marcelo du Nancy,

agronomist in Bolivia,

and next to other names,

abbreviated, or just initials

at the bottom of letters

written in different hands.

 

And meanwhile, in the interrogation room

multiple identities spring up as the answer

to questions that demand

his solitary answer, handholds amid error,

transitive attributions

that never arise.

Important to underline

they never arise.

Because to flee, to escape like

…………water

…………drool

…………blood

…………piss

through the fingers of the moment,

the voice multiplies its name,

its life, stories and letters

proliferate as lies

all pointing only

to young Fulvio, who makes himself author:

conspiratorial letters of others,

names, signatures,

and so the others flee:

drops of water

between the fingers.

 

Hic incipit vita nova.

Bios

Paula Abramo

Paula Abramo was born in Mexico City in 1980. Her poetry cycle Fiat Lux was published by Mexico’s Fondo Editoral Tierra Adentro in 2012, and is due out in a new edition in Argentina in 2020. Those and other poems have appeared in anthologies of contemporary Mexican and world poetry, both in the original Spanish and in translation to Portuguese, German, and French. Abramo's prolific work as a translator of more than 40 books from Portuguese to Spanish includes books by Angélica Freitas (Brazil) and Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen (Portugal). She co-authored Yo soy la otra: las mujeres y la cultura en México (2017) and the art installation Ropa Sucia (2017), both exposing the causes of the invisibility of Mexican female writers and artists.

Dick Cluster

Dick Cluster has been translating Spanish-language fiction, nonfiction, and poetry for over twenty years, most recently Gabriela Alemán’s Poso Wells, Carme Chaparro’s I Am Not a Monster, and the anthology Kill the Ámpaya!: Best Latin American Baseball Fiction, which he also edited. He writes history and fiction, including The History of Havana (co-author Rafael Hernández) and a crime novel series. He has been a winner of the Northern California Book Award for fiction translation and a finalist for the PEN Center USA Translation Prize, and has served as a mentor and teacher at the Banff International Literary Translation Centre, the Yiddish Book Center, and the Mills College graduate translation program. He can be reached at [email protected]

Fiat Lux. Copyright (c) Paula Abramo, 2012. English translation copyright (c) Dick Cluster, 2020.