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So what do you get a poet for his 109th birthday?
If that poet is Carlos Drummond de Andrade, then you throw him birthday parties in five simultaneous cities with film screenings, round tables, poetry readings, and popcorn. And a-duh I was there to take in the festivities – it was liberating to be wearing normal clothes on a Halloween night, for once. The grand finale at the Instituto Moreira Salles was a reading of 5 of Drummond’s major poems, the ones that aren’t done as frequently in public because they’re prohibitively long. Does it sound like fun yet? Just wait.
The actors sat next to each other onstage, the poems resting on music stands in front of them: a woman on the right and a white-bearded old man in a white hat on the left. A transparent grey screen was stretched from floor to ceiling, giving the impression that either us or they were being protected from mosquitoes. As soon as they began to read, though, the lights dimmed and Drummond’s words began unfolding themselves across the screen in luminous type. When the effect synced up properly, it was stunning.
But the actors seemed not to be on the same wavelength; things were a little rough around the edges. By the second poem the old man was a little hesitant, pausing a bit before coming in with his lines and seeming to squint and fumble with the pages. Then there came the third poem, arguably the true heavyweight of the bunch: “A máquina do mundo,” which, to Fernando Pessoa’s envy, a friend considers the best poem in the Portuguese language. And when the words began appearing on the screen, it became clear that someone – the curator, the director, the projectionist, or the whole anxious knot of them – had made an extraordinary and merciful choice.
They projected the words backwards onto the screen. Backwards for us, that is, but enormous, iridescent, and normal-looking for the actors on stage. The velhinho twigged after the first verse and lifted himself from his seat, tossing the pages aside and starting to read straight off what had become a massive prompter. He took on a regal air, hefting his cane to gesticulate at the words as he declaimed them. For the audience, the poem had become gibberish – the elegantly serifed font made the verses, projected backwards, look like a bizarrely punctuated form of Russian – and he started to read them backwards as well, garnering isolated titters from the crowd. It was like performance art; the solemnity of Dia D had been broken through like a high school football team charging onto the field through a paper-mache banner.
After that, all rules were off, and no-one quite knew what was going to happen next.The event was in full swing; the roller coaster was already plunging down the hill, and in the absence of any way to stop things, we settled in for the ride. The actress, the audience, even the prompter were all at the service of the old man in the white hat. When the lights came up after the last poem and the applause died, he was still standing there. “Homenagem a Federico Garcia Lorca,” he announced, and began declaiming Drummond off the cuff. The audience rippled with confusion, dismay, and delight. No-one dared move. When he finished the poem, more applause. With the move of a consummate Ping-Pong player, he fired another line of Drummond: “Itabira é apenas uma fotografia na parede. Mas como dói!” More applause. Surely this was the end.
No, here came “Anedota búlgara.” And then another poem, and another. A few brave audience members started putting on their overcoats, but he grabbed what looked like the entire works of Drummond and opened it at random. His fellow actress, despairing, left the stage. E agora, José? “A flor e a náusea.” The poem was too lovely; the audience was nailed to their seats. É feia, mas é uma flor. Getting up was unthinkable. We were imprisoned, transfixed, as though we’d all sworn a sacred oath. On Dia D, all bets are off.
Several poems later, the audience began to disintegrate. Even I grabbed my bag and backed out of the auditorium. But he was still reciting, and I couldn’t bring myself to go: I ducked back in and sat in the back. Then the actress walked onstage again. “Ah,” he said, “you came back!” She pulled up a chair next to him and held his cane for him. “Now the real sarau‘s begun.”
She read the next one as he drank a glass of water, and then he traded off with “Canto ao homem do povo Charles Chaplin,” punctuated with edifying footnotes about Chaplin’s filmography – I felt like cheering at “um ramo de flores absurdas mando por via postal ao inventor dos jardins.” The audience kept on bleeding out of the auditorium, and a few of the 15 or so left started to chat amongst themselves. A youngish guy turned around from the third row and silenced them with a furious “Hush!” In the back of the auditorium, I was privy to furious whispered negotiations about when the Instituto had to close for the night.
There was no end in sight: the poetry had metastasized. Nobody could order it to stop. The organizers were stricken. Their invention had taken on strange, uncontrollable, beautiful life. The actors kept on trading off; while she read he leaned precariously over the book, gesticulating at the most powerful lines.
Then the powers that be intervened: the lights in the auditorium finally went on, all the rest of them. That did the trick; parece que a poesia se desmancha na luz. (Who knew?) The old man in the white hat rose to his feet and declaimed “Canção amiga” to the dozen people left, raising an arm in triumph. Then, and only then, did he exit.
I related all of this in tones of wonder and confusion when I got home.
“You mean you didn’t recognize the old man?” I shook my head. “That was Macunaíma.”
Suddenly it all made sense.