It’s a Wonderful Death: Hilda Hilst’s “Of Death. Minimal Odes,” translated from Portuguese by Laura Cesarco Eglin


By Alessandro Mondelli


Hilst_Cover_Front

In Of Death. Minimal Odes, Brazilian poet Hilda Hilst imagines death not only as the absence of life or as life’s negation, but also as a productive force that imbues life with a wide yet nuanced palette of affects. Hilst, recognized in Brazil as a seminal writer, poet, and playwright of twentieth-century literature in Portuguese, first saw Of Death released in 1980 as Da morte. Odes Mínimas. The fact that it took 28 years for this important poetry collection to appear in English speaks to how severely underrated her poetic oeuvre is in the Anglosphere. This bilingual edition of Hilst’s many-colored portrait of death and mortality, translated by Laura Cesarco Eglin and published by co-im-press, seeks to correct this.

Of Death consists of four sections, all tied together by Hilst’s minimal style: her penchant for repetition, paratactic grammar, and unadorned yet impactful imagery. The playful sheen of the one-stanza poems in Watercolors is augmented by watercolors painted by Hilst and depicting placid humanoids and chimeras as they swim, fly, gallop or lounge against an abstract golden-orange background—as if caught in an eternal sunset. The eponymous Of Death. Minimal Odes makes up the bulk of the book with a total of forty poems in which the speaker enacts a series of variegated encounters with Death personified. Time-Death, the third section, introduces time into the life and death thematic explored in the previous section, and the fourth and final section, In Front of You. In Vanity, gives impossible answers to unanswerable questions in a smattering of spare, almost ethereal poems. All in all, they gather a diverse assortment of tones: from cool and conversational through pensive and melancholy to downright chilling—or even joyous and seductive.

Eglin’s translation, winner of the 2019 Best Translated Book Award for poetry, reproduces some of the source’s alliteration while also keeping true to its syntax. “Cara e carne” becomes “face and flesh,” “sutis seduções” turns to “subtle seductions,” “flor e fonte” to “flower and fountain.” Considering that Hilst does not adhere to a rigid rhyme scheme or rhythm, opting instead to manipulate cadence through the use of anaphora and repetition, Eglin’s choice to, in certain cases, place semantics over phonetics seems fully appropriate. It enables Eglin to preserve the rich networks of meaning with which Hilst ties together the disparate dialogues she stages between Death and the lyric speaker.

To create these networks, Hilst relies in part on a cumulative aesthetics through which objects accrue a layer of meaning with each appearance they make. For example, the speaker evokes the playfully contradictory image of “parasols of fire,” then echoes it forty pages later. There, the parasols retain their playfulness in a poem that, like the previous one, transitions from the whimsical to the morbid: Death is called the “acrobat of parasols” before “slowly coming down like fishhooks.” Likewise, spleens surface and resurface in Of Death—perhaps a subtle nod to “Spleen and Ideal” by Charles Baudelaire whose morbid poetics Hilst deploys now and then throughout the collection. In a stanza that preserves the bizarreness of the source text, they help communicate a suffocating sense of incommunicability:

The grand words

locked up and alive

in my spleenful chest. (77)

Then, in an equally bizarre passage eighteen pages later, the speaker bequeaths Death her disassembled organs, among them “the spleen of my bones.” The spleen, an organ in charge of both removing old cells and synthesizing antibodies, works first as a signifier of a lively disconnection, then of a deadly connection. Spleens and parasols are only two among a throng of unusual motifs that give a subtle cohesion to a work seeking to stretch out death’s semantic field.

Besides shifting some half-rhymes around and modifying the rhythm and punctuation of some verses, Eglin’s translation, of necessity, sheds the gendered grammar of its source. Rather than erase the queer relationality underlying Of Death’s poems, however, this change augments it. Whereas the source text consistently refers to Death personified as a woman—in Portuguese as in other Romance languages, the noun “death” is gendered feminine—, in English, Death is explicitly portrayed as female only on very few occasions. And although Hilst codes the first-person speaker as female multiple times, her gender becomes less legible in English translation. Perhaps this is best exemplified in poem XIX in Of Death‘s eponymous section (52-53). Whereas in the Portuguese the feminine adjectives in the couplet “Te tomaria/ Ûmida, tênua” point to Death’s femininity, no such thing could be gleaned from “I’d take you/ moist and tenuous” in the English. Further down in the same poem, although in “Como fui tocada pelos homens” the speaker refers to herself as a woman, the “touched” in “like I was touched by men” remains ambiguous in this regard.

This, however, does not result in Eglin’s translation becoming subsumed by heteronormative interpretations. Her rendering, like Hilst’s original, uses devices beyond that of gendered grammar to destabilize assumptions that the speaker and Death could only form a male-female dyad. In multiple moments, similes carry out this destabilization surreptitiously. To go back to that last line: “like I was touched by men.” While “like” posits a resemblance between Death and manhood, it simultaneously tracks an irreducible distance between both; Death, while like men, is not a man. Moreover, whenever the lyric speaker calls herself a poet in the source text, she utilizes neither of the explicitly feminine forms Portuguese makes available to her (“uma poeta” or the dated “uma poetisa”), employing instead the more fluid “um poeta.” Eglin’s translation embraces this so that, despite a couple of explicit references to the co-protagonists’ gender here and there, elsewhere the text allows for Death and the speaker to occupy a multiplicity of gendered and non-gendered, erotic and non-erotic positions in relation to each other.

The metamorphic potential immanent to Hilst’s representation of the co-protagonists’ relationship dovetails into Of Death‘s larger project of expanding the imaginary through which we, as readers, conceive of death. Yes, at times Hilst’s speaker seems to tremble in fear before death, or even slip into the Romantic conception of poetic creation whereby the poet transmutes life’s intensities into poetry via the painful, self-sacrificial, and even deadly act of writing. But at other points Of Death readily discards these metanarratives. To go back to poem XIX:

If you touch me,

most beloved, soft

like I was touched by men

 

instead of Death

I will call you Poetry

Fire, Fountain, Living Word,

Fate. (53)

Here, Death does not produce negative affects like pain, fear or anger. In a passage ripe with erotic overtones, Death partakes in a joyous moment followed by a semantic explosion whereby the poet-speaker multiplies Death’s names. This metapoetic gesture, finding multiple variations throughout the text, can be seen as a synecdoche for Of Death. In this kaleidoscopic poetry collection, Hilst, via Eglin, attaches an ever-extending chain of signifiers to death, thus widening the range of images and emotions through which readers can approach the inevitable end.

Hilst, Hilda. Of Death. Minimal OdesTranslated by Laura Cesarco Eglin. co-im-press, 2018.

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