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Concrete obsession

Now dead for three years, the poet and essayist Sebasti

BEL PEDROSA / AEThe critic: a contester who adored to read comic book storiesBEL PEDROSA / AE

There was a time in which literary criticism was intense, conflictive. Very often passionate. The book was read in-depth with the mind of a criminal expert, looking for and pointing towards references, influences, in essays of a page in a newspaper. The offense never came without fundament, but the deconstruction was built up, structured, starting from an analytical methodology. The critic appeared to watch over carefully the institution of the book and of its genres – poetry, prose, essay, etc. The result threw more light on the content of the work and could transform its author into a respected book. Or destroy reputations.

The Brazilian press had at least two clear moments on this pathway: with the flowering of the daily newspaper, in the second half of the 19th century, which opened up space for polemic literature yet restricted to passionate footnotes, (represented by Machado de Assis and José de Alencar, among others. And the era of the weekly literary supplements, more professional and extensive, that began in 1925 with the Correio da Manhã newspaper, (and) went on until the decade of the 1970, and consecrated names such Brito Broca, Otto Maria Carpeaux and many others. Coincidently or not, during these phases, national literature took a surge forward what would turn out to be the best of its production.

One of the great names of contemporary Brazilian literature, the poet, translator and essayist from the state of Pernambuco, Sebastião Uchoa Leite (1935-2003) was among those who saw literary criticism in this manner. Respected by the cream of Brazilian intellectuality linked to literature, he performed the three offices with the same facility. Now dead for three years, Sebastião, as his friends called him, still hopes for the recognition of the legacy of  his contribution to poetry and to literary criticism. Part of the effort to this end has been carried out by his ex-student Augusto Massi, a professor of Brazilian literature at USP and the editor for the Cosac Naify publishing house. After having organized the volumes Obras em dobras, 1960-1988 [Works in folds] (1988) and  Crítica de ouvido [Critic of the ear] (2003), he anticipates that he is thinking of publishing a second edition of his poetry brought together as part of the collection “Ás de colete”  [Collection Ace] , coordinated by Carlito Azevedo.

Sebastião was a perfectionist who chose the authors that he would like to translate. At times, he preceded the text with an essay about the author or the work, as he did with Alice in Wonderland and Alice through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll, one of his preferred authors. It was he who was the first to do this for the adult public. He also translated Italian Chronicles, by Stendhal; Signs in Rotation, by Octavio Paz; and The Futurist Moment, by Marjorie Perloff. In 2001 he was awarded the Jabuti Award for Translation, for the book Poetry, by François Villon.

As an author he wrote 13 volumes of poetry and essays. His poetic works, of contemporary tendencies, had at least three representative volumes: Isso não é aquilo [This is not that] (1982), Obra em dobras, 1960-1988 [Works in folds, 1960-1988] (1988) and A espreita [The glance] (2000). In 1980 he was awarded the Jabuti Award for Poetry, for the book entitled Antilogia [Antilogy]. He also published as a collectanea the essays Participação da palavra poética [Participation of the poetic word] (1966), Crítica clandestina [Clandestine critic] (1986) and Jogos e enganos [Games and delusions] (1995).

Sebastião Uchoa Leite makes up part of a generation of notables from Pernambuco who migrated to Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo and gave new vigor to literary criticism – both in the press and in the Academia. A group who kept themselves united throughout their lifetimes thanks to their passion for poetry. Among other, there was the participation of João Alexandre Barbosa – who died in August of this year -,  José Laurênio de Mello, Jorge Wanderley, Orlando da Costa Ferreira, Gastão de Holanda, Gadiel Perruci and Luiz Costa Lima. Only the last (names) is still alive. Ariano Suassuna had also been present during their first years. Those were times in which the Pernambucano poet João Cabral de Melo Neto had also been hallowed.

His literary debut was with the book entitled, Dez sonetos sem matéria [Ten sonnets without substance] (1960), published in the Pernambucano capital, the city of Recife, by the legendary artisan publisher O Gráfico Amador. In 1962 he graduated as a bachelor in law and philosophy at the Federal University of  Pernambuco. In the following years he was a teacher at the Library-Economy School of  UFPE and supervisor of the Literary Supplement of the Jornal do Comércio newspaper. In 1965 he moved to Rio de Janeiro. From there he had contact with the Concretist movement in Sao Paulo.

During the decade of the 1970 he worked with Otto Maria Carpeaux and Antonio Houaiss on the Enciclopédia Mirador {Mirador Encyclopedia] and for the magazine Manchete. He became an inseparable partner of the former, with whom he adored having  coffee ice cream. Little by little he consolidated in his poems what the critic Davi Arrigucci Jr. Described as “a variety of themes and modes of  treatment with a vitality that configured his wide universe of reading”:  poetry, cinema, stories in comic strips, essays and photography. Davi, a constant friend for almost 40 years, got to know him during the decade of the 1960’s. The two became very close friends for all of their lives. They always visited each other and stayed in each others´ homes.

They were introduced to each other by João Alexandre Barbosa. He observed that Sebastião, the essayist, had a very pure taste for the book as an esthetic object. He had worked with order and intellectual discipline, although he had been given few lessons and was not an academic researcher. “He was a person of a very cutting critical sense and had revealed this in all the spheres of  his relationships. He didn’t stop expressing a peculiar sense of humor, however serious. Outstanding characteristics that were in his poetry and articles.”

He fascinated himself, his friend observed, with things of the occult, of disguise and of irony, something that appears almost explicit in A regra secreta [The secret rule], one of his last works published in 2002. In the essay O guardador de segredos [The guardian of secrets], Davi comments on A espreita [The glance], in which he ended up making a synthesis of his friend’s work: “Elusive book, with force and complexity, but whose occult poetry is hidden to the view. A book of denials, which prefers bias, shadow, the difficult allure. Attracted by the whirlpool of secret waters, by that one who glanced in the darkness and ground up in secret. Eccentric, hidden between parentheses, enigmatic in allusions, the I that little speaks, instead of expressing himself, prefers the mere observation or the look registration, without fear, within or out, with, dark and eccentric corners, but without showing himself, preferring to keep veiled.”

The anthropologist Guacira Waldeck, with whom Sebastião lived for 16 years, described him as a person of discreet and despoiled personality. A veiled contester, interested in everything. He adored reading stories in comic strips – principally of his preferred characters Crazy Kat (to whom he dedicated a long essay), Valentina, and the underground of Robert Crumb. Although of a different generation, he perceived the potential of the rock band Titãs, and foretold the poetic talent of Arnaldo Antunes. He mingled with young people, corresponded with poets in formation, giving them the necessary attention to get their verses correct. He had considered himself lazy, working without discipline, rigidly anarchistic, however, the result was always rigorous.

Guacira related that he intended to write a series of essays about the Pernambucano poet Joaquim Cardozo, a collaborator of Oscar Niemeyer and an exponent of the Modernist movement in his State. As the couple liked frogs a lot, perhaps the last thing that he had written was the draft for the essay Batraquiozofia curiosa a study about the presence of these animals in literature. The text began thus: “Now, speaking of  Batrachia, we have highlights for frogs and toads. Above all frogs. But we shall begin with a toad, which we will say is philosophical.”   There followed a list of the topics to be dealt with. The first of them was “The philosophical toad of Lewis Carroll.”  Next came an analysis of the poem by Tristan Corbière and the frog in the poetry of  Manuel Bandeira. Apparently, a joke that became serious.

BEL PEDROSA / AESebastião Uchoa Leite: a critic who threw more light on a work’s contentBEL PEDROSA / AE

Luiz Henrique Lopes dos Santos, a philosophy professor at USP, who was close to  Sebastião in the middle of the decade of the 1990’s, thanks to a long and close friendship with Guacira,  recalls the dinners that brought them together, always at the Lucas restaurant on Atlantica Avenue. “I would have a fish stew, he a chicken soup. He always appeared with my edition of  Tractatus logico-philosophicus in his hand and would ask me, without stopping, about the most hermetic and obscure passages of my introductory essay to the book, in a mixture of curiosity and gibe.”   The questions that he made, according to Luiz Henrique, showed that he had read the book with attention. “In the end, he would make a false face of despair and exclaim: “I don’t believe you really understand these things!””

The first contact between Augusto Massi and Sebastião took place in 1982, when he was an undergraduate studying Brazilian literature at USP, for the publication Arte em Revista. He traveled to Rio de Janeiro and interviewed some poets such as Cacaso and Sebastião Uchoa Leite. He found him in a spacious apartment in the district of  Laranjeiras. “As well as the young student meddling as a researcher, I had written poetry and, at that time, thought I had a pretty good idea of whom they were, what they represented and the significance of their works. But the truth is that even today it?s not possible to dimension their importance. However, I can guarantee that both did not deceive me.”

The image that he kept was of a Sebastião more withdrawn, doubtful, and endowed with a fine irony. “To some extent, I learned that behind this contrast of personalities –  in relation to Cacaso – there were two conceptions of poetry: the marginal poetry [Cacaso] and the concrete poetry [Sebastião].”

Years later, Massi invited Sebastião to bring together his poetic trajectory into a single volume. “He fought considerably, pondered that he would not recognize himself in his first book, that the other two books were almost unpublished but, even at that, thought it better not to bring them together. I had thought exactly the contrary. My thesis was that precisely these comings and goings of  his trajectory, initially marked by the influence of the Concretism, had blended by way of the Cabralism poetry, but only gained vitality thanks to the critical reading, reactive and original that he had of the Marginal poetry.”  According to Massi, this shock of traditions, influences and poetic experiences is well lined up in the volume of united poetry entitled, Obra em dobras, 1960-1988, with the dust cover signed by João Alexandre Barbosa.

During the production of the book the two of them became closer. “What pleased me in Sebastião was his sincerity, a provocative way of starting a conversation, very different from easy eulogy and the ample and unrestricted flattery that characterizes our cultural medium.”  To give an example, knowing that the editor had admired the poetry of Orides Fontela, he didn’t miss an opportunity of putting out a contrary point of view. This was one of  his personality traits. “Great folklore was created around his manias, habits and fixed ideas. Digging much deeper, I would say that Sebastião had cultivated the opposites, had taken things to their limit, maintaining tense the arc of intelligence.”

For Massi, he gave the impression of having initially been a young grouchy person and, with the passing of the years, transforming himself into an old vampire type, endowed with a curiosity that was almost childlike. “In other words, he both taken to the stories in cartoon comics seriously and was distrustful of metaphysical digressions. Let’s say that, under the cover of anecdotes and of folklore of the person who is always against, there passed a strong idea of poetry that the very titles (themselves) indicate: Antilogia [Antilogy] or Isso não é aquilo [This is not that].”  Everything in Sebastião converges towards the exercise of negativity. “Our conversations spun around poetry and the cinema. In the land of poetry our great affinity was the poetical works of Joao Cabral. Inclusive was the fact that when Obra em Dobras came out, we both took a copy to Joao Cabral. That was a memorable day.”

The editor believes that Sebastião did not consider himself as an essayist, a position with which he disagrees. “He was an essayist of the highest quality. Jogos e Enganos [Publisher: Editora 34, 1995] – perhaps his greatest book –  reached an extremely high plateau. This is a book that has a backbone, where the notion of evil, lies and the game acquire a rarely achieved density.”  As well as this, continued Massi, in this book there is a strong equilibrium of themes and arts and between the familiar and the strange.

The last time that Massi saw Sebastião was in São  Paulo during 2002. He went to visit his friends João Alexandre and Frederico Barbosa and to launch his last book of poems, A regra secreta. “We went out for lunch, me, him and Davi Arrigucci Jr. We went to eat at the Uruguayan restaurant, El Tranvia. He walked with great difficulty, with a walking stick and all that, however he continued with his sharp tongue and well tempered humor. It was delightful to converse with him, his voice appeared to wander off course, in an anti-music lightly drawn away, like someone who speaks and, at the same time, is already escaping outside of the conversation.”

It was a very difficult and suffered moment. “He was physically heavily worn down and mentally lucid.”  He resisted until the end in the hope of seeing his last book of essays published: Crítica de Ouvido [2003], by Cosac Naify.  “I don’t know how he managed to get the strength to correct the second proof. But, unfortunately, I didn’t manage to give this pleasure to him. The book was only ready some 20 days after his death, on the 27th of November 2003.”

Guacira recalls that the poet was very tranquil on the recognition of his poetic works. He thought, above all, that time would define what must be read afterwards, At the same time, he saw poetry as a cult, something of restricted interest, that had not interested the world. Davi Arrigucci Jr. does not believe that he had received less consideration of the so called university critics than the majority of the poets of his generation. “It came from them, I believe, the main recognition. In a general manner, the university critics, dependent on the steps of their career, with their dissertations or theses, find themselves more imprisoned to the interpretation or re-interpretation of authors of the past, risking little in the critical recognition of contemporary writers. They appear to wait for the judgment of time, that generally offers better counsel in such matters, and close their eyes to the present, which is to be lamented.”

Yes,  Davi  affirms, this is what one has observed in the Brazilian scenario since the decade of the 1940’s, when militant criticism of the footnotes of the newspaper was being gradually abandoned, with the coming forward  of the critic and also university professor. “On the other hand, Sebastião’s literary formation comes from groups of  university professors of Recife – João Alexandre Barbosa and Luiz Costa Lima, for example, were his generation companions and are among his principal critics –  before he dedicated himself to the task of being a sharp shooter of  the arts, outside of the university environment. Because of  the richness of his aspects –  poetry, essay and translation – and for the intrinsic quality of  his production, I believe that it is about time  other university critics  became more inclined towards his work in whose folds there are in fact many secrets to be unveiled.”