The Brazilian National Library’s Jornal de Poesia ranked Adélia Prado fourth on its “List of Twenty foremost Living Poets.” Prado was born and has lived all her life in the provincial, industrial city of Divinópolis, in Minas Gerais (General Mines), the state that has produced more presidents and poets than any other in Brazil. She was the first in her family of laborers to see the ocean, to go to college, or to dream of writing a book. After earning degrees in Philosophy and Religious Education, she taught school and served as Cultural Liaison for the City of Divinópolis. Prado burst on the literary scene when Brazil’s great modernist, Carlos Drummond de Andrade, announced in his weekly newspaper column that St. Francis was dictating verses to a housewife in Minas Gerais, declaring that “Adélia is lyrical, biblical, existential; she makes poetry as naturally as nature makes weather.” Her debut collection, Bagagem (Baggage), was released soon after, followed by seven subsequent volumes of poetry, and seven of prose.
Prado’s work has been the subject of dozens of theses and dissertations, as well as documentary films and countless articles, profiles, and interviews in newspapers, literary supplements, and popular magazines in Brazil, and her work has been translated into Spanish, Italian, and English. The one-woman show Dona Doida: Un Interlúdio (Mad Missus: An Interlude) had a spectacular run in Rio de Janeiro starring Fernanda Montenegro, the grand-dame of Brazilian stage and screen, and toured throughout Brazil.
According to Prado, poetry is ” the most human form of communication” and her work, as she says, is written “neither from the head nor the heart, but from the gut,” proceeding by associative leaps, full of contradictory impulses, and featuring bold questions and out-of-nowhere declarative statements. The structure is entirely organic and rooted in the belief of the supremacy of extreme feeling. One reason for these poems’ appeal is the way they fairly vibrate with human concerns, both bodily and spiritual; another is that they insist not only on the intermingling of mysticism and carnality, but on their connectedness. (“It’s the soul that’s erotic.”)
Initial translations to English were greeted enthusiastically, published in The Paris Review, Antaeus, Field, and American Poetry Review. Ellen Doré Watson was awarded an NEA Translation Fellowship in 1984 to translate Prado’s work, producing The Alphabet in the Park, poems drawn from her first three volumes. Carolyn Forché proclaimed Prado “a major poet of the Americas,” and her work was included in both The Ecco Anthology of International Poetry and The Farrar Straus Giroux Book of Twentieth Century Latin American Poetry. “This is poetry at its hottest and most naked,” wrote James Tate. Tupelo Press has just published Ex-Voto, Watson’s second full-length book of Prado translations, drawn from her three subsequent collections. Ex-Voto reflects the heights and troughs of Prado’s faith and despair, as she questions and redefines her role as God’s mouthpiece, and finds her way back to transcendent celebration of the small daily wonders of living. In Jean Valentine’s words, this most recent book “is nothing like any poetry I know in our present moment.”
Poetry Center Readings:
Poetry catches me with her toothed wheel
and forces me to listen stock-still
to her extravagant discourse.
Poetry embraces me behind the garden wall, she picks up
her skirt and lets me see, loving and loony.
Bad things happen, I tell her,
I, too, am a child of God,
allow me my despair.
Her answer is to draw her hot tongue
across my neck;
she says rod to calm me,
she says stone, geometry,
she gets careless and turns tender,
I take advantage and sneak off.
I run and she runs faster,
I yell and she yells louder,
seven demons stronger.
She catches me, making deep grooves
from tip to toe.
Poetry’s toothed wheel is made of steel.
From THE ALPHABET IN THE PARK, Translated from the Brazilian Portuguese by Ellen Doré Watson (Wesleyan University Press, 1990)
A poesia me pega com sua roda dentada,
me força a escutar imóvel
o seu discurso esdrúxulo.
Me abraça detrás do muro, levanta
a saia pra eu ver, amorosa e doida.
Acontece a má coisa, eu lhe digo,
também sou filho de Deus,
me deixa desesperar.
Ela responde passando
a língua quente em meu pescoço,
fala pau pra me acalmar,
fala pedra, geometria,
se descuida e fica meiga,
aproveito pra me safar.
Eu corro ela corre mais,
eu grito ela grita mais,
sete demônios mais forte.
Me pega a ponta de pé
e vem até na cabeça,
fazendo sulcos profundos.
É de ferro a roda dentada dela.
From BAGAGEM (Editora Imago, 1976)
What huge luxury to be poor by choice,
temptation to be God who has nothing,
Which is why I’m reminded
that many will enter the Kingdom before me:
thieves, bad poets,
and, worse, the flunkeys who praise them.
I’m distressed by the thought
that kings belong in palaces
and workers in factories and warehouses.
A stiff sentence awaits
those who, like me,
are dazzled by a light so bright!
I know a bad line when I see one,
when it doesn’t come straggling
from the unknown margins of the soul.
Is it pride that possesses me
masquerading in rags?
All I know is it’s love that fuels
this wearisome task of searching for pearls,
tracing a millennial lineage in coats of arms.
No one knows how to talk about the poor.
From EX-VOTO, Translated from the Brazilian Portuguese by Ellen Doré Watson (Tupelo Press, 2013)
Grande luxo é ser pobre por escolha,
tentação de ser Deus que nada tem,
Por causa disto sou advertida
de que muitos me precederão no Reino,
os ladrões, os maus poetas
e pior, os bajuladores que os louvam.
Sofro pelo pensamento
de que no palácio devem ficar os reis
e na fábrica os opererários, nos armazéns de cereias.
Que dura sentença espera
aos que, como eu,
ofusca uma lucidez tão grande!
Sei quando um verso é mau,
quando não vem desgarrado
da margem ignota da alma.
O que me possui é orgulho,
o alegria—que não reconheço—
travestida de andrajos?
Só posso dizer que é amor
esta fadiga de catar as pérolas,
descobrir nos brasões a milenar linhagem.
Ninguém sabe o que diz quando fala dos pobres.
From O PELICANO (Editor Rio de Janeiro, 1987)
One hot, bright, Sunday afternoon
I was ambushed
by pressing intestines, throes of nausea and weeping,
the desire to tear my hair and strip naked
in the middle of my life and howl
until bone dry:
What do you want from me, God?
Once I stopped crying,
the man who sat waiting said,
“You’re so sensitive, that’s why you get short of breath.”
Which started me crying again, because it was true
and also a lie,
and therefore only half consoling.
Breathe deeply, he urged, splash some cold water on your face,
let’s take a walk around the block, it’s psychological.
What ex-voto can I bring to the Cathedral
if I’m not sick but still need a cure?
My devout friend has turned Buddhist,
I’m rooting for her to get disillusioned
and go back to praying Catholic prayers with me.
I could never be a Buddhist,
for fear of not suffering, for fear of getting all Zen.
Is there really such a thing as a happy saint or is it just the biographers
who paint them as such sunny saps?
The state of Minas Gerais is full of terrible things,
Mercy Mountain afflicts me.
Boulders and boulders
of such immediate beauty,
and then buildings sprung straight from hell,
courtesy of the uncreator of the world.
And there’s that little boy who can’t hang on much longer,
he’s going to die, too weak to suck
the string of dark flesh that’s supposed to be a breast,
lost to flies.
My heart is good
but can’t believe it.
My man showers me with gifts,
why am I given so much
when what I deserve is solitary confinement?
Words? No, I said—I can only accept weeping.
So why ever did I wipe my eyes
at the sight of the climbing rosebush
and that other thing I didn’t want—
no way did I want it right then,
not the shape of what’s sick
but of what’s sound in me
which I push and push away,
pressed by the same force
that works against the beauty of the boulders?
Both God and the world are begging for love,
which is why I’m richer than either one.
I alone can say to the stone:
you are beautiful to affliction.
just as I can say to Him:
You are beautiful, beautiful, so beautiful!
I almost understand why I’m gasping for air.
Choosing the words to describe my agony,
I’m breathing easier already.
Some of us God wants sick; others he wants writing.
From EX-VOTO, Translated from the Brazilian Portuguese by Ellen Doré Watson (Tupelo Press, 2013)
Na tarde clara de um domingo quente,
intestinos urgentes, ânsia de vômito, choro,
desejo de raspar a cabeça e me por nua
no centro da minha vida
e uivar até me secarem os ossos:
Que queres que eu faça Deus?
Quando parei de chorar
o homem que me aguardava disse-me:
‘voce é muito sensível, por isso tem falta de ar.’
Chorei de novo porque era verdade
e era também mentira,
sendo só meio consolo.
Respira fundo, insistiu,
joga água fria no rosto,
vamos dar uma volta, é psicológico.
Que ex-voto levo à Aparecida,
se nao tenho doença e só lhe peço a cura?
Minha amiga devota se tornou budista,
torço para que se desiluda
e volte a rezar comigo as orações católicas.
Eu nunca ia ser budista,
por medo de não sofrer, por medo de ficar zen.
Existe santo alegre ou são os biógrafos
que os põem assim felizes como bobos?
Minas tem coisas terríveis,
a serra da piedade me transtorna.
Em meio a tanta rocha
de tão imediata beleza,
edificações geridas pelo inferno,
pelo descriador do mundo.
O menino não consegue mais,
vai morrer, sem força para sugar
a corda de carne preta do que seria um seio,
agora às moscas.
Meu coração é bom
mas não aceita que o seja.
O homem me presenteia,
por que tanto recebo,
quando seria justo mandarem-me à solitária?
Palavras não, eu disse, eu só aceito chorar.
Por que então limpei os olhos
quando avistei roseiras
e mais o que não queria,
de jeito nenhum queria aquela hora,
não a forma do que é doente,
mas do que é são em mim
e rejeito e rejeito,
premida pela mesma força
do que trabalha contra a beleza das rochas?
Me imploram amor Deus e o mundo,
sou pois mais rica que os dois,
só eu posso dizer à pedra: és bela até a aflição;
o mesmo que dizer a Ele:
Sois belo, belo, sois belo!
Quase entendo a razão da minha falta de ar.
Ao escolher palavras com que narrar minha angústia,
eu já respiro melhor.
A uns, Deus os quer doentes,
a outros quer escrevendo.
From ORÁCULOS DE MAIO (Editora Siciliano, 1999)