eyes on the visual poetry of the Brazilian Northeast during the early 20th
century: the case of Chyrino de Magalhães
In the beginning of the 20th century, there
were in Brazil forgotten cases of what soon came to be known as ‘visual poems,’
but these did not come from the big cities where modern poetry emerged like a
bomb. For example, in Northeastern Brazil, two poets forged their own paths and
wrote what may be among the first attempts of a kind of poem which became a
trademark of Concrete Poetry. If Chyrino de Magalhães, born in the state of
Paraíba, and Jorge Fernandes – born on the outskirts of the Brazilian tropics,
in Rio Grande do Norte – had been paid any real attention during the 1920s,
maybe the future Brazilian experimentalism of the 1950s in poetry would have taken
there are visual poems that have been hidden in Brazil for a century)
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self
Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”
Since the invention of the world's first movable-type printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in the 15th century, the poem and its words escaped from a millennial-long oral tradition, going down a path of no return: the presence written permanently in typographic letters on the blank pages of a book. Each poet and reader from then on could see the poem, and not only on parchment or inside a codex.
A few centuries further on, in the early days of European Modernism, the term ‘visual poetry’ began to have a more powerful significance when French writers, such as Apollinaire (1880-1918) and Mallarmé (1842-1898), put their ideas about visuality at the center of the poem. At the end of 19th century, the prototypes of modern poetry appeared as a breakthrough, going in the direction of free verse and a variety of themes. And the visuality of the page going in the direction of another world of possibilities.
Authors such as Bradbury indicate that in Europe, between the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the next one, a new situation arose in the cities, “which, for various historical reasons, had acquired great fame and intense activity as centers of intellectual and cultural exchange” (BRADBURY, 1986, 96). As for Brazil, if the city of São Paulo was the epicenter of the Modernist earthquake, and if it gave to Brazilian poetry names such as Mário de Andrade (1893-1945) and Oswald de Andrade (1890-1954), there are still obscure stories from before and after the Week of Modern Art in 1922. And some of these stories occur very far away from São Paulo.
Undoubtedly, the Week of Modern Art marked Modernism’s official beginning in Brazil, however this had its price: “The new art forms caught the provincially minded population of São Paulo totally by surprise; they found themselves unprepared for what they saw and heard, [...] but an artistic revolution had begun” (WILLIAMS, 1996, 35). Inside all this turmoil surrounding brand new ideas in poetry (including visual poems among them), Modernism began its adventure in one of the biggest cities of the tropics. In fact, there existed something well before and after this event in 1922, including visual poems only seen by a few people in Northeastern Brazil. These are the cases of Chyrino de Magalhães (1876-1923) and Jorge Fernandes (1887-1953).
DE MAGALHÃES: VISUAL POEMS IN THE 1920S NEVER-BEFORE PUBLISHED
Miles and miles away from São Paulo, there existed texts that figured among the first signs of what would become a visible trademark in Concrete Poetry, for example, in the 1950s. In the 1920s, it was a challenge that modern ideas in poetry would reach distant places in such a huge country as Brazil. Among authors still strongly imprisoned by esthetics like Romanticism and Symbolism, there existed a few exceptions, writers who were forgotten in the long list of Brazilian poetry, dealing with an unfair oblivion of names only discovered decades after they were published, due to the absence of reissues, for example.
Even before the novelties of Modernism spread, landing in São Paulo, there was a poet in Northeastern Brazil who published only one book in his short life. Born in 1876 in the small city of Patos in the state of Paraíba, Chyrino de Magalhães released a book of poetry titled ‘Epiphanias’ (Epiphanies) in 1905. This publication was released with a dark velvet cover, a title in gothic font, and the text printed in violet and blue colors, according to Gomes (2016). Nothing was less expensive or expected from a poet publishing a poetry book in a small town in the tropics.
Working as a lawyer in his city – he graduated in the city of Recife in the State of Pernambuco – Magalhães even released a magazine called ‘Phalanges’ in 1899, a one-issue publication combining the likes of Symbolism and Parnassianism. In a town as small as Patos, the destiny of the magazine was its complete oblivion (GOMES, 2016). As for Magalhães’ only book, then sonnets inside ‘Epiphanies’ appear with a mystical vocabulary, as demonstrated by the verses of ‘Prelúdio’ (‘Prelude’) (MAGALHÃES apud GOMES, 2016, 240):
Autumn music of stars, of moonlight...
The air passes through, white sorrows,
Fragile lights, the sighs of stars...
Disappeared voices, vacancies, voices of water...
Seen as an example of lyricism involving synesthesia, metaphysical issues, and the vagueness of words coming from a cultured vocabulary, the poem does not exactly tell a new tale under the sun of the tropics, and themes already well-known in Symbolism appear in other poems (music, sensations, dreamlike atmosphere, and so on). One of the subtle clues regarding the way in which Chyrino wrote this kind of lyricism is in his correspondence with a friend called Heráclito da Nóbrega, a cultured rich gentleman and reader of the poetry of Charles Baudelaire and Paul Verlaine, innocuous names of the most appreciated French poetry (GOMES, 2016).
The verses of ‘Epiphanies’ also include prose poems at the end of the book, abandoning traditional rhymes. Probably, these verses didn’t receive critical review right after publication in 1905, because the poet’s name doesn’t appear nowadays in works such as ‘Arrecifes e lajedos: breve itinerário da poesia na Paraíba’ (‘Reefs and slabs: a brief itinerary of poetry in Paraíba’) (2001), by Hildeberto Barbosa Filho, one of the most encyclopedic critical reviews about the poetry produced in the state of Paraíba. Chyrino de Magalhães’ poetry makes him a phantasmagorical figure, hidden in the dark clouds of literary oblivion, as are many other writers at the very beginning of the twentieth century, a place and time of huge production in different cities in the country.
Unfortunately, there isn’t any other publication by Chyrino de Magalhães, but in the correspondence with his friend Heráclito da Nóbrega can be found the most interesting story involving the author. Even stricken with mental illness, the unquiet figure of Magalhães started to send fragments of a work-in-progress titled ‘Voo Véu’ (‘Veil Flight’), directly influenced by Mallarmé and his famous ‘A dice throw...’ (‘Un coup de dés...’), one of the most famous visual poems, first published in 1897 in the pages of the journal ‘Cosmopolis,’ based in London.
in another letter sent to Nóbrega in 1915, the poet stated that he received novelties from Europe—such as the book ‘La bonne chanson’ (‘The Good Song’) by Paul Verlaine—and cuttings and pages from French literary journals, which included Mallarmé’s poems among them. This material was sent by the poet’s young friend Lucena de Souza, who lived in Recife and had returned from Paris that same year of 1915, as Gomes asserted (2016).
From then on, many fragments of poems emerged in the correspondence between 1915 and 1919 to his friend Nóbrega, texts that would make part of ‘Veil Flight,’ a work that would never see the light of day. Serious problems then afflicted the life of the poet, such as the loss of his employment in the public sector in 1917 due to political concerns and his divorce (GOMES, 2016), facts that make the non-publication of ‘Vel Flight’ more like a symbolic dream, ironically. In 1919, the poet Magalhães was taken to a private hospital in Recife, at the expense of his friend Heráclito da Nóbrega.
And this was the melancholic end of Chyrino de Magalhães, who kept sending letters to his friend, anyway. Inside them were examples of texts that survived the passage of time, texts that explored visuality as never before seen in Brazilian poetry. Untitled, one of them exposes an anti-verbal presence, dancing on the blank space of the page (MAGALHÃES apud GOMES, 2016, 251):
The influence of the visual poems of Mallarmé was clear, creating a puzzle among the words which follow in a combination of strange fragmentary relations—noise, natural facts, insect versus human, sensations versus actions—allowing one of the peculiar elements of modern poetry to emerge (MELO NETO, 1997). In another poem, the blend of vocabulary coming from Symbolism and the visuality of the verse seems even more extreme, as can be seen in ‘Est(r)ela’ [“Stella(r)”] (MAGALHÃES apud GOMES, 2016, 253):
Through its title, the poem provides a double meaning to the reader: the evocation of sidereal starlight and the female name of the muse (Estela/Stella). Along the text, words and letters compose a visual context. Running across the fragmentary images between night and day, the stanzas expose a type of poem whose main structure is non-structure, because, from left to right, the atmosphere between dark and light is a game that the poet presents to the reader through the visual perception of the text. If the terms ‘stella(r)’ and ‘night’ are in capital letters to draw attention to them, the word ‘sun’ in the seventh verse works in a similar way, since it was working as a contrast to all the other natural elements of darkness in the poem.
The strategy seemed to be to unravel fragmentary images, coming from the sea (‘wave’) or from the opposites of light and dark, with the words ‘shadow’ and ‘penumbra’ functioning like a jigsaw puzzle. Then, forming a second stanza, another symbol of nature appears as a microscopic image in an alliterative sequence—‘it is not the rosy rose’—compared with the macroscopic star at the center of the poem. In capital letters, the solitary word ‘sun’ emerges to metaphorically emphasize the color sensation of ‘yellow heated corolla,’ a total contrast to the night of the first verses.
The final stanza rests on visuality to create a different and possible perspective, once again focusing on the night and its elements, but with the same contrast between light and darkness. It functions like an inverted macroscopic photograph, with the black universe bringing stars shining at night with, at the same time, a long distance between them – a sidereal idea of isolation and solitude – conforming to the disposition of the black letters on the white page. Stars (and Stella) shine when touched at a distance.
And we have to remember that the poem was written around 1920 and that the poet died in 1923. Today, Chyrino de Magalhães’ verses could easily be printed on a black page with white letters, creating an even more precise effect, though there are no doubts that the visual poems of the man from Paraíba are the beginning of new adventures in the lyrical genre in Brazil, with Modernism yet to be born in its national version. We just cannot deny the pioneering nature of this poet, forgotten until these days, as if it was an epiphany for the reader.
BARBOSA FILHO, Hildeberto. Arrecifes e lajedos. João Pessoa: Editora UFPB, 2001.
BRADBURY, Malcolm. The cities of Modernism. In: BRADBURY, Malcolm; MCFARLANE, James (orgs.). Modernism 1890-1930. Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1986.
GOMES, Álvaro C. O Simbolismo, uma revolução poética. São Paulo: EDUSP, 2016.
MELO NETO, João Cabral de. Prosa. Rio de Janeiro: Nova Fronteira, 1997.
WILLIAMS, Frederick G. Poets of Brazil. New York: Luso-Brazilian Books, 1996.