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Brazilian Poet Paulo Leminski in his Study
Photo Credit: Veja Magazine, São Paulo/Brazil


My Poetry Corner August 2019 features the poem “Counter-narcissus” (Contranarciso) by Paulo Leminski (1944-1989), a Brazilian poet, translator, and biographer. He was born of humble origins in Curitiba, capital of the southern state of Paraná. His father was of Polish descent; his mother was a mixture of Portuguese, Black, and Native Indian. He publicly owned with pride, the derogatory labels of “polaco” and “negro mestiço.”

At the age of fourteen, with his parents’ approval, Paulo entered the Monastery of Saint Benedict in São Paulo. Within a year and a half, unable to cope with the disciplined lifestyle, he returned home. But his time spent among the monks wasn’t wasted. His studies exposed him to theology, philosophy, and Classical literature which demanded a knowledge of Latin and Greek. Later in life, Leminski applied the monks’ rigid and strenuous study routine to his work. Passionate about language, he became an autodidact polyglot fluent in six foreign languages.

Before the realization that poetry was his life, Paulo abandoned his undergraduate studies in literature and law after just a year, taught history and creative writing for a while, and later applied his writing skills as a journalist and advertising editor.

In “[If] Incense were Music” – considered one of his best poems – Leminski asserts that for us to grow as individuals, we must first accept who we are.

this wanting
to be exactly that
which we are
will yet
take us beyond

As a marginal poet connected to the world around him, who loved punk culture and rock music, Leminski enjoyed experimenting with diverse poetic forms, including the Japanese haikai. Combining elements from his visual background in advertising, the rhythm of popular music, and colloquial language, he created a direct, precise, and concise poetry. With added doses of his characteristic humor, his poetry captured the attention of young people.

From the opening stanza in “Deep Down,” Leminski identifies with our experience of dealing with life’s problems.

Deep down, deep down,
way deep down,
we would like
to see our problems
resolved by decree

Our anguish without remedy and all remorsedamn whoever looks back – would become extinct by law and considered null. A married man with three children, the poet brings us back to reality with a touch of humor.

but problems are not resolved,
problems have a big family,
and on Sundays
everyone goes for a walk
the problem, your woman
and other little problems.

In the featured poem of three stanzas, “Counter-narcissus,” Leminski employs a simple poetic structure and language to address our oneness as a species and the richness of our racial diversity.

in me
I see
the other
and another
finally dozens
trains passing
wagons full of hundreds of people

Considering that the poet is the descendant of Poles who also suffered under Hitler’s pursuit of racial cleansing, the wagons full of hundreds of people suggest the trainloads of Jews and other undesirables sent to Nazi concentration camps for extermination or hard labor.

In the final four verses of his closing stanza, the poet concludes:

and only when
we are in us
we are at peace
even if we are alone

For an individual who, in his poem “Seeking Meaning” expressed his belief that meaning is the most mysterious entity in the universe, Leminski perhaps perceived that our lives would have more meaning if we could see beyond our differences, whatever they may be, and focus instead on what unites us as human beings.

To read the complete featured poem in English and its original Portuguese, and to learn more about the work of Paulo Leminski, go to my Poetry Corner August 2019.

All excerpts of poems by Paulo Leminski come from Toda Poesia (All Poetry), Anthology of Poetry by Paulo Leminski, published by Editora Companhia Brasil das Letras, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 2013.
Translation by Rosaliene Bacchus