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Brazilian Poet Alice Sant’Anna

My Poetry Corner September 2021 features the poem “That Moment an Enormous Tail” (Um Enorme Rabo de Baleia) from the poetry collection Tail of the Whale (Rabo de Baleia) by Brazilian poet Alice Sant’Anna. Born in 1988 in the city of Rio de Janeiro, Alice grew up in a very artistic home: Her father was a photographer; her mother was a fashion producer. As a child, she learned to play several musical instruments. Then, at fifteen years old, her artistic future veered toward poetry. Such was the impact after she read the poetry of Brazil’s “marginal generation” poet Ana Cristina César (1952-1983).

During the 1970s the “marginal generation” poets published their books independently, earning the title “marginal.” Following the oral tradition, their poetry used a colloquial and informal style.  

Sant’Anna credits her experience of studying abroad in learning “how to be alone, in silence,” critical for her creative process. Her first trip abroad was to New Zealand where she spent a semester as a sixteen-year-old high school student. There, she began writing poetry while adapting to life in a very small town.

As a twenty-year-old undergraduate in journalism at the Pontifical Catholic University (PUC) of Rio de Janeiro, Sant’Anna published her first book of poetry. In 2009, a year before her graduation, she went to Paris for a semester, providing an impetus for working on her second book, Tail of the Whale (Rabo de Baleia).

In 2013, the year she earned her Masters’ Degree in Literature and Culture at PUC, Sant’Anna’s poetry collection was published to great acclaim, winning the APCA Poetry Prize from the São Paulo Art Critics Association. The collection was published in English in 2016 with translation by Tiffany Higgins, an award-winning American poet and translator.

Photo by Andrea Holien on Pexels.com

The featured poem, “That Moment an Enormous Tail,” grabbed my attention with its foreign element in the first three verses that flow from the title:

[That moment an enormous tail]
of the whale would cross the room
without much ado the beast
would dive deep into the floorboards 

It’s just an everyday scene where the lyrical persona is in the company of someone seated on the sofa. Their relationship is unknown. They could be a married couple or two old friends. Perhaps a parent and an adult child. The silence and lack of connection between the two become evident in the next four verses:

and surface without us noticing
on the sofa the missing subject
what I would like to but do not tell you
is to embrace the whale to plunge deep with her

Though they share the same intimate space, the missing subject stands between them. Perhaps, the lyrical persona wants more from the relationship or a change not shared by the other person. Whatever the missing subject, it’s an enormous change, personified by the whale, that would agitate the everyday routines of their lives. Boredom and tiredness wear down the lyrical persona, emphasized with repetition in the seven verses that follow:

I feel a scary tedium of these days
of standing water attracting mosquitoes
in spite of the agitation of these days
exhaustion of these days
the body that arrives exhausted at home
with hand stretched out in search
of a cup of water

In the closing verses, we realize that the work week has just begun. The thought of the days ahead only intensifies the yearning for an escape from the scary tedium and stagnated life filled with a demanding job or meaningless busyness.

any urgency to follow through to tuesday
or wednesday just floats
and the only wish
is to embrace the enormous
tail of the whale and to follow her

I am nothing next to the size and power of the enormous tail of the whale. It beckons me to seek a deeper meaning of a life filled with clutter, Zoom meetings, and Netflix. I reach for a glass of water, so essential to stay hydrated. Essential like breath. I cling to the tail of the whale and plunge into the depths of the dying ocean—graveyard of my plastic waste. I cannot have it all. I have become Death.

To read the complete featured poem, “That Moment an Enormous Tail,” in English and its original Portuguese, and to learn more about the work of Alice Sant’Anna, go to my Poetry Corner September 2021.