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Issue #1740      July 20, 2016

The fragility of life

The distinguished Brazilian modernist poet Joao Cabral de Melo Neto (1920-1999) was born in Pernambuco in the impoverished northeast of the country. His poetry quite often evoked the precarious existence and harsh life of the region’s rural inhabitants. Cemeteries are a recurring theme and his poem below on one of these – Pernambuco (Our Lady of Light) – alludes to the fragility of life and utter destitution of its hapless inhabitants.

Cemetery in Pernambuco
(Our Lady of Light)

Nobody lies in this earth
because no river is at rest
in any other river, nor is the sea
a potter’s field* of rivers.
None of these dead men here
comes dressed in a coffin.
Therefore they are not buried
but spilled out on the ground.
Wrapped in the hammocks they slept in,
naked to sun and rain,
they come bringing their own flies.
The ground fits them like a glove.
Dead, they lived in the open air.
Today they inhabit open earth,
so much the earth’s that the earth
does not feel their intrusion.

Translated by Jane Cooper

* Potter’s Field: public burial place for paupers, unknown persons and criminals

Third World Resurgence

Next article – Dingo

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