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CECÍLIA MEIRELES

Poet: 1901 – 1964

Lúcia Helena Vianna
Translated by John D. Godinho

 

Cecília Meireles, desenho de Arpad Szènes

I SING BECAUSE THE MOMENT EXISTS AND MY LIFE IS COMPLETE…

Portrait of Cecília Meireles, sketched by Arpad Szènes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ex-libris de Cecília

Ex-libris of Cecília Meireles

 

WHEN IT ALL HAPPENED...

1901: Cecília Meireles is born on November 7, in Rio de Janeiro. Her parents: Carlos Alberto de Carvalho Meireles and Matilde Benevides. Both had premature deaths:  her father died three months before she was born;  her mother, when the little girl was 3.  Her paternal grandparents: João Correia Meireles, Portuguese, civil servant at the Customs Office, in Rio, and Amélia Meireles, both deceased.  Her maternal grandmother, Jacinta Garcia Benevides, from the Azores Islands, took care of the little girl as her guardian – 1910: Cecília finishes elementary school at Escola Estácio de Sá and receives a gold medal from the hands of Olavo Bilac, the poet, who was School Inspector General for the then Federal District. As an adolescent she is passionate about books. She studies history, languages, philosophy, oriental subjects, which she continues studying throughout her life. Her enthusiasm for the Orient is born. – 1917: She graduates from Escola Normal (Education Institute). She becomes a teacher and continues her studies at the National Conservatory of Music. – 1919: Her first book of poems, Espectros, is well received by the critics. – 1922: She marries Fernando Correia Dias, a Portuguese artist. She gives birth to three daughters: Maria Elvira, Maria Matilde and Maria Fernanda (the latter will become a famous actress on the Brazilian stage). – 1924: She writes Criança, meu amor (Little Child, my Love), which is adopted by the city schools of Rio. – 1929: Publishes O espírito vitorioso (Victorious Spirit), based on a presentation she made when she was a candidate for a position, teaching Brazilian literature, at the Institute of Education – 1930/1934: She is very active as a journalist and is responsible for a daily page on education in the Diário de Notícias.  She criticizes the Getúlio Vargas government in her defense of a new school system. – 1934: She becomes director of the Instituto Infantil (Children’s Institute), at the Mourisco Pavilion. She creates a children’s library.  During this period, she travels abroad for the first time.  She visits Portugal, accompanied by her husband, at the invitation of the Secretaria de Propaganda (Propaganda Secretariat) of that country. She becomes intensely engaged in cultural activities in Lisbon and Coimbra and makes long-lasting, strong friendships. – 1935: She becomes a lecturer on Brazilian Literature at the recently founded University of the Federal District (now Federal University of Rio de Janeiro).  Her husband commits suicide.   1936/1938: Economic difficulties cause her to work more than ever: she gives courses on Literary Technique and Criticism; on Comparative Literature and on Oriental Literature.  She becomes a regular contributor to several newspapers (A Manhã, Correio Paulistano, A Nação). She also works in the Press and Propaganda Department in charge of the periodical Travel in Brazil1938: Her book Viagem (Voyage) is awarded the Poetry Prize by the Brazilian Academy of Literature.  She meets Heitor Grilo, a medical doctor.  They marry the following year. She travels to the U.S. and Mexico. In the U.S., she gives courses on Brazilian Literature at the University of Texas. 1939: Viagem is published in Lisbon. 1940: She lectures on Brazilian Literature and Culture at the University of Texas. In Mexico, she holds conferences on literature, folklore and education.  – 1942/1944: She publishes Vaga Música (Vague Music). She writes a series of important studies on children’s folklore which are published in the newspaper A Manhã.  Visits Uruguay and Argentina.  – 1945: She publishes Mar Absoluto(Absolute Sea). Her family moves to Cosme Velho – 1948:  The National Folklore Commission is created.  Cecília is considered to be an authority on the subject.– 1949: Another book is published: Retrato Natural (Natural Portrait) – 1951: She acts as secretary to the First National Folklore Congress (Rio Grande do Sul).  Travels to Europe (France, Belgium, Holland, and Portugal).  She publishes Amor em Leonoreta. – 1952: Chile awards her the Official Order of Merit.  She becomes honorary member of the Gabinete Português de Leitura, of the Vasco da Gama Institute, of Goa, India.  She publishes Doze noturnos de Holanda & O Aeronauta – 1953:At long last, she publishes her masterpiece, O Romanceiro da Inconfidência (Ballads of the Minas Conspiracy) .  She is invited by Prime Minister Nehru to participate in a symposium on Gandhi’s work, in Índia, and receives an Honorary Degree from the University of Deli. She writes Poemas escritos na Índia (Poems Written in India).  Traveling through Italy, she writes Poemas Italianos (Italian Poems). Índia, Goa, Europe... Pequeno Oratório de Santa Clara. 1954:   She travels to Europe, this time including the Azores. 1956: Cecília publishes Canções (Songs) – 1957: Travels to Puerto Rico. – 1958: She holds a conference in Israel and visits holy places.  Her Obra Completa (Complete Works) is published by José Aguilar, publishers –1960:  She publishes Metal Rosicler  -- 1963:. Solombra is the last book published in her lifetime. – 1964: Cecília dies on November 9 and is laid to rest at São João Batista Cemetery (Botafogo, Rio de Janeiro), grave n. 8951, block 14.  A simple gravestone contains only her name and the dates 1901-1964. – 1965: The Brazilian Academy of Literature awards her, post mortem, the Machado de Assis Prize for her life’s work. 

HER BOOKS

Espectros, 1919 l Nunca mais... e Poema dos Poemas, 1923 l Baladas para El-Rei, 1925 l Criança, meu amor, 1927 l Viagem, 1939 l Vaga música, 1942 l Mar Absoluto e Outros Poemas, 1945 l Retrato natural, 1949 l Amor em Leonoreta, 1951 l Dez noturnos de Holanda & O aeronauta, 1952 l Romanceiro da Inconfidência, 1953 l Pequeno Oratório de Santa Clara, 1955 l Pistóia, Cemitério Militar Brasileiro, 1955 l Canções, 1956 l Romance de Santa Cecília, 1957 l Obra poética, 1958 l Metal Rosicler, 1960 l Poemas escritos na Índia, 1961 l Solombra, 1963 l Ou isto ou aquilo, 1964 l Crônica trovada da cidade de Sam Sebastiam, 1965 l Poemas italianos, 1968 l Ou isto ou aquilo & Inéditos, 1969 l Cânticos, 1981 l Oratório de Santa Maria Egipcíaca, 1986 .

(Translator’s note:  These titles have not yet been published in English).

Leodegário de Azevedo Filho, a scholar of Luís de Camões, has been coordinating a project since 1998 for the publication of all of Cecília’s prose work.

In celebration of Cecília’s centennial birthday, Editora Nova Fronteira, a publishing house in Rio de Janeiro, published Poesia Completa (Complete Poems), in two volumes, in 2001.  This edition was compiled by Antonio Carlos Secchin.

 

THE STORY OF LIFE
“Life is only possible if you reinvent it”

 There was a time when I could see a chalet from my window. High on the rooftop there was a big, shining blue egg made of china.  A white dove used to alight on the egg. Well, on clear days, when the sky was the same color as the egg, the dove seemed to be suspended in midair. I was a child, to me that optical illusion was a marvelous thing, and I felt completely happy…

(Arte de ser feliz, Escolha seu sonho)

(The art of being happy, Choose your dream)

  

There she is.  Her window is open to let the sun in. From a distance, I can see her figure.  I notice her deep breathing, slowly taking in the pure, fresh air of the morning. She leans over the window sill and gazes upon the garden.  She seems completely happy.  I respect this moment of privacy and wait a while before I draw closer to start this conversation, which is imaginary but perfectly possible. I can hear an almost inaudible whisper calling me: Come listen to the story of life…

 

EARLY CHILDHOOD

 

November 7, 1901. Cecília Meireles is born, at home, Rua da Colina, Tijuca, Rio de Janeiro, under the sign of Scorpion, whose element is water, ruled by Mars and Pluto.  Mars encourages great efforts, action and accomplishments;  Pluto brings losses, deep transformation and a capacity to rise against adversity.

 

She is orphaned at an early age. She doesn’t get to know her father – Carlos Alberto de Carvalho Meireles – who died when he was 26, three months before she was born. She didn’t know her brothers, Vítor, Carlos and Carmen.

 

 “They all died before I was born.  And my mother (Matilde Benevides Meirelles) was gone when I was only three.  I was raised by my maternal grandmother, Jacinta Garcia Benevides, born in the Azores, on the Island of São Miguel.” 

 

Those and other losses that occurred in the family gave little Cecília an intimacy with death and the conviction that nothing lasts forever.  These qualities are present in her poetic reserve: 

 

 “The childhood of an only child brought me two things that seem to be negative, but, in fact, they were always positive: silence and solitude. I need them to write.”

 

While she embroiders, Dona Jancinta sings old songs from the Island of São Miguel.  The child’s imagination begins to weave a carpet made of popular lyricism: her grandmother’s voice is teaching her the riddles of life revealed by popular sayings:

 

- One’s early rising can’t rush the dawn,

- Hard upon hard does not make a good wall,
- One swallow does not make a summer.

 “Everything I perceived then – everything that I saw, heard, touched or felt – lingers within me with an inextinguishable poetic intensity…”


Cecília dedicates Elegia (Elegy), to her mythic grandmother, deceased in 1932:

“My first tear fell upon your eyes.”
I did not dry it, afraid to let you know it had fallen.

The following day you were lying still, in your final pose,
Set by the night, by the stars, and by my own hands.

You had the coldness of the morning dew; the white clearness of the moon.
I saw the sun rise and remain ignored by your eyes,

And  the songs of birds and of flowing brooks
Were dead sounds to your lifeless ears

Where is your other you? In the wall?  The furniture? The ceiling? 
I leaned over your face, sure of myself, as if I were a mirror,
And sadly searched for you.
But that, too, was to no avail, like everything else.

(OC, 465)(Complete Works, p. 465)

Those premature losses make her aware of the fact that nothing lasts forever...

Yes, I sing.  To me a song is everything,
It has eternal blood and rhythmic wing to soar.

And I know someday I will be mute and still

-- and sing no more.

                                                                              (Motivo ,Viagem)
(
Motive, from Voyage)

 

...and the desire to look for something distant, not yet revealed: the dream.

I put my dream in a ship
and placed  the ship  upon the sea,
- then, I opened the sea with my hands,
so that my dream would sink.

(Canção, Viagem)
(Song from Voyage)

 

In 1910, she finishes elementary school at Escola Estácio de Sá, with honors.  She receives a gold medal with her name engraved on it, from the hands of Olavo Bilac, the poet. Seven years later, she graduates from Escola Normal (Education Institute).  She continues her studies: music, at the National Conservatory, singing, the violin, languages, and does research on the Orient, its history, languages and philosophy.

    

 

SHE BECOMES A TEACHER, LIKE HER MOTHER

Capa do livro "Ou isto ou aquilo"

Book cover of Ou isto ou aquilo

 

“...There was a time when I  could see from my window a wide open space where an enormous mango tree spread its crown. There was a lady who used  to spend most of the day sitting on a straw mat, under the shade of the tree, surrounded by children. And she used to tell stories. I couldn’t hear her…she was too far away and her language seemed to be a difficult one.  But the children had such expressions on their faces  and, sometimes,  drew such clear  arabesques in the air with their hands, that I was able to be part of that audience…and I felt completely happy…”

My mother had been an elementary school teacher (she was the first teacher with a degree in education, in Brazil) and I liked to study  reading her books.  These old books had been in the family for a long time and they attracted me a lot.  The same thing happened with the music scores and music books.   

The subject of education... is a cause I embrace with a passion, the same as poetry.  

Children are a permanent reason for expressions of affection and for them she writes Criança, meu amor (Little Child, my Love)(1927) and Ou isto ou aquilo (Either this or that) (1964, post mortem):   

There’s either rain and no sunshine,

Or there is sunshine, but no rain!

 

Either you wear a glove and not the ring;

Or you wear the ring and not the glove!

 

If you climb in the air, you’re not on the ground,

If you  stay on the ground, then you can’t climb.

It’s really  a shame that you can’t be

In two different places at the same time! 

 

The subject of education is a cause and a commitment. It’s her militancy.  She teaches until 1951 and retires as School Principal.  She defends the ideals of the New Education System proposed by Fernando Azevedo and Anísio Teixeira:  they advocate a system that allows for the total development of the child.  From 1930 to 1934, she is responsible for a daily column on education in the Diário de Notícias, a newspaper of Rio de Janeiro. Her enthusiasm leads her to organize a children’s library at the Mourisco Pavilion, in Botafogo. It’s the first of its kind and becomes the spark for innumerable other such libraries that spread throughout Brazil.


HOW TO DESCRIBE CECÍLIA?

Retrato de Cecília, óleo de Maria Helena Vieira da Silva

Portrait of Cecília, oil on canvas

by Maria Helena Vieira da Silva

 

Here’s her answer:

 

“I don’t think I can answer that, other than through poetry.  There’s a brief article, which I find pleasant and fun,  written by João Condé for the Arquivos Implacáveis, of O Cruzeiro, published in Rio de Janeiro on December 31, 1955:

“She’s not afraid to travel by plane on long trips.

She’d like to return to the Orient, going as far as China...

Her name: Cecília Meireles – Born in the Federal District (today, the city of Rio de Janeiro).

Married, three daughters and two grandchildren.

Height 5 ft 4 in; weight 130 lbs and her shoe size is 6 1/2.

She is almost a vegetarian.

She does not smoke, drink or gamble.

She does not practice any sports, but enjoys walking and thinks that she could go around the globe on foot.

She does not like soccer and seldom goes to the movies. – She enjoys good theater.  

She promptly replies to all of her mail, but, now and then, she takes her time to express thanks for books she receives, because she only does so after she reads them. 

She loves music, especially medieval, Spanish and Oriental songs. Favorite poets:  all good poets.

Flemish painters are her favorites.

She goes to bed early and rises early.

She read Eça de Queirós before she was 13.

She wrote her first poem when she was 9.  She studied singing, the guitar, the violin and, sometimes, she draws.

If she had a chance to live her life over again she would like to be as she is, only better.

She published her first book, Espectros, when she was 16.

Her main fault: a certain absence from the world.

What troubles her: wishing to help people who need help but refuse to accept it.

She has never seen a ghost, but she’d like to see one.

Books, books, books, star studded and cloudy  nights, all at the same time.

She thinks she’s not afraid of death.  She would like to die in peace.”        

 

HER TRAJECTORY AS A POET

 

 

1919. She publishes her first book, Espectros. It’s well received by the critics. João Ribeiro, the renowned critic, foresees a promising future for the young author:  “soon, and without much effort, she may achieve the reputation as a poet that, in all fairness, she deserves.”

 

CECÍLIA AND MODERNISM

Capa do livro "Baladas para El-Rei"

Book cover of Baladas para El-Rei

 

How does Cecília fit in the renovating movement in literature and the arts that materializes during Modern Art Week in 1922? How does she compare with the revolutionary poets of the decade, such as Mário de Andrade, Oswald de Andrade, Menotti Del Picchia, Manuel Bandeira, Cassiano Ricardo, the São Paulo poets gathered around the Revista Klaxon

No, Cecília Meireles is not among them in the beginning. She is not directly involved in that disruptive, avant-garde movement triggered by the São Paulo group.  Her first books deserve the attention of another circle, composed of poets who gravitate around Revista Festa, in Rio de Janeiro – Andrade Murici, Tasso da Silveira, Murilo Araújo.  They defend a type of poetry permeated with spiritual fundamentals, with transcendental, philosophical and religious concerns.

In her books of the 1920s, Nunca mais (Never again) and Poema dos poemas (Poem of Poems) (1923), as well as Baladas para El-Rei (Ballads for the King) (1925), one can still detect symbolist tones and some Parnassian formalism.  True to herself, her lyrical intuition is not caught up in literary trends:  

Your sad, sad eyes of Agnus Dei
Are all my glory and my blessing,Through my misfortunes, present night and day,

...

I saw them shine over my soul

Your sad, sad eyes of Agnus Dei! 

    

(Oferenda , Baladas para El-Rei)

(Offering, from Ballads for the King)

In Viagem, published in 1938, Cecília finds her true style.  Her melodic verses give sustenance to the founding bases of her poetry – the dream, solitude, the sea, the song, melancholy, the clouds, the sky, death… She receives the Poetry Prize awarded by the Brazilian Academy of Literature.  At the Academy’s meeting to determine the winner, Cassiano Ricardo argues in favor of Viagem and emphasizes its modernistic characteristics.

In 1939, Mário de Andrade writes a definitive article on Cecília:

...Brazilian poetry has never reached such an evanescent quality, verbal as well as psychic...

Cecília is building her public trajectory.  She is recognized as one of the best Brazilian poets.
To Eliane Zagury, Cecília represents “the purest lyrical tradition looking upon itself, becoming its own theme.”

 

WHAT ABOUT HER PRIVATE LIFE?

Cecília Meireles - auto retrato.

Cecília Meireles, self-portrait

 Young, elegant and very pretty, Cecília causes a frisson of excitement whenever she walks into the São José Bookstore, in downtown Rio, looking for some book.  She is followed by the lusting eyes of the writers who frequent that traditional bookshop.  They ask themselves what that beautiful woman could be doing with such a heavy book – the Koran. 

 

Between 1919 and 1920, in the editorial office of the Revista da Semana, Cecília meets Fernando Correia Dias, a young Portuguese artist, cover designer, ceramicist, illustrator and graphic artist, well-known in Portugal and a friend of Brazilian literary and artistic personalities, such as Álvaro Moreyra, Olegário Mariano, Menoti Del Picchia and Guilherme de Almeida.

 

A young and beautiful poet; a cultured, well-traveled and seductive artist. These characters are the makings of a love story.

 

They marry on October 24, 1922. She is 20, he is 29.  Once again, there is a Portuguese presence in Cecília’s life.  He draws beautiful illustrations for her books.  She gives him three daughters:  Maria Elvira, Maria Matilde and Maria Fernanda (who will become a famous actress on the Brazilian stage).

 

At home, Cecília is like any mother – she scolds, disciplines, and bakes cakes with orange frosting. In the evening, after dinner, they gather in the living room and she reads stories to the little girls (well, television had not yet come into our lives!), she picks up the guitar and strums some songs, some of which she sings, or she describes details of one object or another that decorates the house.

 

THE DREAM IS BROKEN

Cecília Meireles

Cecília Meireles, photograph

In 1934, Brazilian women gain the right to vote. Cecília is not among those who demonstrated in the streets on behalf of the woman’s suffrage movement. Why? Because her field of action is elsewhere, in the social area.  She’s involved with newspapers and schools.  That same year, she is invited to be the Director of the Centro Infantil (Children’s Center) to be set up at the Mourisco Pavilion, in Botafogo.  She sees the invitation as presenting an opportunity for putting into practice the new system of education she has been defending so strongly in the press.  She organizes the first Children’s Library in Rio de Janeiro.  Correia Dias turns the basement into an enchanted city.  There, the children can, finally, give free rein to their imagination in a number of creative activities—painting, reading, music, drawing.

But the dream, like any other dream, does not last long.  The project falls victim to political intrigue and is shut down. A brutal investigation is carried out by the political police force of the Getúlio Vargas government, destroying everything including ceramic works created by Correia Dias inspired by the pottery of the Marajoara Indians. The explanation for such vandalism: the books are considered to be harmful to the education of children, and this included (believe it or not!) Mark Twain’s The adventures of Tom Sawyer.

It’s ironical, it doesn’t make any sense that this type of thing should happen to her.  Even though she is an advocate of progress, she had always been much too skeptical to join any political party and philosophic enough not to be seduced by Marxism. But that’s the way dictatorships work.

 

TO SAIL IS NECESSARY...

There was a time when I could see a canal from my window. There was a boat swaying on the water.  A boat loaded with flowers.  What was the destination of those flowers? Who would buy them?  In what vase, in what room, and before whom would they shine, in their brief existence?  Whose hands had grown them? And who was going to smile with joy upon receiving them?  I was no longer a child, but my soul was completely happy.”

From 1934 until her death, Cecília Meireles travels quite often.  That year, she visits Portugal for the first time at the invitation of that country’s Secretariat of Propaganda.  In 1940, she travels to the United States, where she teaches a course on Brazilian Literature at the University of Texas.  She gives talks on Mexican folklore and education.  In 1944, she visits Uruguay and Argentina.  In 1951, she returns to Europe:  France, Belgium, Holland, Portugal.  In 1952:  Chile. 1953: India, Goa, Italy. 1954:  Europe and, at long last, she visits the Azores. 1957:  Puerto Rico.  1958: She holds conferences in Israel.

In India, she receives an honorary degree from the University of Delhi.  Her “Elegia a Gandhi” (Elegy to Gandhi) is translated into several languages

...

Your bonfire is burning.  The Ganges will take you far away, 

A handful of ashes that the waters will kiss forever.

That the Sun will draw from the waters and take to the infinite hands of God. 

...

The wind is spreading the words of God among the thousand tongues of fire.

Among the thousand roses made of ashes from your old bones, Mahatma.

She returns from her trips with her suitcase filled with verses: 

Poemas escritos na Índia (Poems Written in India), Poemas Italianos (Italian Poems), Oratórios de Santa Clara (Santa Clara Oratoriums)   

 

THE PORTUGUESE SEA

Cecília a descer a escada do navio na chegada a Lisboa (bico de pena de Correia Dias)

Cecília walking down the gangway upon arrival in Lisbon (pen and ink drawing by Correia Dias)

Portugal occupies an important place in her trip schedule.

October 12, 1934.  A picture in O Diário de Lisboa shows Cecília and Fernando still on board the ship Cuyabá, at the Alcântara docks.

When they disembark in Lisbon they are received by the crème de la crème of  Portuguese intelligentsia.  They are welcomed by people who will become lifelong friends: the literary critic José Osório de Oliveira, the illustrator Pedro Bordalo Pinheiro, Simão Coelho Folho, the art critic Guilherme Pereira de Carvalho, Manuel Mendes, Carlos Queiroz.  In Estoril, she meets the poet Fernanda de Castro who had repeatedly invited her to hold conferences and give talks at Portuguese universities.

“friends are a form of poetry in motion”

Portugal, the ancestral homeland. Her Azorean heritage, her marriage to a well-known Portuguese artist, together with her lyrical qualities, pave the way for public recognition in Portugal. She is contacted by the press, by publishers and critics. She takes advantage of this recognition and admiration.  In the opinion of Jorge de Sena, she, like Pessoa or Rilke, is “a modern daughter of the old symbolism.”

 

SO MUCH SUCCESS AND ONE DISAPPOINTMENT

 

December. It’s a cold and rainy night in Lisbon.  Cecília and Correia Dias have been waiting for nearly two hours at A Brasileira, a café in the Chiado district. They are waiting for someone whom Cecília is anxious to meet and whose poetry she was the first to herald in Brazil. 

Almost two hours have gone by and he hasn’t showed up! Fernando thinks they should give up and leave:

“Let’s go, Cecília, he’s not coming!”

“We can wait a little longer.  Who knows, maybe something unexpected came up…”

“No, we’re wasting our time.  I know him well and if he hasn’t arrived by now, he won’t come.”
 

Back at the hotel, they receive a little book with a handwritten dedication:

“To Cecília Meyreles, great poet, and to Correia Dias, artist, old friend and even accomplice (see “Águia”, etc.), calling upon the graces of Apollo and Athena, Fernando Pessoa, Dec. 10, 1934.”

It’s a copy of Mensagem (Message) recently published. Receipt is acknowledged in a brief note:

“Cecília Meireles – thanks you and sends her regards.”

Ten years later, she writes to her friend Armando Costa Rodrigues: “You don’t know how sorry I am for not having met him!” And, in a silent dialogue with the person she so much admired, she remarks in a scoffing tone:

“But you prefer the half shadows of sleepy cafés, on whose tables, sooner or later, all the poets of Lusitania plant their elbows and, with forehead resting on the palm of their hands, create those dreams they can’t control…”

(Evocação  lírica de Lisboa, crônica)

(A Lyrical Remembrance of Lisbon, a chronicle)

 

BACK IN RIO

She’s back at home on January 12, 1935. She finds her homeland living a climate of fear, threats and persecutions. The Vargas government has become a cruel dictatorship. She returns to her activities in the Mourisco Pavilion and becomes professor of Portuguese-Brazilian literature at the College of Philosophy and Literature of the recently founded University of the Federal District.

Her private life is affected by her husband’s frequent bouts with depression. His condition will eventually lead him to commit suicide on November 19 of that year. Those were “thirteen years of anguish caused by such misfortune, trying to overcome it.”  The poem “Canção póstuma” (Posthumous Song) gives an idea of the pain, sublimated into poetry.

 

I composed a song to give to you,

but you were on your way to die.

Death is a strong, relentless wind

And Art is such a simple, timid sigh...

 

A sigh so timid, so quick  to wane       

as soft and brief as is our daily breath.

A cry of doves. And Death is like an eagle

whose  scream nobody can explain.

 

I came to sing about world harmony

but your ears are closed and cannot hear  

the words from my hesitating lips

– now you listen to a deeper melody 

 

And I am like someone out of place,

who arrives at the center of the sea  

and compares that liquid universe

to the tears he feels upon his face

 

And now I have to close the heavy gate

-- and suffer, not knowing which forms of Art    

are the favorite pastimes of the dead --

and keep out the song that came too late.

 

That explains why this human song, so small,  

feels desperate and helpless, lost in rhyme 

Perhaps it will last longer than a lifetime.

But to Death it means nothing at all.

 

 (Canção póstuma, Retrato natural)

                     (Posthumous Song, from Natural Portrait)

 

In the years that followed, Cecília, a widow, with no relatives and three daughters to raise, faces economic difficulties which demand an intensive work schedule.  She teaches Literary Criticism and Techniques, Comparative Literature and Oriental Literature at the university.  She also works in the Press and Publicity Department, where she is in charge of the magazine Travel in Brazil. 

 

“AND HERE I AM, SINGING”

Cecília no seu local de trabalho

Cecília at work

It’s the end of 1938, beginnings of 1939.  A new cycle of events leads to changes in her emotional and family life.  She meets Heitor Grilo, a medical doctor, and they marry in 1939.  Viagem is published in Lisbon. Cecília continues in her trajectory.

 

I sing because the moment exists

And my life is complete because I know it.

I am not happy, I am not sad.

I am a poet.

 

Brother to things that are fleeting,

I feel no joy, nor have mistakes to mend,

I go through nights and days wandering

In the wind.    

 

Will I destroy and build again?

Will I stay whole or fall apart?

- I don’t know, I don’t know. Will I remain?                                                           

Will I depart?

 

Yes, I sing. To me a song is everything,

It has eternal blood and rhythmic wing to soar.

And I know someday I will be mute and still

- and sing no more.

 

 (Motivo)

(Motive)

The first of several self-portraits gives a premature description of the effects of such changes: 

 

I did not have the face I have today

So calm, so sad, so lean with sallow skin,

Nor eyes with such an empty look

Nor bitter lips so thin.

 

I did not have these weakened hands,

So lifeless, so still, and cold;

I know I did not have this heart,

Which is no longer bold.

 

I did not notice these changes,

So simple, so clear, so fast.

I wonder: - In what mirror

did my face get lost?

 

ON THE EMPTINESS OF STONES, SHE BUILDS HER CATHEDRAL

Capa de "Batuque, Samba e Macumba"

Book cover of Batuque, Samba e Macumba

Her writings are published regularly. The 1940s will be one of the most productive periods of her life

She publishes Vaga Música (Vague Music) in 1942, and, in 1945, Mar Absoluto (Absolute Sea), followed by Retrato Natural (Natural Self-portrait) in 1949. She goes from book to book without faltering, true to the founding themes of her lyricism: the sea, music, melancholy, orphanhood.

It’s now wartime. It’s the “Time of Broken Men,” as described by Carlos Drummond de Andrade, a contemporary poet and admirer of Cecilia’s.  Like him, she voices her concerns over the contradictions of the human condition.

 

We are deserving of death

Because we are human

And war is waged with our hands

  ...

We created fire, speed and the new alchemy

The appraisal of gestures,

Although we know that we are brothers.

We even have atoms for accomplices, and what sins

In science, on the seas, through the clouds, in the stars!

What a delirium without God, our imagination

 

(Lamento do oficial por seu cavalo morto)

        (Lament of an Officer for his Dead Horse)

 

Her book of 1949 contains poems which are more modern and unpretentious, displaying Cecília’s affection for sharing in the pains of the world.

     

Ten girl dancers are gliding

Across a mirrored floor.

Egyptian-like  bodies wearing golden plaques,

Eyelids painted blue and nails red as gore.

They lift  white veils, of fragrant subtleties,

And dance, bending yellow knees

 

the fat men keep watching, in absolute boredom,

the ten joyless dancers as they sway.

Pitiful serpents with no trace of  lust,

Mere little children in the light of day.

Ten anemic angels whose bodies are hollow,

Embalmed in melancholy gray.

 

They move to and fro, like mummies in a band

The weak and tired dancers.

A bevy of  flowers that wilt and bend

Colored blue, white, green and gold

Ten mothers would weep if they were to behold

The girl dancers gliding, hand in hand. 

 (Balada das dez bailarinas no casino)

                    (Ballad of the Ten Casino Dancers)

 

In 1945, she moves to the house in the Cosme Velho district, where she will live until her final days.

 

In the years that followed, she devotes herself to writing for the stage (A nau catarineta, in 1946; O menino atrasado, in 1966).  She begins her research on the Brazilian colonial period.  She is thinking about an ambitious project:  an epic poem that will reclaim the legends, the traditions, and the mysticism surrounding the thwarted Conjuração Mineira (The Minas Gerais Conspiracy).

 

One of her other passions is the study of folklore, which occupies most of her time during 1948.  Cecília is considered to be a specialist on the subject and becomes a member of the National Folklore Commission.  And in 1951, she becomes secretary to the First Congress on National Folklore, in the state of Rio Grande do Sul.    

 

IN PORTUGAL, AGAIN

“Don’t be anguished by the petal that falls.
Being no more, is also a form of being.”

The Azores, at last. In 1951, she is able to accept the repeated invitations extended by her old friends, Armando Cortes-Rodrigues and José Bruges. The actual appearance of São Miguel Island brings no surprises:  “The landscape is like what I used to see from my backyard, when I was a child.”  She is deeply moved when she meets the soul mate she knew only through a long and extensive exchange of correspondence (246 letters):

One who strolls along the beaches
And walks around his Island
Who speaks with fishermen and mermaids
With utter simplicity
 

....

someone who has his own map of affections, his own language for songs,
and whispers addresses in the wind,
after he signs them  with tiny letters:

                    ARMANDO CORTES-RODRIGUES

                                                                       (Inscrição natalícia)

 

Also in 1951, she publishes Amor em Leonoreta and, in the following year, Doze noturnos de Holanda & O Aeronauta.  She works tirelessly to finish her research on the history of Vila Rica and the Conspiracy of Minas Gerais.

 

FINALLY, HER MASTERPIECE

Capa de "Romanceiro da Inconfidência"

Book cover of Romanceiro da Inconfidência (Ballads of the Minas Conspiracy)

“Sometimes, I open my window and find the jasmine tree in bloom. Other times, I can see thick clouds; I catch sight of children going to school; sparrows hopping on the garden wall; cats opening and closing their eyes, dreaming of sparrows. I can see butterflies, flying in pairs, as if reflected in an unseen mirror in midair. I see wasps that always remind me of Lope de Vega characters. Sometimes, a cock crows. Sometimes, a plane flies overhead. Everything is right, in its proper place, following its destiny. And I feel completely happy…”

It’s the year 1953. After working intensively, Cecília finishes O Romanceiro da Inconfidência (Ballads of the Minas Conspiracy).

She spent five years immersed in the 18th century, creating “rhyming narrative poems” which take the reader into the tragic story of the gold cycle in the city of Vila Rica, during the Minas Conspiracy. She is able to describe in poetic terms the story of Second Lieutenant Tiradentes and of the intellectuals and poets betrayed by informers. It’s the first shout of freedom in colonial territories. It’s Cecília’s definitive answer to those who have accused her of having little of the essential characteristics of the Brazilian people.


“Freedom” is a word,
Nurtured by our human dreams,
That nobody can explain,
But we all know what it means!

Brazil, Minas Gerais. Gold mines. Great wealth. Huge ambitions. This is the background for what happens:

This is the road, this is the bridge, this is the mountain
Upon which can be seen a white church.

This is the horse on the green hillside
This is the door sill, the yard, the same door.


And here’s the mist, arriving to engulf the street,
Prompting illusions of the times and people.


...
 
Her verses follow the rhythm of the arcadian poets Cláudio Manuel da Costa and Tomás Antonio Gonzaga, characters of those very events so well-remembered.
 
...
 
I wandered those hills of peacefulness
and through the mist, in silence, I saw cattle
grazing in the emerald loneliness.

 ...
Everything around me speaks and tells the story
of treasures torn from lands of cunning poses,
 with blood being shed on laurels, swords and crosses.

Everything here speaks and I can hear the roses
and the sunflowers in gardens that once were the lands
where pain and anguish flourished in the sands,

where great ambitions thrived on others’ torments;
the lands where they dragged the quartered body
of the martyr denied his final moments.”

She celebrates the power of words:

Oh, words, oh, words,
How very strange is your power!
Oh, words, oh, words,
You are wind, fly with the wind,
becoming lost through the ages,
Know that in your brief existence,
Everything is born and changes!

 ...

And the freedom of our souls
needs letters to exist...
As a flask for human poison
you’re the finest, you’re the best:
fragile as a crystal glass,
more powerful than steel!
Nations, times, empires, kings
gravitate under your heel…


Behind the thickest of walls,
Who is handling you, so gently?
You seem to be made of silk
Weightless in time and space...
- but you’re on the tip of pens
- in the ink where they are dipped
- you are in the hands of judges
- you’re the shackles that disgrace
- you are an exile ship,
- you’re Mozambique and Angola!

 ...

Oh, words, oh, words,
How very strange are your powers!
You were a breath of fresh air...
– now, a man who self-devours!


Her poems are compiled and published by Editora Aguilar, in 1958. She holds a conference in Israel on Brazilian culture.

 

HUMAN TIME IS OVER...

In Metal Rosicler (1960) she includes poems that announce her premonitions about her final days.

“I study death, and may I comment
- life is never lived at will,
It’s a simple slide downhill
toward one and final moment.”

(OC,1213)

(Complete Works, p. 1213)

Solombra (1963) is a neologism that sets the dominant tone of this, her last, book:  solitude and melancholy. 

“I, a ghost  leaving human shores,
can hear the world crying as if in a foreign tongue: 

...

“...oh, I will leave my name among the ancient dead.                                                                                   

For only among them, can my name be written.”

 

1964

After a period of social unrest due to President Jânio Quadros’s resignation and by the labor policies of his successor, João Goulart, the country suffers a military coup d’état (the Revolution of March 31, 1964). The military takes over the central government, bringing a phase of Brazilian history to a close. This is the beginning of a period of exception in governmental regime; the military dictatorship lasts for almost two decades.  

 

LIKE THE SEAGULLS THAT SOAR SO FREE...

Cecília is writing an epic-lyrical poem for the Fourth Centennial Celebration of Rio de Janeiro, the city where she was born and where she will rest forever. But she doesn’t resist her illness, against which she had fought for the past six years – cancer.  She dies peacefully on November 9, 1964.  It is said that she didn’t know what ailed her.  That’s hard to believe…

She leaves five grandchildren: Ricardo (son of Maria Elvira), Alexandre, Fernanda Maria and Maria de Fátima (children of Maria Matilde) and Luís Heitor Fernando (son of the actress Maria Fernanda).  Her husband, Heitor Grilo, dies in 1972.

Death does not put an end to the publication of her writings and a number of ceremonies are held in her honor.  In 1965, the Brazilian Academy of Literature awards her the Machado de Assis Prize for her life’s work. The most important concert hall in Rio de Janeiro is named after her – “Sala Cecília Meireles.”  Her poems have been extensively set to music and sung by Brazilian and Portuguese artists.

She leaves a vast array of unpublished writings: poems, translations, stage plays, letters, anthologies, travel articles, conference outlines, articles for newspapers and periodicals,  and many others.

 

A SHARP REMARK, A SUSPICION
 

This monumental amount of work leads the poet Mário Faustino to make some sharp, ironic remarks:

“Dona Cecília publishes too much.  The best thing to do to preserve her greatness would be to keep the entire “Romanceiro,” compile an anthology of her fifty most important poems (“Mar absoluto” would be the main item) and burn the rest.  But let’s not forget to ask: how many poets in the Portuguese language have written fifty great poems? The other question that occurs to us:  why does Dona Cecília publish so much?” (Excerpt from “Anchieta aos concretos,” by Mário Faustino).

But under the weight of such a monument, where is the real Cecília? Who can rely on the accuracy of a biography?

You will write my name with all the letters,
With all the dates
– but that will not be me.

You’ll repeat what you heard of me
What you read about me, and you will show my picture
– and none of that will be me.

 ... 

We are a unique and complex oneness
Made of many tiny moments
– that would be me.

We’re a thousand pieces, part of a mysterious game,
We come together, we grow apart, eternally
- How will they ever find me?

We’re new and old each day,
Transparent and opaque, depending on the source of light
– we search for ourselves.

And we flow through circumstances,
Light and free as  water cascading through stones.
- What metal could possibly hold us back

------------------------------------------------------------------

References:

ANDRADE, Mário. O Empalhador de Passarinhos. São Paulo : Ed.Martins; Brasília: MEC/INL, 1972.
SECCHIN, Antônio Carlos. (org.) Cecília Meireles. Obra Completa. Rio de Janeiro : Nova Fronteira, 2001.V.I e II
BOSI, Alfredo. História Concisa da Literatura Brasileira . São Paulo : Cultrix
COUTINHO, Afrânio e Eduardo de Faria. A Literatura no Brasil. Era modernista. Rio de Janeiro : José Olympio ed.; Niterói/RJ: EDUFF, 1986
GOUVÊA, Leila V.B. Cecília em Portugal. São Paulo : Iluminuras, 2001.
FAUSTINO, Mário. De Anchieta aos concretos. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2003.
LAMEGO, Valéria. A farpa e a lira – Cecília  Meireles na Revolução de 30. Rio de Janeiro : Record, 1996.
MEIRELES, Cecília  . Obra Poética. Rio de Janeiro : Editora José Aguilar, 1958. Introdução de Darcy Damasceno.
NETO, Miguel Sanches. Cecília Meireles e o tempo inteiriço. In: Cecília Meireles . Obra completa. Rio de Janeiro : Nova Fronteira, 2991.
ZAGURY, Eliane. Cecília Meireles : notícia biográfica, estudo crítico, antologia, bibliografia, discografia, partituras.      Petrópolis/RJ:    Vozes, 1973

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