- Deceptive in Their Simplicity
Laura Cescarco Eglin, trans.
150 Pages; Print, $18.95
Brazilian poet, playwright, and novelist, Hilda Hilst (1930-2004), fifty years prolific, was widely recognized within her own country, winning important national literary prizes for work in all three genres. Writing in dialogue with her European contemporaries, (Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone Weil, Jacques Derrida) and speaking to philosophical and religious concerns of the era, she nevertheless is little known outside of Brazil. Her erotic fiction, written primarily to help earn a living, has been translated to French, English, and Italian, but although a small but growing body of scholarship has begun to collect around her work, her poetry is not yet well known. First published in 1980, and now available in a translation by Laura Cescarco Eglin, Hilst's third volume of poems, Of Death. Minimalist Odes, is a remarkable avenue of introduction. This volume contains, in fact, not only the namesake collection of odes, but also a charming set of fourteen watercolors. The palette of red, gold, green, and black matches the naive style. Each watercolor is paired with a tiny poem, for example: "I dreamed that I rode you, lion king. // In gold and scarlet // I led you through eternity // to my home." There are also two essays: Elaine Cristina Cintra's "Of Passion, Death and Poetry: The Poetry of Hilda Hilst" and a note by the translator.
"Minimalist Odes" is the core chapter, and there we find poems I-XXXX that addressed death with playful variety: the poet is by turns, philosopher, supplicant; later she taunts, or she woos as a lover: "To baptize you again. / To name you in weaved webs / and instead of Death / to call you Insane / Amber / Bundle of Flutes / Gutter / Light." The contemporary reader may be nonplussed without context. Hilst, a mystic who once wished to be a saint, was a self-professed gnostic. Her home, Casa Do Sol, according to Adam Morris in "Hilda Hilst, Metaphysician" from Essays on Hilda Hilst: Between Brazil and World Culture (2018), was "filled with religious icons from the Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and the indigenous traditions." Death, for Hilst, was inescapably entwined with the sacred, an inherent component of life, two screams / the same roar / of life, death." As a poet, her duty is that of an interrogator. Gnosticism, an esoteric school that has had adherents from many faiths, holds that every individual material object, "Between slats and straw / the spleen of my bones," enfolds a spark of divine spirit, "He was taking shape / Liquid seeped
out. / He was glass," which may be liberated at the moment of death. From XXXIII:
Bright he overshadowedwith worms and wingsalive, silentalchemy of fire:from cold stoneto orgasm.
Would you say dead?
Hilst's literary influences include James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, and she embraced their fragmentary style. Morris tells us that her diverse library included authors ranging from Homer and Nikos Kazantzakis to philosopher William James. The chapter, "Minimalist Odes," is followed by ten short poems organized in two chapters: "Time-Death" and "In Front of You. In Vanity." The heading "Time-Death" summons Heidegger's assertion that authenticity demands an active attitude of "being-towards-death," given that time is finite for each living being. Indeed, such an attitude, "a poet and her death / are alive and united," seems to describe the narrative arc of the entire volume. Any observant individual, trying this act of attentiveness, may observe many things: first, it isn't easy to hold the mind for long on one thing, but also, perhaps such an effort enlivens the senses, quickens the intuition, and paradoxically, even when welcomed as a moment of unusual authenticity is rapidly forgotten, as recorded by Hilst, in ode XXIV:
At noon I think about you.Intimate, I want you.On fire with meWith you dyingI know you burnish ivory and breath.And I breath you in, I cover you withwhispersI attach myself expansive over your headDeath, I take you.
An in a secondHearing...