THE ELEPHANT

I’ve spent some of my life living in Brazil. I first went there back in 1994, and it didn’t take long for me to discover the poetry of Carlos Drummond de Andrade.

‘Drummond’, as he is known to Brazilians, lived from 1902 until 1987. And though he was a famously shy man who wrote poetry (rarely a bestseller), he is known, until today, right across Brazil.

In fact, there is a statue of Carlos Drummond de Andrade now…sitting by the Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro, near to which he lived for many years.

drummond statue

Not much of Drummond’s writing has been translated into English. So, some while ago, I translated 18 of my favourite poems of his from Portuguese into English.

These translated poems got put to one side because I’ve been concentrating on writing books for young people. But I thought about one of them this afternoon. In Portuguese it is called O Elefante. You’ll find my English version below.

Drummond wrote in challenging ways, but he nearly always used language that is down to earth. And he wrote with a sense of humour. The poem below is from a brilliant, heart-warming, funny collection of poems called A Rosa do Povo, published in 1945.

 

THE ELEPHANT

                                                                                                                                                  I make an elephant

from the little that I have.

Bits of wood

salvaged from old furniture

should just hold him up.

Then I fill him with cotton,

cheap stuffing, sweetness.

Glue holds his

drooping ears in place.

His trunk rolls up.

It is the happiest part

of his architecture.

But that still leaves the tusks,

made from this pure material

I cannot figure out.

A precious stuff so white

that it is rolled in the circus dust

and still comes up clean, intact.

Then the last touch, the eyes,

where the most fluid

and permanent part

of the elephant is kept,

oblivious to the scam.

                                                                                                                                              So here he is, my modest elephant

ready to go out

looking for friends

in a bored world

which no longer believes in animals,

which lives in suspicion of things.

There he goes, all majestic, fragile

weight, fanning himself

and slowly shifting

his sewn hide

on which there are cloth flowers

and clouds hinting at

a more poetic world

where love brings back together

the forms of nature.

                                                                                                                                              My elephant walks off

down the busy street

but no one bothers to look.

They do not even laugh

at the tail threatening to

abandon the rest of the body.

He is all grace, in spite of

legs which get in the way

and a bulging belly

which might collapse

at the slightest push.

There is elegance in the way

he shows the scant life he has,

and not a soul

in this city allows itself

to take in the fugitive image

of his tender body,

clumsy-footed

but hungry and touching.

                                                                                                                                        Hungry for heart-rending lives

and incidents,

for meetings by moonlight

in the deepest ocean,

under tree roots,

or in the hearts of shells,

for lights which won’t blind

but which shine through

the thickest tree trunks,

his walk, which takes him onward

without crushing the plants

on the battlefield,

in search of places,

secrets, happenings

untold in any book,

leaves a trail which

only the wind,

the leaves, the ants

recognize.

Men ignore it.

They only dare show themselves

in the peace behind curtains

eyelids closed.

                                                                                                                                            And late at night

my elephant returns.

But he returns worn out.

His hesitant feet

fall to pieces in the dust.

He didn’t find

what he needed,

what we needed,

my elephant and I

in whom I love to disguise myself.

Weary of inquiry,

the whole contraption falls apart

as if it were nothing but paper.

The glue dissolves.

Everything inside him,

the forgiveness, the caresses,

the feathers, the cotton,

spill out over the carpet

like a dismantled myth.

Tomorrow I start again.

                                                                                                                                               by Carlos Drummond de Andrade

 translation Sean Taylor

 

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