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The Table

Carlos Drummond de Andrade, translated from the Portuguese by Elizabeth Bishop

Carlos Drummond de Andrade is usually considered the best of the older generation of Brazilian poets. He was born in the little town of Itabirito, in the State of Minas Gerais. As his name indicates, he has Scotch blood, and oddly enough, mineiros, people from the state of Minas (“mines”) are often compared to the Scots. Itabirito has one of the largest iron deposits in the world; the countryside is harsh and rocky, and life there is apt to be hard, narrow, and sometimes fanatically devout.

Drummond de Andrade came to Rio de Janeiro as a young man and has spent most of his life as a civil servant in the Ministry of Education, retiring in 1966. His poems have long been popular, especially the earlier ironic ones—those hardest to translate.

The Table” is taken from Claro Enigma, published in 1951. It appears in his collected poems in a group called “The Family I Gave Myself.”

—Elizabeth Bishop

And you never liked parties…
Old man, what a party
we’d give for you today.
The sons that don’t drink
and the one that loves to drink,
around the wide table,
gave up their grim diets,
forgot their likes and dislikes;
it was an honest orgy
ending in revelations.
Yes, old man, you’d hear things
to shock your ninety years.
But then we didn’t shock you,
because—what with the smiles,
and the fat hen, and the wine,
good wine from Portugal,
as well as what was made
from a thousand ingredients
and served up in abundance
in a thousand china dishes
—we’d implied already
that it was all in fun.
Yes. Your tired eyes
used to reading the country
in distances of leagues,
and in the distance one steer
lost in the blue blue,
looked into our very souls
and saw their rotten mud,
and sadly stared right through us
and fiercely swore at us
and sweetly pardoned us
(pardon is the usual ritual
for parents, as for lovers).
And then, forgiving all,
you inwardly congratulated
yourself upon such children…
Well, the biggest scoundrels
have turned out a lot better
than I bargained for. Besides,
chips off the old… You stopped,
frowning suddenly,
inwardly going over
some regretted memory,
and not all that remote,
smiling to yourself, seeing
that you had thrown a bridge
from the grandfather’s crazy dance
to the grandsons’ escapades,
knowing that all flesh
aspires to degradation,
but on a fiery road
beneath a sexual rainbow,
you coughed. Harrumph. Children,
don’t be silly. Children?
Great boys in our fifties,
bald, who’ve been around,
but keeping in our breasts
that young boy’s innocence,
that running off to the woods,
that forbidden craving,
and the very simple desire
to ask our mother to mend
more than just our shirts,
our impotent, ragged souls…
Ah, it would be a big
mineiro1 dinner… We ate,
and hunger grows with eating,
and food was just a pretext.
We didn’t even need
to have appetites; everything
was disposed of; the morning after,
we’d take the consequences.
Never disdain tutu.2
There goes some more crackling.
As for the turkey? Farofa3
needs a nice little cachaça4
to keep it company,
and don’t overlook the beer,
a great companion, too.
The other day… Does eating
hold such significance
that the bottom of the dish
alone reveals the best,
most human, of our beings?
Is drinking then so sacred
that only drunk my brother
can explain his resentment
and offer me his hand?
To eat, to drink: what food
more fragrant, more mysterious
than this Portuguese-Arabian,
and what drink is more holy
than this that joins together
such a gluttonous brotherhood,
big-mouths, good fellows all!
And the sister’s there who went
before the others, and was
a rose by name, and born
on a day just like today
in order to grace your birthday.
Her name tastes of camelia
and being a rose-amelia,
a much more delicate flower
than any of the rose-roses,
she lived longer than the name,
although she hid, in secret,
the scattered rose. Beside you,
see: it has bloomed again.
The oldest sat down here.
A quiet, crafty type
who wouldn’t make a priest,
but liked low love-affairs:
and time has made of him
what it makes of anyone;
and, without being you,
strangely, the older he grows,
the more he looks like you,
so that if I glimpse him
unexpectedly now
it is you who reappear
in another man of sixty.
This one has a degree,
the diploma of the family,
but his more learned letters
are the writings in the blood
and on the bark of trees.
He knows the names of wildflowers
and remembers those of the rarest
fruits of cross-breeding.
Nostalgia lives in him,
a countryfied city-man,
a scholarly country-man.
He’s become a patriarch.
And then you see one who
inherited your hard will
and your hard stoicism.
But he didn’t want to repeat you.
He thought it not worth the trouble
to reproduce on the earth
what the earth will swallow up.
He loved. He loves. And will love.
But he doesn’t want his love
to be a prison for two,
a contract, between yawns,
and four feet in bedroom slippers.
Passionate at first meeting,
dry, the second time,
agreeable, the third,
one might say he’s afraid
of being fatally human.
One might say that he rages,
but that sweetness transcends his rage,
and that his clever, difficult
recourses for fooling himself
about himself exert
a force without a name
unless, perhaps, it’s kindness.
One kept quiet, not wanting
to carry on the colloquy,
rustling, subterranean,
of the more talkative ones
with new words of her own.
She kept quiet, you weren’t bothered.
If you loved her so much like that,
there’s something in her that still
loves you, in the cross-grained way
that suits us. (Not being happy
can explain everything.)
I know, I know how painful
these family occasions are
and to argue at this minute
would be to kill the party
and you—one doesn’t die
once, and not forever.
Due to the disagreements
of our blood in the bodies
it runs divided in,
there are always many lives
left to be consumed.
There are always many dead
left to be reincarnated
at length in another dead.
But we are all alive.
And more than alive, joyful.
We are all as we were
before we were, and no one
can say that he didn’t get
something from you. For example:
there at the corner of the table,
but not to be humble, perhaps
out of pure vanity
and to show off his awkwardness
in carefully awkward poses,
there you see me. What of it?
Keep calm. Keep calm. I’m working.
After all, the good life
still is only: life
(and neither was it so good,
nor is it so very bad).
Well, that’s me. Observe:
I have all the defects
I didn’t discover in you,
as well as those that you had,
and not even your qualities.
Never mind: I’m your son
just by being a negative
way of affirming you.
Oh, how we fought and fought!
Wow! It wasn’t funny,
but—the paths of love,
only love can track them down.
I gave you such scant pleasure,
none, perhaps…unless
I may have given you
a sort of hope of pleasure,
the indifferent satisfaction
of one who feels his son,
his useless son, may turn out
to be a bad character.
I’m not a bad character.
If you suspect it, stop,
I’m not any of those things.
Some affections still
can get at my bored heart.
I bore myself? Too much.
That’s my trouble. One failing
I didn’t inherit from you.
Well, don’t keep looking at me,
there are many still to see.
Eight. And all lower-case,
all frustrated. What sadder
flora could we have found
to ornament the table!
What nothing. Of such remote,
such pure, forgotten ones
on the sucking, transforming earth,
are the angels. How luminous!
Their rays of love shine out,
and among the empty glasses
their glasses clink until
even the shadows reverberate.
They are angels that deign
to participate in the banquet,
to sit on the little stool,
to live a child’s life.
They are angels that deign
that a mortal return to God
something of his divine
aetherial, sensitive substance,
if he has, and loses, a child.
Count: fourteen at the table.
Or thirty? Or were there fifty?
How do I know—if more
arrive, daily, one flesh
multiplied and crossed
with other loving flesh?
There are fifty sinners,
if to be born’s a sin,
and demonstrate, in sins,
those we were bequeathed.
The procession of your grandsons,
lengthening into great-grandsons,
comes to ask your blessing
and to eat your dinner.
Take notice, for an instant,
of the chin, the look, the gesture,
of the profound conscience,
and of the girlish grace,
and say, if, after all,
there isn’t, among my errors,
an unexpected truth.
This is my explanation,
my best or unique verse,
my all, filling my nothing.
And now the table, replete,
is bigger than the house.
We talk with our mouths full,
we call each other names,
we laugh, we split our sides,
we forget the terrible
inhibiting respect,
and all our happiness
blighted in so many black
commemorative banquets
(no use remembering now),
gestures of family affection
accumulated, held back
(no use remembering now)
the kind and gentle words
that said at the right time
could have changed our lives
(no use changing now),
are at table, spreading out
unprecedented food.
Oh, what more celestial supper
and what greater joy on earth!
Who prepared it? What incomparable
vocation for sacrifice
set the table, had the children?
Who was sacrificed? Who paid
the price of all this labor?
Whose was the invisible hand
that traced this arabesque
in flowers around the pudding,
as an aureole is traced?
Who has an aureole? Who
doesn’t have one, since
aureoles are gold, and she
wanted to share it quickly,
and with the thought, she did.
Who sits at the left side,
bent over that way? What white,
but what white more than white
target of white hair
draws the color from the oranges,
cancels the coffee, and
outshines the seraphim?
Who is all light and is white?
You had no presentiment
surely, how white can be
a more diverse tinge
of whiteness itself…Purity
elaborated in
your absence, and made perfect,
cold, concrete and lunar.
How could our party be
for one and not for two?
Now you are reunited
in a wedding ring much greater
than the simple ring of earth,
together at this table
of wood more lawful5 than any
law of the republic.
Now you are above us,
and above this dinner
to which we summoned you
so far—at last—to love you
and loving, delude ourselves
at a table that is
empty.

  1. 1

    mineiro: referring to the State of Minas Gerais

  2. 2

    tutu: dish of beans mixed with manioc flour

  3. 3

    farofa: dish of manioc flour mixed with butter, sausage, eggs, etc.

  4. 4

    cachaça: fiery liquor made from sugar-cane

  5. 5

    the word for hardwood is madeira de lei, lawful wood

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