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A Snake Charmer
Paulo Henriques Britto, The Clean Shirt of It, Poems,
Translated from the Portuguese by Idra Novey,
BOA, © 2007, 120 pp. $16.95 Paper. Lannan Translation Selection Series.

A Review by Hope Maxwell-Snyder


Britto’s poetry is a window to his unique world, sometimes wide open, sometimes shut, clean or dirty, at night or at dawn.  In her introduction, Idra Novey states, “No other contemporary Brazilian poets write like Britto.” His distinctive use of language and the dances he performs, at times with the reader, other times with a lover, and others yet alone, lend a captivating richness, a certain magical element to his work. The poet is a snake charmer, a charmer of readers who keeps gems inside his basket, gems for those willing to be led into a dark and mysterious world. “Between the unsuspecting lines of story, /an insidious idea insinuates itself, / as if to suggest another text, / more alive, radical and honest,” he writes in “Snake Charmer”. 

Britto searches for honesty in his poetry, and he shares his truth with the reader, for there is a pact between poet and reader, even if unclear at times. “Don’t believe in words,” the poet warns, “not even these, / especially not these. /” At the end of “Quasi-Sonnet” he tells the reader, “And so we become ourselves, hypocrite lecteur, / at the very least accomplices, you and I.” Britto’s reader must have faith in his words. If he is willing to walk on a tight rope behind the poet, on the other side wonders will be revealed and secrets spelled out. At one end of the rope we have death, darkness, nothingness, and at the other end life, light, meaning. “Between the word and the thing,” Britto tells us, “a leap over nothing.” Things are not what they seem in the universe that Britto painstakingly describes. You can be fooled, oh reader, because “At a certain distance/all shapes are pleasant. / In every object: a dark nook. /In every nook: an emptiness. /”

Britto is fascinated by the human body as sensual object and mirror to be desired and experienced. In the “other” one finds fulfillment, and in the “other” one finds disillusionment.  “Bonbonnière” is about remembering. “The selectivity of memory-/the exact shade of skin, its texture/the smell of every curve and orifice, /of lip, tongue, tooth, solar plexus. /” Memory keeps the mind immersed in the past, longing to capture a smell, an image, or a flavor. “What other mouth still recalls/that kiss-how it tasted, how deep, /” Britto asks before adding “(Of love, all that remains/is what is left between the teeth.)” With nothing to hold on to, there is always something to learn about the self. “There was a time when I would love/ in every stranger’s body and reflection/ what I wanted to have been. /In the throes of sex, I strove/ for my own lost craving. / In “Paissandu Generation,” a mixed account of coming of age, the poet writes, “I fell in love, as everyone thinks he has ...” Love does not always receive a passing grade in Britto’s poetry. It is examined and exposed, along with death and desire (“Death waits in the insignificance of a plum tart,”) perhaps even ridiculed. “We’ll capture the city, golden/in the final hour of the season, / when nothing remains, not a match, /a drop of sun, of sky, of sleep, /” he writes in “Bacchanal”. “Our final entrance: all-out sex/in the grandeur of the last morning…” If Britto seeks truth in the world of love, that truth is filled with complicity, humor, creativity, and intimacy. “Barcarole” begins: “(You) and I roaming/, our hands on loan to one another, almost/ through the streets, without looking above or to the sides, / or even ahead, in the direction of the Future. / Or the Eternal. Or even: the Sublime. /” The poet seems to feel a need to dissolve boundaries between lovers, between writer and reader. When he writes, “Night after night, exhausted, /digesting the day, past words/and this side of sleep, we lie simplified, /….And each world erases its margins/in the embrace of another body,”   he is asking the reader to witness the creation of new possibilities, new dialogues, and promising rare gems in return. Britto is a master at that.


Hope Maxwell-Snyder is the founder and director of The Sotto Voce Poetry Festival. Her work has appeared in Archivio storico italiano, Quaderni del Castello di Gargonza, Atalaya, Cuadernos de ALDEEU and GNP. Hope is the author of two books of poetry, scripts for theater, short stories, and numerous essays.
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