Paulo Leminski

translated by Chris Daniels
selected and edited with Chris Chen

In planetary terms, writing Portuguese is the same as being silent.
    — Leminski, 3 Languages

Paulo Leminski Filho was born in Curitiba, Paraná, Brazil on August 24, 1944, and died of liver failure in the same city on June 7, 1989. Part of his education took place at a Benedictine monastery, where he began his “diplomatic relations” with Greek, Latin, French, English — then Japanese and later, Russian. He never finished college. He worked as a teacher and in advertising, and taught judo. He translated Joyce, Beckett, Mishima, Jarry, John Lennon, Petronius....

In youth a rigorous yet never quite orthodox concretist, his mature attitude toward literature and his verbal invention are characterized by the untranslatable title of his first commercially published book of poems, Caprichos e Relaxos. The Portuguese noun “capricho” means “whim,” “caprice,” “fancy,” “fit.” “Capricho da natureza” means “freak of nature.” The verb “caprichar” means “to perform carefully and neatly, to perfect, to elaborate nicely.” The phrase “a capricho” means “in a careful manner” and “neatly.” The adjective “caprichoso” means both “meticulous” and “caprichous.” The adjective “relaxo” means “relaxed.” The noun “relaxo” means “a discourse in verse.” Such wordplay is commonplace in Leminski.

He also wrote several novels, a collection of stories, four short biographies and many essays. He has been called the most complete writer of his generation.

Leminski is most famous in Brazil for light poetry (mom would say // — boil, water! / — fry, egg! / — leak, sink! // and they’d obey) and haiku. It would be ridiculous not to include examples of the more famous Leminski, but it is in the metapoems that I find him at his most engaging.

His later poems increasingly concern themselves with death: ice, snow, winter: the full moon alone in the sky is Narcissus’ gorgon eye on the world through his own protean reflection of Paulo Leminski writing Portuguese words that say “[W]riting Portuguese is the same thing as being silent” on a featureless blanket of Antarctic snow filled with words frozen into such pallor that they shriek at Paulo Leminski addressing us and himself through perhaps-himself as “you.”

Many younger Brazilian poets revere him. Others have tried to diminish his reputation. In the city where he was born, he is a cultural icon. If he were alive today, he would remind us with utmost rude hilarity that reverence, if due at all, should not be owed him, but his work. As for the opposite of reverence, he’s no longer able to defend himself with irony and (often sad) laughter.

He was the fastest poem in the south, this village idiot, this “Zen Anarchist” “bandit who knew latin,” this erudite blackguard, rogue judoka, oxymoronic inhabitant of every artificial paradise (especially, and always, poetry), dead so young of liver failure, Briareos Hecatoncheiros Heautontimoros, this 100-wide-eyed mutt from Curitiba, Paraná, mouth burnt by his own red anguish, that cleansing ember, this brasileiro the gods adored.

a letter an ember athwart
inside the text
cloud full of my rain
crossing the desert to me
the mountain way
the sea between the two
a syllable a sob
a yes a no a cry
signs to say us
when we are no more

the insect on the paper

i trace (a circle) around it

the circle

nothing the sun
could never explain

all the moon more
chic yet still plain

such flowers will not
fade in the rain











wash me out
thin me down
mix me up
after me
after us
after everything
nothing’s left
but the charm

one of these days i wanna be
a great english poet
of the last century
o sky o sea o folk o destiny
fight in india, 1866
go down in a clandestine shipwreck

between external duty
and eternal doubt
my commercial
heart goes

a rabid mutt
either we kill him
with clubs and rocks
at the stake
in a shipwreck
or else he’s likely
the little prick
to make it rain
on our picnic

a poem
not gotten
is worthy of note

of a drifting boat

back then
we were gonna be homer
the work an iliad no less

but then
it got a little harder
we’d settle for a rimbaud
an ungaretti a fernando any old pessoa
a lorca an eluard a ginsberg

and then
we ended up the provincial
poeticule we always were
behind so many masks
time treated like flowers

two village idiots

one spends his days
kicking lampposts to see if they’ll turn on

the other his nights
rubbing words
off white paper

every village has an idiot
it treats with sympathy
in a little while i know
they’ll be treating me

        a good poem
takes years:
five playing soccer,
five more studying sanskrit,
six rolling rocks,
nine falling for your neighbor,
seven taking a beating,
four going it alone,
three changing cities,
ten changing the subject,
an eternity, me and you
along together

i never wanted to be
a good customer
asking for this or that
red wine
hasta la vista

i wanted to go in
both feet planted
on the doorman’s chest
telling the mirror
— shut up
and the clock
— hands down

Tombstone 1
        epitaph for the body

Here lies a great poet.
He left nothing written.
This silence, I suspect,
Is his complete works.

Tombstone 2
        epitaph for the soul

here lies an artist
master of disaster

with the intensity of art
        shot his heart

god forgive him
his disguises

10 Haiku

        moon in the sky
did you shine so high
        over auschwitz?

enormous night —
everything sleeps
but your name

        silk curtains
the wind comes through
without asking

drips a star in my eye
goes by

two leaves on my sandal

autumn wants
to walk too

when done,
as come

        life’s a trip
pity i’m just
passing through

        all said
nothing done
        said and done

        afternoon wind
even trees
        want in

Mallarmé Bashô

a leaping frog
jamais n’abolira
the old pond

lua na água = moon in/on the water
alguma lua = some moon, any moon
lua alguma = no moon at all


        I told the word to rhyme,
but it didn’t obey me.
        It talked about sea, sky, a rose,
all Greek, all silence, prose.
        It seemed beside itself;
it seemed the silent syllable.

        I told the sentence: dream;
it went into a maze.
        In poetry, this is what must be:
you mobilize an army
        and fell a fallen dynasty.

the new
doesn’t shock me now
nothing new
under the sun

just the same
old egg as always
hatching the same
old new

Zealous beasts keep minarets,
constellations are signs.
No starshadow;
the moon—enigma.
Celestial bodies—in contact,
hard light of hierarchy on high.


—The stars are restless,
Lord, today;
today, the sky shuts down.        The Patrons
murmur low.
None shall force the Zodiac.
Mars encrusted with shields.
The moon is filthy,
you must believe in everything,
stars roun.
Mercury is rebelling,
of Saturn, I know nothing.

For today mine art is silent
Silence thyself, Lord,
life whirls about thy fist.
I testify to this.

Danger: Shipwreck Ahead

        This page, for instance,
wasn’t made to be read.
        It was made to be pallid,
a merely stolen Iliad,
        a thing kept quiet,
a leaf long fallen
        going back to its branch.

        It was made to be beach,
Andromeda, maybe, Antarctica,
        Himalaya, sensed syllable,
it was made to be ultimate,
        something yet unmade.

        Words brought from afar
by the waters of the Nile,
        one day this page, papyrus,
will have to be translated
        into symbol, Sanskrit,
into every Indian’s dialect,
        will have to say good day
just to what’s murmured at the ear,
        will have to be rough stone
where someone drops the glass.
        Isn’t that how life is?

Anch’io Son Pittore

        fra angelico
when he’d paint
        a madonna and child
always knelt and prayed
        as if a boy again

        he prayed before the work
as if it were a sin
        to paint that Lady
with his knees unbent

        he prayed as if the work
were god’s, not men’s

the sun writes
all over your face
the name of an
other race

hides in
every grape
histories of sky,
wind and rain


        An arctic poetry,
of course, is my desire.
        A pallid praxis,
three lines of ice.
        An wholly outer sentence
wherein any living sentence
        would be no longer viable.
Sentence. No. None at all.
        A null lyric,
reduced to pure minimum,
        the spirit’s blinking,
the unique unique thing.
        But I speak, and speaking, incite
a swarm of equivocations
        (from a monologue-hive?).
Yes, winter, we’re alive.

Beyond Soul (A Gram Later)

        My far-off heart’s going on again.
It’s waving. It wants to come back.
        On my chest, a bronze plaque:
        What good’s that little thing?
It won’t stop beating.
        It’s acting like a clock
that’s gone totally insane.
        Who needs that weepy gadget? —
I’m fine, far as I can see,
        and emptiness outside flows
smoothly into me.

Full Pause

        Place where one makes
what’s already made,
        the page’s white,
sum of all text,
        there was a time
when, writing,
        one needed
a page exempt.

        No page at all
has ever been clean.
        Even the most Saharan,
Antarctic, mean.
        There’s never been
a page all blank.
        Deep down in such
pallor all shriek.

More or Less on Time

        Sentenced to be precise,
if I could just be a vague
        will-o-wisp over a lake,
equally deceptive
        to flier, swimmer, liar,
mosquito, frog, snake.

        Sentenced, to be precise,
to a time so refined,
        a time so timeless
it might as well be space,
        myself, surprisingly precise,
t-square, measure, compass,
        what I don’t want wanting.


        This language isn’t mine.
It’s plain as day.
        When meaning goes away,
a word stays behind.
        Maybe I’m just lying.
Or am I lying truth?
        So I say myself — just,
Maybe — I could barely say.
        This isn’t my tongue.
The language I speak mutes
        a distant song,
the voice, beyond, not a word.
        The dialect you utilize
on the left bank of the phrase,
        that’s the speech that lusofies
me, half, maybe, inside.

A Wing and a Prayer

Fly with a wounded wing?
When I speak I sprout wings.
What have I done, living?
        Not much when time
        was all my time
        and past time,
        nightmare, pastime,
        were all book-time.
And then, me-mastering,
faced with choosing
the abyss, a beginning
or this tale unending...
        Wounded wing, wounded wing,
my space, my hero, my aching wing.
Flying’s not what’s hurting.

        the alphabet animal
has 23 paws
or almost

wherever it goes
words come
    about        and phrases

from phrases
wings come forth
and words
a soft wind

the alphabet animal
goes by
what’s unwritten stays behind

the glorious charger
sees the shadow of the lash
and bolts in chevaline splendor
through labyrinths of crine
incited by the wind
annuls chimera space
consuming time
a pyre incinerates heroes
there were pulsions of sky
and avidity over the sea
cerulean polar plains
jaguar-hide sky
and zodiacal slides
dolorous pelagic plains
where fish do graze
and the octopus-knot slaughters the sun
Here fable founders
in wave-tossed nausea
wounds its hooves against the stars
and pierced by the blades
of horoscopic beasts
becomes a little turbid
vigil falls into dream,
lucid and sudden —: a martyr
Remain on earth, horse
eye full of stars
straw body of the waves
and the heart in the breast
a slumbering top!

        i could spend
my whole life like this
        watching the moon
with a mouthful of light
        in my head not
a shadow of the word glory

Phantom Opera

        I have nothing
Nothing can be taken from me.
        I’m the ex-stranger,
one come unbidden,
        a cat gone
without a sound.

Times vs. Bad Times

        a flashback
a flashback in a flashback
        a flashback in a flashback
                of a flashback
a flashback in the third flashback
        memory falls into memory
stone flowers in smooth water
        everything wearies (flashback)
except the memory of the memory
        of the memory
                of the memory

Dionysus Ares Aphrodite

        eternal youth

                for the cruelest gods

        who give us to drink

                in the self-same chalice

        wine, blood and sperm


weary of polished phrases
to pale-faced angels
palmtrees clapping
at passing parades
now i want a storm
of stony words
raining blows

i so wanted to be
un poète maudit
masses in misery
while i dig deep

i so wanted to be
un poète engagée
my face enflamed
by the breath of we

but look at me now
salting watery soup
barely enough for two

for freedom and struggle

bury me with trotskyists
in the mass grave of idealists
wherein rest those whom
power couldn’t twist

bury me with my heart
on the banks of the river
where the wounded knee strikes
the stone of passion’s fever

Old Leon and Natalia in Coyoacán

this time there’ll be no snow like in Petrograd that day
the sky will be clear and the sun will shine
you sleeping and me dreaming

there’ll be no cassocks or cossacks like in Petrograd that day
only you naked and me like i was born
me sleeping and you dreaming

there’ll be no more shouting crowd like in Petrograd that day
just silence for us two blue murmurs
me and you sleeping and dreaming

there’ll never be another day like in Petrograd that day
nothing like one day going through another day coming
you and me dreaming and sleeping

        i never know for certain
if i’m a boy of doubt
        or a man of faith

        certainties live in the wind
only doubts go on foot

the wind’s a god too
seen only in his effect
panicking trees
trembling water
a boat sailing off

he teaches me
to suffer out of sight
to silently enjoy
my own passing
never the same
place twice

to that god who lifts
the dust of the road
and leads it off to fly
i consecrate this sigh

may he raise it well
till it becomes a gale


Manoel Ricardo de Lima and Rodrigo Garcia Lopes looked closely at my work, cleared up difficulties, made a great many suggestions for improvement, and listened patiently while I explained and agonized over and finally altered my myriad mis-translations. Any remaining blunders are wholly my own. I’m also grateful to the editors of LVNG, who published several of these translations in issue 10.

I’ve tried to keep rhyme where it exists in the original and have occasionally added rhyme and meter where they do not exist. Capitalization, punctuation and lack thereof are mostly Leminski’s. Some of the translations are so free that they should be called imitations. The selection is achronological. Portuguese originals of many of these poems can be found all over the internet.

As far as I know, the only translations of Leminski’s poetry previously available in this country are in the useful but terribly unsatisfying (to anybody who knows anything about contemporary BR poetry and its antecedents) anthology Nothing the Sun Could not Explain, published by Sun & Moon Press in 1997 and re-issued by Green Integer in 2005. The poems in that anthology were translated by Regina Alfarano, Nelson Ascher, Robert Creeley, Michael Palmer, Charles Perrone and Dana Stevens. I’ve made great use of those beautiful translations, and hope that my own do them proud. It’s worth noting that one of Leminski’s poems in that anthology is a visual poem that has been stripped of its graphic component; another is a lyric to a song. In any case, the selection of Leminski is very stunted and stupid and the Brasilian editors definitely knew better.

I intend to translate at least sections of his novel Catatau, which has been called the Brazilian Finnegans Wake. An early version of my translation of his Metaformose (Metaphormosis), a prose meditation on Greek mythology, can be found (with a brief afterword by Benjamin Hollander) at Elson Fróes' magnificent labor of love, Popbox. Many thanks to Elson. Much more to come.

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