Periplum #6: Casmiro de Brito
By David G. Lanoue
Casimiro de Brito is a prolific writer of essays, fiction and poetry who, from time to time, also writes haiku. He is the author of fifty books. His works have appeared in more than 180 anthologies and translated into 25 languages. The president of the General Assembly of Portuguese P.E.N., an advisor to the World Haiku Association and to the International Poetry Festival Voix de la Méditérranéeanne, de Brito travels widely. I had the pleasure of meeting him in Tenri, Japan, at a haiku conference in 2003, and since that time have broken bread with him in Sofia, Bulgaria, and in his home city of Lisbon. In the interest of full disclosure, I should also mention that he arranged for me to stay, one fantastic summer, in the Casa do Artista: an artist’s residence in the hills of Machico on the glorious, green island of Madeira. There, I wrote the first draft of Haiku Wars, in which a purely fictitious poet named João appears: “a tall, kindly-faced man with glasses” with a “luxuriant head of ivory hair,” who recites his haiku in “lush and sensuous Portuguese” (70, 91). João strongly resembles Casimiro.
In Tenri, I digitally recorded Casimiro reciting the following haiku. I’ve searched and searched for this file, but it seems to have been lost in the chaos of transferring data from my old computer to the new one. This is a pity, because his voice truly sounds “lush and sensuous.” When you read the Portuguese original, I hope that you can conjure in your mind such a voice.
De canto em canto
no charco do silêncio
This and the other English translations are provided by the poet:
From song to song
into the pond of silence
I have read this haiku many times, thought of it many times, even recorded the poet reading it (as I mentioned), yet never connected it, until now, to Basho’s old pond. Instead of a frog jumping into this “pond of silence,” the poet himself takes the plunge. More accurately, he is taking the plunge—in the process of plunging, of falling, into a watery silence. One need not be a Jungian to catch the association of falling into water with an archetypal return to Mother, to Death. Gravity pulls the poet down to an inevitable moment after which he will be heard no more. Meanwhile, on the way down, the way back, he keeps singing. I am reminded here of Issa, who might be talking about himself as a poet, coasting toward his own silence, when he writes:
naki nagara mushi no nagaruru ukigi kana
still singing the insect drifts away . . . floating branch
What can the insect do but sing? What can a poet do but make poetry? In a single breath de Brito encapsulates his past, present and future: he sang, he sings, he will sing—until silence. This awareness of the silence that will swallow him (and us!) makes this moment of song, of poetry, precious.
Note that the verse flows as a single utterance without the break and grammatical rupture found in most traditional haiku. In the original Portuguese and in its English translation, it reads as a single sentence. Casimiro de Brito, a practising poet of many genres, feels no compulsion to bow to haiku form, or perhaps we should say, to a traditional conception of form. He allows each “song” to chart its own destiny. In this case, the destiny of the poem is to flow without interruption, like the life of the poet who sings and will keep singing until the final silence. I hope that he won’t think of me as being morbid, but I nominate this haiku as a perfect inscription for his gravestone: the summation of a life.
O mundo não posso mudar—
deixa-me sacudir a areia
das tuas sandálias
I can’t change the world—
let me shake the sand
off your sandals
Here we have a haiku whose destiny has led it to take on the traditional shape of haiku: two statements interrupted by a breaking pause, signaled here by the dash. It begins with a statement and feeling of resignation: “I can’t change the world.” Then, surprisingly, a second statement pulls the reader into an intimate scene: “let me shake the sand/ off your sandals.” The gesture seems loving, tender. A stirring of memory sends me running to the Bible to look up the passage in which Jesus instructs his disciples, “And whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear your words, when ye depart out of that house or city, shake off the dust of your feet” (Matthew 10:14). De Brito transforms the meaning of this biblical action so that it now denotes acceptance, not rejection. He seems to be saying: “It’s a hard, unchangeable world out there; let me shake your sandals clean of their taint; come inside!”
De Brito’s use of the second person, “your feet,” makes the haiku into an atypical (for haiku) dramatic monologue addressed to a listener. This listener could be interpreted generally as the reader, but I prefer to imagine a more particular sandal-wearer. If his offer of comfort and safe harbor is addressed to all the readers of the poem, it sounds grandiose and impossible. But if he is speaking to a particular person, to a friend or lover present in the scene, the offer sounds plausible and kind. Again, de Brito stretches the haiku genre to fit the needs of this poem, this moment. Haiku poets rarely talk to a specific someone in their verses, but it happens. Basho normally addresses readers in general but on rare occasions does exactly what de Brito has done here: speak to a particular listener who is part of an interactive scene. Such is the case in a haiga in which the concluding haiku addresses his friend, Sora:
kimi hi o take yokimono misen yukimaroge
you start a fire
I’ll show you something good . . .
De Brito, however, does not present his haiku as part of a haiga. He gives no introduction, no clue external to the poem as to the identity of his listener or the dramatic setting. He leaves to the reader’s imagination the task of filling in these spaces. I like to read the haiku as love speech. It reminds me of Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” another dramatic monologue, though much longer: addressed to a lover and striking a similar, comforting note in a world “where ignorant armies clash by night.”
Em busca do amor—
resvalo, de pedra em pedra
e caio na fonte
Looking for love
I slide, from stone to stone
and fall in the fountain
De Brito is a personal, lyric poet whose own life takes front and center position in his work. All three of these examples that I have selected to present here include references to himself, “I” and “me”—and this is typical. Of the thirteen haiku that he sent me when I asked him for a sampling, nine contain references to “I” and/or “me.” His poetry is the chronicle of a life and a heart. As in the first example, he again shows himself falling into water. This time, however, the self-portrait seems comic—or at least my initial feeling is to read it as such. A hapless search for love has sent the poet slipping “from stone to stone” (relationship to relationship?) only to fall, in slapstick fashion, into “the fountain.”
Or . . . does his sliding and falling imply something more serious than physical comedy? The fountain is an old symbol for life and rebirth, associated since the Middle Ages with baptism and resurrection. Casimiro’s fountain could, perhaps, embody the answer to his love-search. He may have slipped into the very Fountain of Love, despite his clumsy search among the slippery rocks. Or, of course, the fountain is just a fountain. De Brito, a sly myth-maker, lets us have it both ways, leaving in his haiku plenty of room for the imagination to play.
Jump on in. The water’s fine.
Arnold, Matthew. “Dover Beach.” Wikipedia-English. Accessed 10/10/09. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dover_Beach
Basho. “you start a fire…”, trans. David G. Lanoue; Japanese text taken from 『松尾芭蕉集』 Matsuo Bashô shû, ed. Imoto Nôichi and Hori Obuo. Tokyo: Shogakukan, 1995；rpt. 2003. Vol. 1, 152.
Bible. King James Version.
de Brito, Casimiro. Three haiku–first published in Através do Ar/Through the Air. Tokyo: Shichigatsudo, 2007.
Issa. “still singing…” from The Haiku of Kobayashi Issa, tran. David G. Lanoue. https://haikuguy.com/issa/.
Lanoue, David G. Haiku Wars. Winchester, VA.: Red Moon Press, 2009.
Periplum is a section that is devoted to 20th and 21st century haiku from around the world. Periplum is overseen by David G. Lanoue. For an introduction to this section, see Periplum.