This is where I say, indignantly, that the lack of awareness of Adélia Prado’s work by American poets and readers is a travesty, especially among readers of faith. The power of her poetry is so raw and, at times, almost embarrassingly incarnational. James Tate accurately described Prado’s work this way: “This is poetry at its hottest and most naked, beautiful poetry of the body and soul.” Hers are words we should clamor for, poems we should read aloud to each other, books we should recommend enthusiastically to our friends.
Prado was obscure in her own country until her public writing career began in the mid-70s by way of an unexpectedly grand gesture by Brazil’s elder statesman of poetry, Carlos Drummond de Andrade, who had been shown several of Prado’s poems. Andrade changed her fate overnight when he pronounced in the Rio de Janeiro paper of record that “Saint Francis has been dictating verses to a woman in Minas Gerais.” The pronouncement literally brought publishers to her door.
Since then, she has published five volumes of poems and three of prose. In 1987, her Dona Doida: Interlude was produced for the stage and performed by Fernanda Montenegro, causing a nationwide sensation and playing to packed audiences. While this turn of events brought Prado a bit more fame in Brazil, she remained largely untranslated for English-speaking audiences (and remains, by choice, out of the limelight; she says of herself, “I am a simple person, a common housewife, a practicing Catholic.”).
Thanks to Ellen Doré Watson, we finally got Prado’s first book in English, The Alphabet in the Park, translated from the Portuguese in 1990, an event that should have been heralded in poetry circles but instead transpired with little notice.
Here’s a favorite poem from the collection:
Poetry will save me.
I feel uneasy saying this, since only Jesus
is Savior, as a man inscribed
(of his own free will)
on the back of the souvenir crucifix he brought home
from a pilgrimage to Congonhas.
Nevertheless, I repeat: Poetry will save me.
It’s through poetry that I understand the passion
He had for us, dying on the cross.
Poetry will save me, as the purple of flowers
spilling over the fence
absolves the girl her ugly body.
In poetry the virgin and the saints approve
my apocryphal way of understanding words
by their reverse, my decoding the town crier’s message
by means of his hands and eyes.
Poetry will save me. I won’t tell this to the four winds,
because I’m frightened of experts, excommunication,
afraid of shocking the fainthearted. But not of God.
What is poetry, if not His face touched
by the brutality of things?
Prado certainly doesn’t mention God on every page. Most of the poems in this collection are earthy, focusing on concrete details of life, her family, her marriage, sex, food, and the feelings that accompany them, like hunger and desire. Not one of these poems is bland or inconsequential; the poems reach the reader with their immediacy and the ways in which they cut to the essence of things, tinged with the poet’s humble and appealing voice.
She’s rarely “poetic,” and has no problem writing things lines like, “It’s through poetry that I understand the passion/ He had for us, dying on the cross.” One should not be able to get away with those, and yet somehow in the context of the poem and especially in the larger context of the collection, we grant her this sort of reflection. The payoff almost always comes, and it seems to me that her plainspoken passages are the result of her sense of not being too awfully “religious” about herself and her thoughts. When asked about her ideas on writing, she once told an interviewer, “Don’t be clever. Recreate feelings, not words. Truth resides in the body.”
Carolyn Forché has said, “I send to Adélia Prado and her translator bouquets of gratitude.” That’s about all I can muster, as well. But we must do at least that. Poets and poetry lovers, send your bouquet in the form of a purchase. Get Prado’s work; read it, write about it, and share it.