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Socialist Review, May 1994

Richard Chappell

Brazil Festival

Poems of protest


From Socialist Review, No. 175, May 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


For the last 30 years the Brazilian poet Thiago de Mello has actively merged literary creativity with revolutionary struggle and suffered imprisonment and exile.

De Mello’s first poems appeared in 1951 and for 12 years the rare musicality and insight of his verse won widespread acclaim. Under the Kubitschek government he worked as the country’s cultural attaché first in Bolivia and then, in 1962, in Chile. The Brazilian coup was his catalyst and his poetry became a vehicle of revolutionary awareness.

When in April 1964 the junta introduced its ‘Institutional Act No. 1’, debarring hundreds of people from political life for ten years, de Mello publicly retorted with an open parody of the dictators’ edict: The Statutes of Man (Standing Institutional Act) has to this day circulated in books, posters, records, cassette tapes and been declaimed in theatres and staged as both oratorio and ballet. Its Final Article decrees:

‘All freedom is something live
and bright andlimpid,
just like a fire or like a river,
and therebyman’s heart shall for ever
provide it with a dwelling.’

In March 1965 the dictatorship in Brasilia dismissed de Mello from his diplomatic post. Returning to his country, he plunged into relentless political and literary resistance to the new tyranny, whose torrent of repression engulfed workers and students.

In October of that year Brasilia University was closed and intellectuals arrested wholesale. The ‘Institutional Act No. 2’ proscribed all political parties. On 21 November de Mello was jailed with a number of his comrades for demonstrating against dictator Castello Branco as he opened the conference of the Organisation of American States in Rio de Janeiro.

‘Institutional Act No. 3’ was issued on 5 February 1966 abolishing direct election of state governors which de Mello countered with his Song of Armoured Love:

‘... Only now
that there’s no vote, love starts to sing
to the tune that’s required
whenever fighting to defend the holy right to love.
The folk shall not because of this
concede or cease their right to sing.’

His poems written from 1971 to 1974, collected as Poetry Pledged to Life Both Mine and Yours encompass a breadth of experience unequalled in contemporary world verse: the lines are directly inspired by the Chilean workers’ struggle of the early 1970s and have a telling force and outrage at the butchery of reaction:

‘But there along Bernardo O’Higgins Avenue
and in the Chilean blood that issued streaming
from the workers’ bodies stricken, shot,
transported into trenches, dumped in trucks
by the savagery of those who every Sunday
know how to sing their psalms while kneeling meekly.’

In the late 1970s the crisis ridden Brazilian dictatorship began to fall apart. The Figueiredo government released many political exiles and detainees in August 1979. De Mello returned to Brazil and, sailing home up the Amazon, reflected on the torment suffered by the people of Brazil, while lambasting the hypocrisy of the newly fledged ‘democrats’:

‘We have regained the word.
But the persecuted phrases for which they bound and gagged our mouths,
today walk into every house, presented in full colour
by those erstwhile lantern-snuffers,
but rinsed well out inside,
emptied, drained of all that they contained
which held the power of flight, of song, of bird.’

Struggle, persecution and enforced exile have tempered de Mello’s grasp of his native Amazonia, whose hardships and exploitation he has come to understand as a fact of worldwide capitalist robbery and class despotism. Yet his poems also condense a simpler revolutionary poignancy:

‘When faced with truth, injured, insulted
by the guardians of injustice,
faced with the mocking scorn of opulence
and all of power’s gilt dominion
whose splendour must be fed and nourished
by the hunger of the humbled
... none of this can I accept.’

Statutes of Man: Selected poems of Thiago de Mello 1951–1992, is to be published later this year by Spenser Books

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