Thursday, November 03, 2005


For the red carnations

It's late at night. Gray gloom weather today, the air still mild though the weather reports have mutterings of snow further north. I have the small electric space heater turned on, filling the room with its hum. It hasn't been cold enough yet for the radiators to build up a full load of steam. Winter is a long siege here. Down the hall the door to another apartment opens and shuts. The night cool and anonymous outside. I'm reading the poems of Olga Cabral.
If this small human testament
completes its odyssey
clears the curtains of fiery meteors
crosses the rages of magnetic storms
rides free of hydrogen whirlwinds
falls through coalsack eternities
lands smoothly on the Milky Way
glides along its lightband
to the shores of an unknown planet
in an unknown star-continent
to be found and wonderingly
pondered held in your hands --
this message was meant for you.
(From the poem "Electronic Tape Found in a Bottle," in Voice/Over: Selected Poems by Olga Cabral, published 1993 by West End Press, P.O. Box 27334, Albuquerque, NM 87125. All quoted passages here are taken from the above collection, which includes work from seven previous books and previously uncollected poems.)

Cabral was born in 1909 of Portuguese parents in the British West Indies. Her family moved to Winnepeg when she was a child, and she later moved to New York, where she lived for the rest of her life. I remember an article about her in Contact II in the late 1980's (I can no longer recall the author) that began "Olga Cabral fixes things" and went on to describe Cabral, at around the age of 80, tinkering around at home with screwdriver and pliers, tightening hinges, wiggling doorknobs, whatever seemed to need work. Cabral died in 1997.

Olga Cabral exemplies the sort of poet for whom a political understanding of the world is as essential and organic as the need to write poetry. This is true whether the actual subject matter of any particular poem is explicitly or publicly political, or deals with more interior experience. Speaking in a quiet and direct voice, many of her poems seem to explode off the page.
The firmament rocks the sky heaves
and earth explodes one big-bang firecracker
showering villages corpses burning pages of history
the wrong war the wrong time Mussolini's
furnace-red rose of infernal incandescence
once more unfolding
over mudhuts
bouquets of hellbombs "To Charlie With Love"
valentines of death sly canisters of murder
lead candy for kids.
(From the poem "By Bomb's Early Light.")

Art and science find their way with equal power into Cabral's work. One of her most remarkable poems, "The Xenon Breathers," is written partly as a mythological telling, partly as a science fiction nightmare vision, in the raw spare language of hard fact:
This is the island of death.
Ships turn away
with the living.
Ocean is sick.
Turtle has death in her.
She builds her ancient house
She builds her ancient house
out of strontium.
Patiently Crab
builds and rebuilds
his bony shell
having only death-grains for
for building.

Sorrow and sorrow.
My people gone.
Death hide
in a mote of dust:
death so small
but powerful as 1000 ancestral plagues.
A number of Cabral's poems grow out of her encounters with writers, musicians, artists, or their work. In the poem "The Scream" she enters the murals of Mexican painter David Alfaro Siqueiros:
Perhaps somebody's shoes were burning
like a city in flames.
Perhaps some oranges on the windowsill
turned pale at what they saw.
Everything was flying to the four quadrants
at the velocity of pain.
Small fists and feet through themselves about
beat the canvas like furious stones.

An ear sailed past
torn from its bony anchorage.
A navel.
A wheel.
There remained a face.
But that too was flying apart.
Then all that was left was a mouth
a red funnel of pain
of one born in this world
to nothing but hunger.
Over the years I've gone back periodically to re-read Olga Cabral's poems, to find their solid substance and life-sustaining warmth. One poem of hers in particular has stayed with me since i first read it, summing up the passion and urgency of taking an active part in the history we live and make. In the poem, titled "Black White and Gray and Red Carnations," the poet addresses Dolores Ibarruri, whose anti-fascist radio broadcasts during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930's became legendary; Cabral then moves through Picasso's painting Guernica, blending the scene in the painting with newsreel images of the Civil War.

passion flower
grown old
Dolores of the

your hair

they bring you red

In your trembling arms the red flowers
cover your black dress
a white handkerchief weeps
your white hair sheds the light
of an alabaster statue [...]

The horse has swallowed its scream
has leaped an ocean
and runs free in its native

the lamp that was blown to bits
has flown back
and burns on the
miner's table

the bull with the innocent face
of an astonished beast
sees the dead child leap up hearty and full-grown
and take its place in the ranks of a new generation

Black white and gray
and red carnations
for the bellies of the Stukas
for the dun procession of decades
without tongues
for the sad faces in the dust
for the radioactive ash
on red tomatoes

for the pinch of earth that was
carried in the pocket
in the wanderings of exile

for the white hair of those who endured
and who came back

for the red carnations

I've read that first poem in this post before--just can't recall where--maybe an anthology. I like that last poem too--"for the radioactive ash/on red tomatoes" I'll have to look up more work by this poet. Thanks!
It's great that you wrote about Olga
Cabral whom I've always thought of as a wonderful poet. West End's book of her work is terrific! I also loved
the poem she wrote about Delores Iburri which was wonderful. And thanks for the short mention of my books.
I appreciate you
I especially like that last poem, too, and the first one. It's an excellent review, Lyle. Makes me want to read more of her.
Excellent Lyle. Ready for more! Enjoyed your print vs online answer at cafe cafe too.
Hi Lyle
I finally got one of her books and am really liking it!

I wanted to send you this link from The Washington Post, but there's no email addy in your profile. It stems from the torture discussion on my blog. I'll see if I can make it into a hot link.

Winter Soldier Film. Vietnam Vets recall acts of violence during the war
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