The traveller explains who he is and where he is going. He is from serra da costela. There are so many other Severinos.
First encounter: Dead Severino
He finds a dead Severino. Repetition of irmãos das almas. The dead guy is named Severino as well.
[E foi morrida essa morte,
irmãos das almas,
essa foi morte morrida
ou foi matada?]
He was killed in an ambush, by a stray bullet. Severino asks what he had done. Dead Severino had a piece of land that was worth nothing. So that means his death was a result of a meaningless accident. As metaphor, the passage says that the bullet is a bird [pássara] that wants to be set free. Then S asks, ‘Where are you burying him?’ <Dead Severino with his seed of lead [semente do chumbo] to sow death on the land.> He offers to help bury him because he feels a connection with this other Severino who represents him. Maybe he has to bury the dead to live.
Second and third encounters
Second encounter: Dried-Up River
He learns to recite the places that he would pass and compares it to a string of prayer beads. The string of beads gets tangled up in the confusing desert (because praying is difficult in the face of suffering). He thought he could follow the river but he cannot anymore because it is dried up. He personifies the river, saying that its legs can’t walk in the summer. Then he hears singing, maybe a party or a dance.
Third encounter: Dirges
Someone has just died and people are singing the funeral song (in italics). A man is mocking the singing from the outside (not in italics).
Fourth encounter: The Woman at the Window
- Severino is getting sick of death. Even at a party he sees only death.
- ‘Why can’t I stop here and like the river, interrupt my journey, at least until next winter’s waters…’ He wants to stop until the water in the river flows again. And then he sees the woman at the window [a mulher na janela].
- She owns her own life, unlike Severino. He asks her for a job.
- She asks him what he can do. He explains that he can farm.
- S lists the things he can offer: good at working lands, knows the plants that will grow, cuts weeds, looks after cattle, boils up sugar cane.
- The woman’s reply is always discouraging.
- At the end, she says, ‘Do you know anything about burying the dead?’
- S: ‘No, I never learnt how. I just follow the rituals.’
- She says, ‘I live by helping death.’
- She can teach him how. It makes quite good money.
- Because death is so common, it is the only work there is. ‘You can only plant the crops of death’ [Só os roçados da morte].
- It is easy to grow the crops of death and the things that would usually kill crops, like droughts and diseases, would only nurture death more.
Fifth encounter: Mata region
- He arrives in the Mata region.
- It is a less harsh land.
- There is water everywhere.
- He thought it is a lie, but it is true.
- But he is surprised that he cannot see anyone around.
- He says, ‘It should be easy to soften this so feminine land’ [sera fácil amansar esta aqui, tão feminina].
- Then he says, ‘I’m sure the people here don’t get old at 30. I’m sure the cemetery isn’t used much.’ <ironic, as he finds a burial afterwards>
Sixth encounter: Burial of a farm worker
- The farm worker’s friends say to the dead farmer: the grave you’ll be buried in is the best plot of land you’ll ever get. You’re getting the land for free – you can hardly moan about that. You will be free from the sun and rain. You’ll work for yourself. The boss can’t take anything away. You’ll be seed, fertilizer, and harvest [semente, adubo, colheira].
- For the first time in your life, you’ll have nice clothes – that will be made of soil. They’ll never rip or rot [não se rasga nem se remenda].
- The land is your best friend, and it will be with you forever. It’s been with you since you were born. You have no strength left, just let yourself be sown. You don’t have the seed, instead you are a grain, sprouting from it.
- Then there are four repetitions of ‘In the right hand…’ [Na mão direita] of black, dried corn. Now the ground is like a bed or a woman to sleep with. <Everything he had never had in life, he would have it in death>
Seventh encounter: Quickening his steps to get to
- He says that he just wants to get away from the death.
- He had never expected that much.
- But there is hardly any difference.
- It’s just that the land is softer.
- The oil is the same in every land, it is just the wick that is different.
- <Oil is a metaphor for death>
- Death is still everywhere.
- He goes back to river again and says, ‘Now I know why the river doesn’t stop here’
- In Caatinga, the river dries up and there are only wells.
- Here the river is afraid to stop, however tired it is.
- The river, like him, is trying to run away from the land and towards the sea.
- It is better to hurry up than to stop here.
Eighth encounter: Gravediggers’ conversation
- He made it to Recife.
- Two gravediggers [coveiros] are talking about how there are too many dead people and that they should get paid more.
- Working in middle avenues is the best but only people with connections [os protegidos] can work there.
- Middle avenues are awesome because there are a lot of rich people, which means you have less work and more tips.
- The ceremony for the rich takes longer, but it’s like the sea port [o porto do mar]: you only get one big burial a day.
- Where they are is like a train station [estação]: you get a lot of burials in a day.
- The guy 1 says: Well, if this is like a station, then Casa Amarela is like a bus stop [parada de ônibus]: you have a hundred of people in the queue and you can’t fit that many people in the bus in one go.
- The guy 2 says: ‘Well, why don’t you ask to move to Santo Amaro, the industrial areas.’
- Santo Amaro is the middle-class areas, with professions like journalists, writers, artists, bank workers, shopkeepers, 'those of the liberal professions who never liberated themselves.’
Eighth encounter: Gravediggers’ conversation (2)
- Guy 2 says: ‘We have some of those middle-classers here too, but they don’t give tips. So why do you want to go there?’
- Guy 1 says: ‘I’m not going for the tip. It’s just less work.’
- Guy 1 has asked the Manager for this, but the Manager still makes him stay in Casa Amarela, but in a different district.
- He is going to the factory workers, railway workers, and security guards (slightly better area).
- The part of Casa Amarela they are currently at is the slum, where poor people are drowned by the high tide.
- People who are buried for free – and they never stop coming.
- These people are the migrants from the Sertão.
- ‘I don’t understand why they come here to die here. And then we have to bury them. Ugh. It’s easier to throw them off a bridge.’
- That’s easier – you don’t need money, gravedigger, prayer, tombstone [inscrição].
- These are the people who come here, hoping to die of old age, but they only come for a cemetery. They are following their own funerals.
Ninth encounter: Approaching one of the Harbours o
- Severino realises that the gravediggers were right.
- Even if I came here, life would be no different.
- I would use the same tools but hope for more space, better clothes, and longer life.
- But he has just come here to find his own funeral.
- There is only one solution: he has to ask death to make up his mind.
- He is thinking of killing himself by throwing himself into the river into a mud coffin [caixão macio de lama].
- The water that never stops will be his funeral song [acompanhamento].
Tenth encounter: Joseph the Carpenter [Mestre carp
- S arrives in one of the shanties [mocambo].
- Joseph (J) comes up to him.
- S asks him how deep is the river – do you think it can cover a man’s body?
- J: ‘Idk m8 I just use the bridge.’
- S: ‘How about if there’s no bridge?’
- J: ‘You’re very young. I know misery seems like a sea rather than a puddle, but it’s still worth the effort to get across. You can’t give up, because if everyone did that, then the sea would flood and drown everyone.’
- S: ‘What’s the point of fighting if you can’t win? [que diferença faz que esse oceano vazio cresça ou não seus cabedais se nenhuma ponte mesmo é de vencê-lo capaz?]’
- S: ‘Has life paid you back?’
- J: ‘I’m from Nazareth de Mata, Severino. There, like her, they didn’t pay me enough and I have to pay for the life I buy.’
- S: ‘Can I do that one day?’
- J: ‘Sure, but don’t expect anything big. It’s still life, though not grand.’
- S: ‘What difference will it take if I take the best way out and throw myself into the bridge [saltar…for a da ponte e da vida].’ <this is the last time S talks>
Tenth encounter: Joseph the Carpenter (2)
A woman comes up to Joseph: ‘Joseph! Your son is born. He has jumped into life [Saltou para dentro da vida] and given his first cry.’ <As opposed to Severino jumping into death and giving his last cry>. Neighbours, friends, and two gypsies go up to the man’s house. They praise the baby for it keeps the tide in, covering the mud and its stench. The seaweed smells nicer than the mud and wind is taking the damp away. ‘All heavens and earth are praising him. And every house will embrace its occupants. And every shack will become the model shanty the sociologists love to study.’ Mosquitos are going to stay away. The river is going to reflect the stars.
People start bringing presents for the baby. The first person brings crabs. The second person brings breast milk. Third person brings newspaper to serve as blanket (if you cover him in letters, he’ll be a doctor one day). Fourth person brings clean water. Fifth person brings a finch (a song bird). Sixth person brings some biscuits. Seventh person brings a mud statue made by another Severino. The eighth person brings some sugar cane rum. And lots of other stuff, mostly food.
Gypsy 1 speaks: ‘We are gypsies from Egypt who will tell your fortune. We can see the future of the boy. This is my prediction: He will be taught by the animals around here, from the crabs, hens, pigs, and dogs, to scour the dump and rubbish for food. Years later he will be dressed in black mud, catching crabs, and in the years older he will be catching shrimps with his hands.’ <Animalistic portrayal and future in the slum>
Tenth encounter: Joseph the Carpenter (3)
Gypsy 2 speaks: ‘We are gypsies from Egypt who will tell your fortune. We can see the future of the boy. This is my prediction: He won’t be fishing all his life. His life won’t be useless. He will be a factory worker. He will be covered in black – not of mud, but of grease. With his work, he will move away from the mudflats in Capiberibe to the a better hut in Beberibe.’
Everyone else starts speaking. Eight repetitions ‘of his beauty’[de sua formosura] and eight repetitions of ‘Lovely’ [belo]. They describe his beauty in two parts: his brittle physique and his wonderful potential. Plenty of fruit similes. He is their hope: lovely as a door to open more exits, lovely as the waves to last in infinity, lovely as a new notebook. ‘Lovely, as the new decays the old’ [Belo porque com o novo todo velho contagia].
Joseph goes back outside to talk to Severino.
J: ‘I still don’t know what to tell you but that’s because you can’t describe life with words. You have to see it happen. But if I told you I didn’t know the answer. Life itself told you (with its presence). And there’s no better answer than to see life unravel its thread, which is also called life, see the factory life itself stubbornly makes.’ Life is stubborn. Even if it’s puny, it’s worth seeing it grow because it’s better than nothing. Even if it’s that of a severe, Severino life [mesmo quando é a explosão de uma vida severina].
Notes from intro
- Play was staged in 1865 at the Catholic University, São Paulo
- In 1964 a military junta had taken power in Brazil
- Civil rights were restricted and censorship was enforced - all protest had to be indirect
- The hardships Severino experiences in the outback of the Northeast of Brazil could easily be associated with the difficulties of an urban liberal audience in São Paulo or Rio de Janeiro
- Severino's hunger, his lack of hope, the oppression of the natural elements, the poverty, all have direct parallels with the atmosphere in liberal circles in the post-64 period
- The Nordeste is the poorest region of Brazil and its problems are enormous
- Infertile land, droughts, lack of irrigation, illiteracy, a feudal landowning system - all bad
- The Nordeste was the first region of Brazil to be settled in by the Portuguese, and up until the mid-nineteenth century was the main sugar producing region
- However, sugar cane production proved more profitable elsewhere
- From the 1850s onwards the south of Brazil underwent considerable economic development while the Nordeste stood still
- Nowadays, migration from the interior of the north-easterns states to the costal state capitals and to the big cities in the south has becomes an accepted fact of life
- The Nordeste supplies the cheap labour: the great majority of building workers and domestic servants are nordestinos; a large number of favela dwellers come from this region
Notes from intro (2)
- Millions have taken Severino's path to the big cities
- And of these migrants few return home
- They may live in the outlying shanties, spend four hours a day or more on overcrowded buses or trains, work long hours for a pittance, but this will be preferable to a semi-feudal existence where they work someone else's land for an eventual share of the meagre profits or work as tied labourers to be paid in kind from the estate owner's shop, where prices are exorbitant
- In the city, the migrant will at least get a wage, may even buy his own shack and will probably get enought to eat
- Severino, by contrast, has worked long hours in the sun, often goes without food, feels old and twenty and fears death at thirty
- Added to this, there are land feuds, through which the Severino who is being taken to the cemetery is killed, through no fault of his own
- At the end of Morte e Vida Severina, the second gypsy predicts that the baby boy will become a mechanic
- This would have been a vast improvement on the type of life Severino has had
Notes from intro (3)
- Other aspects of the traditional feudal economy can be found in Morte e Vida Severina
- At the beginning, we learn that the father of Severino is the local coronel, not an army officer, but a big rural landlord
- He has had his way with all the local women, all Marias, who all have sons called Severino
- The Portuguese settlers never objected to intermarriage, or to be more accurate, intercourse, with Indian or Negro women, and thus we find the origin for the mulatto characteristics of much of the Brazilian population
- A number of references are made to the engenhos, the sugar mills on which the traditional economy of the state of Pernambuco was based
- The Portuguese set up the first sugar mill in Brazil in 1534
- But as more and more sugar was produced in the south of Brazil, traditional methods could no longer compete and sugar cane is now sent to the refineries
- Successive Brazilian governments have failed to tackle the problems of the Nordeste
- No extensive land reform programmes have been made, and land reform is still a very delicate subject
- The strength of the vested interests of the traditional landowning oligarchy in the Nordeste are still very strong
Notes from intro (4)
- Throughout Morte e Vida Severine, Joao Cabral uses real place names
- Severino takes us along the River Capibaribe through the semi-desert Caatinga, the scrubland of the Agreste and the much greener wooded Mata to the coast and the swamplands where Recife's shanty-dwellers live
- He takes advantage of many of the colourful place names which often have their etymology in food: Mangabeira, Limoeiro, Jaqueira, Cajueiro, Peixinhos
- Some of them are highly ironic: the poor people live on Imperial Street and the rich live in the districts of Espinheiro (thornbush) and Aflitos (afflicted)
- Although the 20th cenuty seems to have passed Severino by as he reaches Recife by the age-old method of following the river and not the road, we are occasionally reminded that the poem is set in the mid-twentieth century
- The second gypsy predicts that José's son will be a mechanic
- Air workers are buried in the Santo Amaro cemetery
- As in most underdeveloped countries, the modern and age-old exist side by side
Notes from intro (5)
- In his note to the first edition of Morte e Vida Severina, Cabral states: 'This book of peoms might be read aloud successfully (for the half or quarter attention which one pays to poetry read aloud')
- Cabral draws considerably on the oral folklore traditions of the Nordeste with their strong rhythms, repetitions and first person narratives
- We must remember that Severino himself is very probably illiterate
- The poem is subtitled an auto de natal pernambuco
- The auto is a mainly Iberian type of play in which religious, mythical, historical and allegorical scenes were performed on religious holidays on a platform which was moved from one part of the town to another
- Brazilian folklore has adapted the auto for Christmas stories with a similar allegorical meaning
- The final scenes of MeVS have clear parallels to the Nativity
- The joy that the baby boy brings prevents Severino from killing himself
- The neighbours bring their gifts
- The gypsies come, apparently from Egypt
- And the boy's father, José (Joseph), is a carpenter
Notes from intro (6)
- The sparseness, concision and colloquial elements of João Cabral's verse show definite modernist infuences
- The average Brazilian modernist was to find poetry in the everyday
- The modernists did not deny anything from abroad, but they would emphasise Brazil
- Stylistically, they moved towards freer, more colloquial verse away from archaisms and heavily rhymed verse
- Although Cabral began writing at the same as the 'Generation of (19)45', who reacted against Modernism in favouring a return to a Parnassian-type poetry of formal refinement and personal subjectivity, he was much more influenced by modernism
- His verse has a tautness and concision, his best poems are about the Northeast of Brazil
- He eschews the subjective "I", and H he considers that modern poetry, in order to express the complexities of modern life, has become extremely complex
- This complexity can be seen in it wide use of a range of technical features: new rhythmic forms, syntactic rhythms, enjamdments, subconscious images, effects of strangeness, an exploration of the musical, visual and sensorial values of words, the fusion, disintegration and invention of words, the use of onomatopoeia, the abolition of punctuation, the importance given to typography etc
Notes from intro (7)
- Cabral says that the modern poet struggles to say exactly what he wishes, uses the whole range of techniques available to him
- But, on the other hand, he totally ignores the communicative element and the social function in his poetry
- Morte e Vida Severina, then, can be seen as a reaction against the negative features of modern poetry
- Cabral is not personal or intimate; he treats a theme with a strong social and geographical element
- He attempts to revive a once popular form, that of the auto, and mixes this with the rhythms of the literatura do cordel, ballads with a comic theme, which are still popular in much of the Northeast of Brazil