The Ephemeral Made Eternal

Secret Poetics
by Hélio Oiticica

Translated by Rebecca Kosick
with Essays by Rebecca Kosick and Pedro Erber

Lyric poetry seems a transitory thing. Unless chiseled on a stone tablet, poetry flutters in the breeze. Paper, vellum, and papyri corrode. The meaning of an image may not survive a season, let alone a cultural shift or translation. How flimsy poetry appears against visual art, the art of columns and walls, wood and marble, pigments and dyes. Visual art is coterminous with its material—physical and solid—while poetry is just an idea, words in mind, that are temporarily set in writing, printing, or digital space.

That view was turned upside down by the Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica, in his Secret Poetics—an addendum to a notebook consisting of 14 poems, prefaced by two micro-essays. In this work, Oiticica makes the case that lyric poetry is not itself ephemeral, but rather captures ephemera and makes them eternal. Now, thanks to Rebecca Kosick’s resonant new translation of Secret Poetics, with deft critical essays by Kosick and Pedro Erber, readers of English can sample Oiticica’s aesthetics and poetry. As a reader who loves both philosophy and poetry, I savored this book—it is a taste of the sublime.

Hélio Oiticica (1937–1980) was principally a visual artist:  painter, sculptor, filmmaker, performance artist; he called his writing “secret” because he did not consider himself a poet, although he did write essays in art theory. Oiticica participated in the neoconcrete movement in Brazilian art, which distinguished itself from the purely geometrical abstraction of concretism.

The neoconcrete movement published a manifesto in 1959 that took “new stance in non-figurative geometric art” seeking to avoid concretism’s “dangerously rationalist extreme” as exemplified by the concretism of Swiss architect and artist Max Bill. Oiticica belonged to the Grupo Frente (Front Group) in Rio de Janeiro, which included among its members the visual artists Lygia Clark and Lygia Pape, two of the authors of the neoconcrete manifesto. Secret Poetics includes five panels of Oiticica’s painting, sculpture, and performance art, including one of his Parangolés, capes worn by dancers that speak to the experiences of marginalization, the favela, and revolt. The cover of the book is Dialog of Hands, a photograph of the entwined hands of Oiticica and Lygia Clark. The presentation of Oiticica’s visual art in Secret Poetics adds vitality to the book, and aids in the understanding of Oiticica’s writing.

The micro-essays and poems that form Secret Poetics are also displayed with images. Reproductions of Oiticica’s notebook pages face Kosick’s translations. Handwritten Portuguese and typeset English is more than a creative choice. It embodies the principle of “eternalization” by the lyric poem that Oiticica describes in his first essay. When the lyric grasps things that are fleeting and immediate, these things are “eternalized.” The transitory moment may be recorded by a physical pen on physical paper, but it becomes eternal because the poem is, in truth, not a physical thing at all. It exists as sound and meaning. That is why it can be translated into another language in another culture a long time after its inception. Seeing the notebook page next to the translation drives this point home.

Oiticica’s poetry is true to his theory—capturing an emotion with both charm and gravity, rendering it timeless. Kosick takes little license with the open structure and refined lineation of Oiticica’s original poems. But she takes some intuitive license with word choice, making sure to select English words that sustain the poet’s tone and harken to his experience. These are astute and sensitive decisions on Kosick’s part. For instance, in the essay that introduces Secret Poetics, Kosick explains her selection of the word “plunge” to translate “mergulho” in this haiku-like poem:

superficie vitaca,

glassy surface,

“Mergulho” is often translated as “dive”—especially in human activities like diving into a swimming pool. Kosick rejects “dive” in favor “plunge” because Oiticica created an work of visual art, Mergulho de corpo, in which we are invited to plunge our hands, not dive with are whole body, into a tank of water.

Kosick also suggests that Oiticica’s poem chimes with Basho’s famous haiku Old Pond; although it is possible, Kosick writes, to render the action of the frog in Basho’s poem as “jump, plunge, or dive.” Kosick does not go farther than this, but I will: when  a verb is used at all to translate the Basho poem is typically “jump.”  “Jump” and “plunge” share a very evocative, low vowel sound that adds gravity or, as Oiticica would say, “eternalization” to both Basho’s work and Kosick’s translation. I would argue that Kosick often translates, perhaps intuitively and subconsciously, with her ear tuned to the eternal.

The moments eternalized by Oiticica’s lyrics are sensual and emotional. There is a distinct avoidance of any “dangerously rationalist” expression, in favor of sense perception and feeling. In one poem, Oiticica melds the senses of taste and touch with the visceral anger conjured by the word “fel [bile]”: “the bitterness of the caress”; “the nontaste,/invisible sword in the body,/bile.” In another, the poet evokes smell and touch as a “restarting of the senses,” with the implication of a new erotic relationship. Kosick’s renders Oiticica’s images vividly, choosing English words and phrases with a wide sonic range. Her words clack and hiss, croon and sigh, bringing the sensuality and emotion of these poems to life.

Oiticica often connects sensual and emotional experience to “lembrança [memory].” Memory is a common theme in much of Oiticica’s poetic text,  Kosick respects the theme’s importance to the poet. She translates language related to memory and the act of remembering in a clear, unvarnished way that retains the power of the original.

I believe that memory in Oiticica’s poems is linked to his idea that the lytic captures the fleeting moment and makes it eternal. The strongest memories come from the five senses, including the sensory experience that occurs when emotion racks or delights the body. The most rapid and ephemeral thing—a sense impression—cuts the deepest groove in memory. Reading a poem about a sense impression stirs own similar and strongest memories, and this process repeats, reader after reader, ad infinitum. Jogging and re-jogging memory across time is how lyric poetry does what Oiticica says it does: make the ephemeral, eternal. That’s why Kosick’s skill in translating Oiticica’s language of memory matters so much. As the translator writes, quoting from one of Oiticica’s micro-essays, poems “have the potential to extend what’s fleeting in the form of a record, or recollection… ‘a moment of pleasure can become eternal in memory.’”

This edition of Secret Poetics is as much a work of philosophy as of literature, thanks to introductory and closing essays by Kosick and Erber.

In addition to providing biographical information on Oiticica and details on translation methodology, Kosick’s essay delves into the aesthetics of neoconcretism and other creative movements and theories relevant to the artist. She tackles issues in translation itself, notably the issue of translation as transgressive of cultural boundaries.

Kosick’s essay also offers an analysis—still incomplete, I think—on the contrast between lytic poetry and visual “plastic” art in Oiticica’s view. Oiticica says that the immediate moment that becomes eternal in poetry is ”exactly the polar opposite of my plastic work.” On one level, he seems to mean that his work as a neoconcretist excludes what is fleeting for what is solid and extended—in a word, concrete. But Kosick suggests that at least some visual art is opposite to lyric poetry because it does not “eternalize” its content; she points to Oiticica’s Parangolés, which offer an experience that dissipates and is left unrecorded and unavailable to others once the cape is removed.

Pablo Erber’s essay shows its meaning in the title: “Oiticica’s Phenomenologic Lyric; or, the De-intellectualization of Art.” Erber’s thesis is that Oiticica’s motivation to create Secret Poetics is the desire to de-intellectualize art, including his own plastic art, in line with the anti-rationalism of the neoconcrete movement.

Erber argues that poetry is a vehicle for de-intellectualization because it grasps and eternalizes “lived experience in its immediacy.” The lyric poem, in capturing ephemeral and transitory experience, is an art of phenomenology—the philosophy that studies conscious experience as lived experience—experience from the direct, subjective, first-person point of view. When an art, like poetry, conveys direct, subjective experience, it is de-intellectualized. Erber notes this de-intellectualization is suggested by the phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty, a philosopher known in neoconcretist circles, who wrote: “to do justice to our direct experience of things, it would be necessary to maintain…against intellectualism, that they are not unities in the order of judgment, that they are embodied in their apparitions.”

The lyrics of Secret Poetics embody the direct, fleeting “apparitions” of the body and its senses. The poems are revealed now to English speakers by Rebecca Kosick’s sensitive and smart translation, interpreted by valuable essays, and enhanced by images from Oiticica’s plastic art. This is a book I will read again and again, to discover nuances of meaning and to inspire my own thought. Its words are eternal.

—Review by Dana Delibovi