At Your Feet
Ana Cristina César
Katrina Dodson, Ed.
Brenda Hillman, Helen Hillman, & Sebastião Edson Macedo (translators)
Reviewed by Clara B. Jones experimenting with book review form…
“In literature, it is only the wild that attracts us.” Henry David Thoreau
Who is the author? Ana Cristina César (1952-1983, suicide*) was active in Brazil during the 1970s. Her work has been categorized as avant garde, a term usually reserved for visual artists and writers who are active politically, usually, in leftist groups or movements. According to Brenda Hillman, César was born and raised in Copacabana, Rio de Janeiro, in a religious, middle-class family. Conducting research on “Ana C,” as the poet was called in her circle and among her followers, I did not discover that her formative years were marked by trauma or dysfunction. However, in an academic paper, Lúcia Villares (1997, Portuguese Studies 13, pp 108-123) reported that the 1970s in Brazil were preceded by military coups (in 1964 & 1968), leading to the isolation, exclusion, and suppression of radicals, activists, intellectuals, and the middle-class.
In response to these measures, strikes and demonstrations were carried out against the military regime which countered the actions with increased repression—especially of the middle-class, including, censorship, seizure of books, attacks on left-wing publishers, among other interventions. César and her circle of poets formed a group, “geração Marginal” (“the marginal generation”) that published and sold chapbooks and books independent of commercial publishing houses and distributors. The marginal (marginalized) poets advanced a view of a fragmented world in which the power of language was reduced. These oppositional writers expressed their sense of impotence, in part, by emphasizing their communal efforts and by asserting themselves as survivors in a hostile environment.
Through her writing, “Ana C” identified with the “poesia feminina” movement in Brazil, part of the opposition supporting women’s search for identity and voice. This group held that to be a woman was to be “desdobráve”—a woman capable of transforming herself. Consistent with this background, César’s poetry is in general, fragmented and written in collage style, mostly, dispensing with meter, rhythm, music, and lyric, though her pieces are infused with vivid image and color. The reader of At Your Feet may find that poems seem to increase in complexity, self-confidence, and clarity from beginning to end; though, according to Hillman, there is no evidence that César’s poems were arranged chronologically. Though I am not qualified to say, the translations appear to be excellent; at least, I found them rich with artful language. After a tour of the continent, César returned to Rio, jumping out of a window in her parents’ home not long after.
What is At Your Feet about? The book is a collection of intense poems, mostly about bad or failed relationships with men, as well as their associated emotions and feelings. Also, the book’s title suggests subservience. Thus, for example, “I went on the attack: it’s now, sweet-/heart, in a car going up in flames,…in the early dawn, because of you and furious: it’s now, against this traffic….” (p 19). The author seems driven to make sense of things—with men, with herself; though, there is no mention of political unrest except in the sense that the poems, themselves, may be viewed as oppositional—against the military regime, against traditional mores, and against conventional literary practices and criteria. The primary subject-matter seems contradictory to her reputation as a feminist and her documented identification with women and feminism. For example, she relies upon many female stereotypes (e.g., lovestruck, hysterical, silly) and expresses negative emotions toward other females (e.g., they arouse jealousy or are viewed as intruders: “that total bitch/of a woman”, p 77).
Nevertheless, one of César’s stated goals was to become assertive, authentic, and outspoken, rather than, a passive and suppressed woman. Thus, her bold expressions of emotional vulnerability may be viewed as attempts to be radically, unabashedly honest (“Let’s have afternoon tea and I’ll tell you my big passionate story, which I’ve kept under lock and key, and my heart beats out of sync while we eat gaufrettes…I’m touched by fire.” (p 11); “Call again tomorrow/no matter what.” (p 17); “Without you, I’m really a lake, a mountain./I think of a man named Herberto./…And without bravado, sweetheart, I raise the price.” (p 33). On the other hand, a few of the poems demonstrate moments of assertion and agency (see, for instance, “Final Fire,” p 89), but the intention seems never to be sustained. Ultimately, this collection is about a young woman searching for her own voice, her own agency, and her own will, as well as, the ability to resist socialization and circumstance.
Formal Structure: As mentioned, the poems in At Your Feet, are fragmented, like the political landscape within which César found herself and like her own psychological makeup. Thus, her classification with the avant garde is warranted by the innovative nature of her forms, matching her content. As well, many of her poems appear without titles (a type of erasure?; a silent, “Untitled”?), a convention sometimes used by the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet, Susan Howe.
César’s work seems to align with the movement, Surrealism, since many of her poems exhibit “automatism,” sometimes, by way of, impulsiveness (but, “My boy. It’s not automatism. I swear. It’s jazz from the heart.”, p 41) and the mining of unconscious processes (“Poetry doesn’t—telegraphic—occasional—/leave me solo—loose—/at the mercy of the impossible—/—of the real.”, p 47). The collection includes prose poems and an interesting list poem (“Onomastic Index,” p 93) that includes the names of at least two famous females who died tragically. Structurally, many of the poems might be classified as “fragments”—a single or a few lines. In keeping with a fragmented identity, voice, and form (Post-modernism?), most of these poems are cynical, self-absorbed, emotional, or detached, or are about “boredom” (p 85) or “illness” (81) or victimization (p 83) or hysteria (p 19). Thus, as a whole, the poems’ forms are consistent with their meanings and themes—as defined and expressed by the author.
Conclusion: In the final analysis, César’s collection shows the work of a young poet without the ability to see herself through an objective lens. As Marjorie Perloff has stated, a mature poet has the ability to see the humor in themselves [sic], something lacking from At Your Feet. It is a cliché to point out that one would like to see how this writer might have developed over a long, productive career. Without this option, one must view the collection’s value primarily in relation to the socio-political atmosphere in which it was written. In addition, the poet’s work is interesting as an example of a “young adult” sub-genre, and critics could mine the volume for what it tells us about the challenges of early adulthood, particularly, about the development and maturation of females who succumb to suicide when relatively young. Hopefully, César’s complete body of work will become available in translation at a future date. Combined with At Your Feet, the poet’s writings could become a valuable resource for those interested in avant garde beyond the United States and Europe. I recommend this book because it is a very interesting and enjoyable read. Indeed, despite its limitations, I was unable to put the book down once I began to read it because César took me, and will take you, on an intense “joy- ride”—on an emotional roller-coaster that you will enjoy (see Epigram).
*Note: César’s fate brings to mind two other young female artists who jumped out of windows to end their lives: photographer, Francesca Woodman (1958-1981) and poet, Elise Cowen (1933-1962), both Americans. One of my motivations for writing this review is the hope that a reader who is an academic or critic will conduct research on these cases—or, pass the possible project on to someone. Based upon my own limited knowledge, there appear to be some similarities among the women’s trajectories. For instance, both César and Cowen jumped out of windows at the homes of their parents, and César and Woodman both traveled in Europe before they took their own lives. Further, all three of these women may have experienced an increased measure of popularity—as well as, disillusionment?—before they killed themselves. I think, though I am not certain, that this apparently contradictory pattern is common among suicides. (My contact: firstname.lastname@example.org)
Clara B. Jones is a Knowledge Worker practicing in Silver Spring, MD, USA. Her poetry collection, /feminine nature/, was published by GaussPDF in 2017.