There are a lot of ways to tell a story and one way is that sometime after my friend SH took her life I was teaching Elizabeth Bishop’s Collected Poems in the MFA Program at the New School and happened upon Bishop’s translations of the Carlos Drummond de Andrade’s great poem, “Don’t kill yourself.” It made my brows raise because I hadn’t quite ever thought of just saying, “Don’t kill yourself,” and furthermore, saying it twice. Stacey recently posted it on this site, but here it is in full again.
Don’t Kill Yourself
Carlos, keep calm, love
is what you’re seeing now;
today a kiss, tomorrow no kiss,
day after day tomorrow’s Sunday
and nobody knows what will happen
It’s useless to resist
or to commit suicide.
Don’t kill yourself. Don’t kill yourself!
Keep all of yourself for the nuptials
coming nobody knows when,
that is, if they ever come.
Love, Carlos, tellurian,
spent the night with you,
and now your insides are raising
an ineffable racket,
saints crossing themselves,
ads for better soap,
a racket of which nobody
knows the why or wherefore.
In the meantime, you go on your way
You’re the palm tree, you’re the cry
nobody heard in the theatre
and all the lights went out.
Love in the dark, no, love
in the daylight, is always sad,
sad, Carlos, my boy,
but tell it to nobody,
nobody knows nor shall know.
Is that a great poem or what? The first time I read it I loved the lines that I loved but I was sorry it said what it says instead of what I wanted it to say.
Drummond de Andrade will never be considered a truly great poet because his last name is too long and hard to remember, but he did have a way with words. He’s a Brazillian poet, lived from 1902 to 1987 and here, in this poem, he is in what Liz Lemon on 30 Rock would call a Relationship Lizastrophe, a heart-storm tizzy having had an actual encounter with another human creature (of which there are nearly 7 billion, but all of them oddly alone). Can I translate this poem to prose for us? It says:
Carlos, me, stop freaking out. You’ve been kissed. Maybe you’ll get another kiss tomorrow, maybe not, ad infinitum. Nothing can be done about this exciting series of possibilities. The only way to stop it would be to kill yourself, so do not do that. Just stay and hope for more kisses, even sex.
You are freaking out because you have spent the night feeling enraptured by love, a common thing in the world. (The word “tellurian” just means earth-thing, thing of the earth.) Your insides are going nuts with panic and emotion, also pretty normal. The feelings and hormones and thoughts going on my head right now are a cacophony, like a symphony of prayers, old record players, Catholic signs and wonders, commercials for soap and better living. There’s no way to make any sense of this racket inside.
Meanwhile you are walking around town, looking normal but with such a banged up heart that you are identifying with every passing tree. When someone lets out one of those moans that might be anything, might just be the sigh of sitting down, it’s such a relief. “Oh!” someone cries out and you agree. “Oh,” me too. And the lights go out in the theater. Me too.
Carlos is alone and says to himself that love, especially in the light of day, is always sad, and it is true, but it is not all that is true, and he knows it, calling himself a boy to hint that someone too young to know is trying to know, while nearby, also inside the poet, is the sublime and graceful knowing. See what he says, in the last lines? “tell it to nobody, nobody knows nor shall know.” He’s closing the poem there, tucking his scarf into his overcoat. But also he’s counseling himself to keep the crazy hidden, keep the despair hidden, he says, "Hide it" but he’s telling us.
He knows it's safer to keep it to himself, but he still manages to get it on paper and hand it out across the century to me, and I can take it and I can say thank you Carlos Drummond de A…. I wish I could remember your name. I get stuck on the Andrade part.
Now friends, what I wanted the poem to say was less, “Self, don’t flee from feeling, even though it is so scary that you almost feel like running off a ledge,” and more, “Friends, selves, countrymen of the realms of gold, sisters of outrageous despair, Don’t kill yourselves.”
I wanted to say: We have to talk to each other. We broken. We need to keep drinking tea or wine and tell each other the one thing we don’t have to trance out to hear: I was there. It sucked. It was insane, the things I said to myself to stay sane. You too? Got a hot hot brain from coping too long all up in your head alone? Don’t kill yourself. Come over and drink coffee or beer with us and tell us. The people who do not ever feel this way pity us. Maybe you don’t want to be pitied, but I’m ready to accept that being someone who has a hard time feeling okay is often awful, as awful as other awful things, and that’s how it is for me, so pity away, ye normals, and freaks come sit by me.
That’s not what I ended up writing in my poem. But I’ll tell you more about that later.