In April 2018, I found myself in Toronto tagging along on what I assumed to be a sightseeing trip, guided by a friend from Peru who was living in the Canadian city. I walked behind Andrea and Bianka in the wind-cutting cold towards the concrete brutalist mall of Nathan Phillips Square with its stone arches and its buildings from outer space. As we approached the center of the plaza, we saw a large crowd gathered holding signs and carrying drums. I could soon discern the swishy tones of Brazilian Portuguese and varieties of Spanish being spoken around us. As we got closer, the crowd started to dance in concentric circles, with the woman leading the dancers beating an alfaia, a large Brazilian traditional drum. The deep, heavy base of the alfaia punctuated the call and response chants of “Marielle!” followed by “Presente!” I realized Andrea had brought us to a public memorial for Marielle Franco, the Black Brazilian politician from the favelas murdered only a few weeks before. The vigil was held by Toronto’s Latin American immigrant community and the air felt thick with solidarity and rage. What sticks with me about that day is the sound of the drum strikes felt in the pit of my stomach, the alfaia slicing the iciness of the air with its sonorous heat, and people’s warm humid breaths drawing veils on the infinitely blue April sky. A drum beat, like a hammer’s pounding, builds a structure of alternate poles: silence and noise, presence and absence, laughing and crying, dancing and mourning, life and death. Such are the poles between which Brazilian poet Adelaide Ivánova’s The Hammer (Commune Editions, 2019, Translated by Chris Daniels) moves beat by rhythmic beat.
The Hammer’s terse poems chronicle a woman’s confrontation with the Brazilian state after being raped, as well as her exile in Germany and her affair and eventual abandonment by her lover Humboldt. In the background of these poems looms the lyrical narrator’s foreignness, her exile from her native Brazil and the unease with which she regards Germany, her new home that can’t help but announce itself as not-home. Interspersed throughout the book is the presence of the hammer, a metaphor for abiding within the paradox of the desire to live freely, to consume experience with a greedy eroticism, and the threat of sudden extinguishing violence hanging casually around each corner.
The book is divided into two thematically intertwined hemispheres, the first about rape, the second about sex. In the first half, the narrator recounts the different ways she is forced to substantiate her rape case to the Brazilian bureaucracy, a rehearsal which takes place amongst memories of other women felled by violence who rise up like ghosts throughout the poems. Released in the wake of far-right Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro’s 2018 election, The Hammer meditates on fascism’s relationship to gendered violence, which manifests, at best, as the liberal state’s complete disinterest in protecting women and gays, and at worst, in the state perpetuating this violence itself. In “for laura,” the protest chant that I heard in Toronto, the chant that became so ubiquitous for physicalizing the presence of the murdered and disappeared echoes when Ivánova writes, “laura has a body / and a name and they are hers / laura de vermont presente!”
The first of the book’s titular poems begins, “I sleep with a hammer / under my pillow / in case someone sneaks into my / bedroom again as if it weren’t enough of a drag / to have some iron / poking my head / and yet there’s another inconvenience: / Humboldt can never show up / by surprise he runs the risk of being hammered / and then he either dies or lives.” These short lines invoke the softness and hardness, the exhaustion and the hyper-vigilance contained within the stark choice between living and simply dying. The percussive thud of the poems move between taut humor and mourning.
The center of gravity of the book’s first section is in the poem “the testicles,” where Ivánova ruminates on the fact that in courts across the world, women bear the burden of proof for rape by being required to bring forth a witness. The poem opens with the narrator mulling over the contradictions of the requirement to produce a witness, writing, “in german, door viewer / is spy in portuguese / magic eye peephole / is what they say in pakistan / whose official language is / english judas is the word / in france approximating / watchfulness over betrayal / which seems to me the fruit / of resigned wisdom.” Embedded within the cool objective cataloguing of the word witness in different languages is the question of why someone would have been raped if a third party was there to witness it.
But Ivánova pushes the question of witness further when she writes, “…the witnesses / all know they lie what they don’t know is that in latin / witness and testicles / come from the same root which in / this case is an insult to the testicles / such wonderous things...” The lines cumulatively suggest that woman are structurally denied the possibility of bearing witness to their own experience, and are instead required to have someone else corroborate. The shared latin root of testicle and witness testis contrasts how the culture structurally endows men with an innate capacity to validate their own experience.
In the second section of the book, the narrator’s affair with her German lover Humboldt becomes an occasion to reflect on the nature of exile in a time of tightening borders. The lover’s shared name with nineteenth-century Prussian naturalist Alexander Von Humboldt who famously chronicled his travels across South America, insistently speaks to all the ways love is crossed by power, with the lover’s sexual allure being tragically but pleasurably tied to his cultural authority. In “the minister,” Ivánova writes, “look here mr minister / in my bed you don’t ask for visas i already changed / the sperm-stained sheets and pillowcases made in / spain hungary austria zimbabwe iraq.” The number of countries in which the sheets are supposedly made belies the assertion that borders don’t make it into bed. These lines enact a move that becomes the hallmark of Ivánova’s balance between staccato conversationalism and sharp criticism—a performative, passionate assertion undermined by concrete evidence which unravels the certainty of the original statement.
But simultaneous to its criticality and black humor, The Hammer speaks of real desire—to fuck, which itself stands in for an uncomplicated kind of animal freedom. In some of the most simple, gutting lines of the book, Ivánova writes, “i still stop / i stand looking / pretending not / to see your backlit bones / your pelt.” Humboldt here is tender, for a moment, his body and the pleasure it brings the speaker is disambiguated from his power. Even in this soft moment, we find the narrator aloof to her potential weakness, and yet affirming her need for fucking to be pleasurable, both in spite of and because all the complicated circumstances that surround it. The contradictions are spelled out in the sheer pleasure of the language of fucking.
Translator Chris Daniels renders Ivánova’s precarious balance between eloquence and coarseness marvelously into English, while getting at the essential vibrations of the original Portuguese. In “a reading of two odes by ricardo reis,” Daniels’s translation reads, “weighs hard the cruel decree, the managed end. / weighs hard the sentence lawless as the judge / weighs hard this crushing anvil on my shoulders / today a man was acquitted.” The lines slip perfectly between percussive urgency and brutality, revealing a voice fighting to preserve itself through language in the midst of crushing events. Daniels’s commitment to bringing lusophone womens writing into the English language has also yielded such gems as his translation of Brazilian neobaroque poet Josely Viana Baptista’s On the Shining Screen of the Eyelids (Manifest Press, 2003), which traduce a visually and syntactically difficult poet into crystalline concrete forms with a clarity that never loses its diffracting mystery for the English language reader.
In a time when Anglophone poet grammars feel almost exhausted and many poets are struggling materially for revolution, translation, particularly of women writers who are often the last to be critically appraised and much less translated, feels more important than ever. Ivánova’s poems give us not just a new vocabulary, but a new rhythm, to discuss the places where everyday life can yield to our desires for radical rupture from the structures that bow us.