Back Catalogue # 11 The Hen’s Egg (1997)

[Back in 1997, not long after arriving in Brazil, this was one of my first attempts to translate the work of the Recife poet João Cabral de Melo Neto]

Photo by Cara Beth Buie on Unsplash

The Hen’s Egg

(from the Portuguese of João Cabral)

§             To the eye it displays the integrity of something made of a single cast. An egg. Made of just one material. Unitary. Wholesome. Weightily egg.

Lacking inside and outside. Like stones. Without marrow. And yet nothing but marrow. Inside and outside compounded in its one circumference.

But, if, to the eye, it shows itself single-minded, an sich, an egg; a hand which takes its weight soon discovers that there’s something untoward inside it;

that its weight isn’t that of a stone – inanimate, cold, addled; but of a damp, tumid kind: living, not dead.

§             An egg reveals to any hand that fingers it the same finish as that of things crafted by a life-time’s work.

                A finish likewise found in other things which are not hand-made: in corals, smoothed pebbles, any kind of worn object.

                Whose simple form is the product of the secret, endless work of the billion sculpting hands of wind or water.

                An egg, however, and, in spite of its pure conclusive form, is not the end of the story; its is always expecting:  a thing in labour.

§             The presence of an egg, even untouched by a human hand, is endowed with the power to produce a certain atmosphere of reserve in whatsoever room it rests.

                This is what it is hard to grasp, considering only the obvious geometry of an egg and the candour of its whitewashed single wall.

                The reserve an egg inspires is of a quite uncommon kind: it is that felt before a revolver, but not before a bullet.

                It is that felt in the presence of things primed with other things that pose a constant threat of letting those other things off; rather than one of those other things themselves.

§             In handling an egg a particular ritual is always observed: there’s a special withdrawn and half-religious manner adopted when holding it.

                Let’s say that the way someone carries an egg derives from the natural care shown by someone fetching something full to the brim.

                The egg is, however, shut into its own hermetic architecture; and whosoever bears it, knowing what it is, assumes the correct attitude –

                half timid, half circumspect, almost saintly – of someone carrying a lit candle.


Propertius III iii

[Another go at translating Propertius]

Propertius Book III Poem iii

Et in Arcadia ego, relaxing on a cool mountain

slope in Greece, where it is said that Pegasus once stamped

his hoof upon the earth to open up a gushing spring, I fancied I was.

A magnum opus on the kings and queens of times

gone by and of their deeds I seemed to have the power

to sing to the sound of strummed strings.

I had already dabbled a little my clumsy little fingers

in those mighty streams (the ones from which Chaucer

and Shakespeare once had supped their tales:

of how the feuding mobs of old fought out

their family grudges with spears; the royal spoils conquered

and shipped from Macedon to Rome by Lucius Aemilius;

the softly-softly approach adopted by Quintus Fabius; the massacre

at Cannae; gods answering prayers; All Souls booting

the Punic general out of their Roman abode; Jove

on the Capitol finding salvation in the honking of geese)

when, in that wooded valley of the dolls they call their muses,

Apollo leant on the gilded crossbar of his lyre and eyed me

from the opening of his cave and spoke. “What are you up to,

Dumbo, meddling with rivers great as these?” “Who on this earth

gave you the right to tinker with works of art about our national heroes

and foes?” “No name awaits you here, young scallywag.

Your work’s more lawn-mower than Lamborghini or Rolls.

Fit for some bird to flip through on a sun-bed on the beach,

waiting for Mr. Right to stroll along the sand. Don’t bother trying

your writer’s hand at wresting yourself from your predestined course.

Your art’s no oil tanker, more of a pleasure barge for punting

along shallow streams out of harm’s way.

The high seas with their churning surge

 are not your cup of tea.” Thus spake Apollo

and gestured with narwhal-tusk-crafted plectrum

towards a patch of mossy ground upon which crazy

paving already had been laid. Drums hung up in a cave

carved out of pumice, adorned with pebbles and greenery,

the paraphernalia of the Muses lying around, a graven image

of the bawdy old don who tutored Dionysus, the pipes of Pan;

a flustering flock of doves awaited me—

compliments of our mistress, Aphrodite—

wetting their purple-tinted peckers in the pool

sprung from the hoof stamp of the Gorgon’s spawn.

Here each of the nine girls busies her soft hands

with the duties she’s allotted by fate. One gathers

holly and ivy for the decorations; another tunes

strings ready for song; a third, green-fingered, tends

a garden full of roses. And of this bevy of deities,

the one they call Calliope (if I rightly recall)

gently laid hand upon me and advised:

“Stick to the snow-white swans. Don’t bother the warhorses.

It’s not your job to blast out The Last Post upon a cornet

or sully the snug bar-room of the Ploughman’s Arms

with tales of gore, or grace our ears with updates from Afghanistan

or lamentations from the bloodstained lands east of the Rhine.

Your lot’s to sing about folk getting off: cuckolded husbands

staggering back home from the pub, while lover boy attends

to her indoors. So be it,” Calliope spoke, drawing a little

crystal-clear water from her fount and dabbing my lips with it.

Propertius III.i

[Another loose translation from the Latin of Sextus Propertius]

Don’t get started on the cult of dead poets

and the dreary old dramas of old.

I’m  a wannabe Sextus Propertius.

I want into a classier club.


Wanna sing you the blues in pig Latin,

punk and hip hop in Attic Greek.

I’m for putting the funk back in Sappho.

Where do I sign up?

Wanna jam with Callimachus and Pindar,

get on down with Alcaeus the drunk,

doing acid with Homer and Vergil

to the jazz of Thelonious Monk.


I’m not one for imbibing the Kool-Aid

nor for taking the populist path;

won’t waste time on the laureate’s war drum

or record on a label for cash.

I won’t dance or do chat shows for ratings,

won’t panhandle on Facebook for likes.

I won’t dish up cheap trinkets for profit.

I need freedom to smooth up my craft.


I want fame that is guided by NASA,

flying out into interstellar space.

No rock-stars in electric Lamborghinis

could ever keep up the pace.


No-one said it was going to be easy

getting into the history books.

No-one said it was some kind of doddle

travelling to the ends of the earth.


But if peace on this earth be forthcoming,

and the sisters of mercy permit,

 I’ll be bringing work down from pop heaven

on pages unsullied by shit.


You can crown me with flowers not iron.

I don’t want such stuff weighing me down.

For the honors declined in my lifetime

will pay rich dividends when I’m gone.


Posterity makes all things greater;

folk are loath to speak ill of the dead.

Readers thrill to the song of the Light Brigade

and the Generals by whom they were led.

For how else would we know of our heroes

that laid their lives down in the bog?

or escaped from the steel walls of Colditz

in the belly of a vaulting horse?


How else would we know of the rivers

dried up for the sake of the Plan?

How else would we know of the gulags

that dot the Siberian plain?

How’d we know now of Phobos and Deimos,

polyanthus and Eau de Paris?

We’d know nothing of the proud Annunaki,

who once walked upon earth among men.

We’d know nothing at all about history,

the kings and the warriors of old.

Gilgamesh’s adventures in Hades

would now go untold.


And, when

New York and London are flooded

in a future outshone by our past,

folk are sure to remember a poet

who predicted it all with such class.

A Blade with no Handle

[Here is a translation of João Cabral de Melo Neto’s Uma Faca Só Lâmina. I first started working on this 22 years ago!]

A Blade with no Handle

(The Utility of Idées Fixes)

A Poem by João Cabral de Melo Neto
Translated by Paul Webb
Recife, 1997-2019

Like a bullet lodged

in human flesh,

fattening up

one side of death;


like a bullet of the

heaviest lead lodged

in muscle, tipping

the weighing scales;


some bullet that has

a living mechanism,

one that’s possessed

of beating heart,


a clockwork heart

submerged in flesh,

like a clock alive

and insurgent,


a clock that has

the vitality of a knife

and is as pitiless as

a slate-blue blade;


like a knife without

pocket or sheath

that has grown part

of your anatomy;


an intimate kind of

knife; a knife for

internal use only, as close

to us as the skeleton


of those whose skeleton

has always ached,

of those constantly being

cut up by their own bones.



Be it bullet, clock or

angry blade, it is, never-

theless, an absence that

a human creature bears.


Yet, what is not

within is like a bullet:

of leaded metal,

the same compact caliber.


This thing that is not

within is like a clock’s

pulse in a cage,

untiring, restless.


This thing that is not

within is like the zealous

presence of a knife,

of any brand new blade.


This is why the best

of the symbols used

is the steely cruel blade

(best made in Sheffield):


because no symbol suggests

so well this keen absence

as this image of a knife

with no handle,


none better represents

that so impatient absence

than a knife whittled wholly

down to its bare point,


than the image of a knife

delivered up entirely

to that hunger for things

that is stoked by knives.



The life of such of a knife

is of the most startling kind:

the knife itself, or some

metaphor, can be cultivated.


And the way it is cultured

is more surprising still:

it thrives not on what it consumes

but on that of which it is starved.


You can abandon it,

that intestine knife:

you will never find it



It distills acid and vinegar

from nothingness

and other stratagems

exclusive to sabers.


And, like the knife it is,

full of passion and drive,

unassisted, it sets in motion

its perverse machine:


the unclothed blade

grows as it is worn down;

the less it sleeps,

the less sleep it needs,


the more it cuts,

the more cutting it becomes;

it lives to be born in others

like a wellspring.


(And the life of this knife

is measured backwards,

be it clock or bullet

or the knife itself.)



Careful with the object,

with the cared for object,

even if it is a bullet

of this steel-tipped lead,


because the bullet comes

with teeth already obtuse

and, with facility, is blunted

even further in the muscle.


Be even more careful,

though, when it’s the clock,

with its spasmodic

ticking heart alight.


Care is required,

because the tick of the clock

cannot keep time

with the pulse of the blood,


and the shiny copper inside

is not put off its stride

by the beating blood, even

when it has lost its bite.


Moreover, if it is the knife,

take special extra care:

for the sheath of flesh

can absorb its steel.


Its cut also sometimes

tends to go hoarse and

there are cases where metal

is broken down to leather.


The important thing is that

the knife not lose its zeal

nor that it be corrupted

by its handle of wood.



For this knife sometimes

goes out of its own accord.

This is known as

the ebbing of the blade.


It may be that it is not

extinguished but dormant.

If the clock is the image,

its buzz has ceased to be.


But, whether sleeping

or extinct, when its engine

stalls, its whole soul becomes

alkaline in nature, very


similar to the neutral,

almost felt-like substance

that is the stuff of souls

unblessed with skeletons of knives.


And this sword-blade,

whose flame has guttered out,

and the jittery clock and

the indigestible projectile,


all alike follow the process

of the blunting blade,

be it knife, clockwork,

bullet of wood or cloth,


be it leather bullet, clock

of tar, knife invertebrate,

forged of honey or of clay.

(However, when we are


already least expecting it,

the tide crashes back, the

knife springs back to life

in a shower of sparkling crystal)



We must keep the knife

well out of the way; for,

in the damp, its lightning

flash will not last long


(in the damp spawned

of gossip and saliva:

the stickier it gets,

the more confidential).


This care is required

even if it is no knife

ablaze inside you,

but rather clock or bullet.


They do not flourish either

in all types of weather;

their savage flesh thrives

only in torrid chambers.


If you will suffer them,

you must take them out

into the open air of some

wilderness or moorland.


But it can´t be the kind

of air birds inhabit.

It must be dry and harsh,

unshaded with no commotion.


Never at night. For night

puts out fertile feelers. Let

it be in the acid sunshine

of the Northeastern states.


Let it be in the heatstroke

that turns air into sponge

that makes the earth thirst

and turns grass into wire.



Whether it be that bullet

or whatever other image,

be it even a clock

that awaits the wound,


or still just the knife

that has only a blade,

of all the images the

keenest, the most vivid,


no-one of the body

can remove it, no matter

whether it’s a bullet,

clock or knife alike,


no matter what

the race of this blade,

be it tame table-knife

or savage Pernambucana.


And, if irretrievable

for the one who has suffered

its assault, still less can it be yanked

out by any neighboring hand.


Ineffective against it

are all the medical arts

of numeral knives and

arithmetical pincers.


Not even the police,

with their surgeons,

nor time itself with its

balls of cotton wool.


Nor even the hand of one

who planted, unbeknownst,

this bullet, clock or blade,

these images of outright fury.



This bullet that a man

sometimes takes in his flesh

renders less rarefied

all that awaits.


And what a clock involves,

unbiddable, insectine,

enfolded in the flesh,

alerts that flesh yet more.


And if knife is a metaphor

for something stuck in muscle,

the knives inside only

drive a person further.


The sharpened edge of a knife

biting into human flesh

goes armed with another

body or dagger.


For, quickening the soul-

springs, it gives them the impetus

of a blade, the passion

of a close-combat weapon,


as well as having the body,

which bristlingly keeps it,

dissolves not in sleep

nor in all things so vague,


like that story

somebody tells

of a man with so sharp

a power of recollection


he can retain thirty years

later in his palm, the weight

of a woman’s hand

once so tightly held in his.



When one who suffers them works

with words, they are useful,

the clock, the bullet, and,

above all, the knife.


The men in general

who work this shop

have a stock only

of extinct words:


some smothered under

the dust, others disappeared

in the midst of great knots;

words that through use


have lost all the mettle

and the grit that grips

the attention of those

who can barely read.


For this knife alone

will furnish such a workman

with eyes the sharper to see

his own vocabulary.


Only this knife and

the example of its edge

will teach him to obtain

from his malignant matter


the qualities that all

best knives possess:

ferocious sharpness,

a certain electric charge,


plus their clean violence and

exactness, that predilection

for desert wildernesses

that is the style of knives.



Like bullet and clock,

this adverse blade

quickens the senses

of all that hold it,


is capable of waking alike

all objects that lie around,

in such a way that even liquids

are graced with bone.


All that was vague, all flimsy

matter and materials, for one

who’s gone under the knife

is endowed with nerves and edges.


Every thing around

is more full of life, imbued

with the clarity of a needle,

the presence of a wasp.


The cutting edge of all things

that are is now laid bare

and those, like wax,

that appear obtuse


are stripped now

of the callouses of routine

and set about their work,

all their jutting vertices alive.


And, amongst so many other

already sleepless things,

someone cut by a knife

and borrowing its cut,


victim of the blade and

its so frigid jet, roams,

lucid and awake, pitting

edge against edge.




Back from that knife,

friendly or enemy,

that best condenses a man

the more it chews him up;


back from that knife

so clandestine in bearing

it should be carried in

concealment like a skeleton;


back from the image lingered

longest over, of the blade,

which is, most certainly,

sharpest of all.


So now, back from the knife,

another image looms,

that of a clock pricking

away beneath the flesh;


and thereupon another,

the first, of a bullet,

that is so coarse-toothed

yet bites so hard;


and thence to the recollection

such images bedeck,

so much more powerful

than the power of language itself;


and, eventually, to the

presence of raw reality

that engendered the memory

and engenders it still;


and, last of all, reality itself,

raw and so violent that

in struggling to grasp it,

every image comes to grief.