The following piece is from our June/July issue, which you can buy here.
Travelling in the Family
like an intelligence of the universe
purchased with salt, wrinkles and hair.’
— Verses on the Brink of Evening
Above is a photo of the poet, Carlos Drummond de Andrade, which I associate, rightly or wrongly, with the death of my father in the theatre of my mind. It shows the Brazilian poet seated on a bench on the tiled sidewalk at Copacabana. In the background, under palm trees, on golden sand, bodies shift playing volleyball. Carlos Drummond disregards them and the surf. Instead, he is perched with his back to the sea, gazing inland, through thick black glasses, the line of his vision as precise as a hawk’s, the object of his attention remote. I can no longer recall when I first saw that image. Probably, it was after I chanced upon an old newspaper article concerning a bronze statue of Drummond, which, clearly inspired by the photo, had been placed on a concrete bench at roughly the same point on the Copacabana sidewalk, to mark the centenary of the poet’s birth, in 2002. Some good citizens of Rio, affronted by the statue’s unorthodox conduct, had been agitating for the bronze Drummond to be turned around to face the sea. Fortunately, that idiocy was resisted.
I had been reading Drummond at the time, and could see how central to his vision the inward journey was. He lived in Rio, but was apart from Rio, at least in the poetry that made his name. ‘In this city of Rio, / home to two million, / I’m alone in my room, / alone in America’, begins one poem, ‘The Moth’. Drummond often wrote of Itabira, the mining town in the landlocked province of Minas Gerais, from which he moved to work in Rio as a civil servant. Yet Minas remained his lodestar; indeed it is easy to imagine that Itabira is where his sight is fixed, poised for flight, in the old photograph. ‘Basically I come from Itabira. / That’s why I’m sad, proud – ironclad. / Ninety percent iron in the sidewalks. / Eighty percent iron in the soul’, he says in his ‘Itabiran Confession’.
The first poem of Drummond’s I ever read and the one which reverberates most strongly with me is his magnificent ‘Travelling in the Family’. I know where I first came across that. It was in an old Penguin anthology, Latin American Writing Today, which I picked up years ago as a student and even then was dog-eared and yellowed with time. Wonderfully translated by Elizabeth Bishop, the opening lines read to me like an incantation summoning the dead, and they have travelled with me since:
In the desert of Itabira
The shadow of my father Took me by the hand.
So much time lost.
But he didn’t say anything.
It was neither day nor night.
A sigh? A passing bird?
‘Travelling in the Family’ records Drummond’s profound need to return home, to his point of origin. It seems to be based on an actual visit back to the town of his childhood, and early in the poem the physical changes are dryly registered. ‘Here there was a house’, the poet notes, and ‘The mountain used to be bigger’, a laconic reference to the levelling effects of the massive open-cut iron mine that has transformed the landscape, rendering it desert-like, and the light sepulchral. Yet Drummond is not primarily concerned with the physical. This is a landscape in which painful phantoms stir. He remembers his ‘grandmother / betrayed among the slave- girls, / rustling silk in the bedroom’. He remembers his ‘deaf grandfather
/ hearing the painted birds / on the ceiling of the church’. There is also young Carlos’s ‘own lack of friends’. And chief amongst these revenants is the poet’s dead father, clattering brilliantly back into life, the patriarch and rancher, in a few terse strokes:
The street he used to cross
on horseback, at a gallop.
His watch. His clothes.
His legal documents.
His tales of love-affairs.
Opening of tin trunks
And violent memories.
At this time of rereading Drummond, my own father was lying in a hospital. He had suffered a fall and come tumbling down the staircase of the family home. For six months, he was then tossed back and forth in a flickering twilight sea of hospital wards – ICU, the Neurology Ward, the Renal Ward, the Acute Old Persons Unit, the Rehabilitation Hospital, and others besides. He almost died four or five times. At the beginning, he was totally lost, always rolling in and out of consciousness, and then when he surfaced it was to a world of endless waiting, to voices passing by the bedside, dreams of escape and occasional nuggets of deadly humour.
I’m not sure I ever shared ‘Travelling in the Family’, or fragments of it, with him. I think probably not. My father was a careful man of science, an immunologist, and though very well read – every summer he would beach himself on his bed like a walrus with a pile of books – he tended to draw the line at poetry as something he frankly did not understand. And yet Drummond’s poem – with its spectral presences, its sacralised objects and memories of ancient wounds – seemed very apposite during his last year. Perhaps I should have read it to him, and told him about Carlos Drummond de Andrade?
Like Carlos Drummond, my father also came from a mining town, Broken Hill, the legendary Silver City, in far outback New South Wales. And like Carlos Drummond, he always felt the need to return to his interior town. Visiting him in hospital, and seeing him often adrift, I found myself remembering his journeys back, which were a feature of my own childhood.
Every year, in the days before Christmas, he would back his plum-stained Fairlane or Kombi down the drive, and with my mother at his side and the children in the back (four or five or six, we were like the universe, forever expanding), suitcases, too, and a stinking dog, the microscope and boxes of slides, stray volumes of Nature and even my younger brother’s blue budgerigar, he would then embark, travelling the five hundred miles north of Melbourne where we lived, almost without cease. The family bent to his will, and not all survived those journeys into heat, eucalypts and flies, or the chiaroscuro of his moods, heading into the salt country, until at dusk he entered the wide flat streets of his home town and arrived at the house where his father, the old Swiss engineer with the Zapatista moustache, had planted his towering pine, like a ludicrous memento of Zurich, here on the edge of actual red gibber desert.
Carlos Drummond, in his poem, deals in memory, but not in memory as a collection of curios in some mental attic. Rather, it is a dynamic medium through which the normal structures of time and space are kicked away, and the dead, distilled to their essence, are revived in the mind. At some level, we are meant to take seriously the poet’s encounter with the ghost of his father: ‘I looked in his white eyes. / I cried to him: Speak! / My voice shook in the air a moment … Speak speak speak speak. / I pulled him by the coat / that was turning into clay’. Perhaps it would not be too much to talk of a visionary consciousness here? As the poem continues, it becomes clear that what accords this material a force and reality beyond the ornamental is that it is actuated by a genuine ethical and spiritual imperative. We discover hints of some past culpability, by both poet and parent alike, never properly disclosed and no less powerful for that. At the end, too, when it is finally admitted that the silence of the dead can never be crossed, there is also a closing acceptance of forgiveness and a purgatorial, omniscient love:
The narrow space of life
crowds me up against you,
and in this ghostly embrace
it’s as if I were being burned
completely, with poignant love.
Only now do we know each other!
Eye-glasses, memories, portraits
flow in the river of blood …
I felt that he pardoned me.
During my father’s hospital limbo, I wondered whether in the quiet of his bed he was sifting through his life. The present situation must have felt unreal, as unreal as Carlos Drummond’s otherworld, and he had acquired the ghostly aspect to match. His once fine fingers, hooked with pain, had grown excessively thin, and his white hair and moustaches had turned wild and unkempt, giving him a charmingly romantic look he might’ve sported earlier to good effect, we told him. His mind, too, was often weak, taxed by the terrible business of staying afloat.
Once I asked him what he thought about when he was lying there? ‘Oh all sorts of odd things’, he merely said, and added after a pause, ‘Here, as my senior son, you better take this’, and he offered me his father’s watch, which I declined. On another occasion, when he was in a delirium, he told my mother, already quite beside herself with grief, that he needed to be well, so he could get home to Broken Hill by Friday to bury his father. His father of course had been dead for years. In the middle of this hospital anabasis, my father also had what he, as a trained medical observer, diagnosed as ‘a death experience’. About this, he said very little, except to tell my mother that he woke at two in the morning, and then, neither dreaming, nor awake, but in some strange other state, saw all the key moments of his life ‘rip before his eyes’, and in very great detail. After some contemplation, he buzzed the medical staff, who discovered his blood pressure had plunged. He had wanted to ring my mother to say goodbye.
I told a neurologist friend my father’s tale. He alerted me to recent research that has found that such ‘life reviews’, often hyper-real and occupying a mystifying ocean of time, are one classic feature of so-called ‘near-death experiences’, which have been subject to increasing scientific study. Intriguingly, I learnt it is not uncommon during such events for intense moments from the past to be relived from the perspective of others involved. This last fact struck me as being consistent with nothing other than total weirdness or the precepts of traditional religion. Here, on the edge of death, memory seemed to be partaking in the same ethical drive toward atonement laid bare by Drummond in his poem. In a collection of scientific papers on the subject, I wasn’t surprised to read that such a burning experience often left people scarified. ‘It’s as if I were being burned / completely, with poignant love. / Only now do we know each other!’
My father was as human as the rest of us. I couldn’t imagine there weren’t aspects of his past that he could relive without difficulty. ‘Opening of tin trunks / and violent memories’. Yet he didn’t appear overly perturbed by his ‘life review’. If anything it awakened in him a sense of wonder. On the one occasion when I asked him what he remembered, he half smiled, pale as stone, and replied the best moment was when as a fourteen year old he went off to Lake Menindie outside Broken Hill and shot wallabies with his father. Perhaps, he had long since completed his inward journey, hulled his days and called them to account? At any rate, I didn’t raise the subject again, nor did my father. Eventually, too, his time in the hospital labyrinth came to an end. Declared a functional quadriplegic and released to a nursing home, he died in the winter.
Do the galahs at dusk once more explode
on the Silver City Highway of your mind?
Are you out beyond Mildura,
on the flat roads, in the scrub country,
of your salty vernacular?
Or have you gone on long enough
for it to seem like forever,
till you arrive, upstream and standing
at the dreamtime of your source?
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