Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Brick City on Sundance + Poem: Manuel Bandeira

C and I have been watching Brick City the five-night Sundance Channel documentary series Forrest Whitaker, Mark Benjamin and Mark Levin, also its director, have produced about nearby Newark. At each episode's center is Newark's charismatic, determined young mayor, Cory Booker, who made his movie debut in 2005 in Marshall Curry's enthralling, Oscar-nominated documentary Street Fight, which chronicled his determined but unsuccessful run against longtime city head and now convicted felon Sharpe James and James' corrupt, municipal machine. Booker ran again in 2006 and defeated James's chosen successor, Ron Rice, and since then has worked tirelessly to improve the city and the lives of its residents. A great deal of his heroic effort, presented here in clips from 2008, is on display in Brick City; when he isn't fretting over how to plug holes in the city's budget or exhorting his police department to drive the crime rate even lower (murders, Newark's longtime bane, have fallen consistently) or addressing yet another negative article on the city he governs, Booker shows himself, to many residents' delight and his parents' pride and concern, to be the city's most diehard champion and booster, and, it must be said, a kind of quasi-coach, teacher and mentor to many of its denizens, going beyond parades and groundbreakings to play midnight basketball, ride sidesaddle with the police during bouts of insomnia, and cajole young people even to pursue their dreams.

But were Brick City the Booker show all the time it would certainly be engaging but hardly offer any real perspective into the city's ongoing problems. Instead, the filmmakers have selected some of the city's less famous residents, like couple Jayda, a sharp, charismatically gifted young woman and member of Bloods gang, and her sloe-eyed partner and expectant baby-daddy Creep, a Crip, who are struggling to maintain their relationship, take care of themselves and their two children, and imagine and experience new lives outside the prisonhouse of gang life, poverty and low expectations, and the penal system. Watching Jayda as she energizes the young women she works with has given me some hope about Newark's future, yet even this potential heroine, who is pregnant with her second child (and what will be Creep's as well), ends up finding herself on the wrong side of the law because of an old warrant she'd been avoiding. One of the realities the series underlines is this persisent, not always hidden trap, made of snap emotional responses we all feel combined with old and problematic, sometimes deadly ways of addressing problems, which ensnares so many of Newark's young people, including those like Jayda who are full of potential, and potential leaders. Instead of being able to enjoy their lives, so many of them are tagged early on and dragged quickly and inexorably down into a mire of drugs, failure, prison, and death.

Brick City
Newark Police chief Garry McCarthy and Mayor Cory Booker (Photo, Sundancechannel.com)

Other residents of the city who make an appearance include principal and poet Ras Baraka, his Vice Principle Todd Warren, a grizzly bear of a man, and their crew at Newark's Central High School, which during the series moves into its strikingly new, $100 million complex, after some unfortunate and poorly defended delays; Newark's police chief, Bronx native Garry McCarthy, and others on his force, captured in strategy sessions and on the beat; and some ex-cons who've succeeded in turning their lives around but find current events tempting them to exact retribution that will return them to the very personal hells they've mostly escaped. The series has focused a lot more on the police than on City Hall, despite featuring Booker, and it's interesting to think about all of the corruption and sleaziness that came through in the earlier documentary, which preceded James's conviction, and the light touch with which the filmmakers have addressed such issues here. Instead, we are given more of a sense of what Newark's true challenges are, shorn mostly of any spectacle, and the tough conditions the majority of its residents face and endure, despite the best efforts of the new mayor, new police chief, and many of the city's indefatigable residents themselves, who are presented as subjects and authors of their own lives, and not the objects of beneficent but blind liberal concern.

A spectral presence here that I immediately associate with Newark, Ras Baraka's father, the renowned and notorious poet and author Amiri Baraka, has turned up once so far, to commemorate the 41st anniversary of Newark's uprising. In his brief appearance he manages to serve up some unvarnished old-style Marxism and denounce Booker as a "a white racist Negro," echoing of one of James's more outrageous criticisms of his opponent, that because of his upbringing and education (Stanford, Yale and Oxford Rhodes Scholarship) he wasn't really black or down (he is, yet some voters, despite all visual and other evidence, believed this). Despite this bitter burst of Barakatude, it's been fascinating to see Ras at the center of a film about Newark while his father, who played a key role not only in formulating a radical political and artistic agenda for Newark and black people in the late 1960s on through the 1980s, but also worked doggedly to elect Newark's first black mayor, Kenneth Gibson, remains only a ghostly figure. Two episodes are now finished, and I'm already wondering if we'll see Amiri Baraka again. It almost feels like the documentary's almost missing something key if we don't.


Earlier this summer I completed and sent off a translation of Brazilian writer and media personality Jean Wyllys's collection of stories, Aflitos (Fundação Casa Jorge Amado; Editora Globo, 2001). I've published a couple of the translated stories in literary journals and I hope the entire book is published at some point, preferably in a bilingual version, mainly because I enjoy Wyllys's grain-of-sand prose and because the stories as a whole offer a different image of Salvador da Bahia, Brazil's 3rd largest city and one of its major cultural capitals, than one usually encounters anywhere. To open the book Wyllys chose a poem, "Desencanto," that happens to be by one of Brazil's very important 20th century poets, Manuel Bandeira (1886-1968).

Originally I looked up translations of "Desencanto" and even considered using one (with credit to the original translator), since I'd initially intended only to translate Wyllys's prose as well as the introduction, by Bahian journalist Antônio Torres, but after reviewing what I could find in books and online I thought, I have to do this myself. I like the result, though there's a prosodic issue in the second stanza that's bothering me, so I still have to work on it. Nevertheless, for the first time in a while, here is the original, and an original translation, of a poem.


Eu faço versos como quem chora
de desalento... de desencanto...
Fecha o meu livro, se por agora
Não tens motivo nenhum de pranto.

Meu verso é sangue. Volúpia ardente...
Tristeza esparsa... remorso vão...
Dói-me nas veias. Amargo e quente
Cai, gota e gota, do coração.

E nestas versos de angústia rouca
Assim dos lábios a vida corre,
Deixando um acre sabor na boca.

--Eu faço versos como quem morre.


I write these lines like one who cries
In discouragement...in disenchantment...
Shut my book, if, for the moment
You have no cause for tear-filled eyes.

My poetry is blood. Burning ecstasy...
Scattered sadness... vain regret...
My veins ache from it, bitter and hot,
Drop by drop it tumbles from my heart.

And in these verses, anguished, raw
So runs life from between my lips,
Leaving a bitter taste in my jaws.

--I write these lines like one who dies.

Translation Copyright © John Keene, 2009.

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