The Wall Street Inferno
(selection) – Joaquim de Sousândrade
English translation: Odile Cisneros
Written in New York in the 1870s, Canto X of the monumental verse epic O Guesa errante (Wandering Guesa) by the Brazilian poet Joaquim de Sousândrade (1833-1902), an episode also known as “The Wall Street Inferno,” presents a Dantesque vision of the Gilded Age of American capitalism. Before his 14-year New York sojourn, Sousândrade, a native of Maranhão (Northeastern Brazil), had studied in Paris and traveled widely in France, Portugal, and England. Like fellow exiled Romantic poets from the previous generation, such as Gonçalves Dias, Sousândrade too addressed the question of national affirmation in his poetry, entering into a dialogue with European Romanticism. At the time, Brazil’s quest for independence fueled a reaction against the Portuguese metropolis, resulting in a political transition from a monarchy to republic. The search for development models suitable for a country in the throes of modernization led Brazilians to consider, among other things, the American political and economic system, which Sousândrade came to know first-hand and critically portrayed in the “Wall Street” episode of his Guesa.
The entire epic, a 350+-page poem partly inspired by Humboldt’s travel writings, charts the wanderings of Guesa (“the errant one”), a mythological figure in the tradition of the Muisca Indians of Nueva Granada (Colombia). According to Muisca belief, Guesa, a young boy, is taken away from the custody of his parents and raised until age ten in the temple dedicated to Bochica, a sun divinity. From that age until 15, he roams the continent touring all the locations visited by Bochica, before being taken to his final destination, to be ritually sacrificed by the sun priests or xeques.
“The Wall Street Inferno” opens as Guesa, believing he has escaped death at the hands of the xeques, finds himself descending into the nightmarish turmoil of the New York Stock Exchange. There, in a sequence that also reminds us of Goethe’s Faustian Walpurgisnacht episodes, Guesa bears witness to an anarchically carnivalesque parade of events and characters –historical, contemporary, literary, and mythological. These bizarre juxtapositions were meant to denounce the contradictions of turn-of-the-century capitalism, epitomized by financial, social, and political scandals. Sousândrade’s modern-day “Inferno” is an enigmatic “montage of news items from the papers of his time … a chaotic, polyglot whirl,” to quote the Brazilian poet Haroldo de Campos (b. 1929), who along with his brother and fellow poet, Augusto de Campos, rescued Sousândrade’s bold, original work from oblivion, producing, since the mid-1960s, important Brazilian editions of his work.
Among the innovations introduced by Sousândrade and which earn him a place as one of the precursors of Brazilian avant-garde poetry are the use of numerous words in foreign languages and neologisms (such as “free-loves” and “self-help”), highly imaginative rhymes, as well as experimentation with typography, clearly influenced by the massive circulation of illustrated journals. This audacious experimentalism, however, presents a particular challenge to the translator, since it is not always possible to reproduce Sousândrade’s peculiar rhymes or intricate wordplay.
To my knowledge, this is the first English translation of selections from “The Wall Street Inferno” to be published in this country. It was carried out in 2000-2001 with the invaluable help and encouragement of contemporary Brazilian poet Régis Bonvicino, who also aided in the selection of the stanzas translated. The translation appeared in Circumference 1 (Autumn-Winter 2003) and will be included in the anthology 500 Years of Latin American Poetry, organized and edited by Cecilia Vicuña and Ernesto Grossman, forthcoming from Oxford University Press.
(Guesa, having traversed the West Indies, believes himself rid
of the Xeques and penetrates the New-York-Stock-Exchange;
the Voice, from the wilderness:)
– Orpheus, Dante, Aeneas, to hell
Descended; the Inca shall ascend
= Ogni sp’ranza lasciate,
– Swedenborg, does fate new worlds portend?
(Smiling Xeques appear disguised as Railroad-managers,
Stockjobbers, Pimpbrokers, etc., etc., crying out:)
– Harlem! Erie! Central! Pennsylvania!
= Million! Hundred million!! Billions!! Pelf!!!
– Young is Grant! Jackson,
Vanderbilts, Jay Goulds like elves!
(The Voice, poorly heard amidst the commotion:)
– Fulton’s Folly, Codezo’s Forgery…
Fraud cries the nation’s bedlam
They grasp no odes
Wall Street’s parallel to Chatham…
(Brokers going on:)
– Pygmies, Brown Brothers! Bennett! Stewart!
Rothschild and that Astor with red hair!!
= Giants, slaves
If only nails gave
Out streams of light, if they would end despair!..
(Norris, Attorney; Codezo, inventor; Young, Esq., manager; Atkinson
agent; Armstrong, agent; Rhodes, agent; P. Offman & Voldo,
agents; hubbub, mirage; in the middle, Guesa:)
– Two! Three! Five thousand! If you play
Five million, Sir, will you receive
= He won! Hah! Haah!! Haaah!!!
– Hurrah! Ah!…
– They vanished… Were they thieves?..
(J. Miller atop the roofs of the Tammany wigwam unfurling the Garibaldian mantle:)
– Bloodthirsties! Sioux! Oh Modocs!
To the White House! Save the Nation,
From the Jews! From the hazardous
From immoral conflagration!
* * *
– Norris, Connecticut’s blue laws!
Into zebras constrained
Two by two, to one hundred Barabbas!
(Friends of the lost kings:)
– Humbug of railroads and the telegraph,
The fire of heaven I wished wide and far
To steal, set the world ablaze
And above it raise
Forever the Spangled Star!
(A rebellious sun founding a planetary center:)
– ‘George Washington, etc. etc.,
Answer the Royal-George-Third. Depose!
= Lord Howe, tell him, do
I’m royal too…
(And they broke the Englishman’s nose).
(Satellites greeting Jove’s rays:)
–‘Greetings from the universe to its queen’..
As for bail, the Patriarchs give a boon…
(With a liberal king,
A worse thing,
They founded the empire of the moon).
– A sorry role on earth they play,
Kings and poets, heaven’s aristocracy
(And Strauss, waltzing)
At the Hippodrome or Jubilee.
(Brokers finding the cause of the Wall Street market crash:)
– Exeunt Sir Pedro, Sir Grant,
Sir Guesa, seafaring brave:
With gold tillers they endure
Appeased by the turbulent waves.
(International procession, the people of Israel, Orangians, Fenians,
Buddhists, Mormons, Communists, Nihilists, Penitents,
Railroad-Strikers, All-brokers, All-jobbers, All-saints, All-devils,
lanterns, music, excitement; Reporters: in London
the Queen’s ‘murderer’ passes by and
in Paris ‘Lot’ the fugitive from Sodom:)
– In the Holy Spirit of slaves
A single Emperor’s renowned
In that of the free, verse
Everything as Lord is crowned!
(King Arthur’s witches and Foster the Seer on Walpurgis by day :)
–When the battle’s lost and won–
–That will be ere the set of sun–
–Paddock calls: Anon!–
–Fair is foul, and foul is fair:
Hover through the fog and filthy air!
(Swedenborg answering later:)
– Future worlds exist: republics,
Christianity, heavens, Lohengrin.
Present worlds are latent:
(At the roar of Jericho, Hendrick Hudson runs aground; the
Indians sell the haunted island of Manhattan
to the Dutch:)
– The Half-Moon, prow toward China
Is careening in Tappan-Zee…
Hoogh moghende Heeren…
For sixty guilders … Yeah! Yeah!
(Photophone-stylographs sacred right to self-defense:)
– In the light the humanitarian voice:
Not hate; rather conscience, intellection;
In Biblical vivisection!
* * *
(Freeloves proceeding to vote for their husbands:)
– Among Americans, Emerson alone,
Wants no Presidents, oh atrocious he!
= Oh well-adjudicated,
Improve for you, for us, for me!
(Apocalyptic visions… slanderous ones:)
– For, ‘the Beast having bear’s feet,’
In God we trust is the Dragon
And the false prophets
Tone, th’ Evolutionist and Theologian!
* * *
(Washington ‘blinding because of them’; Pocahontas without personals:)
To starving bears, a rabid dog!
Be it! After the feast, bring in festoons!..
= Tender Lulu,
Crying and you
Give honey to ‘foes’, bee?… and sting poltroons?
(Guatemalan nose, curved into Hymenee’s torch; Dame-Ryder
heart on the poisoned window-panes of the ‘too dark’ wedding pudding:)
‘Caramba! yo soy cirujano–
A Jesuit… Yankee… industrialism’!
– Job… or haunted cavern,
(Practical swindlers doing their business; self-help Atta-Troll:)
Let the foreigner fall helpless,
As usury won’t pay, the pagan!
= An ear to the bears a feast,
Mahmmuhmmah, mahmmuhmmah, Mammon.
(Magnetic handle-organ; ring of bears sentencing the architect of the
Pharsalia to death; an Odyssean ghost amidst the flames of
Bear… Bear is beriberi, Bear… Bear…
= Mahmmuhmmah, mahmmuhmmah, Mammon!
– Bear… Bear… ber’… Pegasus
= Mahmmuhmmah, mahmmuhmmah, Mammon.