In a certain light, Waly Salomão's Algaravias: Echo Chamber can be read as a handbook for surviving the Information Age. This slim, brilliant volume of poetry, ingeniously translated by Maryam Monalisa Gharavi, finds the Brazilian poet wrestling with mixed disenchantment and bliss in a world where geographic distance has succumbed to short flight times and swiftly broadcast images. In "Jet-Lagged Poem for Antoní Llena," for instance, Salomão lyrically zips through four languages other than Portuguese in an effort to evoke the growing simultaneity and displacement of our hyperconnected culture. The effect is dizzying. Amid the parade of brand names, video game tutorial rhetoric, European travel destinations, and wry parodies of drug trafficking, the reader may be hard-pressed to differentiate between exaggeration and reportage, between points on a map and the borderless space of the cloud. When Salomão asks, midway through the poem, "Is the street a street-street or interactive virtual reality?" he puts his finger on a doubt we know all too well.
If this sounds prophetic for a poetry collection written in the ’90s, it's not hard to see how Salomão got there. Born in 1943 to a Syrian father and a Brazilian mother, Salomão quickly rose to prominence as a songwriter in the eclectic music scene of the ’60s. After a period of incarceration under military dictatorship, Salomão emerged as a radical alternative to Brazil's modernist golden age with his first collection, Me segura qu'eu vou dar um troço (Hold Me Back, I’m About to Flip Out). When Salomão came to the United States to study at Columbia in 1974, his project to reform Brazilian letters was already in full swing. The American sojourn proved influential: Salomão’s Portuguese is riddled with English, and John Ashbery and Wallace Stevens are written into the titles of some of Salomão’s poems. Yet in Algaravias, Salomão waves to us from a future where the distinctions between these languages have collapsed.
It is partially this effort to look beyond the overwhelming present that makes Salomão's poetry so invigorating. In "Open Letter to John Ashbery," he writes,
Memory is an editing deck—a nameless
passerby says, in a nonchalant manner,
and immediately hits delete and also
the meaning of what he wanted to say.
In lines like these, the mind recognizes itself. Who hasn’t had the experience of accidentally deleting a stray idea on our memory’s desktop? Similarly, in “Anti-Travel,” Salomão reminds that “No habeas corpus / is recognized in the Jury Tribunal of the Cosmos. / Coming and going as one pleases / doesn’t exist in any cosmic Bill of Rights.” In other words, our esteemed liberal ideals are tiny ships in an infinite storm.
But an equal portion of Salomão’s book is engaged in another, more local conversation about poetry. “Almost any anthology of current national poetry: sequence succeeds sequence / of poem-joke / and pseudo-haiku,” he writes in “Lausperene.” This description brings to mind the formal experiments of the modernists, especially Carlos Drummond de Andrade’s “In the Middle of the Road,” a poem-joke that mostly consists of variations on the sentence, “There was a stone in the middle of the road.” It’s not that Salomão rejects modernist poetics—actually, the shadows of figures like Drummond loom large in his work. Rather, Salomão seems to be railing against imitators who write “where everything isn’t but order and beauty.” Brazilian modernism could only happen once, he suggests. It’s time to move on.
Yet if modernism proved that anything can be poetry, what’s next? Salomão's answer is to strip away literary pretensions, draw inward, and become an “Echo chamber / the substance of marrow itself made citation.” One can only write with the words one already has, after all. This accounts for one of the most attractive qualities of Salomão’s writing: its unmistakable voice. “My rhythm is only rhythm / when seasoned with irony,” he explains. Not a bad policy. If you want to combat the disillusionment brought on by an increasingly alienating reality, it helps to acquire a beautiful sense of humor.