Hilda Hilst – a Brazilian feminist legend

Hilda Hilst young
Hilda Hilst

Even today, the poet, playwright and novelist Hilda Hilst (1930–2004) is one of Brazil’s most important writers. In her fiction and poetry she tackled themes of sexual longing and intimacy that, in the days when she began her career, were often taboo, particularly for a woman writer; and she wrote with great delicacy and intelligence, but also with great courage. She did not deliberately court controversy, but she was always determined to be honest and frank, both in her written work and whenever she appeared in public. A strikingly beautiful woman in her younger years, she retained her good looks until the very end of her life, by which time she had become an imposing champion of the right of women to own their bodies and their desires.

The three poems translated below were taken from the book Do Desejo (About desire), first published in 1992. Hilst’s intention is never to shock but to get at the essence of her feelings without flinching. And the language of her poetry, in the original Portuguese at least, is exquisitely beautiful. Virtually unknown in this country, she deserves to be read widely.

To see you. Touch you

To see you. Touch you. What a blaze of masks.
What contortions, what a face you pull 
Like the passioned friezes of ancient rugs.
How gloomy you become if I resume 
The tortuous path I pursue : a desire
Unreined, a vibrant but liberal adoring of you.
And how dark I become if you wolf down 
My words and my residues. I’m ravished by hungers 
Immensely dense agonies, moons all-ablur 
Blades, a tempest. To see you. Touch you.


Try me again

And why would you want my soul
In your bed?
I spoke oozing, delicious, coarse
Obscene words, because that’s what we wanted.
But I didn’t fake climax pleasure lust
Nor did I deny that the soul is off elsewhere, seeking
The Other One. So I ask you again: why would
You want my soul in your bed?
Enjoy the memory of intercourse and what worked.
Or try me again. Oblige me.


The night mares

I saw the night mares galloping among the vines
And in pursuit of my dreams. They were proud, erect.
Some had bluish patches
Their backs shone like the night
And the mornings died
Under their scarlet legs.  

I saw them chomp at the hanging grapes
And their lips were black and dew-covered.
In unison they snorted.

I saw the night mares amid the rubble
Of the landscape that was me. Saw shadows, elves and hidden traps.
Ribbons of rock and straw between the carpets
And a boundless pit that swallowed up my name and my portrait.

I saw tumultuous crowds. Intense.
And within one of them, wide awake, I saw myself.

Translations by John Lyons