On the street of Tocos in Palmares, Pernambuco, on the morning of 9 May 1895, a future great poet was born. His father was merchant Antônio Carneiro Torres and his mother was teacher Maria Luísa Gonçalves Ferreira, who was known as Dona Marocas.
In 1917, the boy whose birth certificate registered his name as Aníbal Torres decided to change his name to Ascenso Carneiro Gonçalves Ferreira, and later would be known merely as Ascenso Ferreira.
Ascenso spent his entire childhood in Palmares. He learned to read and write thanks to the efforts of Dona Marocas, a dedicated public school teacher, because at the age of 6 he lost his father.
At age 13, due to a lack of financial resources, the young man had to work 10 hours a day. He was employed as a clerk in the store A Fronteira, owned by his godfather Joaquim Ribeiro. He would learn much about life selling cuts of sun-dried meat, shots of cachaça, bowls of flour and half bottles of kerosene.
So it was through the people that he learned of the headless mules, werewolves and other characters from the folklore of Northeast Brazil. While in his teens, Ascenso had already published his first poems, which emphasised the regional’s traditional elements: sugarcane, oxcarts, festivals, legends – in short, popular culture. He then became known as “the wannabe poet teacher’s son.”
In 1916, along with other poets, Ascenso founded the “Hora Literária” [Literary Hour] society. However, he began to be persecuted politically for his defending abolitionism. Later, concerning this stage of life, the poet would write:
Mum was fired after 25 years of service! Our house was pitched; one day I was booed on the street; chased spitefully by the police; threatened with arrest ... My godfather’s business, due to his death, went into liquidation. I was without a job and with no one in Palmares who wanted to employ me, because all were afraid of displeasing the powers-that-be.
When he moved to Recife, at age 24, Ascenso got an administrative job, working as a clerk in the Pernambuco State Treasury. His career as a poet, however, was launched by the students of the Recife Faculty of Law, who on one occasion forced him to recite his verses on the stage of Santa Isabel Theatre.
Ascenso had a keen sense of rhythm. Through his poems, he could make people hear, for example, the Alagoas train running on the tracks:
(...) Mangabas maduras, [Ripe mangabas]
mamões amarelos, [yellow papayas]
mamões amarelos [yellow papaya]
que amostram, molengos, [that softly show]
as mamas macias [soft breasts]
pra gente mamar... [for us to suckle]
Vou danado pra Catende, [I’ll race for Catende]
vou danado pra Catende, [I’ll race for Catende]
vou danado pra Catende [I’ll race for Catende]
com vontade de chegar(...) [desperate to get there]
In 1921 in Recife, Ascenso Ferreira married Maria Stela de Barros Griz, who also came from Palmares and was daughter of the poet Fernando Griz. The following year he published his poems in newspapers Diario de Pernambuco and A Província. He became close friends with Luís da Câmara Cascudo, Joaquim Cardozo, Souza Barros and Gouveia de Barros.
Ascenso participated in many recitals and wrote his first modernist poem: Lusco-Fusco [Twilight]. In 1927, encouraged by Manuel Bandeira, he published his first book: Catimbó.
The following year, the second edition of his book came out in Recife, which had already been launched in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. In this city, the poet gave a recital at the theatre Teatro de Brinquedos, receiving a strong ovation, and became friends with many intellectuals and artists in southern Brazil: Mário de Andrade, Cassiano Ricardo, Anita Malfatti, Eugênia Alvaro Moreira, Oswald de Andrade, Olívia Penteado, Afonso Arinos de Melo Franco and Tarsila do Amaral.
Ascenso published the book Cana caiana [Cayenne Sugarcane] in 1939 with illustrations by Lula Cardoso Ayres. At that time, he travelled to Rio de Janeiro, where he met Cândido Portinari, Sérgio Milliet, Osvaldo Costa, and other personalities.
In the early 1940s, Ascenso retired as revenue director of the Pernambuco State Treasury, and as a man of a certain age, fell in love with a young teen – Maria de Lourdes Medeiros – and moved in with her. In 1948, their daughter Maria Luiza was born. This girl was his greatest source of concern in the final stage of his life because he feared not living so long and having to leave her fatherless while still very young.
Another work by Ascenso entitled Poemas e xenhehém [Poems and Blah Blah Blah], was launched in 1951. At this time, he travelled to Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and Minas Gerais over three months to attend conferences, recordings and give recitals. At the Writers’ Congress in Goiânia, he became friends with the illustrious Pablo Neruda.
The poet signed a contract with publishers José Olympio Editora in 1956 for a new edition of his poems. Shortly afterwards, he released a double album with his complete works: 64 poemas escolhidos e 3 historietas populares [64 Selected Poems and 3 Popular short stories], presented by Câmara Cascudo. Furthermore, he would become the fourth Brazilian poet to have his voice recorded for Washington’s Library of Congress.
Ascenso was almost 2m tall, wore a straw hat on his head, loved eating and was always smoking a big cigar. One of his friends remembered that one afternoon, after bathing in the Passarinho River, for lunch the gluttonous poet had three generous helpings of sarapatel with fried manioc flour and chili, drank a pint of cachaça with honey, and for dessert ate half a soft jackfruit. When he arrived home that night, he told his wife that he was not hungry, and so was content with a bowl of porridge and a piece of sun-dried meat.
About the poet, Manuel Bandeira wrote:
"Ascenso Ferreira is gigantic in stature, which at first scares you. However, he just needs to open his mouth to dispel all terrors; he is a big softy, and has sentimentally understood and sung the painful drama of the hillbillies whom he loves [...] His poems are true Northeast rhapsodies, where he faithfully reflected the sometimes playful, sometimes poignantly nostalgic soul of the people of the plantations."
In turn, Luís da Câmara Cascudo stressed: “Ascenso Ferreira, Ascensão [Big Ascenso], Ascenso Grandão [Great Ascenso], deep cattle-like voice, huge oxcart hat at a height of one metre ninety, over a hundred very heavy kilos.”
(Transcribed is following one of the most beautiful poems by Ascenso Ferreira).
História Pátria [Homeland History]
Plantando mandioca, plantando feijão, [Planting cassava, planting beans,]
colhendo café, borracha, cacau, [harvesting coffee, rubber, cocoa,]
comendo pamonha, canjica, mingau, [eating pamonha, grits, porridge,]
rezando de tarde nossa Ave-Maria, [praying our Hail Mary in the afternoon,]
A gente vivia. [We lived.]
De festas no ano só quatro é que havia: [Only four festivals each year and they were:]
Entrudo e Natal, Quaresma e Sanjoão! [Shrovetide and Christmas, Lent and St John!]
Mas tudo emendava num só carrilhão! [But all merged into just one carillon!]
E a gente vadiava, dançava, comia... [And we hung out, danced, ate…]
A gente vivia. [We lived.]
Todo santo dia! [Every god-given day!]
O Rei, entretanto, não era da terra! [The King, however, was not from the land!]
E gente pra Europa mandou-se estudar... [And people sent to Europe to study…]
Gentinha idiota que trouxe a mania [Stupid little people who brought the craze]
de nos transformar [of transforming us]
da noite pro dia... [overnight...]
A gente que tão [We who are so]
(E foi um dia a nossa civilização tão fácil de criar!) [And a day so easy to create for our civilization!]
Passou-se a pensar, [Began to think,]
passou-se a cantar, [Began to sing,]
passou-se a dançar, [Began to dance,]
passou-se a comer, [Began to eat,]
passou-se a vestir, [Began to dress,]
passou-se a viver, [Began to live,]
passou-se a sentir, [Began to feel,]
tal como Paris [just like Paris]
A gente que tão [We who are so]
In another poem, entitled Filosofia [Philosophy], Ascenso recorded.
Hora de comer – comer! [Time to eat – eat!]
Hora de dormir – dormir! [Time to sleep – sleep!]
Hora de vadiar – vadiar! [Time to hang around – hang around!]
Hora de trabalhar? [Time to work?]
Pernas pro ar que ninguém é de ferro! [Put your feet up because no one is made of iron!]
Another of his poems worth transcribing is the following:
Minha Escola [My school]
A escola que eu freqüentava era cheia de grades como as prisões. [The school I attended was full of bars like the prisons.]
E o meu Mestre, carrancudo como um dicionário; [And my Master, scowling like a dictionary;]
Complicado como as Matemáticas; [Complicated like Mathematics;]
Inacessível como Os Lusíadas de Camões! [Inaccessible as The Lusiads by Camões!]
À sua porta eu estacava sempre hesitante... [At your door I leaned always hesitant ...]
De um lado a vida... – A minha adorável vida de criança: [On one hand life... – My lovely life of a child:]
Pinhões... Papagaios... Carreiras ao sol... [Pinions... parrots... Running under the sun...]
Vôos de trapézio à sombra da mangueira! [Trapeze flights in the shade of the mango tree!]
Saltos da ingazeira pra dentro do rio... [Jumps from the ingazeira tree into the river...]
Jogos de castanhas... [Games with nuts]
- O meu engenho de barro de fazer mel! [My plantation to make honey!]
Do outro lado, aquela tortura: [On the other hand, the torture:]
“As armas e os barões assinalados!” [“Weapons and coats of arms!”]
- Quantas orações? [How many prayers?]
- Qual é o maior rio da China? [What is the longest river in China?]
- A 2 + 2 A B = quanto? [A 2 + 2 A B = what?]
- Que é curvilíneo, convexo? [What is curvilinear, convex?]
- Menino, venha dar sua lição de retórica! [Boy, come to your rhetoric lesson!]
- “Eu começo, atenienses, invocando [I begin, men of Athens, by calling upon]
a proteção dos deuses do Olimpo [the protection of the Gods of Olympus]
para os destinos da Grécia!” [for the people of Greece!”]
- Muito bem! Isto é do grande Demóstenes! [Very good! That is the great Demosthenes!]
- Agora, a de francês: [Now in French:]
- “Quand le christianisme avait apparu sur la terre...” [When Christianity had appeared on Earth…]
- Basta. [Enough]
- Hoje temos sabatina... [Today is the test...]
- O argumento é a bolo! [The argument is the cake!]
- Qual é a distância da Terra ao Sol? [What is the distance of Earth from the Sun]
- ? !!
- Não sabe? Passe a mão à palmatória! [You don’t know? Put your hand out!]
- Bem, amanhã quero isso de cor... [Well, tomorrow I want this by heart...]
Felizmente, à boca da noite, [Fortunately, late at night,]
Eu tinha uma velha que me contava histórias... [I had an old woman who told me stories…]
Lindas histórias do reino da Mãe-d’Água... [Beautiful stories from the Water Mother’s realm...]
E me ensinava a tomar a benção à lua nova. [And she taught me receive the blessing of the new moon.]
On 5 May 1965, just days before turning 70, Ascenso Carneiro Gonçalves Ferreira, the magnificent poet of the plantations, manor houses, sugarcane, cowboys, outlaws, bumba-meu-boi, Carnival, blind guitar players, passed away at Hospital Centenário in Recife.
To honour him, the Recife City Council had his bust installed on Rua do Apolo, in the city centre, where the poet loved to wander. And on the pedestal of the bust was recorded another of his beautiful verses:
Sozinho, de noite, [Alone at night,]
nas ruas desertas [on the deserted streets]
do velho Recife, que atrás do arruado [of Old Recife, behind the row-houses]
deserto ficou, [deserted was]
criança, de novo, [a child, again]
eu sinto que sou. [I feel I am]
Recife, 9 December 2003.
(Updated on 17 September 2007).
Translated by Peter Leamy, July 2016.
FERREIRA, Ascenso. Catimbó – Cana caiana – Xenhenhém: poemas de Ascenso Ferreira. 5. ed. Recife: Nordestal Ed., 1995.
_________. Catimbó. 2. ed. Recife: Companhia Editora de Pernambuco, 1988.
LUNA, Luiz. Ascenso Ferreira: menestrel do povo. Rio de Janeiro: Editora Paralelo, 1971.
SILVA, Jorge Fernandes da. Vidas que não morrem. Recife: Departamento de Cultura, 1982.
how to quote this text
Source: VAINSENCHER, Semira Adler. Ascenso Ferreira. Pesquisa Escolar Online, Fundação Joaquim Nabuco, Recife. Disponível em: <http://basilio.fundaj.gov.br/pesquisaescolar>. Acesso em: dia mês ano. Ex: 6 ago. 2009.