Brazil: Karen Tei Yamashita, Elizabeth Bishop

April 24, 2013

Both write about human efforts that come to nothing.   Bishop’s Manuelzinho begins bravely, planting gardens that ravish the eye: beds of  cabbages edged with red carnations, lettuces with alyssum.   But then “silver umbrella ants arrive,/ or it rains for a solid week/and the whole thing’s ruined again/and I buy you more pounds of seeds,/ imported, guaranteed,/ and eventually you bring me/ a mystic thee-legged carrot,/ or a pumpkin “bigger than the baby.”

The world’s worst gardener since Cain, yes!   And yet the poet doesn’t seem overly distressed.   Crops that get washed away or eaten up by ants are almost funny when it happens with some regularity.   A kind of magic of reverse   Manuelzinho is a “fairy prince.”

Karen Tei Yamashita is also fond of this magic in reverse.   Through the Arc of the Rain Forest (1990) begins with a mysterious satellite ball swirling around the head of a Japanese man, Kazumura, and proceeds to recount their adventures through Brazil, initially to contribute their joint expertise to the Brazilian railroad but ending up with a much larger experiment with a mysterious substance on the Matacao.   That experiment also comes to nothing.   But at least the forest is left in peace, although, as the satellite balls ruefully notes: it “will never be the same again.”

Failures that fail to become tragedy and turn into something else.   Maybe that’s what Brazil makes possible?

About wcd2

Professor of English and American Studies
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