ELIZABETH BISHOP


“Manuelzinho”

 

(The New Yorker Magazine, 1956)

 

Aspects of class representation observed in the poem.

 

  

In the very beginning of the poem we may read Elizabeth Bishop’s note: “A friend of the writer is speaking”. It is as if she wished to partly dissociate herself from the own speaker, a liberal landowner addressing to a squatter-tenant.

 

Manuelzinho, the tenant, is seen as an improvident but touching person, having picturesque qualities traditionally attributed to those colonized. The landowner, on the other hand, is essentially benign and melancholically resigned to a balance of power totally favorable to him, in which our tenant must beg for provisions. And Bishop places herself in a non-equidistant point between the landowner and the tenant. But although the poem is read from the point of view of the landowner, it leaves the reader free to accept or to reject the implicit relation of subservience and authority that exist between them.

 

English essayist John Gledson noticed that Bishop was not able to see the so-called Brazilian racial democracy as it should be seen. He remembered that the poet once referred to it by recognizing that “the situation [was] not utopian, socially speaking”. But despite of this recognition, she had serious problems with the Brazilian press, being even accused of racism, which, according to Gledson, was “presumably because she was willing to gloss over the obvious social difference between mistress and maid”, as she was “delighted by the spontaneity of the kiss and the unconsciousness of passers-by to it”.

 

Making a further exemption in order to acknowledge that the mentioned quotations “by no means” sum up Elizabeth Bishop’s “complex reaction to the country she made her home for so long”, John Gledson questioned, then, what exactly the poet missed in her point of view of class differences in Brazil: “in many ways she is right, of course, and her observation not just of the advert, but of the public lack of reaction to it guarantees that”.

 

But to achieve “the best possible answer”, John Gledson appealed to the well-know Brazilian anthropologist Roberto da Matta, “whose works on the problems of what makes Brazilians different to others” seem to him “to have a great deal to recommend” as a reliable source. So he remembered da Matta words, frequently insisting that Brazil was a very hierarchical society “where social status and social stratification matter a great deal”. Also, he mentioned that the anthropologist compared Brazilian society to the caste system of India, when he referred to the Chapter 4 of da Matta’s book Carnavais, Malandros e Heróis”, which reminded us that common phrase “Você sabe com quem esta falando?” (“Do you know who you're talking to?”), which answer would almost ever be “the son of an important businessman, a general, a minister, and so on”.

 

And, according to the diagnosis proposed by Roberto da Matta, “what appears to be a contradiction between intimacy and hierarchy is, in fact, a structural unity: it is precisely because everything is so clearly demarcated in terms of class, because everyone ‘knows their place’, that intimacy is possible”. But Gledson’s words (as well as his references to da Matta) also seems to have a certain rigor in judging Bishop’s positioning about social differences in Brazil. Actually, very similarly to the French painter and illustrator Jean-Baptiste Debret (1768-1848), what the poet did was to take an impersonal photo of a specific day-by-day relation, not commenting it in sociological or political terms. However, her denounce has effectively a very strong power despite of her apparent silence, refrain or exemption.

 

Elizabeth Bishop was a Poet Laureate of the United States from 1949 to 1950, and a Pulitzer Prize winner in 1956.

 

 

 

Manuelzinho

Elizabeth Bishop

 

[Brazil. A friend of the writer is speaking.]

 

Half squatter, half tenant (no rent)—
a sort of inheritance; white,
in your thirties now, and supposed
to supply me with vegetables,
but you don't; or you won't; or you can't
get the idea through your brain—
the world's worst gardener since Cain.
Titled above me, your gardens
ravish my eyes. You edge
the beds of silver cabbages
with red carnations, and lettuces
mix with alyssum. And then
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."

I watch you through the rain,
trotting, light, on bare feet,
up the steep paths you have made—
or your father and grandfather made—
all over my property,
with your head and back inside
a sodden burlap bag,
and feel I can't endure it
another minute; then,
indoors, beside the stove,
keep on reading a book.

You steal my telephone wires,
or someone does. You starve
your horse and yourself
and your dogs and family.
among endless variety,
you eat boiled cabbage stalks.
And once I yelled at you
so loud to hurry up
and fetch me those potatoes
your holey hat flew off,
you jumped out of your clogs,
leaving three objects arranged
in a triangle at my feet,
as if you'd been a gardener
in a fairy tale all this time
and at the word "potatoes"
had vanished to take up your work
of fairy prince somewhere.

The strangest things happen to you.
Your cows eats a "poison grass"
and drops dead on the spot.
Nobody else's does.
And then your father dies,
a superior old man
with a black plush hat, and a moustache
like a white spread-eagled sea gull.
The family gathers, but you,
no, you "don't think he's dead!
I look at him. He's cold.
They're burying him today.
But you know, I don't think he's dead."
I give you money for the funeral
and you go and hire a bus
for the delighted mourners,
so I have to hand over some more
and then have to hear you tell me
you pray for me every night!

And then you come again,
sniffing and shivering,
hat in hand, with that wistful
face, like a child's fistful
of bluets or white violets,
improvident as the dawn,
and once more I provide
for a shot of penicillin
down at the pharmacy, or
one more bottle of
Electrical Baby Syrup.
Or, briskly, you come to settle
what we call our "accounts,"
with two old copybooks,
one with flowers on the cover,
the other with a camel.
immediate confusion.
You've left out decimal points.
Your columns stagger,
honeycombed with zeros.
You whisper conspiratorially;
the numbers mount to millions.
Account books? They are Dream Books.
in the kitchen we dream together
how the meek shall inherit the earth—
or several acres of mine.

With blue sugar bags on their heads,
carrying your lunch,
your children scuttle by me
like little moles aboveground,
or even crouch behind bushes
as if I were out to shoot them!
—Impossible to make friends,
though each will grab at once
for an orange or a piece of candy.

Twined in wisps of fog,
I see you all up there
along with Formoso, the donkey,
who brays like a pump gone dry,
then suddenly stops.
—All just standing, staring
off into fog and space.
Or coming down at night,
in silence, except for hoofs,
in dim moonlight, the horse
or Formoso stumbling after.
Between us float a few
big, soft, pale-blue,
sluggish fireflies,
the jellyfish of the air...

Patch upon patch upon patch,
your wife keeps all of you covered.
She has gone over and over
(forearmed is forewarned)
your pair of bright-blue pants
with white thread, and these days
your limbs are draped in blueprints.
You paint—heaven knows why—
the outside of the crown
and brim of your straw hat.
Perhaps to reflect the sun?
Or perhaps when you were small,
your mother said, "Manuelzinho,
one thing; be sure you always
paint your straw hat."
One was gold for a while,
but the gold wore off, like plate.
One was bright green. Unkindly,
I called you Klorophyll Kid.
My visitors thought it was funny.
I apologize here and now.
You helpless, foolish man,
I love you all I can,
I think. Or I do?
I take off my hat, unpainted
and figurative, to you.
Again I promise to try.

 

B I B L I O G R A P H Y

 

·     Rich, Adrienne – “The Eye of the Outsider”

On the website: http://www.bostonreview.net

(Consulted in June, 30th 2008)

 

·     Gledson, John “Brazil: Culture and Identity”.

In: Working Paper #14 (1994): pp.13-15. Department of Hispanic Studies / Institute of Latin American Studies - University of Liverpool.  Liverpool, UK