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INTERMEDIALITY IN ELIZABETH BISHOP´S POETRY Solange

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INTERMEDIALITY IN ELIZABETH BISHOP´S POETRY Solange
INTERMEDIALITY IN ELIZABETH BISHOP´S POETRY
Solange Ribeiro de Oliveira
Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais
ABSTRACT: Starting from the preciseness and expressiveness of the descriptions in
Elizabeth Bishop´s poetry, the essay relies on the concepts of intermediality, iconotext
and ekphrasis for the analysis of three of the poet´s best known poems, “Arrival at
Santos”, “Brazil, January 1, 1502” and “The Burglar of Babylon”. The three are read as
evidence of the poet´s changing attitudes towards Brazil as well as illustrations of the role
played by intermediality – the relation between Literature and the other arts and media –
as tools for social and historical criticism.
KEY WORDS: intermediality; ekphrasis and cinematographic references in Elizabeth
Bishop´s poetry; Elizabeth Bishop and Brazil; social and historical criticism.
RESUMO: A partir da precisão e expressividade da descrição na poesia de Elizabeth
Bishop, o ensaio recorre aos conceitos de intermidialidade, iconotexto e écfrase para a
análise de três dos poemas mais conhecidos da poeta, “Arrival at Santos”, “Brazil,
January 1, 1502” e “The Burglar of Babylon”. Os três são lidos como manifestações das
mudanças de atitude da poeta em relação ao Brasil bem como ilustrações do papel
representado pela intermedialidade – a relação entre a Literatura e as outras artes e mídias
– como instrumentos de crítica histórica e social.
PALAVRAS-CHAVE: intermidialidade; écfrase e efeitos cinematográficos na poesia de
Elizabeth Bishop; Elizabeth Bishop e o Brasil; crítica social e histórica.
Since the publication of Elizabeth Bishop´s first books, North and South
(1946) and Poems (1950), critics have insistently noted the preciseness and
expressiveness of description in her poems, involving places, animals and objects of the
outside world. These features, consistent with the emphasis on observation and
description typical of North-American modernist poetry and with the general principles
of high modernism – reticence, impersonality, objectivity – did not, however, exclude
something less immediately evident, a psychologizing, interiorizing turn, which
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distinguished Bishop from her contemporary fellow poets. The topographic description in
many of her texts often looks like an excuse for self-expression. Under the guise of realist
descriptions, her poems slide towards a subtle subjectivity, hinting at emotions and
empathies absent, for instance, from the production of her friend, and, up to a point,
mentor, Marianne Moore. As has already been commented (OLIVEIRA, 2002: 41-49), a
lyrical persona lurks in seemingly “objective” descriptions – an aspect of Bishop´s poetry
which in time came to be studied by critics, among whom David Kalstone and the
Brazilian poet/critic/translator Paulo Henriques Britto.
Elizabeth Bishop´s poems about the Brazilian physical and human landscape can
thus be taken as a special manifestation of her subjectivity. By that I mean the expression,
in descriptive poems, of the poet´s changing attitudes towards the country which was hers
for almost two decades, particularly her growing involvement with its physical and social
landscape. An initially cool, detached description of touristic and exotic details gradually
yields to an interest in Brazilian history, art and culture, an empathy with the sufferings
brought by colonization to indigenous people and then – especially in her ballad “The
Burglar of Babylon” – to a sensitive analysis of inequities still apparent in our social
system.
In this paper, I am initially interested in the poet´s attitude towards Brazil as
illustrated by two of her best-known texts, “Arrival at Santos” and “Brazil, January 1,
1502”. Both can be read as examples of a literary phenomenon Liliane Louvel calls
iconotext: a piece of writing saturated with plastic effects, a privileged space where visual
and literary art cross (LOUVEL, 2006: 203). Working with linguistic signifiers, the
writer emulates the painter´s brushstrokes. So much so that, offered to a painter, such
texts could be transposed to the canvas. Iconotexts can exist in different scales, from the
strongest pictorial impregnation – in which reference to a real or fictitious visual work is
made explicit and developed – to the subtlest forms, in which painterly suggestions are,
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so to speak, diluted in the literary text. Readers are led to represent to themselves the
images embedded in the text and deduce their symbolic value or rhetorical intents.
In a similar line, according to a better known terminology, both “Arrival at
Santos” and “Brazil, January 1, 1502” can be taken as ekphrastic poems, “verbal
representations of a real or fictitious text composed in a non-verbal sign system”,
according to Claus Clüver´s comprehensive definition (CLŰVER, 1997: 26). In fact,
ekphrastic poems have long aroused critical interest, especially as literary transpositions
of visual representations found in paintings, tapestries and photographs. These artworks
may actually exist, even when not identified by a critic. Alternatively, they may be
fictitious, or refer to no specific work, only to general aspects of an artist´s output. Not
seldom, the allusion to the visual work consists of mere traces, or is restricted to a title, to
a single reference, or then points to a generic model. To my purpose, the main interest of
ekphrastic poems lies in the fact that they project the implied author´s response – an
impression, a commentary, a meditation – to the intended visual work. They may also
(and this is definitely true of Bishop´s texts) tackle extra-textual concerns, such as
cultural, social and historical phenomena – precisely those aspects which, after the rise of
cultural studies, have moved to the centre of critical attention. In such cases critics are
invited to focus their attention on the way in which authors use the visual work to fulfill
their rhetorical intent.
In both “Arrival at Santos” and “Brazil, January 1, 1502” the poetic persona
comes out as the beholder of visual texts, revealing contrasting attitudes at different
moments of Bishop´s Brazilian experience. The first poem, written in 1952, the year of
the poet´s first arrival in Brazil, registers a tourist´s initial contact with the land. The
poetic persona´s gaze is that of a curious, but cool, detached traveler. The eyes rest on
dull, uninteresting details, as if taken by an absent-minded camera: “a coast”, “a harbor”,
“some scenery”, “mountains” “a little church”, “warehouses”, “a tender”, passengers
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leaving the ship... The casual description of the Brazilian coast evokes pictures of the port
of Santos in the 1950´s, like those reproduced in José Girald´s book Photografias e
Fotografias do Porto de Santos (1996). The black and white photos suggest what the poet
may indeed have seen at her arrival, and may be taken as fitting metaphors for a
newcomer´s disappointment at the absence of the vivid colors associated with tropical
scenery.
The port of Santos in the 1950´s
From Photografias e Fotografias do Porto de Santos
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The Anna C, Santos, in the 1950´s.
Photografias e Fotografias do Porto de Santos, 1996.
In this poem the factual description hardly disguises a muted disdain, as in the
comments on the poor quality of Brazilian stamps and soap:
the unassertive colors of soap, or postage stamps-wasting away like the former, slipping the way the latter
do when we mail the letters we wrote on the boat,
either because the glue here is very inferior
or because of the heat
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So also the description of the Brazilian flag (“a strange and brilliant rag”) sounds
anything but flattering. As it seems, the poetic voice did not even expect the country to
have a flag at all.
So that's the flag. I never saw it before.
I somehow never thought of there being a flag
Whatever interest is expressed seems limited to the hope of finding some English
speaker at the customs, who will let the tourists keep the drinks and cigarettes smuggled
in their luggage:
The customs officials will speak English, we hope,
and leave us our bourbon and cigarettes.
The condescending stance and the poem´s seeming simplicity do not exclude
stylistic sophistication. Elegantly turned phrases invite readers to take the poetic attitude.
Unusual adjectival usage betrays the voice of the poet tourist – “meager diet of horizon”,
“self-pitying mountains (…) sad and harsh”, “frivolous greenery”, “uncertain palms”.
Plants and lifeless objects are granted attributes properly used of humans. It is of course
the poetic persona, not the palms or mountains that feel “self-pitying”, “sad”, “uncertain”.
The revealing, anthropomorphizing tone, frequent in Bishop´s descriptive poems, is
supported by the poetic voice, which finally acknowledges her half-suppressed emotions,
her
immodest demands for a different world,
and a better life, and complete comprehension
of both at last.
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“A better life”, it seems, the new country indeed brought the poet, or, at least, the
possibility to yield to emotions suppressed in her native Puritan surroundings. “Complete
comprehension" is always of course impossible. However, as time when on, Bishop´s
poetry began to register a vision increasingly less incomplete of herself and of Brazil. Her
personal life begins to be timidly used as material for her poetry, just as her descriptive
poems more and more reveal changes in her attitude towards her new surroundings.
“Arrival at Santos” typically ends with the line “We are driving to the interior”. In fact,
the woman who lurks under the poetic mask leaves Santos and travels inland. But she
also moves to her own inner self, and experiences a progressive understanding and
assimilation of the country that welcomes her. The second poem analyzed in this paper,
“Brazil, January 1, 1502”, turns out a particularly interesting illustration of this process as
well as of ekphrastic poetry at the service of historical and ideological criticism.
As a matter of fact, “Brazil, January 1, 1502”, sounds totally different from
“Arrival at Santos”. The gaze, no longer that of the disappointed tourist, is now that of
the interested explorer, absorbed in the study of the landscape, the art and the history of
the country. Besides, in the very first verse the plural “Januaries” makes clear that the
poetic persona is concerned with more than the particular events which took place in
Brazil during the Portuguese colonization. The poem first concentrates on what might
have been the Portuguese invaders´ initial impressions of the land, but then moves on to
the poetic self´s interpretation of ensuing events. In some verses, the description sounds
like a recapitulation of sad occurrences common to all colonial practices, such as the
enforcement of alien beliefs and the cruelty to natives, women in particular. For both
purposes ekphrasis proves a most convenient tool.
To begin with, the poem may be taken as an intersemiotic transposition of a visual
work of art, a tapestry whose precise identification has not been traced, but which can be
clearly related to certain Gobelin tapestries based on cartoons reproducing paintings of
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seventeenth-century Brazil. We may here remember that the Gobelins were a family of
dyers who, in the middle of the 15th century, established themselves in the Faubourg
Saint-Marcel, Paris. In 1602, Henry IV of France rented factory space for his Flemish
tapestry makers on the current location of the Gobelins Manufactory adjoining the Bièvre
river. In 1662 the works in the Faubourg Saint Marcel, with the adjoining grounds, were
purchased by Jean-Baptiste Colbert on behalf of Louis XIV and made into a general
upholstery factory, in which designs both in tapestry and in all kinds of furniture were
executed under the superintendence of the royal painter, Charles Le Brun, who served as
director and chief designer from 1663-1690. On account of Louis XIV's financial
problems, the establishment was closed in 1694, but reopened in 1697 for the
manufacture of tapestry, chiefly for royal use. 1
As the Brazilian historian Carla Mary S. Oliveira (2001: 21, n. 52) reminds us, in
the seventeenth century some drawings representing Brazilian landscape were taken to
Europe and used decades later as a basis for two series of tapestries woven at the Gobelin
factory This fact explains the allusion to the art of tapestry in the epigraph of “Brazil,
January 1, 1502”. The kind of artwork Elizabeth Bishop certainly had in mind when she
used the reference to tapestry in the epigraph can be exemplified by “Les Pecheurs”
(“The Fishermen”) – a tapestry from the Manufacture Royale de Gobelins, probably after
a design by Albert Eckhout and Frans Post. The reference to Eckhout is more than
justified: as court painter to the colonial governor of Dutch Brazil, he created many
works similar to “Les Pêcheurs, life-size paintings of Amerindians, Africans, and
Brazilians of mixed race in support of the governor’s project to document the people and
natural history of the colony. A lot of interesting information as well as images of this
and other tapestries have been made available by the curator and art historian Esther
1
The explanations from this paragraph were drawn from several entries on Wikipedia.
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Schreuder in her site http://estherschreuder.wordpress.com/. Here is one of these images,
in fact of “Les Pêcheurs”:
“Les Pecheurs”. Available at http://estherschreuder.wordpress.com/ accessed on March
13, 2012.
“Les Pêcheurs” is one of a series of eight named Les Anciennes tentures des Indes,
which became a gift from one sovereign to another: only the richest people could afford
tapestries, which were exceptionally expensive to produce on account of the materials,
labor and time involved. Tapestries from the Anciennes tentures des Indes series
decorated the palaces of Louis XIV, of the Knights of Saint John on Malta, of Peter the
Great at Peterhof near St.Petersburg and many other royal residences. “Les Pecheurs”
shows three Indians and an African woman with a basket of flowers. They are not
ethnographic portraits but representations of people going about what Europeans
imagined was their ordinary occupations, in a setting that looks like an exotic version of
paradise. A number of elements in this composition, such as the large palm tree to the
side of the scene, are based on Albert Eckhout’s painting African woman.
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Unlike her counterpart in the painting, the woman in the tapestry does not wear
European jewellery and her headgear is different. So also she has flowers and plants in
her basket, whereas in the painting it contains fruit.
The cartoons for the Les Anciennes tentures des Indes series were probably drawn
by Albert Eckhout himself or by the renowned tapestry weaver Maximiliaan van der
Gucht. In her book Visions of Savage Paradise Rebecca Parker Brienen suggests that, as
early as the 1640s, Prince Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen, Governor-General of the
Dutch colony in Brazil from 1637 to 1644, may have informed Eckhout and Frans Post of
his plans to have tapestries made from the artworks painted for him by the two artists.
But how did the tapestries come to be in Louis XIV´s hands? The explanation has to do
with the fact that in 1678 Prince Nassau-.Sigen shipped a number of drawings, some 40
paintings, cartoons, animal skins, stuffed birds and other objects to Paris. He was in
serious financial straits and hoped that Louis XIV would buy these items in order to
commission the celebrated Gobelin factory to make tapestries based on them. The Prince
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emphasized the value of the Brazilian collection as something novel and totally
distinctive. In a letter to Louis´ minister Simon Arnaul de Pomponne the Prince wrote:
…on peut former une tapisserie pour meubler une grande
sale ou galerie, ce qui serait une chose tres rare, qui ne se trouve
plus au monde [...] ce beau pays de Bresil lequel n’a pas son
pareil dans le ciel […] voyant la grande difference entre l’Europe
et l’Afrique”…
The collection was accepted, even though the tapestries were not made until seven
years after Prince Nassau-.Sigen had died. A total of eight series were made, until the
cartoons were worn out, when a new series, based on the old one, was designed by
Alexandre-Francois Desportes.
This detour about tapestries made after Dutch drawings has been necessary to
explain the allusion to tapestry in the epigraph of Bishop´s poem “Brazil, January 1,
1502”. The epigraph reads: “embroidered nature... tapestried landscape. --Landscape Into
Art, by Sir Kenneth Clark”. The reference can be traced to the art historian Kenneth
Clark´s book on the origin and development of landscape art, and gives witness to the
knowledge of Brazilian art and culture that Elizabeth Bishop had been acquiring: she had
certainly been reading about Brazilian art. In the poem itself, the description strongly
suggests paintings by the artists mentioned above, who were brought to Brazil by Nassau.Sigen: Albert Eckhout and Frans Janszoon Post (the first European artist to paint South
American landscapes.) Both Eckhout and Post registered the human and topographic
Brazilian landscape during the Dutch occupation. In the poem, the poetic persona gazes
on one of these landscape tapestries. Such as the Gobelin tapestry “Les Pecheurs”, it
represents the local flora and fauna, as well as the native inhabitants.
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Bishop´s text invites readers to imagine the Brazilian landscape such as it may
have struck the invaders´ eyes on the date announced in the title – “Brazil, January 1,
1502” – when the Portuguese arrived at Guanabara Bay, which they mistakenly took for
the mouth of a great river in what was to become the city of Rio de Janeiro. The
descriptive details take thirteen of the fifteen verses of the first stanza and twelve of the
twenty-first of the second, which corresponds to fifty per cent of the 153 lines of the
whole poem. The reader can hardly refuse the invitation to “enter” the “painting” offered
by the vivid ekphrastic construction. I quote:
big leaves, little leaves, and giant leaves,
blue, blue-green, and olive,
with occasional lighter veins and edges,
or a satin underleaf turned over;
monster ferns
in silver-gray relief,
and flowers, too, like giant water lilies
up in the air--up, rather, in the leaves-purple, yellow, two yellows, pink,
rust red and greenish white;
(…)
A blue-white sky, a simple web,
backing for feathery detail:
brief arcs, a pale-green broken wheel,
a few palms, swarthy, squat, but delicate;
The poetic voice seems intent on demonstrating how far the poet´s pen can
emulate the painter´s brush. The silent poetry in the painting (or in the tapestry based on
it) indeed becomes a speaking picture. The reader cannot help being taken by the
painterly minutiae of the description, its careful attention to forms (“simple web”,
“feathery detail”, “brief arcs”), textures (“silver gray relief”, “satin underleaf”), size (“big
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leaves, little leaves, giant leaves “,”giant water lilies”, “monster ferns”) movements
(flowers that seem to rise in the air), spatial arrangements (plants in the lower plane, the
sky higher up ), shades of color (“blue-green”, “two yellows”, “rust red”, “greenish
white”, “blue white” “pale green”), subtle analogies (plants which suggest feathers,
garlands which evoke wheels), chiaroscuro effects (the “swarthy” palms, in contrast with
the “blue- white sky”).
In this static description – the first part of the poem – Literature, an art of time,
seems to give up its temporal dimension, in order to emulate the two-dimensional
tapestry, an art of space. In the “verbal tapestry” (Ashley Brown´s apt formulation,1991,
p. 230) pictures spring up, “fresh as if just finished/ and taken off the frame”. No art lover
reader can help placing this as an allusion to meticulous Dutch paintings of seventeenthcentury Brazil, as in some landscapes by Frans Post. Several of them include illustrations
of the Brazilian flora and fauna, as well as of its inhabitants, and might indeed have
become a model for Gobelin tapestries.
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Would it be possible to claim that in “Brazil, January 1, 1502” the poetic
persona´s interest lies only in the richness of the ekphrastic description, which would
prove useful to botanists, as, for instance, nineteenth-century drawings of Brazilian flora
and fauna by nineteenth-century artists/naturalists/botanists like Auguste de Saint-Hilaire
(1779-1853). A careful reading of the poem suggests a decisively negative answer.
Let us go back to the first three verses. They inform the reader that the vision of
nature offered in the “verbal tapestry” is that of the landscape the poetic persona imagines
to have struck the Portuguese eyes when they took sight of the great tropical forest.
nature greets our eyes
exactly as she must have greeted theirs:
every square inch filling in with foliage
The ninth verse of the second stanza similarly evokes the world of the conquerors
– a world merged in the Christian notion of sin, usually of a sexual nature. This becomes
explicit when the attention is drawn to something in the foreground, precisely called
“Sin:” five sooty dragons near some massy rocks”. Those dragons are, in fact, lizards in
heat, about to pursue a female.
Still in the foreground there is Sin:
five sooty dragons near some massy rocks.
The lizards scarcely breathe; all eyes
are on the smaller, female one, back-to,
The female dragon seems to be receptive, as shown by
her wicked tail straight up and over,
red as a red-hot wire.
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This description has its roots in Elizabeth Bishop´s daily life in Brazil. In a letter
to Marianne Moore, she tells her friend how she amused herself watching lizards´ sexual
play in the porch of the house she shared with Lota Soares in Petropolis. However, in the
poem, the reference to the lizards chasing the female is not a mere picturesque detail: it
acts as a sort of dramatic presage, anticipating something similar about to happen in the
human world, the Portuguese invaders´ persecution of native women. Having left behind
their sophisticated European background, with its “lovers' walks”, “bowers”, “cherries to
be picked”, its “lute music”, the invaders, described as “Christians, hard as nails”, now
long for a “brand-new pleasure”. They are out to chase Indian women, like the black
lizards in pursuit of the female. At this point the static description – suitable for the
intersemiotic transposition of pictures in a two-dimensional tapestry – suddenly yields to
narrative, with its necessary temporal element. Accordingly, the poetic persona implies
that the tapestry she describes resorts to the device traditionally used by arts of space to
emulate the temporal dimension – the suggestion of movement, which obviously
supposes a previous and a posterior position. Thus, in their sexual sport, which ironically,
they practice soon after Mass, the conquerors
ripped away into the hanging fabric,
each out to catch an Indian for himself—
The transparent metaphor of “ripping into the hanging fabric” leaves no doubt
about the Portuguese invaders´ behavior: they “rip”, that is, rape, defenseless Indian
women. From the rapists´ perspective, the resisting natives are “maddening little
women”, whose cries can hardly be distinguished from that of the tropical birds around.
That is clearly not the poetic persona´s viewpoint. Ironically, she focuses on a
detail: the brutal conquerors see no contradiction between humming songs associated
with religious rites and their violence against Indian women. L'homme armé, which they
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carelessly hum, a French secular song from the time of the Renaissance, was the most
popular tune used for musical settings of the Ordinary of the Mass. This ironic
juxtaposition of rape and Christian rituals points to a shift in perspective. From the
Portuguese viewpoint, it moves to that of the poetic voice, attuned with the raped
women´s circumstances. Vainly trying to evade their persecutors, they are represented as
figures “retreating”, “retreating” behind the hanging fabric – that is, running away to try
and find refuge in the forest.
The poem thus sums up a little drama, whose background is sketched in the initial
static description, suitable for visual representations. The temporal dimension typical of
Literature is recovered by the dramatic narrative of the invaders´ sexual violence against
Indian women. The poetic voice thus recapitulates a fact tiresomely repeated in the
history of colonizations: the conquest of the land has always been coupled with the
sacrifice of women. This gave us José de Alencar´s Iracema. In French Literature, the
“honey-lipped virgin” comes back to life as Chateaubriand´s Atala. So also, as he
formulates his “Malinche complex”, Otávio Paz evokes the Mexicans´ violated mother,
symbolic of so many rapes in conquered lands. In the same line, a Moçambique poet,
Noêmia de Souza, exclaims
Ó minha África misteriosa e natural / Oh my mysterious and
natural Africa
minha virgem violentada, / my violated virgin,
minha mãe! /my mother!
If “Brazil, January 1, 1502” shows Elizabeth Bishop´s increasing penetration into
Brazilian art and history, it simultaneously underlines her sympathy for the victims of the
historical process. As the poem implies, Europe´s “dream of wealth and luxury” could
only come true in the New World at the expense of the crushing of the weaker by the
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stronger. The poem is also an apt illustration of how much ekphrastic poetry, a liminar
creation between Literature and the visual arts, can serve historical and ideological
criticism.
In her ever deeper plunge into Brazilian life and culture, Elizabeth Bishop will
return to other aspects of the same theme – the pleasures of the few being paid for by the
suffering of the many. Among other poems, “The Burglar of Babylon” – in fact a long
ballad in the traditional format – turns on a similar question, only now the literal
colonization focused in “Brazil, January 1, 1502” is replaced by the symbolical
colonization grounded on race and social group. In the ballad, the social inequities of
contemporary Brazil take the centre of the stage, replacing the historical foundations of
Brazilian life in “Brazil – January 1, 1502.”
The ballad of course does not belong to the ekphrastic genre featured in the two
earlier poems. An intermedial approach to its analysis is supported by the concept of
intermedial reference, proposed by Irina Rajevsky in her study about intermediality in
Literature. As Rajewsky reminds us, a textual construction may remain purely literary,
and yet evoke effects typical of another art, as in the musicalization of fiction or in
ekphrastic poetry itself. According to this view, the intermedial reference in “The Burglar
of Babylon” is to the cinema. As we shall eventually see, the implied author´s viewpoint
moves from place to place or character to character, as in films.
The poem was Elizabeth´s response to actual facts published by newspapers in
Rio de Janeiro where, in the mid 1960´s, she had come to share an apartment with Lotta
Soares. From the window of the apartment the poet could watch events similar to those
narrated in the poem: the spectacle of policemen going up the hill in order to hunt
delinquents living in a slum called “Babylon”. The English text was first published in The
New Yorker, in November 1964, and a translation by Flávio Macedo Soares appeared
almost simultaneously in Rio de Janeiro, in Cadernos Brasileiros (BROWN, 1991: 235).
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From the start, the poetic voice makes explicit the theme of the ballad: the
“terrible stain” in Brazilian social life:
On the fair green hills of Rio
There grows a fearful stain:
The poor who come to Rio
And can't go home again
There is little doubt about the nature of that stain: the yawning financial and
educational gap between social groups, which tempts poor young men born in the slums
to risk their lives in order to traffic drugs. Such is the object of the poem´s criticism,
rather than the crimes committed by the central character in the ballad, a young man
called Micuçu. The sympathy for the criminal emerges in the moving description of the
dogged persecution that ends in his death. The same applies to the ambivalence of the
images used to portray both Micuçu (who has just escaped a maximum security prison)
and the policemen who hunt him down. The poetic voice does not disguise her sympathy
for the fugitive. He is indeed a “a burglar and killer”, but with redeeming humane traits.
As a matter of fact he risks and finally forfeits his life because, instead of hurrying to a
safe hiding place, he goes back to the slums in order to say goodbye to his foster mother,
the aunt who brought him up.
He did go straight to his auntie,
And he drank a final beer.
He told her, "The soldiers are coming,
And I've got to disappear."
(…)
"Don't tell anyone you saw me.
I'll run as long as I can.
You were good to me, and I love you,
But I'm a doomed man."
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Micuçu is thus a loving, grateful son. Besides, unlike the colonizers described in
Brazil, “January 1, 1502”, he is no rapist. The poem explicitly says “he never raped”. The
images of the policemen who persecute him prove just as ambivalent. In a way they
represent law and order, society´s defense against crime. However, in the poem, they also
recall death and corruption, as suggested by the buzzards that precede the helicopters full
of policemen flying over the slum.
A buzzard flapped so near him
He could see its naked neck.
He waved his arms and shouted,
"Not yet, my son, not yet!"
An army helicopter
Came nosing around and in.
He could see two men inside it,
but they never spotted him.
The buzzards announce the arrival of the soldiers, just as in “Brazil, January 1,
1502”, the lizards chasing the female prefigure the Portuguese raping Indian women. The
sad irony is that Micuçu´s persecutors are in a way his brothers: they belong to the same
social group as their prey. This is made clear by the death of the commanding officer,
who is accidentally hit by a bullet shot “in a panic” by one of his own soldiers. The
officer “was from Pernambuco”, a state in the poor Brazilian northeast, “the youngest of
eleven” children. Like so many slum dwellers, he was “a Severino”, a general nickname
for poor migrants. As a poorly paid policeman, he certainly also lived in the slums,
dangerously close to the criminals he had to hunt.
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But the soldiers were nervous, even
with tommy guns in hand,
And one of them, in a panic,
Shot the officer in command.
He hit him in three places;
The other shots went wild.
The soldier had hysterics
And sobbed like a little child.
The dying man said, "Finish
The job we came here for."
he committed his soul to God
And his sons to the Governor.
They ran and got a priest,
And he died in hope of Heaven
--A man from Pernambuco,
The youngest of eleven.
The reader is again reminded of the “terrible stain” in a society that throws its
victims against one another. Micuçu and the policeman die almost simultaneously, like
the brothers that they in fact are. The officer´s death thus merely anticipates that the
criminal, who vainly tries to escape. He had planned to hide in an abandoned fort dating
back to the days of Villegaignon (the reference constitutes another evidence of Bishop´s
interest in Brazilian history, her knowledge of the sixteenth-century´s French invasion).
But the plan fails miserably. After a sleepless night, in the light of an ugly yellow sun,
“like a raw egg on a plate”, Micuçu is at last mortally hit. His death, following close upon
that of the policeman, seals the conflation of two complementary roles: the condemned
man and his executioner, the persecutor and his prey, the hunter and the hunted one.
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Micuçu´s death leaves everybody relieved, except for his aunt. Desperate, she
explains:
“I raised him to be honest,
Even here, in Babylon slum.”
The woman´s words may be read as an implicit comment on the virtual
impossibility of educating children in the slums. In such surroundings, what can be
expected from a young man “raised to be honest” by a well-meaning mother? Will he
choose to work hard for a few coins, when consorting with a drug dealer will bring him
something in his eyes close to opulence? No wonder many prefer the more attractive
hypothesis: to make money by catering to the vice of rich people, the same who, from the
safety of their apartment windows, point their binoculars to watch the soldiers swarming
up the hills.
As mentioned above, from the perspective of interart or intermedial studies, the
ballad offers an additional interest: the implied narrator´s viewpoint changes boldly, as a
filming camera. Horizontally, it focuses on events taking place among the slum dwellers,
or in Micuçu´s aunt´s bar. The reader is told how
Children peeked out of windows,
And men in the drink shop swore,
And spat a little cachaça
At the light cracks in the floor.
The viewpoint then shifts to a vertical direction, from the top of the hill to the
goings on of people on the beach below:
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Far, far below, the people
Were little colored spots,
And the heads of those in swimming
Were floating coconuts.
The camera next focuses on the women on the streets below, who turn their eyes
to the top of the hill, trying to follow the police hunt taking place up there:
Women with market baskets
Stood on the corners and talked,
Then went on their way to market,
Gazing up as they walked.
So also other observers gaze up at the drama unraveling in the slum:
Rich people in apartments
Watched through binoculars
As long as the daylight lasted.
And all night, under the stars
In “The Burglar of Babylon” Elizabeth Bishop´s growing empathy with the
underprivileged reaches its climax. The poem, which has been called “the best and most
human of modern ballads” (BROWN, 1991: 235), thus makes up a kind of final landmark
in the journey undertaken in “Arrival at Santos”, and carried on in “Brazil, January 1,
1502”. Otherwise, the analysis of cinematic references in the ballad illustrates the kind of
contribution that studies of intermediality may offer to the reading of literary texts.
References
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BISHOP, Elizabeth. The Complete Poems, 1927-1979. New York: Farrar, Straus and
Giroux, 1983.
BRIENEN, Rebecca Parker. Visions of Savage Paradise: Albert Eckhout, Court Painter
in Colonial Dutch Brazil, 1637-1644. Amsterdam: University Press, 2007.
BRITTO, Paulo Henriques. Elizabeth Bishop: Os Rigores do afeto. In: BISHOP,
Elizabeth. O Iceberg Imaginário e outros poemas. São Paulo: Editora Schwarcz Ltda,
2001, p. 351-370.
BROWN, Ashley. Elizabeth Bishop in Brazil. In: SCHWARTZ, Lhoyd and ESTESS,
Sybil P. Elizabeth Bishop and her Art. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press,
1991, p. 223-240.
BROWN, Ashley. An Interview with Elizabeth Bishop. In: SCHWARTZ, Lhoyd and
ESTESS, Sybil P. Elizabeth Bishop and her Art. Ann Arbor: The University of
Michigan Press, 1991, p. 289-302.
CLARK, Kenneth. Landscape into Art. Gibb Press, 2008. Available at
www.archive.org/.../landscapeintoart000630mbp. Access on 29/10/2011.
CLŰVER, Claus. Ekphrasis Reconsidered. On Verbal Representations of Non- Verbal
Texts. In: LAGERROTH, Ulla- Britta, LUND, Hans; HEDLING, Erik (eds) Interart
Poetics: Essays on the Interrelations of the Arts and Media. Amsterdam-Atlanta
GA:Rodopi Editions;1997, p. 19-33.
CLŰVER, Claus. Intermidialidade. pós: Revista do Programa de Pós-Graduação em
Artes da Escola de Belas Artes da UFMG, vol 1,2, p. 5-23, 2008.
GIRALD, Laire José e outros. Photografias e Fotografias do Porto de Santos. São
Paulo: Páginas e Letras, 1996.
KALSTONE, David. Becoming a poet: Elizabeth Bishop with Marianne Moore and
Robert Moore. Nova York: Farrar Strauss, Giroux, 1989.
LOUVEL, Liliane. A descrição ´pictural´: por uma poética do iconotexto. In: ARBEX,
Márcia (org). Poéticas do visível: ensaios sobre a escrita e a imagem. Trad. Luiz Cláudio
Vieira de Oliveira. Faculdade de Letras da UFMG, 2006, p. 191-219.
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OLIVEIRA, C.M.S. “O Brasil seiscentista na pintura de Albert Eckout e Frans Janszoon
Post”. Portuguese Studies Review, vol. 14, n.1, p. 115-138,2006. Available at http://cmsoliveira.sites.uol.com.br/psr_14-1_oliveira.pdf, access on 29/10/2011.
OLIVEIRA, Solange Ribeiro. “Displaced Topologies:Place and Identity in Elizabeth
Bishop´s Poetry”. In: ALMEIDA, Sandra Regina Goulart; GONÇALVES, Glaucia
Renate; REIS, Eliana Lourenço de Lima (eds). The Art of Elizabeth Bishop. Belo
Horizonte: Editora da UFMG, 2002, p. 41-49.
RAJEWSKY, Irina O. “Intermédialités/Intermidialities”. Montreal: Centre de Recherche
sur l´Intermidialité, no. 6, p. 22-37, 2005.
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