Monday, October 31, 2011

Luso-American Literature

Saudade: More than longing. More than yearning.” So are the words of Katherine Vaz, one of the contributors to the recently released book, Luso-American Literature: Writing by Portuguese-Speaking Authors in North America (Rutgers Press). The comprehensive anthology of Portuguese, Brazilian and Cape Verdean literature is in itself an attempt to voice and explain the indefinable sentiment of “saudade” that is so particular to the Portuguese language.

The anthology focuses on the authors’ experience (both famous and obscure) living abroad in the United States. Though the writers come from various countries, they have a common longing for the Portuguese language. Robert Henry Moser and Antonio Luciano de Andrade Tosta, the editors of the book, write in their highly engaging introduction that language is above all what ties the Luso-American community together, however undefined and scattered it may be.

Several of the writers in the collection play with and question the very notion of language: is it language that shapes us? In Monteiro Lobato’s fictional memoir, “America,” we witness a discussion on language between an American, Mr. Slang, and a Brazilian, the narrator. The Brazilian is baffled by the American obsession with excess, expressed in the invention of the unit “million.” Mr. Slang mocks the unit of Brazilian money – “real” – for it is in fact “unreal, imponderable.” The Brazilian doesn’t care about measures, unlike the American who “must have unprecedented measures.” So the text continues along this line, where disagreements arise out of differences in diction. However, as the two try to defend their respective ways of life, they both conclude that in the end “it’s just tradition.” The language we use to think and explain ourselves has been inherited, and sometimes it simply loses any logic.

In being thrown into a new language, these writers are faced with defining themselves within a new culture. Some of the writers never identify with Americans, accepting their estrangement and sometimes jokingly pointing out cultural differences. Other writers don’t address their displacement but insinuate “saudade” as they fixate on highly sensory and culturally specific memories.

But does one necessarily acquire a new identity when one moves to a new country? And if so, is it a gain or a loss? Many writers insinuate that it is both, and that a change in one’s self comes with adaptation. The riveting poet, Jorge de Sena, describes in his poem, Notions About Linguistics, how the body adapts to a new nationality as the mouth and tongue is forced to learn new rhythms. The Portuguese poet Thomas J. Braga, though he writes in English, at times, he cannot completely let go of Portuguese. He holds on to certain words or phrases as his poems run through memories in sensory lists, as if he were desperately searching for the source from which he came from.

Some writers try to emerge into the American culture by changing their names (Carlo Pedro becomes Charles Peters) or by embracing the American dream. In the informative historical sections of Luso-American Literature, they explain that the Portuguese came to the States in the 19th and 20th centuries in order to expand their horizons and to search for economic opportunity. Later, Brazilians escaped the dictatorship and the Cape Verdeans came on whaling ships as they searched for a better lifestyle.

Luso-American Literature is a pleasure to read not only for its diverse and intelligent selection of literature but also for its educational component. The book wishes to inform, perhaps primarily an America audience, of the Luso-American community that has lived and created in America over two centuries.

Though the Cape Verdean literature section was not as strongly represented as the Brazilian and Portuguese, it ended the book on a powerful note with The Old Sailor by Kurt José Ayau. A Cape Verdean man tells the story of how he lives a double life – one in Cape Verde and one in America. The chance to have two families and two ways of living, now that is the dream. But the sea is his true home – the mother, the place that does not lie anywhere in particular. Sometimes it is liberating to be in a place that you do not belong to or do not need to belong to: a place that mediates between spaces of belonging.

Click here to see a discussion on the book on Manhattan Connection

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Elizabeth Bishop: A Morning

It’s early, the sun couldn’t have been up for more than an hour, and Lota is already up. It is a relatively clear day; Elizabeth can see only a few clouds bobbing by her window. Sometimes, when it’s very cloudy, because the house is so far up in the mountains, the glass gets fogged with gray.

“Good morning,” Lota lays herself on the bed, by Elizabeth, over the sheets. She wears her bathrobe and smells of perfume and toothpaste. Awaking together is part of their joint morning ritual.

Lota runs her palm down Elizabeth’s hair in a motherly gesture. Elizabeth bats her eyes, adjusting to the light and shapes around her (Petrópolis is still a novelty) and smiles at Lota with some wordless sweet thought.

“Come down to breakfast when you’re ready. I’ll wait for you, but first I have to go check on Manuelzinho and the vegetables.” Manuelzinho has been helping with the gardening ever since the house was finished being built. Manuelzinho drives Lota crazy. He isn’t productive, and when he tries to be, something goes wrong.

Elizabeth likes to observe Manuelzinho, as she does now, while eating her breakfast. Elizabeth and Lota eat together outside in the garden. It is June and it is getting cooler. Elizabeth insists that Lota sit on the end of the table that looks to the house, and not to the garden (where she could obsessively oversee her workers). She knows that Lota wouldn’t eat her breakfast otherwise.

They eat jaboticaba jam and homemade butter on bread. Elizabeth made the jam herself after becoming acquainted with the purplish round fruit that has been growing on nearby trees. Elizabeth loves to cook and she is looking forward to preparing the lunch menu, which she and Lota try to write out on a day-to-day basis.

“What is he doing?” Lota asks nervously. She’s referring to Manuelzinho. She notices that Elizabeth has been watching him.

“Oh, nothing,” Elizabeth replies, which isn’t entirely a lie. Manuelzinho has been seemingly admiring a banana tree for the past good many minutes. The bananas are green still and hang tightly packed together. Manuelzinho has been stroking them, one by one, as if the warmth of his hands would help them to ripe. He inspects the bunch from all sides, carefully analyzing how it is attached to its tree. Elizabeth appreciates Manuelzinho’s curiosity towards natural beauty, and she likes his straw hat that he himself painted green.

Lota loses patience and turns around. “Manuelzinho! Você está fazendo exatamente o que?” Lota gets up from the table without finishing her breakfast. Manuelzinho isn’t as bad as the cook, Elizabeth thinks. Elizabeth does more cooking than she does, for the cook spends most of her time painting on the garden rocks. She is an artist (and talented enough, according to Elizabeth), and perhaps so is Manuelzinho, which explains why menial labor is unmanageably boring to them.

Elizabeth listens to Lota and Manuelzinho bicker. She understands Portuguese now but still struggles speaking. She is embarrassed by her accent and prefers Lota to do the talking.

Elizabeth’s hands are getting cold. Though none of the residents agree, Petrópolis can get quite cold, especially high up in the mountains. Lota had a fireplace built for the house. But when the fire was lit just last week the whole place was invaded with smoke. The builders didn’t understand the concept of a chimney and thought it better to cover the chimney hole to prevent rain from coming in. Lota was furious.

Elizabeth decides to go check for mail. She looks forward to this moment, of checking who has written her from home. Sometimes, when Elizabeth wants to distract her thoughts, she writes up imaginary letters in her head.

The mail hasn’t arrived. Elizabeth makes her way to her studio but pauses along the way to grab some bananas from the kitchen to feed Sammy. Uncle Sam is Elizabeth’s pet toucan, given to her by a mountain neighbor for her birthday. Sammy eats up to ten bananas a day. Elizabeth and Sammy are very fond of one another.

Lota has designed Elizabeth’s studio facing a small waterfall. She built in a pond so that the waterfall cascades into it, making loud and fat droplets. There are many new sounds that Elizabeth is becoming accustomed to in Brazil – the birds, the Portuguese, the thicker rain. The music, too. She finds that she prefers samba, though, to bossa nova.

Elizabeth likes living here, at the Samambaia house. Here she finds that provincial kind of lifestyle that she feels comfortable in. She takes the Selected Poems by Marianne Moore and begins to rub the pages between her fingers. Elizabeth admires Marianne and the good advice she gives, even if it does border on the preachy side at times. They are good friends now (it has been a few years since Marianne gave Elizabeth the permission to call her by her first name). Elizabeth will read one of Marianne’s poems to Lota tonight, though she is unsure which. Every night they read to one another, and take turns depending on the language. Reading in Portuguese isn’t the easiest task for Elizabeth, but it is still much easier than speaking.

Writing, for Elizabeth, can be slow. She has to take her time. She walks outside and sits by a coffee plant, by the waterfall. Later this afternoon Lota will be having visitors. The Samambaia house has become a destination, an object of curiosity. Elizabeth is not in the mood for having visitors. Sometimes she struggles socializing with Lota’s friends. Many people assume that because Elizabeth is a writer she would like to talk about literature all the time. But really she’d rather talk about the details in one’s day, what one saw and ate and wore. She’d even choose to talk about art over literature.

Elizabeth suggests, never dictates. She observes the world unassumingly. Lota has a louder personality. She makes the big statements. She commands over life.

As Elizabeth sits in the biting-green foliage beneath a cold-blue sky, she appears quite plain, even solitary. She is of a different shade, of another language. She does not participate, but she sees.

She looks around her, searching for inspiration. She talks to herself, as she sometimes does. She sees a beija-flor, a hummingbird, flickering above a flower, and asks:

“How do you put that creature into words? How do you put that head?”

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Gambito Delivers in Hungry and Vivid Words

Sarah Gambito’s compelling and energetic book of poems, Delivered, has the audacious tendency to – as articulated in her poem ‘The Tip of the Angel’ – “[ask] questions we don’t like” (50). These questions often vehemently confront relationships, immigration, religion and family dynamics. While her subject matter may vary, Gambito’s sharp and expressive voice is constant throughout. It is a tense voice, constantly shuffling between a struggling tone and an assertive one. This conflict, in turn, illuminates the paramount theme in her work of human vulnerability, of the desperate longing to overcome pain.

Almost always, the “I” is the victim in the poems. Over time, the reader develops an attachment with and understanding towards this “I,” the main speaker. This relationship is made possible because of Gambito’s artfully communicative and persuasive writing. For example, in some poems thoughts are repeatedly interrupted by periods, such as in ‘A Borderless Ethos Would Please Everyone’: “Reserved and ever patient. I sprang to my defense. I was better than you. I wanted it more.” (30). By breaking up the phrase, and forcing the reader to pause, every segment is given value, which in turn heightens the emotion. It likewise gives rise to a quick rhythm, which complements the assertive tone and correlates to the way we speak.

Gambito masterfully translates how we speak into writing not only through punctuation but also through the use of contemporary and colloquial language. This is evidenced through cursing or through the incorporation of common expressions and slang. She likewise sometimes addresses the reader directly, reducing any distance between the reader and the words. The reader thus becomes, to some degree, a character in her poems, like the many “he’s,” “she’s,” and “you’s.” Like these entities, the reader is another person that she is desperately trying to communicate with. This is especially evidenced in the close of the poem, ‘Waiting,’ where the speaker pleads the “dear reader”: “Stay again. / Let me try again” (23). The despairing tone insinuates dissatisfaction with the articulation of her words. Indeed, the speaker is always trying to grasp something, whether it is her identity, her opinions on religion or her feelings towards a lover. This desire, though rarely resolved, is frequently expressed through hand and touch imagery.

In ‘What I Saw,’ comfort is found through tangibility: “And I thought all the hunks of peaches of my/ life were coming together. To hold/ in my hand. And have.” (59). The use of “hunks” connotes fullness and weight, and complements the fruitfulness, juiciness and roundness in “peaches.” To have a life that “[comes] together” consists of holding, possessing something plentiful and whole that one would like to gorge. ‘A Borderless Ethos Would Please Everyone,’ on the other hand, shows the frustration of not being able to grasp and touch (36). Unlike the peach imagery in ‘What I Saw,’ here, we have fractured or disruptive images – “dead toys” and “war” – to resemble someone empty-handed, unfulfilled. Towards the poem’s end, the speaker writes: “I can’t touch your hands. / Let me. Give me.” This phrase highlights a failed attempt to reach, an ultimate absence and loneliness. The curt, juvenile language in “Let me. Give me,” disturbingly reveals the greed and persistence of a child. Gambito’s expressive language and vivid imagery often functions to communicate the two poles of absence and fulfillment.

This pairing of abstract thoughts and emotions with concrete imagery is masterfully executed throughout much of Gambito’s book. Her frequently striking imagery prevents the poems from solely echoing vague emotional statements.

The importance of Gambito’s imagery is evidenced in those poems that lack such descriptions and rest on abstract or non-visual wording. ‘Two Times’ reads as a menial narrative on a dream the speaker had where “everyone” forgot her birthday (25). The reader follows an uninteresting dialogue between a mother and daughter on having a birthday party. Although other poems similarly describe personal moments that may be familiar to the reader, there is an imaginative twist to them through metaphorical imagery. Here, however, once Gambito rests on the spine of her thoughts with no concrete images to enrich them, they fall rather flat. The same can be said of ‘A Borderless Ethos Would Please Everyone,’ which, like many of her other poems, takes a critical stance on the American way of living (27). Although I may sympathize with the statements made in regard to the consuming, controlling and predictable lifestyle, that is as far as engagement gets here. The poem’s ending – “It continues like this.” – only reiterates the bored, observational tone of the language and the repetitive nature of the ideas. However, this factual wording and tone, when balanced with a fuller and more dynamic language, has its merits. Because much of her subject matter is overtly emotional, this colder and curt voice can prevent the writing from becoming too sentimental.

The layout of Delivered is divided into three parts, where each section is introduced with a quote from a different source. In using these quotes, Gambito pulls her writing out of the bounded book into a wider dialogue. However, she does not resist to subtly and tellingly manipulate the quotes, which she does through bolding certain words. The writer, Gómez-Peña’s quoted passage expresses the discomfort in being an immigrant, and likens crying to a “baby coyote” (45). This bolded image carries all at once vulnerable, childish and animalistic connotations – all of which are prominent in Gambito’s poems, where the speaker has the appetite of a child and the aggressiveness of an animal, often “biting” at things. The quote, like the other two, does not entirely remove us from the poems; rather, it takes us out just enough to make us reflect outside of the book’s personal and specific realm.

Gambito’s poetry is dense with imagery and tense with emotion, which can powerfully overwhelm the reader with its painful pangs and vivid moments. Though Gambito can repeat themes and specific images, they do not feel overused. Rather, Gambito is endowed with the ability to make her language appear fresh every time. Indeed, Delivered convinces us that only through this elasticity and complexity of language can such a vigorous and distinct world be felt.

Monday, October 3, 2011

The life and death of an object

Behind a glass box in the Arms and Armory wing of the Metropolitan Museum dangles a Saihai, or a signaling baton, from the Edo period. The baton’s handle is a long and thin lacquered wood. From it hang golden paper strips that are about as thick and as long as fettuccine pasta. Together the strips mouth a discrete pedestal that holds the Saihai up. However, the Saihai rather gives the illusion that it floats. Perhaps this is because the handle is propped up, as if an invisible hand were still grasping onto it. Or perhaps it is because of the weightless quality of its golden body.

The Saihai could be mistaken for a flower, blooming off a suspended branch. The cascading strips of gold deflate as they descend like an upside down tulip. Even the shadow it casts is reminiscent of nature – the strips dabble light and dark patches below them like scattered leaves. One imagines a dark opening beneath its petals, where it guards its seeds. The handle is engraved with peony blossoms, a flower remarkable for its large opening that only continues to swell over days.

There is also a musical quality about the Saihai. One imagines the strips as a ballerina’s skirt, propped on a pedestal. Perhaps she turns and sways as the black flute-like instrument above her plays soft music. Indeed there is a single hole pierced within the handle that could struggle out weak notes of song.

But the Saihai is also a quiet place. We do not know what lies beneath this lady’s skirt, this golden curtain. A few strips are curled up at their ends, as a tease. But in the end, the Saihai conceals. Its full signs of life make us wonder what it was once like when it moved, but we cannot know. We watch it float, mutely, as a place of secrets.

It is in this moment of silence that we realize that the Saihai no longer lives. It is as a dead thing that one venerates, from a distance, for its impressive life. The signs along its body remind us that it is now a fixed and frozen object. The strips’ creases have stiffened and bent permanently. Parts of the gold have now turned black. A divine light bathes the Saihai’s head, anointing it as if it has already parted for death.

The Saihai is an object full of contradictions: it tells us of all its signs of life, though silently; it appears weightless and flexible yet hard and static. To try to imagine a fierce military commander agitating these strips about for a signal of attack is difficult. We have met our object in its immaculate stage; it seems that it has not been touched for centuries. Anything that would alter its frozen form would come as a disturbance, as a violation of its perfection. As we come to associate it with its function of attack we realize that our flower, lady, and musical instrument in the end stand for blood.

A flash of lightening strikes the glass and for a moment the Saihai disappears behind the white light. It is the flash from one of the one thousand cameras snapping photographs in the Metropolitan Museum. We are reminded of the glass and the people that reflect on it. The dark, enclosed room makes not only the objects more prominent but also the spectators themselves. People swim across the glass as ghosts passing through.

As one watches oneself through the glass, one is reminded of the relationship of viewer and object. The glass, too, is an object to behold as it tells us that what we see is precious. At death, the Saihai left its function as a weapon to become an ancient jewel.