‘To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.’
-William Blake, Auguries of Innocence.
Poem originally written in Italian for my great uncle Gilberto Grasso, who I lived with in Santarem, Brazil, over the summer. It is very special to me, as is my uncle Gil, who, at the age of 80, still burns with what Pasolini (one of his favourite Italian authors) would call ‘desperate vitality’. Thank you for overwhelming me with your immense love for life, literature, cinema, romance, fun, debate, and all the ups and downs this world’s got to offer.
Zio Gil and his friend Deonito, Language professor at the University of Santarém, helped me translate the poem into the beautiful language it deserves to be in. (Below a rough English translation for those who need it).
A carnalidade jogue tudo na brasa.
Eu, que sempre mergulhei nas gentes,
A procura de um tudo
que apagasse cada minha curiosidade.
E que sempre mais esvaziada me foi acordada,
Apagada-se a duvida
Que era a minha vitalidade.
Tu es demais incontrolável para mim,
Demais fora do lugar.
Eu, que cambaleio nas margens da loucura,
Ainda demais regulada.
E me pergunto se tu
és verdadeiramente livre,
Se o homem verdadeiramente
pode aprender em ser livre.
Quando o teu ser fica marcado daquele momento,
No qual tu abaixas-te para afivelar a bota
Ou em olhar uma linda mulher e não uma outra.
Aqueles momentos te acorrentam a este mundo
Que nos acompanha sozinhos,
dos vinte e quatro aos oitenta.
Quando penses saudoso ao passado,
Naquele que é, que não foi.
E quando procuras de viver desesperadamente
Para não te sentir apagar totalmente.
È bem verdade que nÓS poetas
somos calculadores – niilistas miseráveis.
È bem verdade que eu, sou espelho ornamental
Das emoções que me cercam.
Mas absorvo, te garanto que absorvo.
E estas vidas que cabem em mim,
Estas luzes que cabem em mim,
Saiam de mim mais coloridas, cheias.
Carnality turns the world to ashes.
A life spent diving into people,
Seeking fullness to quench curiosity.
Yet rising emptier each morning,
Extinguished the doubt, extinguished the clout.
You’re too unruly for me, too out of place.
I’m still staggering on the margins of madness
And yet I am still too restrained.
And I ask myself if you really are free,
if a man can truly ever learn to be free.
When you’re tainted by that moment
when you stopped to tie your shoelace
or lay eyes on a pretty girl and not another.
Moments like these glue you to this word,
that chaperones our lonely journey
from age twenty to age eighty.
When you think, with ‘saudade’, to the past
to what happened and what didn’t.
When you try to live desperately,
to not fade out entirely.
And maybe what you said is true:
Us writers are calculating, misery-breeding nihilists,
And maybe I am, indeed, just an ornamental mirror
Throwing back the life and emotions around me.
But I promise I sponge it all up
And these lives that soak in,
These lights that soak in
Come back out more colourful and full.
Back to bite, back to bite, don’t breath, thump thump.
Lights, gone. Food, gone. Drugs, gone, Hope.
Desperate sex and wobbly legs.
Get me drunk, look after me, stop the thinking, stop the world.
Back to bite, back to bite, bite me harder, fuck me harder
Than this silence, than this screaming, are they screaming, is it me?
The terror is like popping candy abusing my skull,
Like angry clots of blood trying to burst out of fingernails
Pulsing, screeching, moaning, and then silence.
The constant ringing and now your face has gone all blurry.
The thought of all the itches we will never get to scratch.
It’s all rotting, it’s all gone and you just keep being so fucking kind.
The bile in my stomach, my hands in your pants, is there even a point?
Splashing about in mud, looking for familiar faces, for a trace of something human.
Slaves demanding justice, then wanting the crown.
Grey days, skipped days, were you slowly drift away.
I don’t want to be pretty, I don’t want to write pretty
To hide behind niceties and disgusting adoration.
In the darkness I’ve stopped tripping, I walk steady now.
I’m not longer funny but I’m lonely, as you roll me the millionth cigarette,
As I gulp the millionth gulp of bitterness, my bitterness.
We lost a long while ago and we’ve wasted all our time.
Toxic waste and suspicion, is that mask because of me?
They’ve turned us against each other and there’s no going back.
There’s no life during wartime, only slow self-destruction.
Before the bombs, before the lights went out,
Before the mould and the stench and the disease and the hunger,
The mind numbing stupidness had already knocked us out.
Featured image: Jobkill by Pushwagner, Hariton (1987) can be found in the Norwegian National Museum, or online at: http://www.pushwagner.no/galleri/kunst/JOBKILL
I washed three times but still:
I smell the vile breath, and still
I see the sunken bloodshot eyes
a pain too deep and miserable to scream
from its open grave, vestige of human lies.
Tomorrow your vacant eyes will not remember this face
yet the fetid smell will not ever leave my head.
Again and again it plays,
the blurry vision of a heat induced hallucination
sneaking up, once again, to threaten my sanity.
I thought it was a child,
an innocent, ill-fated child on a bike,
perhaps still burning, perhaps still alive.
Yet all I could find was the shell of a human life
bruised by a world which is infinitely unkind.
As you blinked at me and slurred your dissent
I disentangled your legs from the wheels
tugged you out of your certain crematorium
dead weight to weak arms and shaky knees,
dead weight to all our cushioned lives.
My abandoned car blinked furiously
ignored by the lives that unblinkingly drove by
No longer human, no longer of use,
illegal smelly immigrant
I wretched violently on the way home
the smell of your skin on my clothes and hands
the unsettling disgust in humanity
steeped into my disillusioned plans.
Only one man stopped:
‘anche io sono straniero ma…’
His conscience dirtied by judgement over judgement
your rotten breath etched deep into his identity
an anchor of blame which has nowhere tangible to go
defensive and defenceless to this worldwide generalisation.
Anche io sono straniero ma.
Did I really save your life, did I choose to be this way?
To follow the trail in the grass
where the cheap boxed wine pulls drunkards off course.
To acted upon automation, like the Belding’s ground squirrel,
putting itself in danger in the name of evolution.
You asked god to bless me but did I really do you a kindness?
Or should I have let the heat put you to sleep, cease your pain?
Head nuzzled in the prickly grass, feet tangled in your rusty bike
barbed wire inches from your eye
invisible to the road, invisible to the world.
And as xenophobia prevails, as hatred and fear win the UK
and all these cars speed away, I feel lonely and wired incorrectly.
Featured: Pink Man / Leviathan (Blu), to be found on Oberbaum Brücke / Falckensteinstraße ( U Kottbusser Tor stop).
Alter do Chao, 17/07/16
Smiles, sunsets, palm trees and a samba band – music in the night always makes me feel at home. And I feel enormous right now, don’t know where I end, how to contain all of this. Lightning lights up the night and I sway on the rio. I’m terrible at making friends, at looking people in the eyes. They hurt me too much. I wish I could stare without them staring back. If only I could make myself small, a menina, so I wouldn’t feel so constricted. Is it poverty that killed activity in Santarem or is it something else? It’s GLOBO that holds the power over here, it’s all about American idols and dreams. The telenovelas have murdered history, love for nature and spirituality and now the children in the comunidades lacked even basic imagination. Creativity replaced by fake promises, of money and social status.
Caranazal, the Pirate’s Lair and the Pajes (chaman) 18/07/16
I have been abducted by pirates. Hippie pirates, with skulls on the face and body and grand illusions of freedom. They say I’m in the middle of the jungle now, but there’s a road a few miles away. I drove a wolkswagen truck and they threw thei pet rat, Chorinha, onto my lap. I didn’t even budge. Artesanato, drugs, the reggae music, the car, the dirty ethnic prints, the snake skin, the ayahuasca plants in the garden and the forceful natureza. Slaves and stereotypes in their escape of society. But you’re not free, you pry on people – on gringos – to live your lie of community, free love and no possession. But you were kind to me and I am grateful. But that man, that wise man… there was magic there and I felt it inside and I cried. I cried for the kindness and strength he found in me and the empathy and calm he left in me. I confessed my biggest fear, of being alone with myself and he gave me his silent resonting answer, awakening a knowledge that was already inside of me. “There is no fear when you are alone with yourself”. Fear and anger are the most social of constructions.
Comunidade de Anã, Rio Arapiuns, 27/07/16
The rio is cooler and bluer, the forest is greener and I feel lighter. The language stopped being a barrier a soon as I stepped foot into this side of the resex, almost like magic. And there is something magical about this place. About the people’s knowing peaceful smile and how lightly my feet step on the leafs.It’s almost as if the Muanã, the protector spirit of the lake, really is protecting its land and people. I feel like I’ve always belonged here and all my fears and bothers are distant memories from someone else’s life. The excitement in the air subsides my need for sleep, and I lie in the dark, unafraid of snakes and insects, gazing at the infinite white marks and swirls in the sky, frogs croaking all around me. I then walk straight into the all embracing orange light, as the MUSA’s – Mulheres Sonhadoras em Ação – set their nets. There are no human words for happiness.
There are no jaguars here, and there is no conception of power. Chicken. Featherless chicken everywhere. And dogs, skin and bone, sickly and hungry with empty eyes, biting at each other´s skin for a mouldy orange. Ants explore my legs and arms, as a dragonfly buzzes about and I wait for the boat, sweating, thirsty and useless. And often my eyes cross, a curious bloodshot glare – of men, women, children. But it isn´t malaria that haunts the forest and fills the air with sickness. It isn´t snakes and wild beasts that flood me with fear. It is the demon of helplessness that lurks here, by the edge of the Rio Tapajos. The air in these ´comunidades´ is drenched in learned helplessness. The playfulness, the dancing, the brincadeiras – they make me sick as a poisoned rat and I´m suffocating. Brincar, brincar, bola, bandoleira. Blissful ignorance and hunger. Laboratory dogs – they have been taught there is nothing they can do. Things will never change here, we will always be conquistadores. One cannot change what doesn´t want to be changed.
All I can do is hold on to this heaviness of heart. As always, I let the weight of the world sink in. The one that floats around in this forest, homeless, ignored by the bodies it belongs to. There was nothing I could do for that man who lay helpless in the mud, covered in ants and mosquitoes amd soaked in cachasa. Life had run him over. Life has run all of them over. All of these children, all this Criança, the demon of passivity etched upon them from the womb. A helplessness that is almost genetic. They queue up for the special merenda: chocolate milk and three biscuits. They look at me curiously, the meninas touch my braid. Eyes open, brains full of potential. Yet they are all slaves to Globo TV, that want to grow up to be modelo or a football star. There´s no spirituality in these comunidades in these washed out wooden structures with holes for doors, but with TV´s inside, flashing telenovelas 24/7. I´ll always be a gringa here, eyed with awe or hatred, even if I play bola barefoot and let the insects eat my feet. Even if I swim naked in the rio with biscios. If I carry heavy things in the sun and take nice photographs and sleep on hammocks under the stars and learn amazonas music. Even after the insistence and casually handed out sexuality, just cause I´m playing a yes man game.
A transparent albino child plays in the middle of this dark brown criança. I wonder if he feels as much of an outsider as I do. I feel terribly lonely and nostalgic. The language, the faces, the colours, the heat, the upset stomach. Pull me, push me, make me feel alive. Maybe they´re right, autonomy is too hard a plight. One must choose and pick and do. Better to have someone do it for you. How many of you have really felt these chains? Understood the possibilities, felt the stagedness of this narcissistic freedom? And even if you do feel the chains, would you still choose to run alone? If you don´t know that you don´t know, you don´t torture yourself in doubt and uncertainty. To reach the knowledge of not knowing implies a duty as the next move: to act. So maybe openness to experience doesn´t have to come without care or with stupidity. It means considering and choosing what feels right, not playing a yes man name. And does recklessness really feel right what it comes with the risk of snake venom, malaria a hepathitis? I value this, because I recognise how easy it is to fall prey to the contamination of stupidity and carelessness. It snuck into my every pore over here and for two nights I gave into a carelessness that doesn´t lead to freedom. A million bloodshot eyes stare into mine every day to prove it. Freedom and versatility come with choice. I want to choose, not prove. I Have nothing to prove to these people. I don´t have to be like them. I need to learn how to stop feeling like I´m in debt to the world.
Note: All photos taken and thoughts written during work with a indigenous community development program of the NGO Saude e Alegria, based in Santarem.
I’m immersed in literature, cinema and philosophical debates, here in my great uncle’s house. The hammock in the back garden, under the mango tree, is a lovely place for reflection and study. My head is dizzy from the Portuguese, the heat and the many people. The other night my great uncle Gilberto said something curious and rather provocative. He said all the poets he´d met, once skinned of their artistic and literary armour, where calculating and cynical individuals, skilled in the ability of mirroring the world´s emotions, but lacking the passion that comes from one´s own fire and beliefs. Am I really just an ornamental mirror? Perhaps one that reflects the beauty of the world in a magnified way? Is there some consistency to my words and thoughts? Or are we all just be mirrors of each other’s feeling, shadows of each other´s dreams, as I once wrote in a poem? I believe there is some truth to what he said. My poetry, my words, are a magnified version of what I see and feel and this includes my vision of myself. Just as it can be raw at times, it can also be careful and aesthetically pleasing. I suppose, in a way, that´s what all art does: it paints a picturesque and awe inspiring version of banality. It tries to inject some colour and unpredictability in the boredom of everyday life.
Here’s a few pictures taken amidst the red mist of Santarem.
Barco São Bartolomeu III, Manaus to Santarém, 5th July
This chunk of wood and coloured hammocks has been nothing but an exercise in patience. Ever since we crossed over the excitement of blue and brown floating side by side, latte-coloured water has been expanding indefinitely. I wonder all the lives that have lived and passed through these waters and dwelled in this desolation, this forgotten world – most people never leave Amazonas or Para, have never seen the sea. I´ve been on this boat for 24 hours and time feels different over here. Five hours is around the corner and everything is measured in seasons and circadian cycles. Colourful hammocks, some pets in cages, banana trees, children running wild, a boy with purple hair tearfully reading a letter, music blasting from the bar, we all proceed as ants, shifting slowly downstream and the size of the world is almost inconceivable. I have never felt so small.
Santarém, 7th July 2016
The carelessness, mixed with embarrassment, of two young women on plastic chairs, letting their children play by the cemetery of solidarity, which is FUNDAC*. My uncle Gil, 80 years old and yet still fiery – with communism, rebellion, and desire to help the weak and exploited – completely ignored by their ignorant glances. Don´t you know me? Your children came here, I helped you for years, I did a good thing. And you just stood there oblivious, as this temple of learning was destroyed, by drugs and poverty and ignorance. It wasn´t just the humidity that thickened the air in that abandoned playground, with broken windows and shredded walls. Not for theft, but for sabotage, for anger. Anger against what? We will always be conquistadores here, even if I eat pimenta and fish heads and walk around barefoot. There will always be hatred. Llega a tu país! The rich kid said to my uncle on the first night, as we ate camaroes and drank cold Brahma. Todo o mundo é país… and ignorance and xenophobia are always the hardest to eradicate.
*FUNDAC was my uncle´s now closed NGO, which looked after local disadvantaged children, providing them with official identities, long-distance adoption programmes and after-school activities and tuition.
Mercado, Santarém, 8th July
Colour clashes: indigenous, black and white blood, fruit, old faces and fat, juicy fish. It´s so hard to choose: where to point the lens, who to be, where it is that I stand here. Am I just quiet or am I an outsider to this bustling chaos? When I speak they laugh with me, and I suppose their language isn´t any more foreign than the rest of my life. Markets always overwhelm me, and I just let myself melt into its all-embracing senses.