Tag Archives: santarém

A carnalidade

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.

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Travel Post # 4 – Indigenous Communities of the Rio Tapajos – A Reflection on Learned Helplessness

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.

Travel post # 3 – First days in Santarem – Are poets big fat liars?

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.

Travel post # 2 – Barco São Bartolomeu III and Santarém

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.

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