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Manuelzinho Analysis

Author: poem of Elizabeth Bishop Type: poem Views: 9

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[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.

Submitted by thierry veillard


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