It’s an odd sensation to arrive in a place that you’ve never been before, but that you’ve already experienced through someone else’s eyes. Especially when that other person is a poet. I first learned about the Pantanal—vast wetlands in central Brazil that seep over the border into Bolivia and Paraguay—through the poetry of Manoel de Barros. Barros was born in Cuiabá, the capital of Mato Grosso state, in 1916. A lawyer and ranch owner by profession, he published his first poetry collection, Poemas concebidas sem pecado, in 1937. Though he has now published over twenty books, winning many illustrious prizes like the Jabuti Prize along the way, not to mention being featured in the 1989 film O Caramujo Flor, Barros remains, by his own account, most interested in “os desimportantes.” The unnoticed and undervalued. The small and the humble.
At ninety-eight, with leathery skin, a bushy mustache, and laughing eyes, he seems to physically resemble his aphoristic verse: compact, irreverent, simultaneously earthy and urbane. While he has spent the vast majority of his life living in cities (Cuiabá, Rio de Janeiro, Campo Grande, even New York City), his poetry is forever tied to rural Brazil. Far from a naturalist writer, though, Barros’s Pantanal is a whimsical childhood universe of rivers, dirt, and bugs, where a rock can reflect on the privileges of his place in the world in the form of an alphabetized list:
a—I irritate the silence of insects,
b—I am the beat of moonlight in solitude,
c—In the mornings I bathe in dew.
d—And the sun compliments me first.
(from “The Rock,” trans. by Idra Novey)
Given that Barros’s style is characterized by this mix of direct observation and surrealism, I had no idea what to expect when I flew to Cuiabá last week and headed down the rocky, red dirt Trans-Pantaneira highway to a fazenda (ranch house) in the south for a few days. The dusty fields were just as I had pictured them, the horses bent low to feed off scrub grass. But there were other, more unsettling scenes, reflecting the modern-day economic realities of the region, which depends on tourism, cattle ranching, and mining
On the two-hour drive between the airport and the fazenda, we passed several small mining towns, each separated by long stretches with almost no signs of (human) life. Each consisted of a few rows of identical concrete houses with red tile roofs for the workers and their families; one gas station, one school, one bank; a huge open mine looming in the background.
The flow of economic migrants from Brazil’s small towns into the big cities is a common theme in Brazilian literature. The shadow of their presence in the Pantanal can be felt acutely in many of Barros’s poems, which are as much about the wonders of the rural landscape as they are about its many absences:
We grew up without any other houses nearby.
A place that offered only birds, trees, a river and its fish.
There were unbridled horses in the scrub grass, their backs covered with butterflies.
The rest was only distance.
(from “The Illness,” trans. by Idra Novey)
As we drove past one such complex, our guide pointed out the crushed stone in the sidewalks, canga. In the exceedingly hot, dry savannah climate of Chapada de Guimarães, he said, the phosphorus in an oily plant called canela-de-ema can ignite against the canga stone and spontaneously combust, igniting a brush fire. A perfect metaphor, I thought, for how simple natural elements can spark moments of such unexpected lyrical intensity in Barros’s work.
During my four days exploring the area, I saw my fair share of unusual sights: capybaras taking a dip in a lagoon, saw-toothed caimans panting on the riverbank, Capuchin monkeys racing across a latticework of forest branches, a pack of foraging coatis, a rare Maned Wolf. Electric-yellow Ipê trees and pastel-pink Piuvals punctuating the barren landscape; Strangler figs wrapped menacingly around palm trees. And endless varieties of birds: owls, storks, herons, vultures, parakeets, curassows, macaws. While it was beautiful, and an adventure completely different than any other I’d had in Brazil so far, I found myself longing to step into the Pantanal of Barros’s imagination.
A recurring theme in Barros’s work is the disconnect between language and what it tries to convey. The prefixes “des-”(“un-“) and “re-“ (“re-“) appear throughout his poems: a continual process of un-learning and re-inventing words as a way to re-create and re-imagine the world they try to represent. No easy feat—the speaker is often told by adults that what he sees is not reality, but the speaker’s internal logic stays its course.
There are no scientific terms in Barros’s poems, no specific cities or bodies of water named, just “river,” “frog,” “sun,” “ground,” which contributes to its earnest, magical, otherwordly tone. Given his background in law and agriculture, the lack of specificity is especially noteworthy. It implies an intentional un-knowing of his world, an intentional re-seeing.
Song of Seeing
Having lived many years in the scrub grass in the way of birds
The boy took on a bird's kind of stare—
He obtained a fountainesque vision.
He observed things the way birds observed them.
All the unnamed things.
Water wasn't the word water yet.
Rock not the word rock.
They just were.
Words were free of grammar and could inhabit any position.
So it was the boy could inaugurate them as he pleased.
He could give rocks the costumes of the sun.
He could give song the sun's format.
And, if he wanted to end up a bee, it was only a matter
of opening the word bee
and stepping inside it.
As if it were the infancy of language.
(trans. by Idra Novey)
“Minha poesia é feita de palavras (My poetry is made of words),” Barros said succinctly in a 2010 interview, “não de paisagens (not of landscapes).” In poems like “Song of Seeing,” as in the best of Barros’s work, he performs a kind of linguistic and ecological alchemy: transforming nouns into verbs, verbs into adjectives, rocks into suns, boys into bees. This is not a world that you can buy a plane ticket to. Even so, I came away from my trip feeling like I understood more about Barros’s origins, and the role that growing up in that dramatic ecosystem must have played in his writing. The Pantanal is a place where the same plot of land can be a dry basin one day, only to be submerged under floodwaters the next. A wildly, rapidly shifting climate of extremes. A landscape of un- and re-, where the scientific facts are often as mercurial as a poet’s memory. I can imagine how the solitude and isolation of his childhood could provide the space for Barros’s vibrant imagination to take over. Settled back into my life in Rio, I can flip through his most recent collection, Menino do mato (Boy of the Forrest, 2010), feeling closer to the material, and more appreciative of how skillfully Barros captures all that isn’t there.