Come A Little Bit Closer Now Baby: Elizabeth Bishop’s “Brazil: January 1, 1502”

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Although our lives cannot occur except in an historical context, many contemporary lyrics are written as though only personal history matters.  It’s a great joy to encounter a poem grounded in history as thoroughly as Elizabeth Bishop’s “Brazil: January 1, 1502”, particularly one that begins with a cymbal crash, the seeming non sequitur or unusual plural: “Januaries” –– followed by a pace that slows for the next 23 lines until we encounter that deeply-burdened word at the end of line 24 –– “Sin”.

BRAZIL, JANUARY 1, 1502

. . . embroidered nature . . . tapestried landscape.
––Landscape Into Art, by Sir Kenneth Clark

Januaries, Nature greets our eyes
exactly as she must have greeted theirs:
every square inch filling in with foliage––
big leaves, little leaves, and giant leaves,
blue, blue-green, and olive,
with occasional lighter veins and edges,
or a satin underleaf turned over;
monster ferns
in silver-gray relief,
and flowers, too, like giant water lilies
up in the air––up, rather, in the leaves––
purple, yellow, two yellows, pink,
rust red and greenish white;
solid but airy; fresh as if just finished
and taken off the frame.

A blue-white sky, a simple web,
backing for feathery detail:
brief arcs, a pale-green broken wheel,
a few palms, swarthy, squat, but delicate;
and perching there in profile, beaks agape,
the big symbolic birds keep quiet,
each showing only half his puffed and padded,
pure-colored or spotted breast.
Still in the foreground there is Sin:
five sooty dragons near some massy rocks.
The rocks are worked with lichens, gray moonbursts
splattered and overlapping,
threatened from underneath by moss
in lovely hell-green flames,
attacked above
by scaling-ladder vines, oblique and near,
“one leaf yes and one leaf no” (in Portuguese).
The lizards scarcely breathe; all eyes
are on the small, female one, back-to,
her wicked tail straight up and over,
red as a red-hot wire.

Just so the Christians, hard as nails,
tiny as nails, glinting,
in creaking armor, came and found it all,
not unfamiliar:
no lovers’ walks, no bowers,
no cherries to be picked, no lute music,
but corresponding, nevertheless,
to an old dream of wealth and luxury
already out of style when they left home––
wealth, plus a brand-new pleasure.
Directly after Mass, humming perhaps
L’Homme armé or some such tune,
they ripped away into the hanging fabric,
each out to catch an Indian for himself––
those maddening little women who kept calling,
calling to each other (or had the birds waked up?)
and retreating, always retreating, behind it.

                                                                                1960


Sin, as it occurs in violent sexual activity, is intimated in the second stanza by “five sooty dragons near some massy rocks.”  They are lizards who are “all eyes” for a single female “back-to,/her wicked tail straight up and over,/red as a red-hot wire” (34-36).  The dragon-shaped lizards pre-figure the Portuguese conquistadors who will follow the explorers of 1502.  It is these (explorers, soldiers, merchants, missionaries, etc.) Bishop introduces at the beginning of the third stanza.  Identified simply as “Christians”, Bishop alters the poem’s dramatic action and tone significantly in this concluding stanza. What had been an almost bucolic pastoral (albeit in an exotic setting) becomes ominous:

Just so the Christians, hard as nails,
tiny as nails, and glinting,
in creaking armor, came and found it all . . .

The subject here is ravishment, of the land and of the native peoples, and rape of the women in particular:

Directly after Mass, humming perhaps
L’Homme armé or some such tune,
they ripped away into the hanging fabric,
each out to catch an Indian for himself––
those maddening little women who kept calling,
calling to each other . . .

L’Homme Armé is a French song widely popular throughout Europe in the fifteenth century.  It was used as the cantus firmus for a number of settings of the Mass. The lyrics, in English, provide the reader with a further glimpse into the poet’s attitude toward “the Christians”:

The man, the man, the armed man
the armed man is to be feared.
Everywhere it has been proclaimed
That everyone should arm himself with
an iron coat of mail.

(This translation comes from Pteratunes, an early music website.)

Departing Portugal in September 1501, a fleet of Portuguese caravels, under the captaincy of Femao de Loronha, explored the South American coast.  This was the famous second Portuguese voyage (after Brazil had been explored the year before).  As de Loronha’s ships sailed into Guannabara Bay in January 1502, they mistook the large bay for the mouth of a river and consequently, named the city they planned to build, Rio de Janeiro: River of January.  That January, 452 years earlier, and one of her own, explains Bishop’s marvelous opening word “Januaries”.  She is conflating her arrival by ship to the mouth of the Amazon River (on a trip to the Amazon and to Brasilia with Aldous Huxley and his wife in 1958), with the arrival of the Portuguese.  It is an elegant and dramatic opening:

Januaries, Nature greets our eyes
exactly as she must have greeted theirs . . .

Time conflated, the natural world enduring despite the cultural consequences of conquest (at least at the mouth of the Amazon 53 years ago, but certainly not for the natural environment of what became the modern city of Rio de Janeiro).

The central conceit is the one Bishop draws from her epigraph.  The extravagant lushness and abundance of the vegetation appears overwrought: “every square inch filling in with foliage”.  The poet cannot use natural imagery to capture such lavish reality.  All of it––the “monster ferns”, the “flowers, too, like giant water lilies/up in the air” –– must be mediated through art in order to come to terms. The scene is as “fresh as if just finished” by the artisan weaver “and taken off the frame’.  This fits with one of Clark’s theses from the book she cites, that tapestry is “decorative” and “stylized” and that landscapes (in any medium) are representations influenced by artists’ ideological and personal experiences.

The tapestry has a ground upon which it is woven; only that ground is a “blue-white sky” which serves as “a simple web/backing”. The birds, when they enter the scene, are now ‘big symbolic birds’ –– because, deftly, the poet’s gaze (and ours following hers) has moved into the [to quote Bishop’s epigraph from Clark]–– “ . . . . embroidered nature . . . . [a] tapestried landscape”.  It is so quick and delicate, this shift from the perceived actual to the imaged ground, from presentation of the thing itself to immersion in metaphor.  This is worth underscoring, I think, because it helps us see why Bishop is esteemed as a great poet.  She carries transformation to the reader through these very subtleties, all conducted (or choreographed) with the most straightforward diction and in a conversational tone.

The tapestry conceit is advanced with the verb “worked” in line 26: “The rocks are worked with lichen, gray moonbursts/splattered and overlapping.”  Then, suggesting that a phrase has been woven in the tapestry (as if stitched in crewel), the poet regards the “scaling-ladder vines” that are descending from the trees to the rocks (“attacked from above”) as reading, in Portuguese, “one leaf yes and one leaf no.” What she is seeing is the alternating leaf formation of the ladder vines, and I suspect she is recalling a phrase from a nursery room, although I could not locate this particular alternate phrasing.  The diction suggests an unholy atmosphere: “Sin,” “lovely hell-green flames,” “her wicked tail” and “red as a red-hot wire.”

The first two-thirds of the poem abound in description of the natural world on the banks of the river: foliage, flowers, rocks, lichen, birds, and lizards.  Color comes to the fore in the poet’s perceptions (“blue, blue-green, and olive,” “silver-gray,” “purple, yellow, two-yellows, pink/rust red and greenish white,”, then “red” twice in a single line.   Color would overwhelm the poem if the poet had not kept her inner camera panning (for this is, among other qualities, a filmic poem).

All color stops when “the Christians” enter the poem. They have texture and size and they glint in their metal armor, and although they must have been quite miserable in the summer heat of the southern hemispheres’ January, the poet’s attitude toward them is merciless.  They are “tiny” and “hard as nails,” and seem full of themselves as they march along humming their song about armed men being feared.  By bringing the Mass into the poem, Bishop suggests that hypocritical nature of 16th century Catholicism which strove to bring salvation to native peoples while failing to condemn the inhuman exploitation, pillage, and rape conducted by their brethen.  Bishop’s “Christians” pray one moment, then the next take off after “those maddening little women” who they considered theirs for the taking.

In lines 41 through 45, Bishop presents a glimpse of an idealized romantic life of a Renaissance courtier, the world the conquistadors have left behind. She gives us a scene that may have been represented on tapestries.  The imagery comprised “an old dream of wealth and luxury” that included lovers’ walks through garden “bowers,” the two lovers stopping to pick and feed one another cherries while being followed by a strolling musician playing the lute –– a conventional idyll.  Bishop claims that this new world was not entirely “unfamiliar” to the Christians, that in its very lavishness, it is somehow comparable: “corresponding, nevertheless,/to an old dream of wealth and luxury/already of out style when they left home . . . “

As Lorrie Goldensohn demonstrated (Elizabeth Bishop: The Biography of a Poetry, New York: Columbia UP, 1992), from adolescence Bishop knew W. H. Hudson’s famous book, Green Mansions. In fact, Bishop had reviewed it, writing:

“I wish that the book has been twice as long when I put it down, and I was filled with longing to leave for South America immediately and search for those forgotten bird-people” (Goldensohn 203). One of the characters in Green Mansions was a girl named Rima whose “native language resembles birdsong”.

I love the ambiguity upon which Bishop ends “Brazil: January 1, 1502”.  Are “those maddening little women who kept calling/calling to each other . .  truly women whose “native language resembles birdsong”?  Or are they birds?  I don’t think Bishop is soft-peddling the conquistador’s horrific ravishments of either the land or the natives, but one alternate meaning is that the women are warning each other of the predators, just as birds protecting their territory will call out a particular alarm. That they can escape into “the hanging fabric”, the cover Nature provides, suggests their superior knowledge of their native habitat. They are “always retreating, behind it.”  I think, as well, by characterizing “the Christians” as “hard as nails,/tiny as nails”, Bishop adopts an attitude of scorn. They are in armor, certainly, but they are also brutes, diminished by their ignorance as well as their ethos.

Before closing, I want to add a few words about Bishop’s technique.  This poem is written almost completely with end-stopped lines. Fifty-three lines long and I find just three enjambed lines, at lines 26, 33 and 47.  This reliance on end stopping,  varying line lengths, exact internal rhymes (“greet,” “greeted,” “blue; blue-green”,  “yellow; two yellows” for example), coupled with her use of caesura (“a few palms, swarthy, squat, but delicate” and “up in the air––up, rather, in the leaves”) are a few of the poetic devices at work to move the marker  from prose to poetry.  Since the tone is conversational and the first two stanzas comprised of description, I think this is important to note.  In each of her three stanzas, there is a single line comprised of only two words, another sign of how Bishop is modulating cadence.  Then there is perhaps Bishop’s most often-cited stylistic trait, her speaker’s self-conscious self-correction: “like giant water lilies/up in the air––up, rather, in the leaves––”.

One thought on “Come A Little Bit Closer Now Baby: Elizabeth Bishop’s “Brazil: January 1, 1502””

  1. zararaab says:

    This is a wonderful reading of Bishop’s poem. Thank you.

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