Thursday, February 2, 2017

Manuelzinho by Elizabeth Bishop


[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. 
Tilted 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 three-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.


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