Ours / Nossa

Ours / Nossa

 
A sign at Astor Place with blue text reading "Por dónde entraste?"
Detail image of Questions by Abigail Reyes at Astor Place. Photograph taken by the author in November 2021.

A countryside hill, half-populated by trees and half an open field, starkly divided.

A countryside hill, half-populated by trees and half an open field, starkly divided.
Hills with half-field, half-trees divides near Niterói, Brazil. Photographs taken by the author in December 2017.

Introduction

This poetry collection was created in response to the focus on ecocide—the destruction of natural environments due to human (in)actions—as a primarily dramatized experience: forests burning, aerial forces pouring herbicides from above, factory waste flowing into a river, etc. Whilst these examples do occur, their sensationalism in the media turns attention away from slower forms of interacting with the environment, which bring their own field of violence and justifications. I was initially inspired by a temporary art installation in NYC, Questions, by Abigail Reyes, which included the image of a hill only half-covered in trees. While the piece was intended to address the experience of migration through Central America, this image in particular struck me with an uncanny familiarity. Rather than El Salvador, where Reyes had taken this photograph, a seemingly-identical half-there landscape could be found in the countryside outside of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, along the route my family would drive to get to my grandfather’s house in the mountains. I began to wonder how common such an image is across Latin America, and how this change in the landscape might be viewed by different people.  

With recent media attention given to Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, and his rolling back of environmental protections—particularly in sensational images of burning tracts of rainforest at the end of 2019, when wildfires in the Amazon increased by the largest factor in decades—I thought about this half-hill. I remember asking my mother about them when I was younger, and she said that people would slowly move around, clearing parts of the forest to use as farmland, for ranching, or to collect lumber. It used to be common for Indigenous peoples to use small, controlled fires to help restore nutrients to areas after they had been used for crops, but such a practice has become wildly controversial with the recent climate dangers, the government’s seizure of rainforest (and broader view of the land as their property), and population increases. Now, the cleared areas become bereft of nutrients due to heavy rains, people move on, and it takes much longer for the areas to restore themselves. 

With this practice, I was interested to explore this “quiet ecocide,” in which land becomes inhospitable and is abandoned once it can no longer offer a means of consumption. This is related to Rob Nixon’s concept of “slow violence” explored in his 2011 book Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, where environmental crises that occur gradually and often go ignored due to capitalist demand for continual production. Unlike the dramatic violence of the raging rainforest fires, images of slow violence never make it onto the news; what is captivating about an empty field? This ignores the various perspectives such an activity possesses, in which everyone always wants to blame someone else, and everyone has a personal justification, to the point that compromise isn’t seen as even possible; rather someone has to “win.” However, as Nixon argues, this serves to further exacerbate “the vulnerability of ecosystems and of people who are poor, disempowered, and often involuntarily displaced, while fueling social conflicts that arise from desperation as life-sustaining conditions erode.”1 Rather than these justifications being entirely selfish, they are motivated by an undercurrent of fear and survival. Throughout Latin America, there are the intergenerational aftereffects of trauma occurring throughout the past century. People learn very young to never talk about something that might anger the wrong person, and to do what it takes to survive. In many cases, survival means silence. You can ask your mother why the hills are empty, but keep the answer to yourself. Ecocide has effects beyond the degradation of the environment; it is also reflected in the affective environment of fears and change that occupies various groups, as well as the connected-but-distinct perspectives of their own work as being legitimate to mitigate this fear.

In the series of poems presented below, I wanted to explore how collective memory of “slow” ecocide can change from group to group, person to person, depending on the perspective their livelihood and survival depends on. Each poem is a letter voiced by a distinct speaker: a person of a Guaraní tribe, a small-scale farmer, a middle-class city-dweller, a businessman, and the land itself. In producing this work, I play with what is “real,” whether that is in the attitudes or writing styles of the fictional narrators (including glimpses beyond what they “choose” to present), the accuracy of translations (and lack thereof), my original writing alongside quotations from others, or even in the transference of the typed words to a physical wooden form. In addressing the taboo whilst maintaining contradictory perspectives and internalized doubts, I hope to complicate the idea of complicity as well as address the power of unheard silences when something is seemingly overexposed. 

All translations are mine. All mistranslations are ours. 

A Letter from a Person of a Guaraní Tribe

My living body will haunt you.
In the crevices of your concrete buildings,
in the cracks of the asphalt,
you see a ghost where there is flesh.
This aesthetic lays in extinction;
draw your beautiful illustrations,
take your primitive photographs,
my blood still moves within the urucú.
I am your neighbor. I am my parentes.

“Não queremos mais ser souvenir,
eu não quero que a minha foto saia por aí
e diga para todo mundo que o indígena
está bem no Brasil,
que é lindo, maravilhoso.
Mas que está sendo destruído,
está sendo massacrado.”2

Our words live on your tongue,
but our names you ignore.
Am I not a person? Are you not an animal?
Born of different makers,
you, from a rib,
me, from the soil,
we embody mirrors of artistic form.
Our gods are dancing,
cheek to cheek. 

“Nós queremos o nosso protagonismo,
chega de dar o nosso conhecimento
para as universidades, seus bancos de dados,
e eles venderem para as farmácias.
Nós, da Aldeia Maracanã,
temos o nosso próprio banco de dados.
Nosso conhecimento todo é garantido
para aqueles que realmente querem se curar,
não para aqueles que querem lucrar,
que querem ser egocêntricos vaidosos.
O que queremos é que reconheçam que
realmente nós ajudamos muito o Brasil.
Ajudamos muito aos brancos,
aos imigrantes, aos invasores.
Então queremos respeito,
porque a nossa cultura é forte, é ancestral,
somos mais antigos que a Bíblia.”3

Passing the ax through my mother,
you turn when the sap weeps.
Pushing, pushing, pushing, pushing;
you flood a village, you burn another,
you steal gold from my father’s belly,
leaving behind fish poisoned by mercury
and ripples of sick nomads whose home you take,
and whom you refuse to house.
We’re given your hand-me-downs,
given your scraps like fearful dogs,
given trash in the river
and half-naked mountains.
These are not gifts; this is plunder.

“Assim como existe um santo para cada dia do ano,
também existe uma etnia para cada dia.
O dia do indígena é todo dia,
porque todo dia tem indígena morrendo,
tem indígena sendo humilhado,
sendo criticado.”4

*

This poem relates to an indigenous person’s perspective of deforestation. Indigenous people are often considered as part of Brazil’s pre-colonial history, or at least regulated to a few small areas outside of the contemporary world. However, census data shows thousands who identify as Native living in Rio de Janeiro alone; rather than a population of the past, they are people’s neighbors and cousins, and they still fight to protect their homeland but also their livelihood. 

I incorporated the words of indigenous activist Ash Ashaninka, a leader in the Indigenous resistance to retain the property of Aldeia Maracanã as a museum and communal space for Indigenous peoples in the city proper of Rio de Janeiro. All Portuguese (in italics) are quotes from Ashaninka in a 2017 article in Agência Brasil, “Aldeia Maracanã mantém tradições indígenas e cobra reconhecimento.” 

The poem focuses on the invisibility of indigenous people, both in urban and non-urban spaces, and the impact they have despite this collective “unknowing.” Due to deforestation and antagonistic government policies, their ancestral home is fundamentally altered; they act as living ghosts, there even if people don’t want them to be. In living with and parallel to the descendants of immigrants, many express the wish for mutual respect and harmony, but are increasingly mobilizing to exert their presence and reclaim places for themselves. In speaking up, indigenous activists make clear that the Brazilian government can no longer count them as invisible.

The third (English) stanza focuses mainly on the environmental impact from centuries of colonization (and neo-colonization by descendants), and the ecocide that deforestation, done through logging and mining operations, poisons both the land and these remaining groups. Not only living ghosts, they are wandering ghosts. This brings up the issue of power: what does it mean to take away and “give back” pieces of something that never should have been stolen in the first place? How do you avoid silence? How do you validate your identity?

 

A Letter from a Farmer in Niteroi

My family has lived in this valley for over two hundred years.
Soil here becomes poorer as the years go on;
it is too loose and the rain washes away the vitamins.
The best thing to do is to raise cattle;
grass grows quickly and easily,
compared to sugar or pineapples.
I don’t want to burn my hands harvesting cashews.
I don’t want to leave this valley.

Every year it is a struggle against the commercial farms,
run by foreigners or people from the city.
They don’t know what they’re doing.
They don’t care about the cows,
and they particularly don’t care for us.
But our product is wholesome;
the cows get good exercise walking each day in the sunlight,
they drink fresh water when it rains.
More and more people want natural food;
the origin is important,
they want love.
But more people means more cattle,
and more cattle means more room.

I cleared another acre of trees last winter.
It’s not much! Just enough for another calf.
We’re fighting for our daily bread.
You can’t do anything with the old land, anyway.
Once the vitamins are used up, they’re gone,
so nothing new will grow.
Besides, the cattle tear up the ground climbing the hills,
so expensive seeds would never sit long enough to take root.

Farmers around here would rather keep moving along.
It’s common to see people clear the land, stay for a bit,
then leave when the soil becomes poor.
The land doesn’t belong to anyone, anyways.
There are no more Indians. No one’s using it.
It’s just how things are.
You have to think about your family.

*

This poem is from the perspective of a small-time subsistence farmer/rancher in the area just outside of Rio, which is adjacent to a large naval and military base. This brings up the complexities of families’ individual impact on the environment, particularly in comparison to more powerful actors, and how survival and pride plays into the decisions one makes. Each family’s individual fields aren’t very large compared to industrial logging in the north, but it is also cumulative; when you have this perspective a thousand times, it amounts to a relatively large amount of land cleared to support both commercial desires and survival needs.

I took a very colloquial, straightforward (i.e. not traditionally “poetic”) tone here, as if taken from the pages of a journal or an interview. Farmers don’t have time for purple prose. The perspective here flirts with unconscious unknowing, in that one will justify their own actions in accordance with the belief system they already have, even in the face of contrary evidence. Many farmers, either because of ignorance due to isolation and lack of schooling or because of laziness, find that it is easier to clear new land rather than restore what already exists. This does have its roots in indigenous knowledge, specifically in the use of small fires to reestablish nutrients like nitrogen in the soil, but with the population boom and increased demand for Brazilian beef5, many clear land to raise cattle that ultimately destroy the topsoil due to their hooves.6 The land becomes unviable and eventually abandoned because not even grass grows fast enough to keep up with the need. This is fine on the small scale, but if you have thousands of farmers clearing an acre each every year, it adds up. However, this action is so minuscule compared to deforestation up north, that many people ignore the smaller-scale deforestation in the south or believe it’s not harmful because it’s not as harmful.

This piece also touches on the anxieties of the poor, specifically that of a country that has much experience with widespread poverty and famine due to governmental blunders and a unique climate that doesn’t take well to certain crops, combined with the general lack after European colonists essentially plundered any resources they might have been able to use themselves and replaced areas with cash crops. When faced with your family, the cornerstone of Brazilian culture, and their starvation, the environmental impact of your actions seem much less serious. There is also a tendency to blame small-scale producers by large companies, which makes these people defensive and eager to justify their practice as more beneficial and environmentally-friendly than these enterprises. Lately Brazilians, much like Americans and those in many other countries, are becoming more aware of the origins of the goods that they eat, and want to find food and drink that isn’t “artificial.” Many programs have been introduced to promote small-scale farmers; however, this also means that a new generation of people are moving to the countryside with the idea that they’ll make money via organic “luxury” crops, like expensive mushrooms. However, then you have these “outsiders” clashing with the “established” farmers (who only claimed the land after the start of colonial times) in competition for land, which reflects a larger question: who has the “right” to be there?

 

A Letter from a Resident of Rio Sul

I visited my grandfather in the countryside today. 

He was sat out on the veranda, 

sparrows flying in and out of a hole 

underneath where the roof tiles and the beams meet. 

Their chests gleam purple

and they chase parrots five times their size

for daring to come close to—

a clay gash lives in the mountain opposite the back doors

and he won’t say if it’s from a landslide or an excavator. 

He begins to sing, in English, “You must remember this…” 

 

Coming from the city, 

where the evening news flashes images 

of fire filling the skies of the north,

of loggers’ equipment abandoned in the rain,

the view outside the car window fades to green. 

Fields interrupted by mountains interrupted by—

a group of skinny cows with humps sit by a creek in the shade

and my mamãe says Brazilian cows are raised for meat, not milk. 

 

Six hours to the middle of nowhere,

where the landscape flitches between rainforest and savannah.

Now and then you’ll see hills only half-covered in trees.

No one ever talks about this. 

No one ever shows this image on the news. 

Slowly chipped away, slowly chipping away, chip chip chip—

the sparrows are singing unlearned songs 

—too slow to repair, too slow to notice.

Nothing grows for years because Nothing decomposes:

silent here as drowning.

 

I’m grieving a space I never knew, 

a place I don’t think I have the right to miss. 

(We’re not meant to be here but we’re here now, so what do we do?)

Is it still called ecocide if nothing bad is introduced, 

but if what is good was taken away? 

Untouched wilderness is a European illusion, 

         and sublimated land is a European dream.

Both depend on seeing humans as superior; 

the destroyer and the creator, 

the one who chooses.

 

All alone, a sapling pops up from ash.

 

*

The third poem reflects the perspective of a city-dweller, in particular the view of someone who lives in Rio Sul, the most famous part of Rio de Janeiro due to its proximity to the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema, even though tourists don’t really go inland here farther than a block. This is also sometimes considered the “ritzy” part of the city due to this fame, but many people who live here who aren’t rich are instead old and purchased property in the late twentieth century when it was built up (and still relatively cheap).

This speaker’s relationship to deforestation is more tenuous than the speakers’ of the first two poems, who have a direct stake. This is a more personal piece, reflecting my own experiences driving past this scenery but not depending on its state for the preservation of my own existence. It’s a much more ambivalent and thus confusing experience; if I have one perspective, is it because of an inherent bias, and if so, where is this bias coming from? Do I even have a right to have a perspective? With my grandfather as a non-native landowner, is he complicit? Am I complicit? What is the role of silence?

The speaker of this poem has a transient existence; they also struggle with defining their identity and finding a ‘place,’ similar to the indigenous person in the first poem. However, they are also coming from a place of privilege, in which their claim to land in Brazil is only due to colonial takeovers, large waves of incoming immigrants, and environmental changes. The imagery contrasts the sensationalized images shown in media compared with the everyday, silent sense that if we don’t acknowledge it, and if it happens slowly enough, it won’t be a problem. This is the role of silence and the taboo. 

The mode of this poem is the journey between spaces: the established houses in the countryside and the city, and the crisis that moving between them brings. As a person who is divided between America and Brazil, a bit of that sense of “non-placeness” and liminality of those who are multinationals came through in this aspect. The narrator doesn’t have skin in the game (like me, they’re not a farmer or an indigenous person or a land developer), but they are still affected by it, and this ambivalence creates a confusing situation.

The final stanza(s) focus on the influence of biases, and how competing biases can make this even more confusing. It also touches on the Western (Indo-European) idea of humans as superior, of having a responsibility of “organizing” how the world works. Whether in conservation or destruction, both reflect this idea of humans as solely responsible, rather than seeing nature more holistically and more like a feedback loop: you help me, and I help you.

The song quoted is “As Time Goes By” by Herman Hupfeld, originally from the musical Everybody’s Welcome (1931) and made famous to international audiences by Casablanca (1942). It is something my grandpa has sung to me every time I visited, ever since I was little, particularly the lines: 

“You must remember this, a kiss is just a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh.
The fundamental things apply, as time goes by.”

A Letter From a Brazilian Businessman 

Date: June 9, 2018
Time: 11:20 GMT-3
IMPORTANT INFORMATION

Here at Benevides Marajo,
we understand the importance of preserving the beauty of our country,
as well as providing opportunities for sustainable service to its citizens.
We are thoroughly focused on comprehensive risk management policies
and serving local communities.
We have created countless jobs,
allowing people to continue to put food on the table
in the midst of a recession.
By wrongly fining or restricting our business with paradoxal policies,
the cost of our goods is needlessly increased,
which results in higher prices,
lost jobs,
reduced paychecks
and slower economic growth,
which negatively impacts every Brazilian consumer.
Is it fair to ask them to literally pay for this avoidable inconvenience?
With the Amazon as our home,
we are better situated than any other company in the world
to comprehend its importance to the well-being of Brazil.
Our operations are in accordance with
the Federal Government’s highest standard of
environmentally-conscious enterprise,
operating with due diligence towards our goals.
All our operations are completely legal,
despite the lies brought forward by neo-colonialists
who simply want to take over the forest to steal its riches for themselves.
As Brazilians, “the Amazon is ours, not yours.”
By painting all lumber companies with a broad brush,
people disregard the change we bring
to both the global market and our local communities.
Annually, we plant more than 3.5 million trees
to be harvested and transformed into raw material,
and we only do so only on naturally-clear fields.
Our company also acts in various ways to preserve the environment
in the forms of waste management and treatment,
pollution control,
minimal cultivation,
and energy efficiency.
Our scientists, engineers, and construction workers
are hard at work at inventing and implementing
innovative systems and energy forms,
to give our base operations a carbon-neutral footprint.
Opposition to our work casts a wide net
and imposes ineffective and burdensome controls
on these noble pursuits,
which shackles economic growth
and erases opportunity for the younger generation.
For both the forest and our people,
“integrate so as not to surrender!”
In preserving our sovereignty,
we are providing for the common man of Brazil.
Every Brazilian is our client.
It is for them that we mobilize capital at scale
to find solutions to antiquated systems of operation.

This, in turn, will allow for the modernization of infrastructure
and establish Brazil as a pioneer of the future.
Where there is land,
“there is wealth underneath.”

With the current climate crisis,
we at Benevides Marajo believe
that it is important that more people are aware
that we all share the responsibility.
We cannot change the future alone,
but instead by working together
in the name of peace and prosperity!

Uma Carta de um Membro das Máfias do Ipê

Data: 9 de junho de 2018
Horário: 11:20 GMT-3
INFORMAÇÕES IMPORTANTES

Aqui em Benevides Marajo,
somos obrigados a escrever uma dessas declarações a cada ano mais ou menos,
usando palavras-chave como beleza e sustentável para apaziguar os cidadãos.
Estamos totalmente focados em políticas abrangentes de gerenciamento de risco
desde que nos sirvam.
Criamos inúmeros empregos,
mas nenhum deles é assalariado ou garantido
o que os trabalhadores já sabiam ao se inscreverem.
Ao multar ou restringir erroneamente nossos negócios com políticas paradoxais,
os honorários legais à pagar são desnecessariamente aumentados,
o que resulta em preços mais altos,
empregos perdidos,
salários reduzidos
e um crescimento mais lento do lucro,
que poderíamos facilmente cobrir aceitando uma margem de lucro mais baixa.
Mas como meu chefe vai impressionar seus amigos ricos sem culpabilizar os consumidores?
Com a Amazônia simplesmente ali,
porque deixam as árvores ficar quando poderiam ser transformados
em móveis para serem vendidos pela Ikea no Brasil.
Nossas operações estão de acordo com
o padrão muito frouxo do Governo Federal de
empresa ambientalmente consciente,
operando com vistas a nossos objetivos de lucro.
Todas as nossas operações em papel são legais o suficiente,
e estamos tão receosos que um rival chegará ao lugar procurado e leve
antes que os nossos próprios trabalhadores possam levar toda a madeira.
Como brasileiros, a Amazônia é algo a possuir.
Ao tratar todas as empresas madeireiras de maneira generalizada,
as pessoas desconsideram a mudança que trazemos
tanto para o mercado global quanto para nossas comunidades locais.
Anualmente, plantamos um número aleatório de árvores
que ninguém será capaz de verificar,
e o fazemos em campos desmatados pelos primeiros colonizadores.
Nossa empresa também atua de várias maneiras para preservar nossas próprias empregos,
sob a forma de ameaças aos residentes indígenas,
a poluição causada pelo descuido e preguiça,
e pelo o bloqueio de qualquer cultivo,
até que eles cedam.
Nossos cientistas, engenheiros e trabalhadores da construção civil
estão em risco de serem demitidos a qualquer momento
e temem por suas famílias,
agora vamos escrever outra palavra-chave sobre o impacto do carbono e alguma coisa.
A oposição ao nosso trabalho atua em várias frontes
e impõe controles ineficazes e onerosos
sobre nossa avarícia,
que detêm o crescimento do lucro
e contribui para o complexo de inferioridade do país.
Os militares tinham a idéia certa,
“Integrar para não entregar!”
Na preservação de nossa soberania,
mantemos a humilhação do Brasil.
Todo brasileiro é nosso cliente.
Qualquer produto é hoje realmente moralmente neutro
em um sistema global construído sobre exploração e subjugação.

Aqui, por sua vez, é um país de pardos deixado para trás pela modernização
que só querem se sentir ricos como os colonizadores se tornaram.
Os capitalistas brancos ainda dizem,
“há terra para fazer riqueza”.

Com a atual crise climática,
nós da Benevides Marajo acreditamos
que a ação mais fácil é enganar as pessoas
em pensar que temos a mesma culpa.
Esqueça que somos uma corporação global,
e seja distraído por nossos produtos,
calando-se para nossa prosperidade!

*

The fourth poem is the longest piece by far, and it is set up to parody the language of public statements released by corporations who have been accused of unsustainable and/or illegal practices, particularly overseas where they have a “third-party buffer” that absolves them of responsibility, such as Morgan Stanley, Chevron, and Nestle Waters, among others. The language used here is similar to the farmer’s in its lack of “poetics,” but it is much more intellectual and reliant on corporate jargon and buzzwords. Here, there is a bilingual “false reflection” in that the English version does not exactly translate the Portuguese version, but to those who don’t read Portuguese, it is impossible to tell. It takes advantage of people’s bias against critically examining translations, and just assuming that translations are always done with the intent of accuracy. Here, I’ve borrowed the technique of a poem I read when I was younger, which was a bilingual setup with the Spanish version on one side and English on the other; however, the poem took advantage of the monolingual bias of American readers, who assume that English besides a non-English language means it’s an exact translation. Bilingual readers would notice that the two were wildly different, with the English side having a fairly ordinary, non-controversial theme that Americans would find pleasing, while the Spanish side was much more fraught with the various anxieties of being Latino.

The linguistic trickery reflects the usage of company statements, particularly in regards to ethical issues, to placate the public and rely on biases to do so, particularly those that focus on surface-level meaning and satisfaction. However, critical examination (and an alternate translation), shows that the two versions differ wildly. The English version is the “pleasant” format, using language that anyone who is familiar with greenwashing will recognize, while the Portuguese is the “actual” meaning behind each of the lines. In other words, the English demonstrates what is curated for a public apology, whereas the “translation” shows the internal monologue that will result in the same detrimental practice to be eventually continued.

The English version deflects blame on the corporation through the identification with the collective: it’s not my fault, it’s our fault; it’s not my development, it’s our development; it’s not my profit, it’s our profit. Thus, people both begin to blame themselves and see the corporation as a “friend” they must be dependent on rather than an entity with its own interests in mind. The Portuguese version shows what can be read between the lines, directly. It exemplifies the perspective that sees the forest as a resource that can be used to make something (yourself, the company, the country) something to be respected and proud of. Both ultimately pin the blame on someone else and can justify their actions through the metaphor of survival or improving one’s quality of life. There is also the theme of humiliation and anger, which is unique to the global south in the wake of colonialism by Europe, in which many countries are unerringly dependent on more developed nations for “charity” after having been exploited for centuries, which is the source of that current wealth. Nationalism and fascism are easily grown in such a social environment, creating an “us versus you” mentality that ultimately is traced back to fear. Here, quotes taken from press conferences with Jair Bolsonaro as well as past military slogans are used out of context, seeming innocuous unless one has knowledge of their origins and the increase in environmental destruction in the wake of these declarations. Ultimately, the fear and the need to depend on corporate benevolence to survive results in the internalization of messages of subjugation. Like the farmer, even those employed in these companies can believe in different ethics and desire a “better” world without capitalistic destruction, but are ultimately dependent on it in order to eat and survive. 

A Letter from the Land 

kill me, if you are willing
to stomp great hooves into my back,
leaving me half dead and gasping
from the smell of sulfur in my blood.
Have you bitten off enough, child?
Is the cost of your love so useless,
you rely on the cold metal in my veins
to cool the fever you’ve stoked?

I held you near my heart;
I am glad I did not let you in
though this left you in my lungs,
blackening them with sap made of the dead.
Do you insist on exhuming my bones?
Will you finally be satisfied,
when your kings cut you down for more,
as you did to the homes of the curupira?

you threaten to make a simulacra of me,
obsessed with (my) destruction
and (my) conservation and (my) sublimation;
but you are barely a muriçoca on my ass.
Why do you resist mystery in change?
Always looking to the past,
always burning the past for an outdated future,
don’t you know your saudade chokes us both?

I love(d) you, and your grandchildren
and your bastard children and your ghosts;
lei da selva, lei do antropófago,
my love is to devour; yours is to consume.
A idade de ouro-boros:
your chemical soup will wound me and kill you.
You will consume yourself,
as I shed the scarred form of a Boiúna

*

The final poem takes from the tradition of magical realism and Brazilian surrealism, being from the perspective of the land itself. Here the tone is strangely both accusatory and amused; the land was around before life existed on this planet and will be around even if humans kill everything on its surface. The idea that humans have the final say is laughable; however, just because you won’t die from a stab wound doesn’t mean getting stabbed doesn’t hurt. Thus, it still lashes out, angry that it offered a gift and was taken advantage of. It plays with the theme of humans’ desire for control, and the inherent lack of control we possess.  

I imagine this personification of the land (i.e. its “voice”) to have the same disposition as an incredibly old grandma cat: it has so many problems and is so cranky that you would think it wants to die, but it has somehow outlasted several other pets and also some human relatives/relationships. “You can’t rid of me!” it says. The tone reflects the sense that the land will “outlive” humans and their influence, but the pain of damage is still impressive enough and avoidable to annoy it (much like a mass of mosquito bites that becomes overwhelmingly itchy all over your body for a good ten minutes). It is another case of ambivalence; being killed but not dead. Here, deforestation is not the end, but it is a betrayal of the trust the land put into the cycle of living. Thus, the law of modern man and the law of nature do not align: man exploits the earth in order to feed a consumption that is never satisfied (and self-created and self-maintained), while the earth exists on a timeline that is incomprehensible and cyclical. 

The poem references various creatures from Brazilian folklore, vernacular language, and Brazilian surrealism, specifically Oswald de Andrade’s 1928 prose-poem “Cannibal Manifesto (Manifesto Antropófago),” which is largely about Brazil’s practice of “cannibalizing” other cultures and how it can use this as a way to assert itself against post-colonial culture that is still dependent on European countries. This also connects to Brazil’s problem of trying to “catch up” with the developed world, by means of imitating the destruction they committed against their own environments in the name of natural resources (ex. the Black Forest of Germany).

The earth “loves” us by providing what we need; this love becomes past tense if we begin demanding more and take advantage of its love. However, despite this exploitation and attempt at control, the earth maintains that it will survive even if humans do not. Ultimately, humans are destroying themselves.

Wood panels with the author's "Poems for Brasil" printed in black ink.
Photograph by Olivia Kassaei
Wood panel with the author's "A Letter From a Farmer in Niterol" printed on with black ink.
Photograph by Olivia Kassaei
Wood panel with the author's "A Letter From a Resident of Rio Sul" printed on with black ink.
Photograph by Olivia Kassaei
Wood panel with a portion of the author's "A Letter From a Brazilian Businessman" printed on with black ink.
Photograph by Olivia Kassaei
Wood panel with a portion of the author's "Uma Carta de um Membro das Máfias do Ipê" printed on with black ink.
Photograph by Olivia Kassaei
Wood panel with the author's "A Letter from the Land" printed on with black ink.
Photograph by Olivia Kassaei
Wood panels with the author's "Brasil Poems" printed on with black ink.
Photograph by Olivia Kassaei

  1. Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Harvard University Press, 2011), publisher description.
  2. “We don’t want to be souvenirs anymore,
    I don’t want my picture to go around
    and tell everyone that the Indigenous
    are doing well in Brazil,
    that it’s beautiful, wonderful.
    But they are being destroyed,
    they are being massacred.”
    (Ash Ashaninka quoted in Akemi Nitahara, “Aldeia Maracanã mantém tradições indígenas E cobra reconhecimento,” Agência Brasil, April 19, 2017.)
  3. “We want our protagonism,
    enough of giving our knowledge
    to the universities, their databanks,
    and them selling it to pharmacies.
    We, from Aldeia Maracanã,
    have our own database.
    All our knowledge is guaranteed
    for those who really want to be cured,
    not for those who want to profit,
    who want to be vainly egocentric.
    What we want is that they recognize that
    we have really helped Brazil a lot.
    We helped the whites a lot,
    the immigrants, the invaders.
    So we want respect,
    because our culture is strong, it is ancestral,
    we are older than the Bible.”
    (Ash Ashaninka)
  4. “Just as there exists a saint for every day of the year,
    there also exists an ethnic group for each day.
    The Indigenous People’s Day is every day,
    because every day has Indigenous dying,
    has Indigenous being humiliated,
    being criticized.”
    (Ash Ashaninka)
  5. Veiga, J. B., et al. XII World Forestry Congress, 2003, https://www.fao.org/3/xii/0568-b1.htm. Accessed 7 Dec. 2021.
  6. The cows currently in Brazil are descended from cows imported from Europe and India as well as those brought south from as far as Texas during the colonial era. Compared to native hoofed species, such as the caititu/peccary—a species similar to pigs—their hooves dig deeper into the ground due to their heavy weight. This has actually been utilized by farmers to help sustainably plant seeds in lieu of a traditional plow, but as ranchers are primarily concerned with feeding cows and selling them rather than replanting ground cover, pastures typically take longer to rejuvenate lost nutrients. See Veiga, J. B., et al. 2003.
 
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