(In the early 1970’s my husband Tony and I spent about a year living with a group of Indians near the headwaters of the Xingu River in Central Brazil while he did research for his PhD dissertation in social anthropology. In subsequent years we made other visits, most recently in May of 2015. These pieces were written after that last visit.)
The Cuban Doctor
Puking my guts out in central Brazil
I was delivered to the Cuban doctor.
He was young (unlike me)
and brown (unlike me).
He was on a mission to help those in need.
He was on a mission to demonstrate the superiority of his island’s economic and social system.
He gave me some soro,
salty and sweet.
Muchas gracias, Alejandro, por haberme bien tratado.
Me estoy sintiendo mejor.
The Bathroom in the Jungle
How come when you build a bathroom in the jungle
Suddenly there’s a line
No Words? (After Hegel?)
How can you speak when you have no words?
But that can’t be right! There are plenty of words:
people, plaza, forest, river, sky, sun, moon, stars . . .
So why can’t you say what you mean?
dancing, singing, stamping, swirling, smiling, laughing, crying . . .
In the flickering firelight
the touch of
a feather . . .
Dark Sky in May 2015, 11° South Latitude
The Evening Star pierces the twilight’s deep blue.
To the north the Big Dipper pours out all its contents,
until toward dawn, drained dry, it dips below the trees.
To the south the Southern Cross proceeds across the
Some must have seen it as a sign.
From east to west the smaller stars are strewn across the
the glowing embers of a burning tree they say.
Celestial animals tread that starry trail.
You see them as patches of darkness
silently making their way.
From time to time, with blinking lights, a jet cuts through
“Did you see?” I ask my friend, as we sit on a blanket out-
side the long house,
“The sky canoe! That’s the way I came and that’s the way
The Rainy Season Begins: 1
You can see the dark clouds trailing ribbons of rain.
That one will miss us but that one will strike us for sure!
Quick! Grab your dress from the line!
Stinging clouds of dust raised from the plaza are
whipped by the wind.
The thatch on the roofs rises and rustles.
In the old village the houses leaked badly.
We would move our hammocks to avoid the worst drips.
We would dig troughs in the dirt floor with tablespoons
to drain the water.
In this new village the houses are tighter.
We’re safe inside.
The Rainy Season Begins: 2
At first the earth drinks in the rain.
After all, it hasn’t rained for months.
The water simply disappears
as if it had never been.
And then we’re back to dust again.
There will be time enough for puddles;
Time enough for shining sandy beaches
to be submerged beneath the flood;
Time enough for fish to flee and game to gather,
trapped on islands nonexistent now;
Time enough for the river to rise,
and time enough for mud.
The Rainy Season
It seems that nothing ever really dries.
Things range from soaked to (on a good day) damp.
Watercolor: Going Up the Xingu River in the Rainy Season in an Aluminum Motorboat
Billowing curtains of rain smudge the forest.
Pillars of mist rise like smoke from the river.
Falling and rising the boundaries are blurred.
The world is a study in gray.
What could be more fragile than our little boat beating its
way upriver against the fierce
torrent draining the high plateau?
When the motor falls silent we drift in a moment
much farther downstream than we’ve come.
A black tattered tarp keeps out some of the rain,
while the cold silver hull makes a hard drizzly bed,
as lulled by the deep throb of the laboring motor
I dream the long hours away.
Night and Day: Going up the Suiá-Missu in the Dry Season in a Dugout Canoe
You find yourself afloat in a field of stars.
Do you want one?
Just reach down and pluck it from the river.
But watch out for the curious caimans!
They swim alongside and they bite.
The stars drip through your fingers.
How to hold them?
We roll up our hammocks and set off by moonlight,
while leaves still shine silver and jaguars still hoot in the
so when the sun is high and hot we’ve paddled a long way.
The river at its source is crystal clear and nearly still.
Sun-speckled bass glide gracefully through river grass be-
neath our boat.
Under blazing sun cool water beckons.
But watch out, for the depths are deceptive!
Stepping out of the canoe you may find yourself in over
The Umbrella Fish (O candiru*)
Piranhas? They’re easy enough to avoid. They school in sharp bends where the river runs deep, beneath steep sandy banks where some food might fall in. You know not to swim in those pools.
Stingrays? Also avoidable. You roil the river bottom with a stick before you step. They lurk in the mud but they flee.
Electric eels? Sure, they’ll give you a shock, but I got one only once. About a dozen of us were pushing a large net across a pond left by the receding river. The water before us
teemed with flapping fish. An old man accidently struck an eel with a machete that had no handle: pure metal! He hollered and leapt from the water. The rest of us got a good shock and a good laugh.
But the umbrella fish? That’s a different story. It’s a slender creature that swims into bodily orifices and, once there, opens itself up like an umbrella. Then you’re in for it! The only way to remove it is surgically.
Piranhas, stingrays, electric eels: I’ve seen – and eaten – them all. An umbrella fish? Never! But I think every Brazilian in the Interior knows its story.
* “Common designation for various species of bony fish . . . There is a popular belief, not scientifically proven, that the candiru penetrates the urethra of people who are bathing in rivers.” Translated from the Novo Dicionário Aurélio, Fourteenth Edition. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
The Bad and the Good
knowing your place in an orderly world
The Mystery of the Tapir’s Anus
One day someone killed a tapir – enough meat for the
whole village in those days!
And they gave us the anal sphincter – well boiled, to be
sure, but still – the anus!
The body part we always laughed about!
Why did they give us the tapir’s anus?
Was it a delicacy?
Was it a joke?
Was it acknowledgement that we were the only ones in the village whose teeth might be strong enough
to chew it? (They weren’t; we tried.)
What do you do with a tapir’s anus?
Cut it up somehow and eat it?
Wait until dark and heave it into the woods or the
In the end, we gave it back: “This is not sweet to us.”
Why did they give us that tapir’s anus?
I didn’t ask them then and I didn’t ask them later.
I guess I decided that some things don’t need to be known.
Snatches of Speech
“Yes, I’ve come.”
“Where are you going?”
“I’m going to the water.”
“Are you awake?”
“Yes, I’m awake.”
“Where are you going?”
“I’m going to the garden.”
“Are you leaving?”
“Yes, I’m leaving.”
“Let’s go together!”
Reminiscing with the Chief’s Wife / Total Eclipse of the Moon
We agree that as pets we prefer parrots to dogs or cats.
We remember songs we’ve sung together: Javarí and Yamuricumã learned from the Upriver Indians, Juruna songs danced while drinking spit-started manioc brew bubbling and working in its dugout trough, songs of the Txukarramãe sung and danced by women and men in facing rows…
We remember the night the moon died, or so the old people say. That was in the old village when she was young and so was I.
People poured out of the houses and onto the plaza in the reddening light.
Some sang to bring the moon back; some shot flaming ar-
Mothers covered the heads of their children with tree cot- ton:
protection from wandering spirits who meant to do them harm.
In the commotion a dog lunged and bit me.
I was hurt and mad as hell
but looking back I guess he feared I meant to do his people
At last of course the moon came back to life.
Even then they knew my people had walked on it.
Sleeping in a Hammock
Sleeping in a hammock is the best!
You make yourself a comfortable nest.
Make sure your ropes are strong and tightly bound:
There’s nothing underneath you but the ground.
A rolled-up blanket makes a handy sheath
To warm you from above and from beneath.
Once in, you’re cradled in a pocket deep
And perfectly disposed for restful sleep,
As long as you don’t dwell on the precar-
iousness of sleeping hanging in the air.
Sleeping in a Hammock with a Malarial Fever while Everyone Else is Dancing
If you can call it sleep . . .
Phantasmagoric shadows cast by fires
dip and soar on the towering thatch.
Passing beneath the rope of my hammock
painted dancers set the hammock swinging . . .
Drifting in . . .
Drifting out . . .
I hear fragments of song . . .
Fever dreams take on the rhythm of the dance.
They say that sickness means your spirit has been stolen.
Perhaps it hides among the fish, among the bees, among
the trees . . .
Haven’t you heard? The whole world sings!
But you must listen carefully . . .
And then perhaps when you return you’ll bring a song back
My body is aching . . . where is my spirit?
My body is burning . . . where is my song?