Columbus Day has become a time when we try to balance elements of horror and glory in the coming of Europeans to this hemisphere.
“I’m not sure anybody’s imagination has gotten that balance quite right, but Elizabeth Bishop, looking at the mystery of the Brazilian landscape, catches the splendor of that landscape and the mystery that drew the first invaders in toward a sexual or imperial conquest that the invaders never quite attained.
First, Bishop describes the fabric of the Brazilian forest, a dense tapestry.
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 under leaf turned over;
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.
That’s the fresh woven fabric that the European cannot quite attain, though they invaded. The ending of Bishop’s poem evokes the paradox of Portuguese soldiers glinting like little nail heads lost and transformed, even as they seem to conquer. The hemisphere, Bishop seems to say, eludes our attempts to know it.
in creaking armor, they came and found it all,
not unfamiliar: n
o lover’s walks, no bowers,
no cherries to be picked, no late 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 arme 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 retreated, always retreating behind it.”