Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Reading, Church Music, etc.

For the first time since childhood I am creating a wish list. While we are making rent here, we do not have much (or any) disposable income. Our financial goal for the year is to make enough money to save a little bit each month after rent, groceries, and other expenses. So far, it's all going into the apartment and in our bellies, and we're skimming off our little nest egg. 

All that to pre-amble my sudden desire for a Kindle. I would like to try one, first. I would also like to be assured that I can upload Project Gutenberg e-books. I know that some of the newer formats on the Gutenberg site are supposedly compatible with Kindle, and of course you can upload .pdf files to the device. I've read, too, that many books are only $0.99 ... the same books you find on Project Gutenberg. I am glad that my taste is as old-fashioned as it is. 

This brings to mind one of my first roommates in Boston. She was an avid reader, herself, but couldn't help but ask me, upon seeing my copy of The Tempest lying around, "Why are you reading that?" The only answer: "Fun." She commended me for reading The Tempest just for fun. I can't think of any other reason to read that play. Sure, you might have to write a paper about it for a literature course, but once you start, so starts the fun. Not every Shakespeare play is as delightful, of course. But it is hands down one of the most delightful and inviting of his plays. Ariel! Caliban! Ladies and Gentlemen... Prospero: 

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces, 
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yeah, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded, 
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep. 

Maybe fun is not the right word to describe the joy of reading this play. We have this silly phrase in English to describe our leisure reading , to set it apart from reading for school, for business, for the news, to check the cholesterol and sodium content of the Campbell's Soup: "reading for fun." You read Stephen King for fun. Michael Crichton. Dean Kootz. I don't. Mind you, I don't knock these authors, nor do I fault anyone for reading them. I enjoyed the hell out of Jurassic Park, The Sphere, Andromeda Strain, and Congo years ago. But these days, if I'm going to put in the effort of attention to read, when I have all of this electronic stimulation just a click away--I want to read something that will give greater rewards for my added effort and concentration. I want to rub my eyes after a passage and feel the buzz of my brain cells reforming after a genius turn of phrase. I want to feel--to be--changed. 

Here's one thing John Berryman had to say about Shakespeare: "Sometimes a series of this poet's phrases will drag out our profoundest thought as if, truly, we overheard the soul of the world murmuring truths to herself." If ever asked again why I am reading The Tempest, Lear, or A Midsummer Night's Dream, I'll just say that I feel like overhearing the world murmur truths to herself. 

I just had a happy session of reading that included no Shakespeare, but did include various selections from the King James Bible and Milton's Samson Agonistes. Milton's command of the line floors me. Though out of church since adolescence, I find reading the Bible a treat because the words reverberate and rattle awake some of my earliest memories. So does listening to old hymns, especially when done with only piano or guitar and a lone voice, or a small choir. The last time I was coerced into churchgoing, I was appalled to find a drum set and electric guitar and bass as part of the instrumentation. The pianist hardly played during the entire service--a few members were moved to sing along to a back-up tape that distorted during playback by the Peavy speakers. Of course sound quality wouldn't have mattered as much had the lyrics and music been worth a damn. Instead of the psychologically complex and literary hymns I was raised on, what I heard instead were banal, uninspired "inspirational" songs, or what I gather is called "Praise Music." Any of these songs can be boiled down to this: "God I love you/You're so awesome/I'm going to worship you all the time." Something like Kiss's "I wanna rock n' roll all night/And party ev-e-ry day..." Maybe this: "I'm gonna love God all the time/and praise Him ev-e-ry day."

Anyway, I don't mean to overly criticize something that is really none of my business--like I said, I'm not a churchgoer. How worshippers choose to worship together is their business. But I have had devout friends lament the loss of the old hymns with me. 

Nothing about Brazil in this post. I am thinking of creating a separate blog to meditate on things literary and (more or less) spiritual, thereby leaving this blog entirely to Brazil. I'll keep you posted. 

I have not forgotten my promise from yesterday--I am going to research the rain song tradition of the northeast and report my findings here. Stay tuned, Internet friends. 

Monday, July 27, 2009


Cordel do Fogo Encantado, again, this time with their song "Chover" -- "Rain." There is a famous song in Pernambuco that begs for rain, and lists the miseries of drought, dwelling on starving animals unwilling to pull the cart or plow. I'm not sure if this Cordel song is a version of that, but I'm pretty sure it comes from the same folk tradition. I will try to find out more by asking around, searching online, etc. Will update this blog with any findings.  

P.S. - Note the clouds in certain scenes with the band. In this area, and particularly Garanhuns with its high elevation, the ground approaches the sky, almost touching the enormous, ubiquitous cumuli. I have never lived in a place with such varied elevation--it compares with what I have seen of San Francisco in movies and photographs. One of the most beautiful aspects of this landscape is looking at the crest of a hill and the  thrill of imagining that the planet drops off just past it because all you see beyond the crest are cloud and blue--no land.  

Movies, books, etc.

We have been watching a lot of movies since our break from teaching began a couple weeks ago. Last night, we saw Shop Girl -- the Steve Martin adaptation of the Steve Martin novella. It wasn't all that terrible, nor was it all that great. You, whoever you are, probably know this without me telling you. Depending on the phase of movie-going and movie-renting I am in, I either catch movies right as they come out, or I only see them years after the enthusiasm for them has dissipated. Saturday night we watched Tropic Thunder. We caught that one while it was in theaters. We saw it at the giant Loews theater in Boston Common. Ben Stiller isn't as funny as the people who work with him on any given movie (although he is funnier than Jim Carrey, star of the under-rated Stiller movie Cable Guy). Robert Downey, Jr. Nuff said. 

I have translated a couple of short poems by Carlos Drummond de Andrade, my wife's favorite Brazilian poet. I had tried months ago to translate Joao Cabral de Melo Neto, a poet from Pernambuco, our state, but I find Drummond more attractive because more lyrical, with a fluid syntax. Cabral's lines are patterns of small stones painstakingly arranged. Drummond's style is closer to mine than Cabral's, although I'm sure the more I get into Cabral I will appreciate more because he is known for his narrative poetry. I am only just beginning. Anyway, the main purpose of translating is to strengthen my Portuguese. And to work the poetic muscles. 

My sleeping pattern is out of whack. This happens whenever I don't have many responsibilities to attend, errands to run, classes to teach. My bedtime these days is 5:00 or 6:00 AM. I managed to go to sleep before or around midnight last night, but awoke at 2:30 for a bathroom run and failed to fall asleep. There was an obscenely huge pile of dishes in the kitchen, now all clean thanks to me. Also took the time to wash my socks. We share a washing machine with my wife's sister, which is a drag by itself because laundry means hiking back and forth since neither of us can legally drive (wife's working on getting a license; her dad gave her a car he isn't using anymore). We wash socks and underwear by hand because the washer isn't as effective on these articles. 

I don't think even the richer people in Garanhuns own dryers, and most people here don't own washers. Usually if you have money, you hire someone to wash your clothes by hand, clean the house, and cook lunch. They're known as empregadas.  

So I slept a few hours, got up at 2:30. It is now 7:30. I'm going to stay up as long as I can, see if I can start reversing this sleeping pattern. The new semester starts next week, so I damn well better. 

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Mais Sobre a Musica

I noted in my last post that I wanted to write a bit about Marisa Monte and Cordel do Fogo Encantado, two of my favorite Brazilian musical acts. Through the magic of Youtube, I'll let them sing for themselves. 

Marisa Monte was huge in the nineties and, I think, even made a little headway in the states. But I don't think she ever released an English album (if I'm wrong, and you know, please correct me). Good for her, but of course Americans are less tolerant of foreign languages that just about everyone else (I hear American and British music here almost nonstop, and not many here know what the lyrics mean). 

This is one of my favorite Monte songs: 

Cordel de Fogo Encantado began in the late nineties and is now one of the biggest indie acts in the country. (The link to Cordel will help you with a translation of that word, which really has no equivalent in English for the meaning used by the band.) I listened to an entire album a few weeks ago with my sister-in-law. The first comparison that came to mind was Neutral Milk Hotel, but only because I was getting a sense that the lyrics were legend-building the same way the Hotel's are. Well, see for yourself: 

Here is a fan video of "The Kind of Carrot Flowers Part 1" by Neutral Milk Hotel. I think it's the guitar sound that sparked my comparison.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

As musicas

My students often say they enjoy listening to "musics" when they mean they enjoy listening to songs. Because in Brazilian Portuguese, you can use the word "musicas" to mean "songs." My wife (just married!) has made the same mistake since moving here--her English is deteriorating while my Portuguese slowly improves. 

I have spent this afternoon listening to a Brazilian Portuguese podcast, actually practicing. My wife is out running errands. When she gets back, my first words will be "fala so portugues." Portuguese only, please. I have been shamefully lazy learning the language, a typical American. At least I haven't been yelling at the locals, "Speak English, God damn it!" 

I realize that dropping the GD-bomb will offend some readers (assuming there are any for this blog). Truth is I am trying to curse less in English. In Portuguese I favor the mild curses I have learned, "Drogas!" which literally means "Drugs!" but is used, in movie subtitles, to mean "Shit!" It's less offensive than "Merda." I find it charming. Another common interjection of exasperation is "Ave Maria!" This is one of the first I learned; its meaning was immediately apparent when I heard it aloud (it's not in any of my textbooks, of course). I will never get over how French and Portuguese speakers have no problem with verbal sacrilege. 

One of my favorite expressions is "Onde Judas perdeu as botas," translated: "Where Judas lost his boots." It is used to describe deserted places, dead small towns, what we call in English "the middle of nowhere." 

On the one real note they have a picture of a hummingbird. In Brazilian Portuguese, the hummingbird is known as the beija flor: "flower kisser" (my translation). Unfortunately the single note is a rare note, as the real coin has taken over. Brazilian currency is a veritiable jungle, depicting sea turtles, monkeys (particularly the mico-leao dourado, or golden lion monkey), and lynxs. Most of the animals depicted are endangered species. I find the wildlife portraits charming, coming from the dull world of American currency and its official portraits. My wife misses the days when Brazilian money depicted famous writers, although sometimes they would depict a real hack. I miss the days when a writer or thinker could make it onto a postage stamp in the United States. I also miss the days when postage stamps cost pennies (well, a quarter and some pennies--I am a youngun). 

The Brazilian coins follow no rhyme nor reason when it comes to size and design. Most fifty cent pieces are thick and silver colored, but are also the thickness of the common silver twenty-five cent pieces, and at first glance look identical. Also, twenty-five cent pieces come in copper and nickel. There are no pennies in Brazil, and yet the stores do not adjust their prices accordingly. Which means that if you are due change of 2.97, they will round it up to the next real (or round it down to 2.95). 

One last thought on coins here: one of the five cent designs features a man who, at first glance, looks like Jesus. But if you read the inscribed name, you will find he is Tiradentes, which translates to "teeth puller." Dentist by profession, he was a revolutionary leader now commemorated by a national holiday, although a lot of Brazilians seem to think of his attempted coup as a joke. He was betrayed by one of his own followers, in exchange for tax exemption. Because of this circumstance, the betrayer is thought of as a Judas figure, and Tiradentes as Christ-like. Many paintings show him in white robes, with a long beard... anyone ignorant of the story would call him Jesus. 

Well, that's all I have time for at the moment. I want to continue this post by discussing two musical acts I have grown fond of: Marisa Monte and Cordel do Fogo Encantado. The latter will be playing Garanhuns this weekend. I can't wait to see them. 



Friday, July 17, 2009


My first year in Boston (2006), I went to a friend's house in New Hampshire for Thanksgiving. Her family lives in Walpole, a quaint little town with a mountainous horizon. Incidentally, I had lived in Walpole, Massachusetts, for a couple of months, where a couple of very good friends let me crash in their basement until I found a job and an apartment. 

While in Walpole, New Hampshire, we passed through Keane, a college town that seemed oddly familiar to me. I was nearly overwhelmed with deja vu when we passed through the town square, and suddenly it hit me: I had indeed passed through this town before. Twice, in 2003 and 2004, on my way to Franconia for the Frost Place Poetry Festival (where I met the Massachusetts friend who graciously offered her basement when I expressed interest in moving to Boston after winning my bachelor's). Keane is a stop on the Concord Trailways line going to Franconia. I had spent almost a year among unfamiliar surroundings. It was an immense delight to find myself unexpectedly in a place I somewhat knew. 

On one of our trips to Recife recently, the bridge over the river, taking the city bus, the tall buildings, the subway, all gave a vague sense of traversing Boston. Many talk about the differences from culture to culture, separations of language, custom, religion, and taste. But I find it more interesting to discover what we all have in common. Traveling through a large city, I get a sense not only of its peculiar character and energy, but also a trace of all the other cities I have visited and lived in before. Despite its violence, Recife seems to have a very good energy. All of the strangers we asked direction from were extremely friendly, and accurate in their advice. One walked with us for a couple of blocks, in the pouring rain (borrowing an umbrella), to make sure we headed in the right direction. 

Writing about Recife has made me nostalgic for the lost New Orleans. Toward the end of 2004 and through the middle of 2005, I finally came around to exploring the decadent city I had avoided much of my life, convinced by my family that, if I entered those vile gates, I might never return. I only really got to know a few trendy restaurants and a decent movie theater on the edge of the French Quarter before Katrina hit. I am interested in going back there, for only the second time since that hurricane, to see what has survived and what has not. 

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Finally Back

The Portuguese word for "flu" is spelled just like the English "gripe." Which is all I have felt like doing for much of the past three weeks following our move to what is now our third apartment in Garanhuns. This time we were fleeing a mold problem that seems to have followed us in a milder form. Right after moving, we went to Arcoverde to run some errands there, and to take in their local version of the Sao Joao (St. John) festival. The nearby city Caruaru is ideally the place to take in Sao Joao, but we were in Arcoverde and enjoyed a bit of the local flavor there. At first it looked like any town fair in the U.S., with various rides and concessions. But the food. The food was top notch. I missed out on much of the folk musicians, but got a small, unforgettable taste. Before we left, we passed some clowns on stilts. That's always fun. 

Here's the Wiki link to Garanhuns, where we rent our apartment. I have loved all of our apartments here despite their weaknesses (lack of running water, mold, noisy neighbors). What I love about keeping an apartment here is the solitude. Living in Arcoverde, we shared that house with family. Alienated 21st century white boy is still getting used to the close-knit Brazilian family structure. Although my Portuguese has noticeably improved, I still can hardly communicate with my new family when they are all together at once. Although if you put a beer in my hands, and some music on the stereo, I manage to falo muito portugues.  Err, actually, half-Portuguese and half-English. 

So, we moved into our new apartment, and the next day drove to Arcoverde to spend the weekend. The morning after Sao Joao, I suffered a sore throat. All I did to alleviate it was drink some near boiling water, gargling it before swallowing. I figured that would kill the germs that were setting up shop. Turns out I'm a medical moron. I developed a nasty head cold with a few flu like symptoms, the worst of which was dizziness. I managed to keep teaching classes (although my students mercifully forgot to come to one class when I was at my worst, so I waited half an hour and painfully moseyed home). I got better, but stayed up all night working on a short story draft and ended up getting sicker than before. I'm a moron. During this second bout, I took a number of over the counter flu remedies, none of which worked very well. All in all, it was a week from hell that halted my creative work. I'm still trying to get back into a rhythm. Taking time off from writing is always good for me, refreshes the batteries, but the problem is it takes forever to build up the courage to face the blank page again. 

After nearly dying of flu we went back to Arcoverde, this time to meet more family from Petrolina. Which further interrupted attempts to restart the writing schedule. We now have internet em casa, which is my biggest weakness and distraction. I have been online practically nonstop all day today. 

I hope to make posts here more often going forward. 

In publication news, the latest Naugatuck River Review is out with my poem in it. Please visit the link on this page and show a fledgling journal some support. I have a poem forthcoming in The Raintown Review as well.