First of all, do not leave your purse on the floor or ground. If you do, a waiter will pick it up, bring over an extra chair and park the purse in it. Some say this is superstition: your money will bleed out into the ground. Some say it’s security: a thief will grab it from under your feet. Someone said it’s hygiene, so you don’t pick up crud from the street and press it close to your body.
Second, the lumpy green fruit is the cherimoya, a.k.a. “the count’s fruit” and custard apple. External and internal appearance are not promising. The skin has no glow, no smooth cheek to stroke. Dragon warts all over it. Open it to find a pasty ivory custard with huge seeds like black olives. Scoop, suck, pick, slurp. Plum passion fruit mango coconut taste all run together like ink in the rain.
At the Centro Cultural dos Cordelistas do Nordeste a man nicknamed sparrow hosted a program of cordel literature. This region of the northeast has the greatest economic disparity in Brazil, and the richest tradition of oral and traditional poetry. Among them, the cordelistas working in a tradition coming from the Iberian peninsula with the Portuguese and taking root here in the 1830s. Cord poets, because the poems were printed into small chapbooks, often with woodcut illustrations, and hung up on a string in the street markets and fairs for sale. It comes out of the arid backcountry, the sertão, where life is tough, drought and poverty are common. Some are vaqueros among whom, the sparrow told us, their cows and bulls listen to the sounds produced by the poet and they understand.
The government has established a center for preservation, gatherings, exhibition, and performance of cordel literature. We heard an hour or so of their performances. The poems are reports. Syllabic in form. Improvised. Loud. Very very loud. Ripped with feeling. “Many things about the dryland are reported by the cowboys.” “It is told in the past, a soldier. . . .” “I am a man from the woods. I never wore shoes. I never wore a tie. Only when I had to find a wife.” (I’m listening through headphones with a simultaneous translator whispering in my ears. The Brazilian woman sitting next to me laughs and gives me a look when the poet says the word “wife.” It’s a look that says the word may have been more naughty.) “A cat has escaped from a lion leaving it in tears.”
Another tradition is of the repentistas. Two poets playing guitars and singing verses made up in the moment compete in a challenge. They are given a topic. This can go on for fifteen minutes or an hour. There is a tray where people can give money. Whoever has the most money at the end wins. We saw a film clip, the men strumming and shouting fiercely. “No one can beat me. My verse is very tough.” “The police when they hear him sing want to take him to jail.” “My voice is very tough and I will be the winner.” “Whoever sings without feeling carries his own cross.”
Alison Hawthorne Deming, Professor of Creative Writing and Agnese Nelms Haury Chair of Environment and Social Justice at the University of Arizona, is author of four poetry books, including Rope (Penguin 2009), and four books of nonfiction, including Writing the Sacred Into the Real and Zoologies(Milkweed 2014). She’s received the Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets, Wallace Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University, two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Bayer Award in Science Writing and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Her poems and prose have been widely anthologized, including in The Norton Book of Nature Writing and Best American Science and Nature Writing.