Yesterday we flew three hours southwest to arrive in Brasilia, the uber planned city that became the capital of Brazil in 1960. Before that the capital had been Rio. On the flight I tried to watch how quickly afternoon turned into night. There is no colloquialism here for “Good evening.” One goes directly from “Good afternoon” to “Good night.” “We don’t have a concept of evening,” said Maria Jose, “the sun sets so quickly.” It seemed from the plane to take about fifteen minutes. Ah, the sunset is coming. Ah, the night is here. Perhaps I fell asleep in the interim.
We’ve flown from a city of 2.5 million built brick by brick to a city of 2.5 million built with poured concrete. The idea of Brasilia was to build “fifty years of progress in five years.” The president and ministers were living in tents during construction. Candangas, migrant workers, came from the northeast to do the labor. Many of them never left and live on the outskirts now in poorer communities. This is an area in the center of the nation, an area of low mountains and dry savanna. The city is sleek, linear, modernist, elegant, and spacious. It’s disturbingly rectilinear. An experimental city. One woman joked and said, “We feel a bit like lab rats.”
Lúcio Costa was the urban planner whose 1957 design won the competition for the prototype city. He submitted a few sketches, a written description and a drawing of the superquadra. Below is one of his drawings, the design said to look like a plane to signify the jet age, or a bird in flight, or a bow and arrow:
“Are you form here?” I asked one of the faculty members at the Universidade de Brasilia. She laughed, and said, “No one my age is from here.” Oscar Niemeyer is the city’s architect. He worked with Costa and Le Corbusier on Rio’s Ministry of Education in 1936. Niemeyer was a socialist who was exiled in the 1964 coup. He returned to Rio in the 1980s. The city was designed for 500,000 people, so with the current population being so much larger it has spread beyond the original formal concept.
Today was the first day of a national strike of public university faculty demanding higher salaries. Last week we’d been caught up in Fortaleza traffic stopped by a strike of construction workers building a new civic center demanding higher wages. Nonetheless, faculty and students today came out to our reading at the Universidade. My poem “Pandora on Prozac” had been translated to Portuguese. I read it in English. A women’s studies professor was particularly taken by the poem and told me so. She said, “Power hides fear. That’s why men can’t take Pandora, Cassandra, Medea.” I never thought of it quite that way. Stories without borders.
There was a poster on an office door for the poet Augusto Rodrigues who had a book titled Where the Streets Have No Names. That’s Brasilia. All letters and numbers. No history. Our hotel address: SHS Quadra 6-Bl. B, e F – Asa sul. I have no idea what any of it means.
We also met with high schools students at a public school for disadvantaged kids. Cornelius Eady blew them away with poems about growing up poor in Rochester. Alan Heathcock talked about the importance of stories and read them one that brought smoke into the lungs and minds. The students asked some pretty stunning questions, like this one from a kid who came from the Pantanal region. I’d spoken about the need for care of the Earth and working to find an artful language for that concern. “How will you feel years from now about what you have written when so much of nature will be gone?”
I did my best to answer him: 1) the long hope is that we’ll protect what we love and that our writing might help to deepen our sense of love and connection with people, creatures, places, cultures endangered; and 2) yes, the world our children and grandchildren will know will be a diminished world but if we bear witness to whatever richness exists during our lifetimes that will be a gift to a future
Tomorrow we will take three-hour architectural tour of the city and I will post a report here.
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.