Sundown on the Amazon

by Neil Besner


What is a map, and which maps are memory’s or imagination’s to invoke, and then how? What lies in the incantatory power of names, or in the pull North or South, West or East? What is time, what is memory, and what’s imagined about these plain facts here, or about writing as close to them – those descriptions and settings – as possible?

One of the ways to engage the dialectic I’d like to explore might be provided by thinking about two of Bishop’s so-called “Brazilian” poems, “The Riverman” and “Santarém.” Bishop was at first not particularly fond of “The Riverman,” although she later seems to have changed her mind. Nor was Lota de Macedo Soares, her partner of 16 years, who was offended by what she understood as its backwards, anti-progressive primitivism, as Bishop remarks in one of her letters to Robert Lowell. As well, many may remember that “The Riverman,” as Bishop’s published prefatory note to the poem advises, derives much of its local information from Charles Wagley’s 1953 study, Amazon Town.  Some eighteen years after her 1960 trip to the Amazon, “Santarém” was published in The New Yorker. She writes in the opening of her letter to Jerome Mazarro on April 27, 1978, in response to Mazarro’s enthusiastic if erudite comments to her about his reading of the poem:

        You say you are “reading about wasps” – in reference to my poem “Santarém.” Now if I’d written “beehive”! – I have read about bees, but know nothing about wasps except for being stung once. “Santarém” happened, just like that, a real evening & a real place, and a real Mr. Swan who said that – it is not a composite at all.

This short letter closes with Bishop’s often-quoted passage on making a poem:

        Well, it takes an infinite number of things coming together, forgotten, or almost forgotten, last night’s dream, experiences past and present – to make a poem. The settings, or descriptions, of my poems are almost invariably just plain facts – or as close to the facts as I can write them.  But, as I said, it is fascinating that my poem should arouse in you all those literary references!

It might seem at first blush that the letter’s closing, with its invocation of “last night’s dream” and “an infinite number of things” as raw or refined material for her poems, begins to draw away from what Bishop so forcefully asserts in the letter’s opening, where she writes that “Santarém happened, just like that, a real evening & a real place,” and so on. But the letter’s major thrust remains: Bishop wants to assert that at least the “settings or descriptions” of her poems “are almost invariably just plain facts – or as close to the facts as I can write them.” Of course, this formulation immediately begs the question, particularly with a poet like Bishop, of just how much or how far or how substantively we are to understand “setting” or “description,” of how permeable such qualities might really be in her poems. This been the subject of much discussion and debate.

There is a possible dialectic, dazzling or otherwise – a relation and perhaps a confluence — between the two poems. One, composed largely by drawing on another text and by creating a compelling dramatic monologue in the aspiring Riverman’s voice, as Lorrie Goldensohn reminded us years ago, in her 1992 study, Elizabeth Bishop: the Biography of a Poetry (nearly twenty years later, Goldensohn’s brilliant treatment of “The Riverman” remains the fullest and strongest discussion of the poem to date); the other, a poem apparently composed more directly, if over a number of years, by drawing on what “happened,” by writing as close to the facts as the speaker could get, quoting a real Mr. Swan in its famous ending, reporting on what a speaker seemingly very close to an “Elizabeth” saw and heard and felt in Santarém on her 1960 trip down the Amazon by boat from Manaus to Belem.


There is another wider, and more explicitly temporal dialectic around reading the two poems. The opening relation between the poems outlined above, spans some eighteen years, from 1960 to 1978, but the temporal element is secondary. The second dialectic spans a longer period, of about 46 years, in which the passage of time, and the operations of memory, become more substantive elements.

On a winter mid-afternoon in July 1965, a boy of fifteen sailed from Rio de Janeiro, bound for Manaus on the Amazon, on the Ponta Negra, a Brazilian cargo ship of 1,750 tons with a crew of 12, sister ship of the Praia Grande. In English, the ship’s names would be, very roughly, Black Point and Big Beach. The Ponta Negra sailed south to Santos, the port for the city of São Paulo, where she loaded coffee and some deck cargo, including a brand new red jeep, as this was some years before the advent of container shipping, and then set course north for Salvador, Bahia, where she docked for a day, and thence, a twelve day stretch at sea, to Belem and the mouth of the Amazon. En route on those long rocking days, out of sight of the coast, there were often flying fish found on the deck in the morning, seduced at night by the ship’s lights. One whale was spotted, its spout first seen at a distance through binoculars, from a lookout some twenty feet above the deck. There was a thick and gnarled wooden pole strung aft with two thick braided lines, trawling for big fish, marlin, dorado, that never came; and there was the alternately darker blue and brighter blue and white-foaming sea, and the circling sun.

The Opera House, Manaus

At Belem, the mouth of the Amazon, the Ponta Negra took on two river pilots, one thin and wiry, one chubby and taller, Ze Maria and Esmeraldino. Esmeraldino had been a bodyguard for Juscelino Kubitschek in another life; both men were armed, talkative and river smart, at home on the tributaries, and they commanded the deck from the wheelhouse. Before going upriver, the Ponta Negra met her sister ship, the Praia Grande, in Belem, and lay at dock for two days; the captains drank beer on the Praia Grande, where a friendly dark-haired woman in a blue dress lounged with them at a small table aft; there were cigars, music, beer, and a desultory and somehow premonitory card game in the heat. The cocky captain of the Ponta Negra, comandante Jose Serra, was at 28 the youngest at his rank in the Brazilian merchant marine of the time; the captain of the Praia Grande, his friend Cesario, was in his forties, grizzled and gregarious.

Of the crew of the Ponta Negra what remains in memory, or the life of it, are jovial Manecão the cook (big Mané, perhaps once short for Manuel, but more commonly a generic nickname something akin to “bud” or “guy”) and his assistant, Manequinho (little Mané, but not Manuelzinho); the short and mock-garrulous, mock-scholarly chief engineer Senhor João Vitoria, pipe-smoking and bespectacled, with a resonant voice for a small man and, best of all, revealed in his cabin one evening a few days out from Rio as the proud and loving proprietor of a silent and beautiful onçinha (a young wildcat) with intense green eyes that lived in the top drawer of his dresser. You could stroke the cat if you were gentle and did not touch its head. There was the devilishly handsome first mate, the rakish contramestre Juarez, with slicked back, jet black hair and a gold tooth, whistled at by the women in every port, beckoned by women of every age at every window and from every bar, who at sea taught the kid rope knots such as the mão de amigo, or friend’s hand; there was quiet and stocky Indio, named for his family origins somewhere in Amazonas; jovial Pará, named for his home state, bowlegged and broadfaced with bright blue eyes; there was young Adão the genial telegraph operator, nimble-fingered at Morse code; and Ahmed, the second mate, a tall Arab on his maiden voyage on the Ponta Negra who went pale and got seasick out of Rio the first night but revived on the Amazon.

The crew universally scorned, but drank from morning till late at night, the cheap brand of coffee, Café Sacipan, that the shipping company provided. “Let’s have another Sacipan,” “Vamos tomar mais um Sacipan!” someone would gripe. Manecão the cook made untranslatably pungent Brazilian dishes on a schedule – rabada, mocoto – and on Sundays, the inestimable chicken risotto, risotto de galinha, to everyone’s approbation. In the longer swells, chairs slid melodramatically across the messroom, dishes fell to the floor. But the risotto de galinha soothed and sated every manner of ill.

From Belem the Ponta Negra sailed to Manaus, stopping at towns whose names, out of line geographically for decades, have perpetually sung themselves in memory now for forty-six years: Obidos, Itacoatiara, Parintins, Oriximiná and Santarém. The fifteen-year-old fished from the deck in these ports with a handline and yellow cheese, catching mostly many species of small catfish. He was lectured by the chief engineer about the pirarucu (the giant fish makes an appearance in “The Riverman,” arriving there, Bishop advises, via Charles Wagley’s 1953 book, Amazon Town: A Study of Man in the Tropics. The fullest and finest discussion of Bishop’s uses and transformations of Wagley is to be found in Tom Travisano’s 1988 study, Elizabeth Bishop: Her Artistic Development). The kid was also warned by many of the crew about the notorious candiru. Near Itacoatiara one hot midafternoon, the Ponta Negra stilled to a drift midstream and blew one long steam-filled blast on her whistle. A few moments later, a canoe appeared alongside, and two crewmen on the Ponta Negra heaved down a large sack of rice and one of black beans. The three Indians in the canoe hoisted up a catfish as long and as thick as a man. No photographs of this prearranged meeting remain. There might not have been one or any in the first place. The memory of the meeting has grown unspecific as to gender or faces. The three wore no clothing and there was not much else in the canoe. In memory they have no colour, or an indistinct colour, but they were smiling, they were speaking, not in Portuguese, and they were understood.

The Tapajos meets the Amazon, Santarem

The Ponta Negra docked at Santarém, then a town of fewer than 100,000, and now of about 200,000, where it stayed one day and one night to offload cargo. There was a beach nearby with firm sand where a few of the crew, barefoot, played soccer in the evening. Esmeraldino and Ze Maria pointed casually to the change in colour of the waters where the two rivers, Tapajos and Amazon, met. They said there was another such meeting in Manaus between the Rio Negro and the Amazon. Captain Serra talked about gold mining and about a woman friend he would meet that evening in town. Next morning, the Ponta Negra sailed east and north, through narrow tributaries and impossibly wide and flat stretches of the Amazon. The weather was hot and muggy. You saw green parrots along the tributaries and heard monkeys, but rarely saw them. Among the profuse river traffic (were the vessels skittering?) coursed many little boats festooned with banana bunches, tiny outboards tick-tock-ticking on time, lost time, on time, and casual, occasional pink dolphins swirled unpunctual and unremarked. Ze Maria and Esmeraldino now called out, sharply, many quick shifts in course, duly repeated, sharply, and then executed by the sailor at the helm. At night, the red eye of a cigarette – almost everyone smoked unfiltered Continental, the Brazilian counterpart of Gaulois – blinked and pulsed outside the wheelhouse when a sailor took his break.  Some mornings the decks were covered with thousands of dead white winged insects, which were hosed off before it got hot.

After Santarém, and then, still out of order, Obidos, Parintins,  Itacoatiara, Oriximina, the Ponta Negra docked at Manaus where it remained for six days. Here was a world. On the hot first morning Sebastião, an agent for the shipping company who a decade later committed suicide, distraught at the death of his father in Manaus, lost his temper and yelled, florid-faced, at the crane operator as the new red jeep loaded in Santos swung aloft, gaily wobbling and suspended above the dock. That afternoon it rained hard, for a half hour, then suddenly cleared; the crew painted the gunmetal grey decks before and after the shower that came and then went every day. That first afternoon the fifteen year old kid, set by Juarez to stripping, sanding and revarnishing the railings while the Ponta Negra lay in port, saw for the first time a young girl in a canoe, who came by the Ponta Negra every afternoon for six days on her way somewhere undiscovered. On the second day someone aboard christened her Maria das Canoas – Mary of the Canoes – and the name stuck; she liked it, she smiled up at the Brazilian ship every afternoon after that. Her smile, like her name, remains.

No one on board – not Comandante Serra, not any of the crew – and no one on land mentioned the Opera House, although one could see its blue dome clearly from on deck. The crew, dry at sea by strict rule, now drank volubly in port, mostly beer, mostly at night. There were many bouncing taxi rides down long dirt roads to outdoor bars with wide wooden dance floors and sinuously repetitive accordion music. The kid was charmed and awed.

Also maybe needless to mention, no one on board, not the kid, not the crew or the officers or Comandante Serra, had heard at that time of the poet Elizabeth Bishop, of her poems, not “The Riverman,” published 5 years earlier, not Santarém, not “Arrival at Santos” or any other poem, Brazilian or otherwise. In fact the boy would only learn of Bishop’s Brazilian poems some twenty-five years later, in 1990, after he first read “One Art,” prompted by a friend in Quebec city.

After six days the Ponta Negra began her return journey, sailing south and east from Manaus. The kid had to jump ship in Belem; the North American end of summer had arrived and he had to return another way to another place, far up, far off that map. Late that August, 1965, after 45 days on the Ponta Negra, he returned far North to his last year of high school in Stamford, Connecticut.


From July of 1965 to July of 2011 is, logically, chronologically, symbolically, metaphorically, imaginatively as in memory, a long time. I wouldn’t presume to try to chart or map it out, save to say that one obvious temporal, textual, and above all readerly marker is pre-and post-Bishop. And I’d only add here, for now, that for years, that kid dreamed of going back to Manaus, to Santarém, to Obidos, Itacoatiara, Parintins, Oriximina. And that, beginning in 1990, “going back” began to include Bishop.

What can it mean to insist that these things happened, on real days and evenings, just like that – that there was a real Comandante Serra, a real Juarez, a real Maria das Canoas?


In early July of 2011, I was in Winnipeg, where I’ve now lived and worked for twenty-five years, getting ready to go to Rio de Janeiro to chair a panel at a Global Studies conference there. The panel was on transnational literacies and pedagogies in Canada and Brazil, and presented the work of a team of Canadian and Brazilian colleagues that I belong to; the group, comprised of professors from several universities in each country, works on issues of curriculum development and language teaching in Brazil. In Winnipeg I received an email from Tom Travisano telling me that a panel on Elizabeth Bishop of which he was a member, at the same conference, had just lost its chair, who had other commitments she had to honour; might I be able to chair both panels once I was there already? Sure, I wrote back, delighted; I’d had no idea there was a Bishop panel at this conference, which seemed at first glance to be comprised of very interesting economists, sociologists, political scientists, language teachers, with subjects focussed on global study – but no literary folks. Then Tom wrote again: was there any chance of my joining him and two other Bishop scholars and enthusiasts, Bethany Hicok and Dave Hoak, on a trip to the Amazon a week after the conference? After visiting Samambaia and Ouro Preto, they hoped to fly to Manaus and take a riverboat to Santarém, retracing part of Bishop’s 1960 trip. I couldn’t go to Samambaia or Ouro Preto, and at first it also looked like I couldn’t go to the Amazon; I was scheduled, ironically, to give two talks on Canadian literature in late July in Winnipeg to a group of visiting Brazilian students who were coming to the University for a week’s course in language and Canadian culture. But the Director of our program in Winnipeg intervened and insisted that I go; she’d be glad to replace me in the classroom. So I went.

L-R: Dave Hoak, Bethany Hicok, Thomas Travisano

The four of us – Tom, Bethany, and Dave had arrived a day earlier – met in Manaus the last week in July, boarded the hammock-hung three-deck riverboat Nelio Correia on Wednesday, July 27, and sailed to Santarém, a thirty-eight hour trip. On deck we read “Santarém” to each other, along with excerpts from Bishop’s letters, along with other poems; Tom had a much thumbed copy of what became a much more thumbed copy of the recent collection assembled by Lloyd Schwartz. Perhaps it still retains its river-scent in upstate New York; perhaps its feet are yellow, its scalp redolent of fish and river silt.

We docked at Santarém at 4:30 am Thursday. The friendly pilot of a small boat with a tiny ticktocking outboard took us to the confluence of the waters where we each of us snapped innumerable pictures and immersed hands in each river, as we’d done a few days earlier in Manaus. Later in the day we walked to the church, or rather, cathedral. The heat that afternoon in town was a living, shimmering presence. We hid in an air-conditioned café and drank fruit juice until late, ate a commemorative dinner with caipirinhas, drank some beer outside against the heat, and flew back to Manaus at midnight, toured the Opera House the next day, and flew back to Rio late the next night, exhausted and exhilarated, and then returned the following day to our various home ports in North America. We sent each other many pictures over the next month.


Getting back to “The Riverman” and “Santarém,” and to the dialectic between the two poems:: the sources for the poems, one a text, the other an experience, one narrated as a dramatic monologue in an aspiring, imagined Riverman’s voice, the other, narrated by a speaker one could imagine as close to an “Elizabeth,” seemed to form or enact a dialectic. Now, reading, as well as relating these two poems to each other might also be conceived of as a dialectical activity; an activity analogous in its way on one hand to literally travelling on the Amazon, like an “Elizabeth” and a real Mr Swan, in 1965, say, or in 2011, after how many years; and on the other, analogous to an imaginative travelling on the Amazon, with a “magic cloak of fish”  (I have long admired that image, in part because it seems to incarnate or clothe, or “cloak” the instantaneously imaginative, as distinct from measurable or temporal speed, at which the Riverman travels “to Belem and back,” beckoned by the Dolphin grunting under his window, in the company of Luandinha.)

I don’t wish to suggest that these are opposed or opposite voyages, one informed largely by memory, one by imagination, as if these qualities were so easily distinguishable and separate from each other; they are not. More importantly, they are related readerly activities, and both kinds of engagement are required of Bishop’s readers. Furthermore: these are readings that converge and create confluences as surely as do the Amazon and the Tapajos, the Rio Negro and the Amazon, even though they are also as distinct as are the poems that engender them. And, distinct as the poems are, they do merge in a confluence of sorts. Even as one, “The Riverman,” at first requires a suspension of disbelief to enter into Luandinha’s world with the dolphin. Remember, too, that even in this poem whose genesis lies in another text, a poem in which the sacacas course the river’s long, long veins, with the Riverman clothed in his magic cloak of fish, there also runs a counter-discourse that summons up another world of logic, of reason, of plausibility and matter-of-factness: the Dolphin “grunted” beneath the window at the opening of the poem; or listen to the Riverman: “Look, it stands to reason/that everything we need/can be obtained from the river”; and listen to the wonderfully apposite mix of phrases that closes the poem, “The Dolphin singled me out; / Luandinha seconded it.” , blending the literal import of “singled out” with the Robert’s Rules of Order precision of  green-eyed and sinuous Luandinha,  who, suddenly, in the language of another civilization’s committee meeting “seconded it,” endorsing the motion.

For its part “Santarém,” that poem that Bishop insists “happened” and that is redolent with details of setting that affirm and confirm its grounding in experience, up to and including Mr. Swan’s flat closing question, is also a poem that in its opening invokes and then revokes both the conjuring and imaginative powers of memory – “Of course I may be remembering it all wrong” – and invokes and revokes the impulse towards literary interpretation such as Mazarro’s. “Santarém” in other words insists at once upon the primacy of what really happened one golden evening – and all of that, early in the poem, is presumably why the speaker advises that she wanted to stay there – and at the same time “knows”, is imbued from its beginning, with the consciousness that the ship’s whistle will blow and all the passengers at poem’s closing will have to embark; that neither the speaker nor the reader will be able to remain in Santarém the place, although both, and particularly the reader, might wish to return often to the poem of the same name.

In fact the poems converge more than they diverge; that in Bishop’s poetics the arts of memory and imagination do often create a confluence, a dazzling dialectic; that the distance between what really happened and what was and is imagined, made up whole cloth, the distance between literal and literary interpretation, between travelling by riverboat or canoe or with a magic cloak of fishes on or under the Amazon – that these and other, similar distances are better understood and engaged as relations, convergences. Put another way, both of these poems are historical, and timeless, and imaginative and remembered creations and documents. They are imbued with history and set in context (invoking on one hand, as “Santarém” does, the survivors of the Civil War who left their ancestors and oars there; and on the other, the great sacacas that inspire the Riverman, that he aspires to emulate); they are, each of them, both poems mute and palpable as globed fruit (as Archibald MacLeish’s memorable lines have it) and poems pungent and redolent of their time and place (as MacLeish would rather have not had it.) Imagination and memory in Bishop are finally not separable but convergent qualities of mind and in language; and time, either chronologically, “after all these years” or prehistoric and shamanic, is not ultimately distinguishable or entirely separable into these registers. Reading “The Riverman” and “Santarém” is an activity engaging memory, imagination, time, place, the art and the politics of representation. The voices in and of the poems are heard and overheard, quoted or imagined, speaking casually and prophetically, as oracles and as nice old men asking “What’s that ugly thing?” And where and when the two, three, or four rivers meet, in Santarém, Manaus, in the Bible, but above all in Bishop’s poems, readers and travellers can return to find rich recompense.

Piece adapted from a talk given on November 10th, 2011 at a symposium in Ouro Preto, Brazil, commemorating the centenary of Bishop’s birth. Photographs courtesy of the author.

About the Author:

Neil Besner is Professor in the Department of English, and Vice President of Research and International at the University of Winnipeg.