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A poem by Nicholas Laughlin
Strange Years of My Life
and previously in Almost
Self-Portrait in the
Eleven of the strange years
of my life.
Months on end I lived on tapioca,
I lived on mud and permanganate broth,
and river water red as rum,
bivouacked with rainflies
and fire ants and sundry native guides.
The parrots already knew some French.
Nous sommes les seuls français ici.
Call it sunstroke, le coup de bambou.
I came all this way with half a plan,
an extra handkerchief, and Humboldt (abridged).
Here I lack only the things I do not have.
Eleven years of untimely weather,
earthquakes and fireflies and mud.
The colonel writes his complaints to the general.
The general writes his complaints to the emperor.
The emperor writes to Jesus Christ,
who damns us all.
Nous sommes les seuls français left in the world.
I came all this bloody way
to sit in a cheap café with bandaged hands.
I translate detective novels, Dr. Janvier.
It keeps me in dinero, out of trouble.
I miss only the friends I do not have.
Some lines of this poem are borrowed or adapted
from Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques; eg.
(page references are to the Penguin Classics edition, which
I believe retains the pagination of the 1973 Jonathan Cape
“The parrots already knew some French”: “There
must indeed have been a continuous relationship between
the French and the Indians [of Brazil] to allow the
frigate La Pèlerine, in 1531, to take back to
France, along with three thousand leopard skins and three
hundred monkeys of different species, six hundred parrots
which ‘already knew a few words of French . . .’” (p. 82)
“Here I lack
only the things I do not have”: Lévi-Strauss writes that
the Amazon River between Urupa and Rio Madeira “is a
land of plenty. ‘Aqui só falta o que não tem’: here
nothing is lacking except what is missing.” (p. 361)
“The colonel writes his
complaints to the general”: Lévi-Strauss records a folk
song he hears among some diamond-miners, “a fragment of a
lament based on a traditional form”:
O Coroné que era homem sem igual
I feel certain the line “Nous sommes
les seuls français ici” also comes from Tristes
Tropiques, but I’ve lost the reference.
penna, escreveu pro General.
que era homem superior
penna, escreveu pro Imperador.
. . .
penna, escreveu pro Jesu’ Christo.
Christo que é filho do Padra Eterno
Pegô na penna e mandô pelo inferno.
The image on the cover of The Strange Years of My Life
is a detail of an early-nineteenth-century topographical
chart, Comparative View of the Heights of the
Principal Mountains &c. in the World. As
the poem above mentions Alexander von Humboldt, this is as
good a place as any to point out a tribute to the great
German naturalist and explorer in the original chart. Near
the upper left corner, if you look very closely, on the
slope of the mountain Chimborazo, there is a minute human
figure, at an elevation corresponding to 19,400 feet. As an
adjacent label explains, this was the “height attained by
Messrs. Humboldt and [Aimé] Bonpland 23 June 1802” — at the
time, the greatest recorded human ascent. Humboldt’s party
did not make it to the top of Chimborazo, which was then
considered the highest mountain in the world (the Himalayas
were not scientifically surveyed until the 1840s), and
summited for the first time only in 1880.
more poems by Nicholas Laughlin