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A poem by Nicholas Laughlin

Published in The Strange Years of My Life
and previously in Almost Island, Winter 2011

Self-Portrait in the Neotropics

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 edition):

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
Pegô na penna, escreveu pro General.

O General que era homem superior
Pegô ne penna, escreveu pro Imperador.

O Imperador . . .
Pegô ne penna, escreveu pro Jesu’ Christo.

Jesu’ Christo que é filho do Padra Eterno
Pegô na penna e mandô pelo inferno.

(pp. 212-213)

I feel certain the line “Nous sommes les seuls français ici” also comes from Tristes Tropiques, but I’ve lost the reference.

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.   


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