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Patativa do Assare seated in front of his hut in Assare - Ceara - Brazil

My Poetry Corner June 2017 features the poem “The Peasant Farmer and the Factory Worker” (O Agregado e o Operário) by Antônio Gonçalves da Silva, known as Patativa do Assaré (1909-2002), a popular Brazilian oral poet, improviser of oral verse, composer, singer, and guitar player.

The son of poor peasant farmers eking out a subsistence livelihood in the semi-arid hinterlands, known as the sertão, of the Northeast State of Ceará, Patativa began working at an early age on his family’s small plot of land. At the age of four, he lost his sight in one eye due to lack of medical assistance. With his father’s death four years later, he had to work as a farmhand to help his family, leaving him no time to attend school. During his six months of formal education, he learned to read and write.

God was his Master; Nature was his teacher.

Sertao Nordestino - Northeast Brazil (2)Sertão Nordestino – Northeast Brazil  [Photo Credit: poesiafaclube.com]

 

I was born listening to songs
of birds in my mountain terrain
and seeing wonderful marvels
that the beautiful woodlands enclose.
That is where I grew up
watching and learning
from the book of nature
where God is most visible
the heart most sensitive
and life has more purity.

While plowing the land, Patativa composed and memorized his poems. Later, at home, he transcribed them.

Very curious about “knowing things” and his world, he enjoyed reading magazines, newspapers, and books. When he was sixteen, he sold a sheep to buy a guitar. From then on, he played and recited his poems at local parties. In 1936, at twenty-seven, he married and fathered nine children.

Invitations to recite his poems on local radio programs in a neighboring city brought him to the attention of the philologist, José Arraes de Alencar, who encouraged him to publish his first book of poems, Inspiração Nordestina (Native Northeastern Inspiration) in 1956.

“I’m the poet of justice and truth. I love the truth,” he told the intellectuals who wanted to know how he did what he did without a formal education.

Boy on donkey carrying water - Sertao - Northeast Brazil (2)

Boy on donkey carrying water – Sertão – Northeast Brazil
Photo Credit: Blog do Antonio Morais

 

Through his poetry, Patativa voiced the suffering of poor Nordestinos in Northeast Brazil. In his poem “Inferno, Purgatory and Paradise,” the rich upper class lives in Paradise, the middle class in Purgatory, and the poor working class in Inferno, described in the excerpt below.

This hell we live in is very visible
and filled with scenes of torture
where you see the sad and horrible drama
of lamentations and cries of madness
and where many share the same level
of indigence, misfortune and misery.

It is where the suffering poor class lives
without comfort, without bread, without a home, without money.
It is the abyss of the suffering people
where your place is not certain
subject to rigorous exploitation
by con men of base deceit.

Vaquero Nordestino - Sertao - Northeast Brazil

Vaquero Nordestino – Sertão – Northeast Brazil
Photo Credit: jataovaqueiro.blogspot.com

 

In 1964, Patativa, then fifty-five, became famous across Brazil when the popular Northeastern singer, Luiz Gonzaga, recorded his poem “Triste Partida” (Sad Departure). It tells the tale of the Nordestino peasant farmer and his family, forced to leave their home after a year without rain. Faced with starvation, the father sells their donkey, horse, and chickens. Leaving behind their dog, cat, and his wife’s rosebush, the family travels by truck to São Paulo. In the strange world in South Brazil, they are treated with contempt by their employer, live in a slum, and cannot afford to return home because they are always in debt to their boss.

Open back truck - Pau de Arara - used for transporting people in rural Northeast Brazil

Open truck (Pau de Arara) used for transporting people in rural Northeast Brazil
Photo Credit: OpiniaoCritica.com.br

 

Far from their home
so dry but so good
exposed to the drizzle
the mud and the cudgel.

How pitiful the northerner
so strong, so brave
to live as a slave
in the North and the South.

Two years later, during the period of the military dictatorship (1964-1985), Patativa was detained and released for his poem about the landless peasant farmer from the North who faced hate and mistreatment from ungrateful people that had seized his God-given land. Such intimidation did not deter him from working with the resistance movement and fighting for workers rights.

Regional

Peasant Farmer cultivating Mandacaru – Sertão Nordestino – Northeast Brazil
Photo Credit: Diário do Nordeste

 

In 1978, his publication Cante lá que eu canto cá (Sing there what I sing here) became very popular. The featured poem “The Peasant Farmer and the Factory Worker” comes from this collection. In the second stanza, Patativa tells factory workers in the city that, as a peasant farmer, he also shares their miserable life.

I am a poet farm laborer
from Ceará’s interior
lamentation, pain and misery
I sing here and I sing yonder
I’m friend of the factory worker
who receives a meagre salary
and the impoverished people
And I sing with emotion bred
of my backlands beloved
and the lives of its people

In his seventh and penultimate stanza, the peasant farmer poet calls on city and farm workers to unite to fight for a common cause: prosperity for all working people.

My brother farmhands
and factory workers of the city
we must hold hands
filled with fraternity
in favor of each one
to form one body in common
of city folk and country folk too
for only with this alliance and unity
the star of prosperity
will shine for you.

Patativa did not become arrogant with his success and many fans. He remained a peasant farmer in his hometown Assaré. Because he saw his poetry as a gift from God to be shared with others, he never considered selling his published work.

To read the complete featured poem and learn more about Patativa’s work and the numerous awards and honors he received during his lifetime and following his death, go to my Poetry Corner June 2017.

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