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Giant Water Lily - Victoria Amazonia - Pantanal - Mato Grosso do Sul - Brazil

Giant water lily, Victoria Amazonica – Pantanal – Mato Grosso do Sul – Center-West Brazil
Photo Credit: Andre Dib/WWF


My Poetry Corner February 2018 features the poem “Theology of Junk” (Teologia do Traste) by Brazilian poet, lawyer, and farmer Manoel de Barros (1916-2014). Born in Cuiába, Mato Grosso, he was a year old when his father decided to start a cattle ranch in Pantanal, the world’s largest wetland area, in Mato Grosso do Sul. The young Manoel grew up playing in the yard, between the pens and the “unimportant things” that would influence his poetry.

In “Manoel by Manoel,” he describes his childhood experience:

… I used to play pretending that stone
was lizard. That a can was a ship. That the sloth was a
little problematic creature and equal to a young grasshopper.
I grew up playing on the ground, among ants. Of a
childhood free and without comparisons. I had more
communion with things than with comparison.

When he moved to the city to go to school, Manoel found it a strange and complicated world. In the countryside, they had to make their own toys: small bone animals, sock balls, tin can cars. In “About Scrap Metal,” from his book Memories Invented for Children (2006), he observes:

I saw that everything that man makes becomes scrap metal: bicycle, plane, automobile. What doesn’t become scrap is only bird, tree, frog, stone. Even a spaceship becomes scrap metal. Now I think a white swamp heron is more beautiful than a spaceship. I beg your pardon for committing this truth.

Great uses for scrap metal
Photo Credit: Premier Metal Buyers


In the featured poem, “Theology of Junk,” the poet reveals his childlike propensity of re-imagining the natural world and the use of discarded things. 

Things thrown out as junk are treasures to me;
my favorites are cans.
Cans make poor words for people but they are concrete.
If you throw away a can, considering it junk: a beggar,
cook, or poet can pick it up and use it.

One person’s junk is a treasure to others left behind along the road of human progress. But, we respond differently when the discarded object is not concrete. Like ideas. 

For that reason, I think cans are more satisfying, for
example, than ideas.
Because ideas, being objects conceived in the mind,
are abstract.
And if you throw away an abstract object as junk,
no one wants to pick it up.

Sardine-tin toy car

Sardine-tin toy car made by a Brazilian boy
Photo Credit: Território do Bricar


When converted into a toy, worthless junk can delight a child. Not so with a discarded idea. 

For that reason, I think cans are more satisfying.
We take a can, fill it with sand and leave, and
push through the streets a custom-made sand-truck.
An idea, being an abstract object conceived by the mind,
cannot be filled with sand.

What becomes junk today was once an idea made concrete. In the concluding verses, the poet notes that ideas not only illuminate our lives, they also lead to the development of destructive inventions. 

For this reason, I think the can is more satisfying.
Ideas are the lights of the mind – we know that.
There are brilliant ideas – we know that too.
But ideas also invented the atomic bomb, the atomic
bomb, the bomb.
Now I would like that words would illuminate
that what we call junk would illuminate.

What does our junk and other discarded waste tell us about ourselves as a species? Where are our progressive inventive ideas taking our species along our evolutionary journey? How much stuff do we as individuals need to be satisfied?

To read the featured poem in its original Portuguese and learn more about the work of Manoel de Barros, go to my Poetry Corner February 2018.