The Lizard and the Caterpillar

Although this recent poem of mine entitled The Lizard is to some extent a ‘found poem’, inspired by a striped lizard that actually does live under my sofa, it also owes a great and duly humble debt to Manuel Bandeira’s Namorados simple but sinister little dialogue poem—almost an eclogue—that has long haunted me. I post here first (I) some preliminary reflections; followed by (II) my own very different poem, (III) an attempt at an English translation of Bandeira’s poem, and, finally, (IV) some comments on the contemporary significance of the great Brazilian poet’s work. I post this in response to Andy Townend’s Poetry Rehab prompt—Talk— because, although my own poem has nothing whatsoever to do with the prompt, Bandeira’s presents an interesting little snippet of conversation, in which one of the characters speaks volumes but utters no words.


I am fascinated by identical or near-identical words in the Portuguese language that have completely different meanings depending on gender without having anything to do with biological sexual differences. “Tesoura’, for example means ‘scissors’, while “tesouro” means “treasure.”

“Lagarto” means “lizard”, while “lagarta” means “caterpillar”. Are these words related to one another etymologically? Is there any semantic overlap between the two in the linguistic unconscious of a native speaker? Does the word “lagarta” summon up both the image of a sexless caterpillar and that of a female lizard as it does for me? Is the “lagarta” in the Bandeira poem larva, reptile-woman, or both?


The Lizard

The lizard who lives under the sofa

pops out only once in a while

to look around or grab a scrap of food.

He is so fast

the cat’s eyes barely register him.

Now and then, he nudges my naked foot;

as if meaning

to remind me

how something tiny

but all-important

cannot be expressed directly

or in words.


Here is my attempt at a translation of Namorados. I prefer to leave it untitled.

A boy sidles up to a girl and says,

“Toni, I’m not used yet to your body or the shape of your face.”

The girl rolls her eyes and waits.

“Do you remember, when we were kids

and we would chance upon a striped caterpillar?”

The girl remembers.

“And we would stop to look at it…”

Fond childhood reminiscences twinkle in the girl’s eyes.

The boy proceeds sweetly,

“You are like that striped caterpillar, Toni…”

The girl’s eyes widen suddenly in protest and her jaw droops in disbelief.

“You are so funny, Toni. You look crazy,”

the boy concludes.


Towards the end of his life, the French philosopher Jacques Derrida was asked by an interviewer to predict the most pressing philosophical issue of the 21st century. Derrida responded with the single word ‘sex.’ When pressed to elaborate on this, he expanded his response into “How do we deal with the sexual desires of those not deemed to be sexually attractive?”

I may be paraphrasing, misquoting and conflating a bit here, but the question is still very sharp and stark. In a world increasingly guided by neo-Darwinism and a runaway a cult of plastic beauty fuelled by social media, we are entering an age in which people who do not, will not or cannot conform to such canons are excluded from society by a particularly vicious form of sexual selection. It is no coincidence that these tend to be the same people who are consigned to the rubbish bin of in perpetuum structural unemployment by the new neo-liberal global order.

We have forgotten how to love and accept people for their individuality and peculiarities, rather than on the basis of conformity to some universally accepted norm. If you look or dress differently, you are shunned; if you say something in polite conversation that strays even slightly from a received platitude, people look around desperately to other people for almost always forthcoming confirmation that some unwritten rule has been breached.

Manuel Bandeira packs a lot into this seemingly throwaway little poem. It could be a poem about adolescence, a time of life when male and female bodies alike go through clumsy off-putting transformations and girls and boys alike retain from the latency period a certain residual, if smuttily giggling, disgust and disdain for the bodies of the opposite sex.

But it is also a poem about self-image and Narcissism. The girl wants to be seen as a princess not a caterpillar; but the boy loves her clumsily for the awkward caterpillar-like creature she is, in a quaint inversion of the fairy-tale tropes of frog-prince, Cinderella or ugly duckling. His love of a real person rather than a media-hyped version of it is rejected. But the girl succeeds only in making herself uglier (silly and crazy) by ‘turning her nose up’ at his clumsy incantations and aspiring to or wishing to be seen to conform to the princess norm that society dictates.

Feminists may well argue that this is yet another (albeit inverted) example of the male gaze: the dialogue urges us to read the story both ways. But there is nothing of the entitled patriarchy of the dreamily imagined sickly idyllic ‘pear-shaped breasts’ of T. S. Eliot’s recently released private erotica to be found in this sharp and prescient little Brazilian poem.

The lover here is celebrated as a peculiar little punk-like creature with a clear will of her/his/its own that occasionally crawls out of a crack or appears on a leaf—not as Greek goddess, muse, or female body perceived as horticulture.


Wind Eye

This latest attempt at a poem, yet again produced and submitted in response to Andy Townend/Mara Eastern’s Poetry Rehab prompt fits in to my recent series of poems on urban issues, which have become, ironically, a more intensive concern, now I am virtually house-bound and see the city growing menacingly around me only through a small window.

Wind Eye

The old Norsemen tell us that a window

is originally little more than a breeze-block

letting in the draught

to clear the hut of smoke,

air it of damp.


Glass promised everything:

visions of the furthest galaxies,

the tiniest lactobacilli;

a framed view out onto a nice landscaped garden;

soaring curtain walls mirroring heaven and sky;

underwater flora;

a probe into the very soul.


But looking up out now

through the mashrabiya

of security bars and safety netting

at the tall apartment buildings

that obscure the moon,

each flat marked by the dripping backside

of an air-conditioning unit sticking out,

as the all-year-round fairy lights

of HD TVs and laptops

twinkle behind blinds,

there is a feeling

not of light refracted

but of darkness falling

and wonder

at what we have made of the world.

Poetry Rehab 101 Flora–Mangoes Growing

Submitted in response to Andy Townend/Mara Eastern’s Poetry Rehab 101 Prompt Flora.

Mangoes Growing

The green buds in the tree start to swell in the grey rain

straining towards the ground—

sperm writ large.

They cluster together desperately on a stalk till all but one

fall unappetizingly onto flagstones and are swept away by brooms.

The lucky fruit grows fleshy and orange

and, when it drops,

is scoffed up by a scavenger,

leaving a stone to grow.

Poetry Rehab–Exposition

One of the first things I do on receiving a prompt for a poetry assignment from Andy or Mara is to look up the word in an etymological dictionary. In the case of ‘exposition,’ I immediately had an inkling that I wanted to write something about the use of this word—still somewhat foreign-sounding and unnatural in English—to refer to a grand exhibition or world fair. I was delighted to discover, on consulting the etymological dictionary that the word was first used in this sense in English on the occasion of the Crystal Palace World Exhibition/Exposition of 1851. From there various ideas flowed into a fertile stream of consciousness and I came up with this—characteristically dark but I hope still entertainingly irreverent and light-hearted—take on the prompt.

At the back of my mind throughout this poem is another that I have been mulling over for some time on the subject of the Chicago World Fair of 1893, which was the first to showcase electrical lighting on a grand scale but also the deliberately chosen field of operations for one of the first recorded serial killers, whom I reference obliquely in the closing hall-of-fame/infamy section of this poem. There is something highly disturbing yet intellectually fascinating about the idea of someone using the long shadows cast by the blaze of light that accompanies a technologically optimistic world exposition as cover for atavistically evil acts elevated to an industrial scale.


Expo’ 1851

The crystal palace is Solomonically

as many feet long as

the years of our Lord that stretch

from our Savior’s birth up

to this zenith of the industrial age.

Vic & Al are excited about the glass-house exposé

of all that is great about Brittany—once wayward daughter

turned stunning debutante; the gears of genes, hormones,

breeding and old money all finally meshing together

to create a national treasure we can all be proud of—a fine filly,

an irresistible machine.

Charlie Darwin

is chipper about the science. The whole haute bourgeoisie

of England and beyond

traipses through the marvel,

for no more than a guinea a head.

Good value for money they purr,

as they gawp at the exotic orchids and high-tech looms.

A site-specific demonstration of the whole cotton production process

from bud on sunned plant in southern Louisiana

to dark rain-drenched Satanic mill in Salford

to starched shirt on a dresser

—minus, of course, the child labor,

slavery, asymmetrical tariffs,

unemployment statistics, workplace accidents

and the hacking cough of lint-choked lungs—

elicits much interest and acclaim.

The best Frogs and sour Krauts can meanwhile do

is to turn up with machine guns and bombs.

“People in glass houses…” English gents

and vets mutter

disapprovingly through bushes of moustaches

still decorating stiff upper lips.

Drinkers dutifully toast queen and nation in East End pubs,

before rushing out for a piss. Nature calls.


The great event is, of course,

as befits a great parliamentary democracy—

over which Ollie Cromwell still waves his wand of a sword—

not without detractors.

Chad Marx thinks

it is all a ginormous unseemly fetish—overexposed—

unworthy of the civilized world still to be—

orange blossom round a latrine.

And the right-wing papers sneer

that the money could have been

better spent on tax cuts for the country squires

who read them grumblingly in clubs

between enemas and games of cards,

and worry that the hoi polloi

or—God forbid—‘jocks’ and ‘blacks’ and ‘jack-the-lads’

might ‘get ideas.’


Meanwhile, Messrs. Holmes, Mr. Hearst, Mr. Edison and their ilk,

Dr. Jekyll, Jack the Ripper, Mr. Hyde, Dr. Frankenstein’s

monster, Rothschilds and Gettys,

Gates, Jobs, Zuckerberg,

Mr. Murdoch and Mr. Trump

greedily survey the proceedings

with as yet unborn beady eyes.