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.

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