Hiraeth and Hwyl: Backwater Boy by Manoel de Barros (translated by Malcolm K McNee)


For a new sequence on The Clearing to celebrate the publication of The Long Field, the author Pamela Petro invited eight writers, poets and artists to contribute pieces exploring hiraeth and hwyl, Welsh ideas, but rooted deeply in us all. For this last installment Malcolm McNee has translated a poem by the Brazilian poet Manoel de Barros recalling his childhood from a distance of ninety years and exploring the notion of Saudade, an idea closely linked to hiraeth.



The human might be metaphysically grand if the child were its teacher.

Sören Kierkegaard





I wanted to write with birdish words.

Where we lived was a place immensely and free

of names.

There we would play at playing with words

like this: Today I saw an ant kneeling on the rock!

Mom having heard us playing said:

There you go again with your visions!

Because ants don’t have kneelable knees

and there aren’t even any sacristy rocks around here.

That’s a flight of imagination.

The boy held in his gaze an earthy silence

and in his voice the purity of wellsprings.

Dad thought we wanted to un-see the world

in order to find in the words new things to see

like: I saw the morning perched on the banks of the

river just like an open-winged egret on the solitude

of a rock.

The kids created novelties with their


So, Bernardo added a new creation: Today I saw a

frog with the gaze of a tree.

So, we had to un-see the world in order to get out of that

immensely edgeless place.

We wanted to discover images of birds blessed

with innocence.

What we learned in that place were simply ignorances

that allowed us to fully understand the voice of the waters and

of the snails.

We liked words when they unsettled

the normal sense of ideas.

Because we also knew that only absurdities

enrich poetry.






Our knowing came not from studying books.

It came from grabbing from touching from hearing and other senses.

Was it a primordial knowing?

Our words gathered one after another out of love

and not syntax.

We wanted arpeggio. The song. The warbling of words.

One day we tried to cross trees

with birds

in order to warble our words.

We weren’t successful.

We’re still trying.

But we well came to know that it is also from our primary

perceptions that arpeggios and songs and warblings are born.

But back then we liked even better words that were


Like: I wanted to grab the ass of the wind.

Dad said that the wind has no ass.

Which was frustrating.

But dad supported our way of un-seeing the world

which was our way of defeating tedium.

We didn’t like explaining the images because

explaining distanced the words from imagination.

We liked non-sequitur meanings like the

chatting of the birds on the ground eating bits of


Certain visions meant nothing but were verbal


We always wanted to give blazons to the butterflies.

We liked dawdling with words more

than grammatical prisons.

When the boy said that he wanted to give to

words some of his mischief even the snails were supportive.

We leaned up against the afternoon as if it were

a lamppost.

We liked words when they unsettled

the normal meanings of speaking.

Those kids were as much part of the twilight as

the birds were.






As example of our way of being I present Bernardo.

Bernardo didn’t even know he’d been given the privilege

of lonesomeness.

He was part of nature the way a river is, the way

a frog is, the way the sundown is.

He thought it normal to converse with the waters,

with the trees, with the frogs.

(Here’s a case in which one must ask: is it necessary to study

ignorances in order to speak with the waters?)

He said seraphic little things to the waters;

Bernardo lived in his shack at the river’s edge –

like a hermit.

In the morning, very early, he grabbed his watering can and went

to water the river.

He would water the river and water the river.

Then he would say to us that the fish also

needed water to survive.

Close by there was a bog noisy with frogs.

The river leaned its voice against the banks.

His gaze turned motes into flowers.

His greatest joy was in seeing an egret discovered


He wanted to be dreamed about by the egrets.

Bernardo had visions like this – I saw the morning

perched on a can just like a bird on

the lonesomeness of a house.

It was a vision that uncorked the nature of his gaze.

Bernardo didn’t even know the names for the letters of a


But he could spell frogs better than me.

From the warblings of a bird he knew its color.

The morning made of him glorious.

When I met Bernardo the backwater already was making

in him its exuberance.






The prettiest place for a bird to perch is the word.

In my words we still live there, backwater boys,

a fool, and me.

I lived entangled in my verbal debris.

The boy would go for walks through even the birds.

And a tree made some progress in becoming Bernardo.

There, even saints made the stones bloom.

Because we were all sheltered by words.

We all used a language of springtime.

I carried words within me like a dictionary.

We had wanted to listen closely to the silence of the dew

on the rocks.

You had wanted also to find out what the birds

knew about the winds.

We liked to use only birdish words because

they were words blessed with innocence.

Bernardo said that he had heard the wind barely brush

against the garb of afternoon.

I dreamed of writing a book with the same

innocence with which children make their paper


I wanted to grab with my hands the torso of morning.

Because I thought that visions were a poetic act

of seeing.

You didn’t like the common path of words.

Better yet I liked absurdities.

And if I were a snail, a tree, a rock?

And if I were?

I didn’t want to spend my time using words

worm eaten with habits.

I truly wanted to un-see the world. Like this: I saw

a vulture defecate on the garb of morning.

Isn’t that a way of banishing boredom?

And how was I to know that the dream of silence was

to be stone.






The place where we lived nearly had only beasts

solitude and trees.

My grandpa courted the solitude.

He was a bouquet of lonesomeness.

What remains with me of that grandpa is this

image: him lying in the hammock with that lover, but

if we removed him from the hammock for some reason,

solitude was unleashed.

Oh, unleashed solitude!

This image of solitude that remained within me for


Ah, and dad! Dad ran cattle and ran cattle.

He had the supreme gaze of a bird.

He taught us freedom.

Then we went aimlessly wandering around the brimless backwaters.

Once we reached the banks of a river.

The morning was perched on the banks of the river its wings open like

a bird.

At that hour the hill was leaning against the sun.

Soon after we saw a coati licking clean a rhea bone.

The afternoon was growing inside the swamp.

The place had lost us our way.

We felt like a bit of ant lost along

the road.

Bernardo completed this lonesomeness.

Then we found a nursery of snail shells in the sands

of the river.

Almost all the shells were widowed of their snails.

They say that the vultures, clever, would land on that spot

to savor the still living snails.

They even say that that spot might have been a piece of the legendary

Sea of Xaraiés.

We wandered along the banks of the night.

Bernardo appeared and told us that the wind is a horse.

So, we climbed onto the haunches of the wind and soon arrived


Mom was beside herself.

She took care of everyone: washed, ironed and cooked

for everyone.

But at night mom still found a bit of time

for her violin.

She played Vivaldi for us.

And we ended up dripping with tears.

One day I told her that I had seen

a little bird chewing on a piece of the wind. Mom

said once more: There you go again with your visions! That’s a

folly of your imagination.

It’s the voice of God that resides in children, in little birds,

and in fools.

The infancy of words.





Since the beginning of the world water and earth have loved

and lovingly entered one another

and impregnated one another.

Fish are born to inhabit the rivers.

And birds are born to inhabit the trees.

The waters even help in the formation of shells and of

their snails.

Waters are the epiphany of creation.

Now I think of the waters of the Pantanal.

I think of the infant rivers that still seek out some decline

to descend.

Because the waters of this place are still spread wide to

the great joy of the egrets.

These small sloughs still need to form

banks in order to behave within their beds.

I think with humility that I’ve been invited to the

banquet of these waters.

Because I am backward.

Because I am bog.

I believe now that these waters know well of the

innocence of their birds and of their trees.

That they too belong to our origins.

I then praise this source of all the beings and of all

the plants.

We are forever indebted to these waters.

I praise then the inhabitants of this place that

bring to us, in the humidity of their words, the fine

innocence of our origins.







Malcolm McNee, is a Professor of Portuguese and Brazilian Studies at Smith College. He is the author of The Environmental Imaginary in Brazilian Poetry and Art.


The photograph at the head of this poem is by the author.


The Long Field by Pamela Petro is out now.

Share your thoughts

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.