A Brazilian Afternoon in Vinicius’ Itapua

by Eleanor Stanford

Someone has removed Vinicius’ spectacles. He sits in the praca (the plaza), staring blindly out at the ocean, perhaps pondering a poem or the lyrics to a Bossa nova, a style of Brazilian music.  Poor Vinicius, cast in bronze, portly and rakish, his loose shirt unbuttoned to mid-chest; perhaps it’s better that he can’t see the shopping center that’s sprung up behind him, the nail salon and surf shop, the pizza place and newspaper kiosk.

Vinicius de Moraes, famous Brazilian poet and Bossa nova lyricist, lived in Itapua in the late 1960s and early 70s. At the time, this bairro on the outskirts of Salvador was still a sleepy little beach town. Urban sprawl hadn’t yet connected it to the city in one tangled snarl of traffic and smog, shopping malls and condominiums.

The town itself is now a hive of color and noise and movement: cars pulsing with pop music, storefronts strung with bright sundresses, aluminum pots, hammocks. The butcher shop with its unidentifiable cuts of meat, including a large cow’s heart that quivers behind the glass.

The beach here, once the pristine expanse Vinicius immortalized in song, is now seedy and polluted. But sometimes, still, nature makes her presence — damaged, wrathful, imposing — known. When it rains, the water turns brown and choleric. The waves, usually flat and glassy, churn wildly. Last year, a suicide whale threw herself onto the sand here. She gasped and flailed. Traffic came to a standstill, and people gathered around on the sand, unable to do anything but witness the animal’s enormous and unforgiving agony.

When I moved to Itapua in July, I was expecting something more placid and less gritty, more like Vinicius’ tranquil beach described in his song “Tarde em Itapua.” I admit, I’d listened to Maria Bethania’s version in my station wagon more than once, driving my kids to school in the gray February cold, imagining the life we were immigrating to:

Ao sol que arde em Itapoa / Ouvir o mar de Itapoa  / Falar de amor em Itapoa…

(The sun that burns in Itapua / Listening to the sea in Itapua/ Talking about love in Itapua…)

Vinicius’ Itapua was still there, though, in the gentle breeze swaying the palms against the blue sky. In the afternoons we spent at the beach, we drank coconut water, floated in the calm, warm ocean. In the evenings we sat with our neighbors under the trees and sipped caipirinhas while the children played soccer.

But then there was the awful traffic, the shiny new malls where we found ourselves sometimes, needing to get the children out of the house, too tired to bear the scorching sun and elaborate packing and preparation that a trip to the beach entailed. Then there was the bureaucracy, the surly officials and waiting in lines to get our paperwork in order, which surely Vinicius dealt with, but somehow neglected to document in his lyrics.

Every day on my way home from work, I drove past Vinicius in his praca. I thought of his poem, “Sonnet on Fidelity,” which ends:

I could say to myself of the love (I had): / Let it not be immortal, since it is flame / But let it be infinite while it lasts.

Early in his poetic career, Vinicius abandoned free verse for metrical precision. His subject remained the untamed realm of romantic and sexual love, but within the confines of the classical decasyllablic line, his words twining the strict trellis of the sonnet.

Vinicius believed, supremely, in form, in the beauty of consciously chosen constraints. (A belief upheld by the fact that he ventured into marriage in his life nine separate times.) Was it infinite while it lasted, Vinicius? I hope so. Now he sat, un-spectacled, touched with rust and bird droppings, alone in the town square.

Our neighbors debated where his glasses had gone. Had someone stolen them? Who would do such a thing? There was much commentary about the sorry state of the world, about how Itapua had changed. One friend remembered when, as a child, he used to walk on the beach at all hours, how he and his friends had bonfires there at night. Now one wouldn’t venture out after dark. There was an assault in front of our condominium at nine o’clock on a Monday morning.  We still walked to the beach during the day, and felt relatively safe, but there was always the somewhat precarious feeling that perhaps this sense of safety was misguided.

Someone said that the city had removed Vinicius’ spectacles in order to spruce up the statue, and repair the chair opposite Vinicius, which was broken.

Maybe, someone else said. But we all know how that goes, when the city decides to take on a new project. Look at the railroad. They started it eight years ago, and all we have to show for it now is an eyesore, a few hundred yards of track that dead end into the side of a hill.

The spectacles never did reappear, nor was the broken chair ever fixed. And yet Vinicius endured, patient, benevolent, seemingly no worse for the wear.

One night soon after we moved to Itapua, our family went with some friends to a concert at the cultural center on the lagoon of Abaete. The mystical black-water lake, just inland from the town, its source unknown, used to be a gathering place, where women came to wash their clothes, where, once, the full-moon shimmering against the white dunes, Vinicius wooed Gesse Gessy, a baiana actress who would become the seventh of his nine wives. He drank cachaca and strummed his guitar and brooded.

Now I listened to a small, intense man with a bowler hat recite incomprehensible poetry in Portuguese. A chorus of women dressed in white sang “Cielito Lindo.” A trio performed a Bossa nova set.

The baby began to fuss, so I walked him outside, on the stone balcony, draped in bougainvillea, which bordered on the lagoon. The gentle night air calmed him, and I walked, swaying, back and forth, looking out at the dark water, the familiar words floating out the open doors, the beautiful Portuguese lyrics which translate:

The wind that the night brings…that shakes the palms / and our serene spaces /without yesterday or tomorrow / to sleep in the dark arms / of the moon of Itapua.

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