Don’t look back

I. Amor

Grainy black and white
TV screen on a rare night, everyone
asleep but me, Orpheus
and Eurydice, set in a favela—
a shanty town
high above the city in Rio
Marpessa Dawn as Eurydice, innocent 
young woman from the countryside and
Breno Mello as Orfeu—the streetcar driver,
samba dancer, and guitarist

Their story
unfolds during carnival
Jobim brought samba/bossa nova
to this French film &
my Jersey living room
Luiz Bonfá's music pulsed 
into the eternal life of jazz standards

II. Morte

Made in the 50s
revealed to me in the 60s
a fifth grader, weaving in
and out of dreamtime,
ancient tale with modern twist
death and the underworld
spread before me
star-crossed love and grief
in Portuguese with 
English subtitles

Orfeu cannot accept
Eurydice's death
He collects her
beautiful, lifeless body
at the morgue
carries her 
high up into the hills
where he lives,
only to be pelted
with a rock by Mira, his jealous ex
The young lovers
are struck—knocked
off a cliff together
joined again, in death,
where they land
wrapped in each other's arms

III. Vida

Meanwhile
kids who had followed him
around the neighborhood
Orfeu, can you really
make the sun rise with
your guitar—see the
sun about to peek above
the edge of sea and sky

One of the boys
takes up Orfeu's
sacred strings
and starts to play
as the sun rises
the other little boy
and girl dance
soon all three are 
samba dancing

as credits roll on I’m wondering 
what stories are behind
the story I'm carrying alone
into my dream world
of roosters, percussion, dancing feet,
competing samba school costumes,
the passionate
Orpheus and Eurydice

Lisa Periale Martin

3 Questions for Lisa

What was your process for creating this work?

Writing about turning points, in my life (memoir) and in the life of fictional characters, has been a focus of mine this past year. I had thought about this incident—stumbling across the film Black Orpheus late one night in my childhood (late elementary school), when everyone else in my family of six was asleep. I stayed up and watched the whole thing, excited about the samba and bossa nova music, the Portuguese language, the dancing, and the Greek mythology unfolding in these hills above Rio. It was so beautiful and compelling and I had no one to talk to about it. 

It represented an expansion of my world view in my early life. I know I had seen some Kurosawa and some Fellini, but a film set in an exciting pocket of S. America was new to me. After a few years, I had an older friend from the Bahamas who was a serious film buff and I finally had someone to discuss this and other interesting international films with. 

When the HHR theme of Myth came up, I took a few fragments I had begun and fleshed it out. This film has moments of joyous abandon, and is a true feast for the senses (music, landscape, great faces of local actors, exposure to the city of Rio de Janeiro, and the settlements in the hills above the city). The film is also haunting, death is in the air—even personified, and the scene at the religious ritual that Orfeu is brought to was fascinating and a bit dark to my child self. At the same time, I knew enough about the myth to see that it was playing out in interesting ways that made sense in this more modern, mid-20th century Rio setting.

So, with all that in mind, I sought to capture the wonder I experienced as I first watched the film, and then took it with me—alone, into my dreamworld. As I worked on it, I enjoyed weaving in the names of the principal actors, the characters, and the composers, and details about the settings, language, and culture that were woven into this film version of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. 

What is the significance of the form/genre you chose for this work?

Free verse poetry allowed me to keep it spare, sharing parts of the film without going into too much depth. I think I succeeded in capturing the little mind blowing experience I had of discovering the film in my youth, and celebrating the film and soundtrack, without going full bore film review. I hope it encourages a few people who haven’t seen this 1960 Cannes Film Festival and Golden Globe award winner (released in 1959), to seek it out.

What is the significance of this work to you?

Myths take human stories and ancient understandings about the pantheons of deities and try to teach people about big life and death things, big truths. We find similar themes and stories pop up in many different cultures around the world. Placing this story in a new setting introduced many viewers to Brazil, carnival, samba/bossa nova, and a religious ritual practiced by some Brazilians. 

In this poem, I’m sharing the wonder of being introduced to all that, in one night of my childhood. It was as if I ate the mushroom, stumbled down the rabbit hole, met a wild cast of characters, and then popped back into my living room. Everyone was still asleep and I carried it with me into my dreams and into my life. Has that ever happened to you? If so, you should really write about it, and spur on more stories of private magic moments of childhood that truly happened.

Lisa Periale Martin is a poet, writer, librarian, mariachi aficionado, and former farmworker. Her writing is steeped in the essence and wonder of the Sonoran Southwest. Tiny Seed, Sandscript, and Claw & Blossom have published her work.