Save the Bathwater by Marina Carreira
Get Fresh Books, 2018. 67 pp.
Reviewed by DM O’Connor
A different house now, Avó
since you moved back to Portugal, they tore down
the Dairy Queen to put up a bank, more condos…
“547 Market Street”
Marina Carreira’s collection Save the Bathwater is appropriately titled. It’s a lament for aging, comfort food, a preceding generation, and the world-weary story of Portuguese immigration distilled and evaporated into the proverbial American dream. The collection is an elegy for a disappearance of culture, a letter explaining assimilation, and a family photo album for future generations to understand the Portuguese diaspora and transatlantic displacement.
Perhaps the poem, “After Emigration” summarizes this better:
It happens all the time
in my grandmother’s village
small things crushed
But who’s ever there
to tell the story?
Well, Carreira is here to tell the story. And this story revolves around food: tomatoes, onions, olive oil, goat cheese, wine with 7Up, gelado, dobrado, bacalha, and snails. Recipes and moments brought from Europe to America that give comfort and belonging. Food being the gateway into culture and memory, as well as making the reader hungry.
Yet, to fully understand Carreira’s laments, the concept of Fado must be inspected. In the glossary at the end of the collection, the definition reads, “a type of traditional Portuguese music centered on the expression of “saudades”; traditionally associated with taverns, pubs, and cafes; and renowned for it’s profoundly melancholic character.” Think New Orleans’ Blues meets Andalusian Flamenco in a classic ballad structure that will fill your glass of Douro Port with bitter tears, if you really know how to listen. Fado turns great pain into melody, yearning cathartic release. Saudades is another kettle of bacalha, which is a state of nostalgic yearning or missing or “a pleasure you suffer, an ailment you enjoy.” Basically untranslatable, because all cultures face nostalgia uniquely and personally. Saudades is also the first thematic port of call for any writer trying to understand the Portuguese mentality and Luso-diaspora. Carreira’s offering into the saudade-genre, begins:
You left me and the old yellow house
Twenty years ago Still you flood my memory
Until every cell is a third-story apartment
A very clear and direct American approach to nostalgia. “You left me,” almost like a country song lyric. Perhaps another, subtler dimension to saudades comes in “Bodega Blues” when the young narrator is buying “penny candy/ bruised carrots/ menthol cigarettes” and told by the old shopkeeper, Mr. Hidalgo, “You’ve got the saddest/ smile in the world.”
Missing in English is a verb. Nostalgia is a noun. In Portuguese, saudades is a state of being that can be evoked by a sad, beautiful smile on a young child on a normal day. Save the Bathwater is loaded with these epiphanic moments, tender images that sock the jaw.
Emigration narratives by first-generation immigrants are tricky. The balance between explaining an old culture to a new culture (usually America) in another language (usually English) plays with the writer’s understanding of the old culture and what the writer has become (usually not by choice) in the new world. Like writing from the deck of a Transatlantic ocean liner without ever fully arriving yet understanding the customs agents at each port. Cooking traditional soup with local ingredients.
Carreira is bravely exploring this journey. She is cooking with New Jersey and Fanhais. She is mixing the free-flow of family memories in Portuguese into the accepted structural forms of modern American poetry.
I spent last December in Porto translating Fado lyrics. At night, I’d walk around in the sad rain and listen to the city, the sea, snippets of Portuguese—chasing saudades. Or at least a basic understanding. Assimilation takes generations. Becoming what? How do we hold on to culture? How do we try, when it is constantly changing? Well, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Turn the bathwater into broth. Don’t translate everything. Don’t simplify. Name the places and the food. Study, and more importantly, remember the previous generations—their faults and love. And Fados like Carreira’s are as important as life rafts.
We are rooted somewhere
Love makes everything supple
DAVID MORGAN O'CONNOR is from a small Canadian village on Lake Huron. After many nomadic years, he's based in Albuquerque, where stories and poems progress daily. His writing has appeared in more than 50 print or online publications. He reviews, interviews and blogs monthly.