Hearts at Work
A Column by James Tipton
“This longing to be beautiful….”
Almost twenty years ago I was wandering around southern Brazil. For several days I had been immersed in the mist and almost overpowering beauty of Iguazu Falls, actually a system of 275 waterfalls running over a mile and a half on the border of the Brazilian state of Paraná and the Argentine province of Missiones (the setting for a favorite movie, The Mission).
Feeling high from all of that beauty, I then headed over to the beaches (there are actually forty two of them) on the Brazilian coast at Florianopolis. Again the beauty was almost overpowering, but this time it took the form of thousands of young Brazilian women, almost all wearing colorful thong bikinis. In Brazil the popular metaphor for these bikinis is fio dental (dental floss) and in Spanish speaking America, hilo dental.
Well, being over fifty, all of those beautiful buttocks were actually making me feel faint, and so largely for survival, I stumbled along the sandy shore to a strand of beach where I thought I could catch my breath alone. But there, cavorting in the waves, was a woman, still young, skinny, with a less than ordinary face and body. No one would ever call her beautiful. I watched her a long time. Often she would look toward shore to see whether I was watching her. Sometimes she smiled. Some months later, I wrote these lines about that woman:
I watched at low tide your breasts rise.
I watched every effort that you made
to be beautiful for me. Even though
I was a stranger, your body moved
for me alone, like the hope
that moved behind the mirror
that did not find you beautiful at all.
As I studied her, I thought about her longings, about the longings all of us have; I suppose one even finds those longings in people the world agrees are beautiful.
What a strange thing, this longing
to be beautiful, the sweet pretense
and secret weeping, the doubt inside
that rose against the right you had
to boldly wear that pink bikini
and walk alone on what you thought
was beach deserted.
At what age did you know—
for certain—that you
never would be beautiful,
never shine yourself
into the poems of lovers,
never have the sultry bliss
that beauty by itself can bring?
Being given toward contemplating possibilities, I conjured up a fantasy about a life with this young Brazilian woman back in Colorado:
I took you home in thought
that moment by the sea
and lived a life with you,
your homely face casting its desire
each winter night by candle,
your body arched
in clumsy grace and love.
But I did not tell you this,
I did not speak at all,
pondering your sweet attempts
to bend and search for shells,
to move with all the sensual delight
your awkward dreams could teach you.
Now, months later, this autumn night
in Colorado, I write this awkward
poem for you—some clumsy art
I struggle with—because
that longing in you
was so beautiful and pure
you touched this tired heart.
Always in search of the beautiful, that particular day I decided that that young woman, so filled with longing, so lonely, so left out simply because of her lack of ordinary beauty…was where I found beauty on that day. Her longing to be beautiful was beautiful to me. I take a quiet pleasure in the thought that she was perhaps the only woman that day on those beaches of thousands of beautiful woman for whom a poem, a love poem of sorts, was written.