“Slum tourism is a way for travelers to taste the exotica of squalor,” announces the title of a September 10, 2007 article on Indian Malaysian Online. The article goes on to describe several of the world’s largest slums tourists can explore. Trendy or not, during a 2005 visit to Nairobi, Kenya I could not have secured a tour of Kibera, the largest slum in the world, even if I wanted to (no locals were willing to take three American girls through this dangerous area that covers most of the city). The speaker in Elizabeth Bishop’s “Pink Dog,” seems a slum tourist herself, observing and sympathizing with the desperate inhabitants of the largest slum in South America, Brazil’s Favela da Rocinha, ironically located in Rio de Janeiro’s wealthiest neighborhood.
C.K. Doreski (MAPS) writes that “Pink Dog” is a failure because it lacks the “sting of political narrative” and a “moral attractiveness,” making it “affect humorous indifference” instead of spurring the reader to political action. On the contrary, Bishop’s comparison of Rio’s impoverished inhabitants of Rocinha to a vulnerable, desperate dog is a searing commentary on the ways in which a nation’s poor are swept to the fringes like so many feral animals.
Didn’t you know? It’s been in all the papers, to solve this problem, how they deal with beggars? They take them and throw them in the tidal rivers.
Yes, idiots, paralytics, parasites go bobbing in the ebbing sewage, nights out in the suburbs, where there are no lights.
If they do this to anyone who begs, drugged, drunk, or sober, with or without legs, what would they do to sick, four-legged dogs?
Perhaps critics such as Doreski would say that Bishop’s tight end-rhymes, and the sing-song quality of the lilting stanzas, sacrifice the political to the lyrical. However, Bishop’s use of rhyme here is similar to other poets,’ like Edwin Rolfe’s “Little Ballad for Americans – 1954” or Aaron Kramer’s “Denmark Vesey,” whose ironically musical use of rhyme actually makes a more, not less, intense political statement. The sing-song stanzas about a city’s castaway homeless, framed in the setting of Rio’s decadent beaches and Carnival atmosphere, would make any Brazilian politician squirm in discomfort. Indeed, as Cary Nelson points out in his notes on Bishop, “Pink Dog” is representative of her poems that “focused on her Brazil experience, [where] her technical skills and unsentimental wit supported her in a journey into boldly unconventional social and cultural commentary of a sort no other American poet has attempted” (631).
“Pink Dog” is set not inside Rocinha, but rather on the brighter side of Rio’s tourism: on the beach where “Umbrellas clothe the beach in every hue” under a hot sun and a blue sky, and in trendy cafés that line downtown sidewalks. Against this bright, sunny backdrop the disparate image of the hairless dog “trot[ting] across the avenue” repulses bystanders:
Oh, never have I seen a dog so bare! Naked and pink without a single hair… Startled, the passersby draw back and stare.
With the strong AAA rhyme scheme, Bishop forces us to travel, from the sunny beach where the “sky is blue” and the umbrellas display “every hue,” across the “avenue” where the rhymes and the imagery become disturbingly vulgar. In these stanzas, the speaker begins to separate herself from the passersby with the pronoun “they.” Instead of expressing disgust for the dog, as the other tourists do, her muses anthropomorphize the dog’s life, expressing her sympathy and eliciting such from readers:
Of course, they are mortally afraid of rabies. You are not mad; you have a case of scabies but look intelligent. Where are your babies?
(A nursing mother, by those hanging teats.) In what slum have you hidden them, poor bitch, while you go begging, living by your wits?
Critics of “Pink Dog” focus on the dog’s explicitly female body, and Mena Mitrano (MAPS) writes that this poem is typical of Bishop’s poetic “reticence, especially in matters of identity, the female body, and female sexuality.” Indeed, employing the derogatory term “poor bitch” both distances the speaker from the dog – “’you’” are a dog, I am a woman” – and associates the dog with women in the slums to whom society might refer as poor bitches. While Bishop’s preoccupation with the female body – both naked and dressed (“What will you wear” to Carnival?) – is obvious in this poem, it serves to highlight the economic disparities inherent in the ironic juxtaposition of the world’s largest slum within one of the world’s most attractive destinations for wealthy tourists.
Throughout the poem, Bishop indicts all who observe Rocinha’s inhabitants but do nothing to help them: Brazilian bureaucrats, tourists, and locals alike are incriminated. The speakers mentions “the joke is going round that all the beggars/who can afford them now wear life preservers” for when they are thrown into the “tidal rivers.” This line conjures images of opportunistic vendors who would sell, rather than give, a life jacket to a drowning beggar or a bottle of water to a person dying of thirst. The presence of Carnival in the final stanzas of the poem seems an odd answer to the moral and mortal problem with which the poem is concerned, and yet, fittingly, it provides the solution to the vulnerable dog (and beggar) whose pink skin is suffering from exposure to the elements. “Dress up!” the speaker urges the dog, saying in effect: “our tourists don’t mind observing your poverty during Lent – ‘Ash Wednesday’ll come, but Carnival is here’ – but now the tourists want to see everyone happy and disguised, even if you are only disguised as happy.” Everyone in Bishop’s poem either enables or participates in slum tourism, keeping Rocinha’s beggars on display, the merchants’ pockets full, and the politicians’ posts secure.
Lal, Neeta. “Slum Tourism is a way for Travelers to Taste the Exotica of Squalor.” 10 Sept. 2007. Asia Sentinel on Indian Maylasian Online. 8 Nov. 2007. <http://www.indianmalaysian.com/sound/modules.php?name=News&file=article&sid=638>
Copyright © 2007 Amanda Zink