I first came across this when I read The Song of the Earth by Jonathan Bate, which includes an extensive discussion of the poem. He writes:
On 1 January 1502, the Portuguese sailed into a bay on the eastern coast of South America, thought it was a river and named it from the date: River of January, Rio de Janeiro. From that moment on, Brazil was sucked into European history.
Furthermore, the Westerner’s perception of the place cannot but be influenced by Western aesthetics. Bishop’s poem carries as its epigraph some lines from Kenneth Clark’s book Landscapes Into Art, a study of how the artistic representation of nature is always just that – a representation, part of the meaning of which is prior representations and symbolic formulations.
Brazil, January 1, 1502
… embroidered nature… tapestried landscape.
– Landscape into Art, by Sir Kenneth Clark
Januaries, Nature greets our eyes
exactly as she must have greeted theirs:
every square inch filling in with foliage—
big leaves, little leaves, and giant leaves,
blue, blue-green, and olive,
with occasional lighter veins and edges,
or a satin under leaf turned over;
in silver-gray relief,
and flowers, too, like giant water lilies
up in the air—up, rather, in the leaves—
purple, yellow, two yellows, pink,
rust red and greenish white;
solid but airy; fresh as if just finished
and taken off the frame.
A blue-white sky, a simple web,
backing for feathery detail:
brief arcs, a pale-green broken wheel,
a few palms, swarthy, squat, but delicate;
and perching there in profile, beaks agape,
the big symbolic birds keep quiet,
each showing only half his puffed and padded,
pure-coloured or spotted breast.
Still in the foreground there is Sin:
five sooty dragons near some massy rocks.
The rocks are worked with lichens, gray moonbursts
splattered and overlapping,
threatened from underneath by moss
in lovely hell-green flames,
by scaling-ladder vines, oblique and neat,
“one leaf yes and on leaf no” (in Portuguese).
The lizards scarcely breathe; all eyes
are on the smaller, female one, back-to,
her wicked tail straight up and over,
red as red-hot wire.
Just so the Christians, hard as nails,
tiny as nails, and glinting,
in creaking armor, came and found it all,
no lovers’ walks, no bowers,
no cherries to be picked, no lute music,
but corresponding, nevertheless,
to an old dream of wealth and luxury
already out of style when they left home—
wealth, plus a brand-new pleasure.
Directly after Mass, humming perhaps
L’ Homme arme or some such tune,
they ripped away into the hanging fabric,
each out to catch an Indian for himself—
those maddening little women who kept calling,
calling to each other (or had the birds waked up?)
and retreating, always retreating, behind it.