Claudia Nogueira




So much of our body is monosyllabic in English: head, hair, eyes, nose, mouth, 

legs, hand, arms, feet.  Take the word “ear” – in Portuguese it is “orelha,” a 


Claudia Barbosa Nogueira was born in Brazil, but moved to the United States when she was a child.  She has been published in numerous venues, including two anthologies: Luso-American Literature: An Anthology of Writings by Portuguese-Speaking Peoples in North America (Rutgers UP, 2011) and The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror: Fourteenth Annual Collection (St. Martin's Press, 2001).  She has had stories published in such journals as 34th Parallel, Nimrod, Colorado Review, and the Berkeley Fiction Review, and has had poems published in places like 1 Over the 8 and the Berkeley Poetry Review.  She currently has a blog titled that features creative essays about neurodiversity and living with mental illness.

three-syllable word.  The monosyllabic “ear” is compact, a no-nonsense slice of 

flesh.  The polysyllabic “orelha” is a composite: the lobe, the compliant 

hardness of the edge, and the jutting part of the ear that seems to be a sentry 

for the canal.  “Orelha” unfolds on the tongue and emerges wet, newly born, 

ready to be heard.  “Ear” sneaks past the mouth and dashes free, leaving only 

its trail of  “r”s to mark its existence. 


There are multiple ways to write “orelha.”  “Ôrelha” calls attention to itself like 

an indignant man who has just been shoved: ô-ô-ô!  “Orélha,” like “velha,” 

sounds like the type of herb you can buy fresh-cut at the market.  “Orelhã,” 

like “hortelã,” is pompous and arrogant like the sophisticated chatter of rich 

women complaining about their maids.  “Ear,” on the other hand, only sounds 

like “ear” to me, unless, I guess, it is pronounced like “bear.”  Air…  It isn’t 

adorned like “orelha” can be.  Although not real words, “ôrelha,” “orélha,” and 

“orelhã,” or any other combination and application of accents, give “orelha” a 

flexibility absent from “ear.”  “Orelha” can be accessorized with tiny hoops, 

studs, dangles.  “Ôrélhã.”


But this poem is really about “ear.” And “hair,” “back,” “knee.”  About the 

way foreign bodies become monosyllabic when living here.


I’m in a restaurant right now, and I hear a syrupy love ballad, probably 

Mexican, leaking out of the kitchen.  The waitress has just told a customer that 

“it’s especially bad when it gets in your head, but you don’t know what’s being 

said.”  She knows what’s being said.  A love so deep, so transcendent, a love 

more powerful, hurtful, the best in the world.  That’s what’s being said.  One 

can understand those lyrics no matter what the language.  But the people in the 

kitchen – the young men, probably, floating in ballads, grease, and soap back 

there, they think their bodies have not changed, that they are the same lanky 

boys they have always been.  Their bodies have changed.  Even without seeing 

them, I know that their cuellos have thickened into necks, that their brazos 

have curled into arms, their piernas stripped away into legs.  And what’s worse, 

they are hated for their new bodies.  People don’t think they wear them well.  

That the immigrant’s leg is more stunted than the American leg.  That the 

immigrant arm is not as graceful.  That the immigrant neck has a darker cast to 



They’re wrong, of course.  Our bodies are one and all just solid hunks of flesh, 

useful, non-remarkable.  Hair, skin, foot, all the same.  The color and accent 

vary, but only so much as does a different brand of soap, a different body 



As for me, who has lived here so long, my body is only foreign when I force 

Portuguese on it.  Orelha, yes, and boca, cotovelo.  Like a too-large dress, it 

does not quite fit.  I have gotten used to a body that can be described with 

grunts, hisses, and gulps of air.  That’s the body I see in the mirror.

And, although the song has changed, the dishwasher has had a break to call his 

girlfriend, the waitress has seated two more tables, and my All-American 

Burger cools uneaten, my body, and its parts, still sit in a chair, by the door, 

breathing air, hearing sounds, writing words. 


An old, skinny guy – bony arms, long legs, mustachioed lip, capped head – has 

just said that he’d like to die with his face in a pie. 


I cannot imagine this kind of death anywhere but here, where all bodies and so 

many things are stuffed into single syllables, syllables that swell and grow until 

they become as big as people.  Syllables that then buy a car, go to work, and 

order pie.  Syllables that are their own words, and proud of it!  That can’t 

conceive how much space there is in this world to stretch and spread and 

reach, to linger on a tongue, to dance into an ear, to quiver in a mind.


© The Acentos Review 2016