Poetry: A South American Tale | clivejames.com
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A South American Tale

I've asked the poetry of my compatriots.
I've asked insomniacs, sonambulists
and those who owe a dept to the dark.
I've asked engineers, street sweepers
and seventy corrupt officials. Even the gypsy
in the hills, the one who sings at midnight
through a carious tooth and exposes the moon.

I've asked children singing in pulverised
limestone drying up the slick. I've asked
the laundress spraying stains off overalls.
I've asked the priests at wreckage sites
praying like pressurised air blowing stains
off a motorway. Some say Satanissimo is back

with guerillas; the rich say: raw sewage from
the slums; the stupid say, the Guatemalans;
the pitiless, the Paraguayans. Everyone says:
someone's making big money and I admit
I've declared (to preserve the pseudo respect
of my friends) - it's oil bleeding from a heated
tarmac, it's the rubber off frayed tyres.

Listen: have you ever been put to shame
by disclosure of a frailty? Once I swerved
too much for revenge. Once I sang
our national songs with the windows down.
I was sick of the agonies the road exposed
and of the highway-deaths of my countrymen.

Could this, after all, be just a shadow?
Now, when I'm driving I dream of afternoons
under alders, of walking along canals
and trottoirs and worrying only about
the excrement of poodles. I wonder -
have you read our novels, the ones that
make myths out of fatalism, families, feuds
and centuries of extraordinary events? Listen
even they have not prepared us for this.

I've asked the shawled woman. The one who
bribes anacondas with rats and marmosets.
Tonight, she will eat of the blind six-legged
goat and drink the blood of a snoutless pig.
Can you understand why I want to get out?

We've all invented explanations - asked
specialists, experts, pundits, freaks,
nuts, aficionados - any hag with a charm
and boa. We've seen the men
from the National Commission on television
and the Federal Judge who is investigating.
We've quoted from the Corruption Dictionary
(Vols 1 & 2)
- because we've asked so many

bums and hobos and heard too many officials
say: agitators, provocateurs. But a woman
who sits on the roadway and paints
window-pane butterflies for a dollar
and lets them fly into the sunset for a peso
told me: it's the souls of the so-far-gone.

Her own hands were ashed with sand, rock
and the powder-dust of raw cement and I was
astounded by the blend of greens and golds
seeping out of her hands, the smoky half-tones
of dusk, her clear call to the dead.

I believed her. Later, I climbed seven stucco
flights to her yellow kitchen, my gratitude
spilling into all the avenues and back streets
of the barrio - but then, all she'd say was:
it's lousy asphalt, it's opponents dumping oil!

It was then I went back to my feverish books
and rarely drove again. Now, I no longer believe
in the road, enough to follow it out.

Listen: can you write to me, tell me
about your trees and your walks along the canals?
Next, I'll write to you about the quetzal
that flew out of the cool shadows of a tunnel,
about what it said as it squawked
in the light and thrashed its tail.