Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Isabel at Dawn

(beginning a sequence, The Hollow Bowl)

She dreams she is a peasant girl
taught to do what her mother asks,
her father smiling across the table.
She takes the pitcher empty to the spring,
brings it back full, pours it into the place
her father says, mother looking on.
It is still dark when she fills the pitcher,
dawn when she follows her wet feet back.
Light divides. She wakes, remembers.
She puts both feet over the bed. He sighs
in the Spanish he is learning faster
than the Greek, Latin, French, Italian,
Russian he already knows. It is she
he sought all his life, he knows now,
her small round face with its soft skin
drew him to the hall that night filled
con aficionados de la poeta Octavio Paz.

He saw her brush by, felt her small body
before he turned and laughed at himself
as she, startled, met his eyes with her smile.
They listened together to Paz say his words
precisely yet warmly, building poems
until they climbed down the other side
and up again as far as the flesh.
Paz said later he recognized her face
from the back cover of her Solo esta luz,

uttered the worn refrain of critics about her
and Emily Dickinson. Now next time
they could meet like old friends, he chuckled.
And this gringo? Southern boy, says he,
once from Natchez, Mississippi, grew up
along the river, saved up money catfish
crawling, worked the town with a wiry body
under his head bursting with words of light,
and went north, where I learned English,
he laughed. Paz nodded. Isabel looked
at his face and how it grew out of his body
as small as her own. Paz gave him un abrazo,

she una abraza fuerte. They went into the street.
A Mina y Buenavista, en hotel Londres,

she slept with him after she, trembling, told
him of her two sons living with their father,
the only time until years later he would hear
her voice break, this powerfully quiet woman
who stayed with him in that box of a room.
So small she dreamed she loved this gringo

so much she waited while the federales beat
him raw in Lecumberri nine days and nights
until convinced he would never speak again
of this, they put him on a plane that flew him
out of Mexico. Never to return. Isabel arrived
finally. Her mischievous smile had grown equal
to her need to love this man proudly, completely.
He talked endlessly then. It was not like him
to talk and talk and talk. He said, I’m teaching
Aristophanes, the play I translated last summer
in our room, The Peace. I’m writing this poem,
Que . . . She wanted to make love, feel his body,
know the depth of hers now. He quit his job,
the one he had many years. Told Bill Arrowsmith
what he had to do, how he’d miss learning
more from him, the finest Englisher of all,
said he, loving Austin, the only place in Texas
he did not feel estranged from America,
not like a Mississippi lad with nothing but words
for passport, learning from cab drivers, bartenders,
Verzcruz putas. Met people, listened, imagined
his skin a hollow bowl desperate for dinero

and learning a language of demand, el pueblo
and their voices, la manifestacion de la exigencia,
heard their tales and filled in what was left out,
but couldn’t stop the choppers raining down fire,
granaderos bursting on the plaza of Tlatelolco,
extracting death as usual to have their way,
sons of Moctezuma they aped, no Xochimilco
floating with flowery kisses and Chapultepec
impervious in its lovely facade to the misery
of the people of a Mexico always somewhere else.
Oaxaca? Merida? Guatemala, where the gringa

with her fluent tongue passed by border guards
with a passenger with forged papers who let her

do the talking as she drove and having arrived
he took his case from under the car and waved
as she drove home and he went to oil his weapons.
No, none of this now. They agreed upon London.
Lived there happily, mostly. They wrote all day,
living on what she could make dispatching English
life back to D. F. in Spanish, for by then what only
Paz once knew even norteamericanos could recall–
her names the name of her mother and father’s
whose dinero filled a hollow bowl and emptied,
her heart went home to see her sons and her book
through its birthpangs and its christening there,
Poemas en el regazo de la muerte, where she stayed.

                                        for Tim Reynolds

(7 December 2010)

copyright 2010 by Floyce Alexander

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