The Strange Years of My Life
When did we ever write so much as since the beginning of our Civil Wars?
The Strange Years of My Life
Those quarter-hearted months learning Chinese.
Trading last year’s currencies.
Drinking evidence dissolved in coffee.
Those months of wrong days.
Those months not far enough away.
Those months of my own name.
Self-portrait not knowing what comes next.
Self-portrait forgetting my lines.
Self-portrait with no excuse.
I never thought I’d make it to the border.
I never thought I’d hold my breath so long.
I never thought I would come all this way
to come all this way.
Because I have a hard time sitting still.
Rumours about my behaviour.
The malice of my friends.
Because this kind of weather does not end.
Days long as mistakes,
weeks boring as rain,
the acres of my bed,
sheets that itch like paper,
electric fish, lantern boats,
tepid decaf river.
I wrap my fever in paper,
I sweat like milk and glass and red cayenne.
Tattoo, sunburn, vaccination scar,
sweat and freckle in my sleep.
Because I have been wanted and disowned.
Everything is easier far from home.
Friends and Strangers
Amours de voyage, alarming weather,
“meeting like this” just one time too many,
déjà vu, suspicions, background checks,
forgotten friends arriving with no warning,
forgotten strangers offering advice,
offering the name of a good lawyer,
offering malaria pills, or coffee,
or a better-than-black-market rate,
the restaurant where the waiter was too friendly,
next day someone broke into your room,
took nothing but your letters, you were careless,
gave your alias away,
made a list of strangers to betray,
mistook me for a friend.
I Am Not Who You Take Me For
Nerves, unlaundered sheets, instant coffee,
news of a curfew.
A crumpled note.
Directions to an address that no longer exists.
The shirt I wore the day you didn’t arrive.
My fingerprints on someone else’s teacup.
My footprints leading the wrong way.
My photo on the wrong policeman’s desk.
Wrong day, wrong face, wrong surgeon.
The actors I could not afford to bribe.
Amours de voyage, Chinese whispers,
noms de plume on le téléphone arabe,
shredded poems, intercepted codes,
crossword limericks, sonnet cryptograms.
Stop. You have made a blunder.
Stop. I act on the best advice.
Stop. Decide at once.
I speak six human languages,
I know my way around the souk.
But I am no anthropologist.
Yours was the purer French.
Mine was the ruse.
I am your double agent.
I am my own false hope.
Stop. I am held against my will.
I know my way around.
Beware the Trojans, stop,
bribe the Greeks.
Enough Is Enough
I am waiting on your letter.
When it comes I will read it like it is written on your skin,
like it is written on a crust of bread.
If you saw me now you would not know me,
my face stained brown, my hands scored with scars,
my back tattooed with intimate anagrams.
The name of this place tastes like a bit lip.
My ninety-seven words of French are no good to me now,
my tongue tied up in the local accent.
I still have good intentions,
second-best of hopes,
three quarters of a heart.
Jeannot, enough is enough.
Please come home.
Nothing is forgiven.
Self-Portrait in the Neotropics
Eleven of the strange years of my life.
Months on end I lived on tapioca,
I lived on mud and permanganate broth,
and river water red as rum,
bivouacked with rainflies
and fire ants and sundry native guides.
The parrots already knew some French.
Nous sommes les seuls français ici.
Call it sunstroke, le coup de bambou.
I came all this way with half a plan,
an extra handkerchief, and Humboldt (abridged).
Here I lack only the things I do not have.
Eleven years of untimely weather,
earthquakes and fireflies and mud.
The colonel writes his complaints to the general.
The general writes his complaints to the emperor.
The emperor writes to Jesus Christ,
who damns us all.
Nous sommes les seuls français left in the world.
I came all this bloody way
to sit in a cheap café with bandaged hands.
I translate detective novels, Dr. Janvier.
It keeps me in dinero, out of trouble.
I miss only the friends I do not have.
Acrobat’s false beard.
Baritone’s false hat.
Dr. Janvier is my “real name”.
Agents of the crown.
Out here in the colonies
we’re all just cousins.
Acrobat says: we are cleared for flight.
Je Vous Écris du Bout du Monde
Damn these fevers. Damn these speechless days.
Damn my old friends.
Damn my gambled treasures.
My frogsuit of jade.
My eighteen leopards.
My pretty crown of thorns.
There are only twenty-nine hours in every day,
only sixteen months in a year,
I only have twelve lives.
Damn this country, pretty on the map,
frontiers of crinkled scarlet.
There are too many wrong countries in the world.
I did not invent the magic lantern.
I did not invent the hot-air balloon.
There is only one day in every day.
My Beautiful Friends
My dears, honest people, customs guards,
lawyers, joiners, engineers,
bakers, cub reporters, aunts and thieves,
senators, our hero, artists, quacks,
shysters, muggers, doctors, Portuguese.
My beautiful famous friends.
In those days all the spies were trained as poets.
I mean the other way around.
We were all trained in stagecraft and explosives,
metrics, marksmanship, cryptics, and poisons.
Aliases. Astronomy. Crown of thorns.
What use these grammars now?
In this wrong country,
in these wrong days.
The title of my memoir is Spilt Milk.
My beautiful harmless friends,
do not feel comforted,
do not feel saved.
Still, still, the same, the same.