Readings from the 40 + 1

    Four Poems

    by James Galbraith (Chile 1966–68)

        The Communist

             International understanding:
             A miner’s bar, northern Chile

      “Perdón, Meester.” In the smoke-and-wine dizziness
      before our table — dirt-caked and unshaven,
      genuflecting and bowing profusely as a tv oriental:
      “Perdón Meester, perdón Meester,
      you are norteamericano?
      I am comunista . . .
      Perdón.
      Yet I like the norteamericanos.
      I wish to shake your hand . . .
      Perdón.
      Never have I known any norteamericano.
      I have known a man once
      but not norteamericano
      from Canadá, I think.
      You know him?”

      “I don’t think so,” I say.

      Perdón. In the mines
      he was engineer, very importante.
      His name I do not remember.
      About 9 yrs ago
      he was here.
      You know him?”

      “I don’t think so,” I say.

      Perdón.
      In any case, I wish to shake your hand —
      though I am comunista. Perdón.”

      We shake hands for about ten minutes
      and everyone is silent
      until the bartender escorts him
      back to his table.

      “Perdón, Meester.”
      He looks back through the smoke:
      “Perdón, Meester.”

        Living Right in Antofagasta

      “Foolish,”
      say my colleagues at the college in New York
      but I go anyway.
      I bus 27 hrs through desert
      (diarrhea, no toilet paper)
      to Antofagasta
      with its perverted dogs
      battleground of indestructible fleas
      termites secretly hollowing every wall
      drilling holes through books
      like secret eyes
      (someday the whole city will collapse
      in a heap of powder).
      Behind the city
      mountains of brown dust
      announce the desert:
      “Life is temporary,” they say,
      “It must be given oxygen.”

      The houses of the poor shuffle from the dust
      like random cartons piled on one another.
      “These people,” says Karen,
      “they don’t live right.
      They had money for bread
      for the week
      they spent it on wine instead.
      Can you imagine?”

      Someone else doesn’t live right
      and he pays for it.
      “Arrested
      for defecating in the street,”
      the paper says,
      gives his name
      address
      everything.
      (Can you imagine!)

      Valiant taxis
      rattle like pots and pans
      doors wired on
      brewery steams away
      defying the dust with
      liquor fumes
      lit up all night
      like an army of drunks’ noses.
      at the Cafe Baquedano
      drunks in rumpled pants —
      every one a lawyer —
      borrow money
      and tell us what’s what.

      We’re always invited to
      Mario’s
      12 kids in 3 rooms
      chairs and beds circle the new tv
      in the living room
      — packed house on Saturday afternoons
      to watch westerns.
      At 35 heart trouble
      and he has to quit the police department
      now he’s a fisherman
      always fish stewing a bottle of wine
      “No matter what,” he says,
      “in my house everyone eats.”
      When his pension check arrives
      he takes the 12 kids
      wife
      grandmother
      ancient family maid from Bolivia
      everybody’s friends
      even a few down-and-outs
      all to a nightclub
      and blows it all
      like a fireworks exhibit on Sept. 18th.
      No message but the bang.
      He doesn’t live right, I guess.

      In the afternoon at the docks
      over the glaze of guano
      the smell of fish
      pelicans swoop and dive;
      we all skip work
      buy a bottle of pisco
      (it burns going down)
      lie on the dock
      and watch —
      trying to be like Mario
      but never getting it right.

        La Vida Antofagastina 1968
                  or
             How I became a poet

      When his check comes
      John pays everybody,
      buys a big box of noodles
      to live on for the month
      and is broke.
      “Nothing but noodles?”
      “I get invited out a lot,” he says.
      Brad, Lucho, Juan Carlos & I
      move in over the warehouse.
      We have no water.
      I walk to the bar next door
      & order a bucket of water.
      The bartender gives me one,
      but he doesn’t like it,
      so we economize, wash up
      over the sink,
      let the water down the open drain
      into the bucket underneath
      — you have to watch your feet —
      use that to flush the toilet.
      The landlord wants us to pay the bill.
      He comes every night and says,
      “For life, three things are needed
      First, air is needed.
      Second, water.”
      He never says what the third is.
      We don’t like him; his name is Felix.
      Someone we do like
      comes by from Bolivia
      with a bag of coca.
      We hear it makes your mouth numb,
      we never get around to chewing any
      we like our mouths
      the way they are I guess.
      I go to the movies and bring
      back a supply
      of fleas for the cat.
      He’s a kitten.
      We name him Strangler
      but it’s not funny, so
      we change the name to Mauricio
      (Paloma’s idea)
      Not funny either, but
      he keeps it, Paloma's only three.
      Now the toilet paper’s on strike;
      we meet a sailor
      who gives us some German toilet paper.
      “No wonder they started two wars,”
      Brad says, and we go out
      for a newspaper. Now the cat
      brings in a supply of fleas for me,
      and a friend through the skylight
      to eat all the tuna fish.
      I throw his friend out;
      the fleas refuse to leave.
      I pick up a bike at the office,
      we have nothing to do,
      so we wonder can we ride it down the stairs.
      “You’d go right through the wall,”
      Juan Carlos figures out.
      We picture that for a while —
      head through the splintered wall . . .
      We don’t do it.
      We do go out for some wine
      & those cigars with the chunks of wood in them;
      sometimes the smoke won’t draw at all,
      I investigate
      & always find wood,
      little pieces of wood.
      John gets the local Luckies,
      the kind the customs agent smelled.
      He said it wasn’t tobacco.
      He didn’t know what it was, oh well,
      we smoke them anyway
      & drink the wine and talk.
      The next day Ruth
      gives me her old
      typewriter and I’m
      a poet. I already
      have a table.

        Meeting Neruda

Down from the Northern Desert
into the lush South forest
lakes ringed with half-hidden chalets
the Volcan Osorno
posing for gorgeous postcards.

We spend a day in the Puerto Montt mist
waiting for the weekly boat to Chiloe
where dolphins leap
to look at us on deck.

Saturday afternoon
the rain has stopped
crowds idle out of the closing shops.
We sightsee nothing in particular
and chat.

Maria Elena, the prim librarian from Valparaiso,
who knows I like literature,
asks (theoretically)
“Would you like to meet Pablo Neruda?”

“Sure, why not?” I answer theoretically,
but she ’s gone.

Then she reappears from the crowd
hand in hand
with Neruda, an apparition from a dustjacket,
enthusiastic and earthy as his odes,
happy to meet me
collaborating with an American photographer
in Chiloe,
with its fishing villages and ancient customs . . .

When he leaves, still expansive, smiling,
(it ’s a pleasure to know me),
“I didn ’t know you knew Neruda,”
I say to Maria Elena.
“I didn ’t,” she says,
“I just thought you ’d like to meet him.”

Three days later
as we stroll down a dirt road
behind the University in Valdivia,
coming the other way,
his arm around a blond,
is Neruda.
He waves and smiles in recognition.

Ah, what a place!
Where great poets are friends with everyone!

James Galbraith taught English at the Universidad del Norte in Antofagasta. Since returning from Chile he has been teaching English and Spanish at Harford Community College in Bel Air, Maryland