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Siren Song, or, The Open Veins of Latin America

2004, Julian Cardona

When I opened my eyes Ursa Major was rearing up, or standing on her head upon the brightening horizon, just beyond my windowpane, just a few steps beyond my right eye.

& late in the wee hours the stars, all of them, spilled over me with a sound like a cascade of pearls

upon on an unmade bed.  Some mother’s pearls let us say.  But the waning moon was crisp, with the strange & diffident purposefulness of energetic young matrons, the kind who put me in my place, whatever that is.  Who do it without even trying. The moon seemed to know & want to stay exactly where she was: pinned, like us, as John Wieners had it, “in the dilemma of dying.”

Or she seemed to belong to an unmolested season, let us say, & why not. Suppose her house is the one innocent house, the one house of propriety & duty in the whole of this martial & simple, dearly welcome season.  When April has otherwise bathed everyone in such liquor--

& I forgot that it’s tax day.

Does it matter.  & does it matter that I also forgot it’s the moon & us that move & not the stars at all.

To what do I owe the extreme pleasure of this surprising visit

I mean who owes you.  & who says you owe.  & whom do you owe.

It’s good to write with the birds starting up.  I like to listen to them scream.

A few weeks ago I was drinking with a beautiful old woman.  A bunch of us were.  Everyone says an old woman is beautiful, but this woman is a beautiful woman, a great beauty of considerable age.  She told me the numbers in my name are wrong & that it’s time I changed it.  You’re my dream come true I answered.

After that she told me a few more things, some more right than others.  Then she said, So I’ve heard that you know things: tell me something about me, I’m listening.  I don’t go around knowing things but I might’ve learned one lesson: listen to the question that asks in your head.  Tell me about your chin, I said.  It’s a noble chin out of old Hollywood, a rare & pugnacious John Barrymore chin.  Is the French word menton?  Which makes me think of mouton, lamb, baby ram.  I was just saying not two hours ago how I’ve always wanted to tattoo a blue stripe down the middle of my chin, she said, because I used to spend a lot of time with Tuareg people, I loved my time with them, I miss them & they do that, you know.

I do know, I said.  What could I possibly say?  I said, A blue stripe down your chin would make you even more beautiful, which was not gallantry & no exaggeration, not a whit.  There was some reasonable reason her friends had been counseling her against this thin blue or blue-black line down the center of her Hollywood chin.  I suppose you could always draw it, I said, but of course with all the kissing you do it would be constantly smeared.

I don’t suppose the line Johnny Cash walks is such a line. Or rather I don’t suppose it isn’t.  The line between beauty & impossible beauty, for example.  Or the line between all the love one can possibly harbor for another & the seething welter of love itself, which would & will engulf us all if we’re not too dead already to know it.  This last line, the one I just wrote, is too purple perhaps even for epitaphs.  But words have so little value these days, says something else in me, why not gild the fucking lily.

Suppose the heart were a drawstring bag & whatever the line is, if you’re watchful enough to discover it, that’s the thing by which you might pull your heart taut.  & feel it finally beating, not merely from fear or what the Elizabethans called sport, which is love, but like a bird in the hand.  A living bird.

I don’t mind April: it is often my happiest time. I like to feel my heart bomb my body while in the soil the seeds are hammering.

Since April began Walter Scott was murdered in South Carolina.

What kind of country do we live in, said someone inside me, that black men are lynched on camera.  & what kind of country do we live in that if not for that camera the killer would never be so much as held, much less convicted of crime.

The word crime is so inadequate I can’t even begin.

It’s a long time now the decisions made in a court of law, who gets locked up & why, the resolutions arrived upon via so-called democracy, & the recommendations of the FDA, the DEA, the considerations of Homeland Security & FEMA, the safety measures of the TSA mean less & less, & the less they mean the more they bloom: a metastasizing lunacy.  But lunacy’s too good a word for it.

About a week ago I now discovered the writing of Charles Bowden.

You may already know him.

For a week I’ve been wondering, how will I write for The Poetry Foundation, I said I would write for The Poetry Foundation, & with all that I do write the thought of putting anything on the internet ever again still fills my mouth with ash.  I’ve lost all desire to publish & even more, all desire to perform.

For now anyway.  For now.

Nature loves to hide, wrote William Blake.

For a week I’ve been falling in love with the prose of Charles Bowden.  He’s probably best known as a fearless reporter on Juarez & the lore of the border.  But it turns out he is also, & at all times, a great nature writer, a psalmist of the pit, a sober witness & a man who did his job.  I marvel that he was never struck dumb by things he saw.

He did some things too.  That would strike others dumb.

It’s been a long time since I marveled at the worth of even speaking.

It’s been a long time since I encountered a writer of such dignity.  Many people stare coldly into shit, I mean we all do it, we do it every day.  But I don’t know where I’ve read prose so greathearted it can describe the worst with such uncrazed warmth.  Or rather the great understanding it takes to go actually crazy in direct proportion to the impossible truth. Everywhere in his writing you can feel his heart beating.

This one made my heart pound.

Thinking back on a movie whose title escapes me, a movie with an all-star cast written by Cormac McCarthy, a movie so bad I couldn’t even watch it on an airplane, it occurred to me that McCarthy’s considerable gifts might have evaporated the minute he looked into the gorgonic face of Bowden’s achievement.

But that’s just a feeling.

All I know is you can feel when somebody is reaching.  In writing, you really can’t reach.

Since I discovered Charles Bowden, & Bowden isn’t even the point, it’s what pours thru him, Eduardo Galeano & Judith Malina have died.

About Judith, at least, I’ll be writing again.  Once or twice I was blessed to be in the same room with her.  What I’m trying to get at is all week while I work it’s been Victor Jara, Mercedes Sosa, Violeta Parra all the time, so that when I heard about Eduardo Galeano, whose OPEN VEINS OF LATIN AMERICA I cannot believe I still haven’t read, I understood why these songs have been obsessing me.  The cells of the internet have their way of letting you know when you’re badly badly overdue.

It took me a solid week to really feel the bitterness, the heart-melting bitterness of the thank you in Gracias a la vida, distant cousin of what Ashbery calls, somewhere in my memory of Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, that “pure affirmation that doesn’t affirm anything.”  It took me a solid week to remember what I already know.  The gorgeous, bitter irony of Merci Bon Dieu.

Bowden writes like a Faulkner & a Thoreau & a Melville, all three pups given suck by the mother of us all.  Baudelaire.  & rather "as Parmagianino did it” (JA again) Bowden swerves close, yet curves away from the absolute pit of things, & likewise into & away from their machismos, the “ditch of what each one means.

Yes Rimbaud’s there too.  The world too is round.

There’s more I could say to introduce him better.  Instead I’ve waxed purple, as though he needed another eulogist.  Google him, you’ll find eloquent ones, & people who actually knew him.

I could type some of the sentences I’ve been composing in my head.  About what Stevens called “fictive music” & the interview I found where Bowden is asked if he’s read 2666 & he answers no & explains why fiction about Juarez has no purpose for him.  A “lyric” (read: selfish) sentence or two about his colloquies with birds dovetailing my own, not to mention those of Saint Francis, for whom Santa Fe is named.

There is something majestic in his flow which is nothing like the age in which we write & live, & yet the Internet is full of him, generous with him.  When he says the word “lap dancer” before the Holy Virgin herself you can be forgiven for matching his cadence with the stylings of another time:


Have you ever drunk an American liquor & thought, I didn’t know they still made this stuff, nevermind that you’ve never tasted this stuff before.

Read everything of his at Mother Jones.

The day after the Charlie Hebdo massacre I wrote a long poem.  Free Speech alone is not a culture, it said, for one thing.

I came to the Southewest by way of Tuscon, where Bowden lived for much of his life.  I had a couple of readings there in February, & then I tried to disappear.  I have a warm & concupiscent feeling for Tuscon.  Someday soon I’d go back there & spend time.

I’ve been in need of a saint, you could say.  A saint without false pieties, but filled everywhere with reverence.  A saint justly afraid of his own heart, but not about to shirk it.

Read these:




Hell, if I were an old man I’d say, click every link in this thing.

The first thing of his I read, (with love & thanks to Bett Williams), is perhaps the most chilling thing he ever wrote, in which a Juarez hitman tells him everything:


& here’s the last thing of his I ever read, so far at least, at dawn this morning


I can’t wait to get my hand on his many books.  & now that I’m close enough to it that I can feel the world he wrote of blowing up into me from the south, & my dreams will never be the same, I can say, by way of beginning, that something other than death & taxes has made me American today.