Harry Franck, from the United States of America - Census Enumerator

I came to Panama planning to dig
the Eighth Wonder of the World,
but I was told that white men
should never be seen working
with shovels, so I took a police job,
and now I've been transferred
to the census.

I roam the jungle, counting laborers
who live in shanties and those who live
on the run, fugitives who are too angry
to keep working for silver in a system
where they know that others
earn gold.

When islanders see me coming,
they're afraid of trouble, even though
I can't arrest them anymore—now
all I need is a record of their names, ages,
homelands, and colors.

The rules of this census confound me.
I'm expected to count white Jamaicans
as dark and every shade of Spaniard
as semi-white, so that Americans
can pretend
there's only one color
in each country.

How am I supposed to enumerate
this kid with the Cuban accent?
His skin is medium, but his eyes
are green.

And what about that Puerto Rican
scientist, who speaks like a New York
or the girl who says she doesn't know
where she was born or who her parents
are—she could be part native, or part French,
Jamaican, Chinese ...

She could even be part American,
from people who passed through here
way back
in gold rush days.

Counting feels just as impossible
as turning solid mountains
into a ditch.

Margarita Engle, "Counting (Harry Franck from the United States of America Census Enumerator)" from Silver People: Voices from the Panama Canal.  Copyright © 2014 by Margarita Engle.  Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Source: Silver People: Voices from the Panama Canal (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014)
More Poems by Margarita Engle