Buscando America

after Rubén Blades


In 1984 I knew enough not to look for America. And I should know enough now not to make her a woman. But kidnapped and gagged she was gone. Each morning I walked through Lafayette Park on my way to work: a gallery on M Street, the back room filled with women bent over forms and certificates, calligraphers charged with commemorating America’s public servants: 10 years at hud, 25 at State. I delivered all over town, the Hoover Building or Treasury, a dozen each day to epa, then out to the Pentagon where Anthony, every time, waved his wand in a lazy S around my bag and body and laughed: “Go ahead, little brother, take your paper gold watches to the sad folk in Accounting.”




When someone disappears

it’s usually the teeth

the family hopes to find.

When America was carried off

into the night

she left behind

her shadow like a blanket

to cover the dead.

And we’re measuring

the femur.

And we’re testing the ragged fringe

for blood, a foot

exposed like Florida

dangling from her body.

Even Castro has forgotten

what she looks like,

though he sends her his refugees

and stowaways,

flares testing the depth of sky,

a rocket’s red glare.




While America was gone we named our national airport for a beloved despot, elected the lesser son of a minor spy, himself a slender pretender, a doorman given the keys. I woke one day with my hands tied behind me, was told to walk to West Virginia without looking back. But I couldn’t help it. And when I saw her face like an empty cage, her voice a thrush flying out in front of her, I knew America had not returned, though she was close enough to touch, my hands still bound. And she said out loud without speaking: “Why are you still looking for me?”




She was not

my mother

or a lover, not



to Bogotá.

She was not

the wife of

a Venezuelan


lining up

the orders

each morning:

five certificates

to the Russell


another three

to the oeob.

“And here,”

she said one day.

“Take this

to America,”

by which

she meant

the White House,

where room

after room

stood empty,

where voices

spoke from

vacant chairs

and silhouettes

filled the windows.




Estoy buscando America, a vinyl promise

becoming a prayer. But when I find her

I’ll deliver that last gray certificate,

its dates incomplete like the headstone of a widow

waiting to die.

In 1984 the world was an eyelash

from flames, a caught breath from the silence

within the blast. And America was missing.

Today we’re waiting still; we’re holding her robe

and listening for the song she always sings,

a spiritual without words, though everyone,

hat in hand, sings along.

About James Harms:

James Harms is the author of seven books of poetry including Comet Scar, to be published by Carnegie Mellon University Press in 2011. He is a recipient of an nea fellowship, the pen/Revson fellowship, and three Pushcart Prizes, among other honors. A Professor of English at West Virginia University, he also directs the low-residency mfa program in poetry at New England College.