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
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
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
or a lover, not
She was not
the wife of
to the Russell
to the oeob.
she said one day.
the White House,
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.
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.