The Poet’s Ghost by Carmen Boullosa

BOMB 105 Fall 2008
Issue 105  B105  Cover

This is a true ghost story.

I’m not an expert on ghosts, nor do I have any special gift for seeing them. I’ve only encountered two so far—not enough to warrant my lecturing you on the finer points of ghostology—but I do know that both of these were wearing clothes; of that there is no doubt. What one actually sees is the color of what they’ve got on. The one I saw in Mexico City was at the Pascoes’s house in Mixcoac, the neighborhood where our Nobel laureate, Octavio Paz, was born in 1914. He spent his childhood there, and his mother lived there her entire life, but when I saw the ghost, in the ’70s, Paz was living in another part of the city. It appeared in grays and browns. I believe it was a female, but I say that more because of the rumors I’d heard about it than for any other reason. I saw my second ghost just a few days ago, here at home in Brooklyn, on Dean Street. The ghost passed right before my eyes, a little to my left; it wore brighter colors, reds and oranges, and all I could see of it was a portion of its torso, only two or three ribs worth. I have no idea whether it was a man or woman. I was in the kitchen, I glanced over at the stove and the refrigerator, and sensed it coming up from the basement. When I saw it, it was floating in the air, vacillating between entering the kitchen or taking the hallway. It was nothing remarkable or spectacular, no big deal. I don’t know a thing about its identity. But that it was a ghost I am certain. I had felt its presence before but this was the first time it had appeared to me and I hope it was the last. I have no desire to share my kitchen with a stranger, no matter what its nature—it’s the intrusion that bothers me. I have sensed ghosts on other occasions, but it’d be a lie to say that I’ve ever interacted with one. It’s as if they were on their way from one place to another, and you could tell they were passing through by the way the atmosphere changed. The one I saw in Mexico was accompanied by a draft, not the one here at home. In any case, there’s no reason to fear them. They go about their own business, following their own routines, and couldn’t care less about us. They don’t appear with any fanfare, they come and go, and while it makes sense that they might frighten us, there’s no reason they should.

This is a story about a New York ghost who even has a name: Jan Rodrigues. I’ve heard that he wears yellow and moves slowly; you can only see part of his left arm. I haven’t had the opportunity to see or even sense him, so I’ll simply relate what I’ve heard. Jan Rodrigues was the first visitor to spend an entire summer in what today is New York City. He was left ashore by a Dutch trading vessel back in 1613. Let’s call him the first Manhattanite, because he was the one who used the word Manhattan—taken from the Native American Manna-hata—to refer to this place. There is no written record of whether or not he had a companion when they left him here, but, if he worked according to the custom of the times, he would have had one, since they usually worked in pairs. He wasn’t a pirate, but a buccaneer in the old sense of the word, as it was used in the Caribbean to designate someone who hunted animals, salted their meat, tanned their skins, and prepared their furs for trade. Buccaneers were also famous for barbecuing meat—on “boucans,” racks for barbecuing meat. Many of them did segue into piracy, but not Jan. Jan Rodrigues learned his skills where he was born, in what we now call Santo Domingo. Game abounded there: the few cows the first Europeans brought over had reproduced in the wild, and there was indigenous game too, fearful-looking wild boars and other such beasts. Manhattan was a less hospitable island, but Jan was tough. He had a way with people, and he spoke several languages. In no time he had set up trading contacts with the natives. Jan was a black and a free man; he might have been called Jan from birth (or maybe Juan, if he’d been born a slave). Some say that ghosts are people who move back and forth between the two worlds because they have died a violent death, and this might have been the case with Jan. But I can’t give you more details about his life because that’s all I know and, in any event, we need to get back to our story.

What concerns us here are two of his appearances. In the first, he manifested himself to Rubén Darío. Ah! Rubén Darío! For Hispanics he’s a literary demigod, our Walt Whitman. He was born in Nicaragua in 1867 and died in 1916, two years after Octavio Paz was born. Throughout Latin America schoolchildren learn his poems by heart. In 1915 Darío paid what would be his last visit to New York. He was in really bad shape, plagued with undiagnosed ailments. The good times with his lover Francisca were long gone. He had traveled here convinced he would earn bags of money reading poems and promoting world peace, but had been disabused of both notions. While here, he struck up a friendship with a photographer named Stanton, who specialized in capturing images of ghosts: it was in vogue at the time. Stanton organized séances and took photos of what he was convinced were otherworldly beings. Darío went to his studio a few times and participated in those séances enthusiastically.

One day, Stanton calls on Darío at his lodgings, the Casa Méndez on 14th Street (the heart of what was then known as Little Spain), and invites Darío to accompany him on a trip to Governors Island the next day. He wants to take him to a mansion inhabited by a ghost who speaks Spanish. Darío accepts, without taking into account that the winter has been as terrible as his health. The following day, shortly before nightfall, Stanton enters the tiny parlor of the Casa Méndez that doubles as a breakfast room and a bar. He’s accompanied by his favorite medium, Esther (an obese woman of indeterminate age; pale and notoriously ugly), and asks that his arrival be announced to Darío. Waiting outside in a two-horse carriage is Stanton’s assistant, a dull young man with two remarkable traits: a droopy red mustache, which is thick and glossy, and a fervent love for the medium (for him, the most beautiful sight on earth is the tiny mouth in her enormous face, her long, slightly bent nose, her swollen eyelids, and her barrel chest, which is almost entirely flat). He’s the one who has prepared and packed all the necessary equipment for the séance-cum-photo-session as well as made arrangements for their transportation and transfer at the dock. The driver has a coughing fit; one of the horses paws the street with its right hoof, snorts, and shakes his head. Stanton’s assistant waits, lost in his own world. Time passes while Darío finishes smartening up. When he’s done, he looks anxiously in the mirror. He sits on the bed. Opens the small box on his nightstand. Takes out some opium and a pipe that’s already prepared—he’s been warned against it, but that’s not our concern. He lights it, inhales. He looks lost in his own world, just like Stanton’s assistant, although much more professionally—he’s a real virtuoso when it comes to getting lost in his own world. He leans back on the pillow, forgetting that he’s recently pomaded his hair, and inhales one more time.

The boy from Casa Méndez knocks on the door and says, “Rubén Darío, sir, those waiting for you asked me to come and fetch you, they say they need to get going.” No response. The kid keeps knocking on the door; by the third time the poet responds with a drawn-out “Yeeeesssss,” shakes his head like the horse, coughs like the driver, leaves his bed and his room, and arrives in the parlor with his coat folded over his arm. Stanton impatiently helps him on with his coat and pushes him out the door into the street. It’s January and dreadfully cold. No sensible person would undertake the journey to Governors Island, unless out of dire necessity—but then again neither would anyone lean his freshly pomaded head against a pillow which is why Darío, who has dressed with scrupulous elegance (but has forgotten his hat) has a grotesque cowlick standing straight up at the back of his head. They get into the carriage, and then, as if to mess up his hair even more, Darío rests his head on Esther’s massive chest. They arrive at the dock where a small military craft awaits them a few steps past the Maritime Building. This is not official business—on the contrary, it’s top secret. Four uniformed soldiers are waiting. To Darío, who has to be pried from the medium’s chest, they look as elegant as the guards of an Ottoman sultan, though in truth their attire is nothing special. There’s no time to lose; they’re already late. The sun is about to set. With the help of the soldiers the assistant loads the photographer’s equipment, and jealously maneuvers to sit next to the hulking medium, a post he has to relinquish because although the sailors had expected four passengers, no one had told them the medium would take up enough space for two. Stanton tells his crestfallen assistant to meet them back at the dock in two and a half hours. The boat comes equipped with woolen blankets to protect passengers from the cold. No sooner are they seated than the soldiers bundle them up, even wrapping Darío’s head. They leave the dock. The cold wind cuts through them, howling.

“¡Qué frío!” Darío says from under his blankets.

“Freezing? You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!” thinks one of the soldiers whose native language is Spanish. Darío is facing the stern and in a matter of minutes feels seasick; it’s the opium, the kind you get in New York has this side effect. The evening sky is lit up in shades of peach.

Though they arrive at Governors Island in a few minutes, Darío’s mind has wandered off elsewhere; the color of the sky and the movement of the waves have carried him far away. They tie up to the dock at the back of the General’s house. The temperature is considerably lower than in Manhattan, thinks Darío, although his opiated perceptions can’t be relied upon; Esther can be trusted though, she feels the coldest of all. She’s not dressed appropriately for the weather; her winter coat is worn-out and gray, so a friend has loaned her a black velvet one. She looks quite elegant, but the coat is uselessly thin and her hat—also on loan, feather and all—doesn’t help either. Passing the imposing columns of the house’s porch, they cross the threshold and encounter a small group of officers in dress uniform, decorations pinned to their chests. It’s important to remember that Darío had frequently proclaimed that he was in New York to campaign for world peace. Yet among these high-ranking officers he doesn’t give peace a second thought—on the contrary, he shuts his eyes several times to imagine heroic scenes, their shiny swords thrusting. They look like expensive, mustachioed tin soldiers in showcases, each more handsome than the last. Who’d think about peace when looking at them? War! No matter who the enemy was—it could be the Devil, the Turks, or the Germans. Rubén Darío thinks mostly of Comanches; his opium high helps him envision them resplendent in feather headdresses, mounted on buffalo, carts wheeling around in the dust and hatchets whizzing through the air. Right now Darío’s hair looks like the down of a black chicken; you can imagine how the blanket, and the little nap on ugly Esther’s cozy chest, have wrought havoc on the cowlick he created by leaning back on his pillow.

Between his poor health, the hideous cold, and coming down from his opium high, a few minutes of formal introductions are enough to exhaust Darío. All the fireplaces in the house are ablaze and a tray of champagne circulates in the hands of a beautiful black woman. (What am I saying? Anne is downright stunning.) She looks into his eyes, smiling, and offers him a drink. Darío takes the fullest glass and downs it in one gulp. It’s refilled immediately and the poet drains it again. They walk in a group toward one of the large salons looking out over the water, while the General brags about his knowledge on aspects of the spectral subject that has brought them together today: how ghosts retain their senses of smell and taste; whether they prefer to be indoors or outdoors; whether they prefer gardens to forests, or streets to alleys; whether they are sensitive to the cold; whether they feel the need to appear to the living; whether they have feelings; if there’s such a thing as a heartbroken ghost or an angry one, blah, blah, blah. No one dares to agree with him or contradict what he’s saying; he’s the highest ranking officer in attendance and, what’s more, he’s the host.

Night continues falling. In the salon there is a round table on the right, and on the left, armchairs are arranged to afford the best possible view of both the table and the corner where the ghost is expected to appear. Six guests are seated at the table: three officers, the medium, Darío, and Anne—she has been relieved of her tray and white apron and has been positioned there as bait: Jan is black, and the General is certain he will respond to her charms (though this is ill-advised, as I suspect Jan would have been more interested—as buccaneers often were—in the attractively uniformed men in the room). The General and the others settle into their armchairs. He continues his disquisition but in a more somber tone, saying he believes he can tell who is bound to become a ghost and who is not. Cowards are not, but he does not know anyone who has died in battle who was not at least a tad cowardly. Here one of his colleagues dares to interrupt him, “But General, I would not expect a coward to cross from the world of the living to the world of the dead and back.” And a third, “I disagree, the inability to submit to the afterlife is what’s cowardly; it’s only the brave who approach the Light.”

The medium takes six little triangular boards out of her purse, one for each person seated at the table, and, interrupting the officers’ conversation, explains in a high-pitched voice how to hold the boards. They prepare to invoke Jan Rodrigues; he will appear where he always does, in the corner to the right of the windows, and they will try to lure him to the table. Before laying his hands on his board, Darío again empties his glass; the booze in his empty stomach, the aftereffects of the opium, and his delicate health are an explosive combination. He has no desire whatsoever to place his hands on the little board, he’d much rather attend to the legs of the beauteous Anne. He puts a hand on her thigh, she doesn’t say a thing. Then, to Stanton’s horror—he feels responsible since he has brought Darío here—he places the other on her breast, offending all the officers and infuriating Anne, who has the brilliant idea of giving Darío more champagne. She offers him a fourth glass, which he accepts, and this one works wonders: it glues him to his chair and leaves his hands lax, resting on his little board. The medium asks those seated in the adjacent armchairs to take each other’s hands, forming a chain. She asks everyone to repeat the name of the ghost they’re attempting to invoke: “Jan, Jan, Jan, Jan … .” According to some versions of this story, that’s when the candles blow out. Esther asks Darío to recite one of his poems “in a loud, clear voice.” Darío complies. He speaks loudly, his voice surprisingly vigorous, while the others at the table toy with their little boards. Suddenly, halfway through a line, Darío stops reciting his poem—the boards begin to move of their own accord, they vibrate, change position, and don’t stop moving till everyone’s fingers point in the same direction, toward the corner.

Here is where stories diverge. Some of those in the armchairs said Jan Rodrigues had a conversation with Darío, which they couldn’t recount because no one in the room could understand a word of Spanish (the soldier who accompanied them in the boat wasn’t there, only high-ranking officers had been admitted). Anne said that no such thing occurred, there was only a chilling breeze that froze her feet. According to Darío, the ghost just floated, silently. The General said he flew about, “birdlike.” He also affirmed that the part of the ghost that was visible was yellow, it was maybe a piece of his shirtsleeve, a loose one made of coarse cloth.

All versions of this story agree on one thing: Darío jumped up from the table, bumping it and displacing the little boards, knocking down his chair, as he leapt, literally leapt, like a young fawn, not a heavy man with short legs and no neck glutted with alcohol and excess. He leapt across the table toward the corner where the ghost Jan Rodrigues had appeared, reached the corner; screamed “I’ll eat you up!”; opened his arms; extended his hands; swept them back toward his face and clamped his palms over his mouth. In the sepulchral silence Darío sealed his lips, and a second later, fainted.

Only two images of this seemingly absurd series of movements were captured by Stanton, as Darío’s leap jostled the camera, causing it to focus on the precise point where he landed. In the first shot a part of the poet’s arm is visible and behind them there is a small light which I attribute to an imperfection in the film but which the photographer calls an “apparition.” In the second, the poet is facing the camera with mouth closed, lips sealed tightly, and eyes shut: his face an expression of ecstasy. No auras or sparks appear in the photograph. If the photographer had been able to capture the sequence of previous moments, the first exposure would have recorded Darío’s hands touching something yellow, the second would have shown him grabbing it, the third him stuffing it into his mouth, and the fourth gobbling it down in one bite. Why does Darío do this? Has his opium hangover or his appetite for Anne made him voraciously hungry? We’ll never know.

No sooner does Darío fall to the ground than the waiters light the candles and somebody asks Anne to send for the doctor. She runs, voices peal out calling for help, two boys shoot off to Doctor (and Colonel) Smith’s house, where they find him seated at supper chewing a mouthful of food. They bring him with them—his servants throw a heavy cape around him as he walks out the door. They arrive at the General’s house in a flash—giving the medium just enough time to gather up the boards—the Doctor’s last bite still sitting in his mouth (a tasty piece of venison), napkin in hand. Someone removes his cape as he enters the General’s house and stops to observe Darío lying prostrate on the floor. The color of his skin says it all: opium. He asks them to move Darío to a sofa. He moves closer and perceives the unmistakable odor: alcohol. Alcohol and opium. He announces, “Bring coffee—make it strong with lots of sugar! And hot, very hot!”

Colonel Smith thinks to himself: “This is what they interrupted my dinner for, my food getting cold so I can come save some lowlife?” But he doesn’t show his anger; he revives Darío by patting his cheeks and helping him sip the boiling, syrupy-sweet coffee, while other officers explain to him that this is the “greatest poet of the Hispanic world.” The smell of the hot, sugary coffee mixing with Darío’s thick saliva is repugnant to Jan Rodrigues, so he heads south through Darío’s digestive tract and comes to rest in the poet’s small intestine, feeling comfortable but a bit cramped. He thinks (if we can use that word here) how nice it is to be in a complete body after living who knows how damn long as a piece of an arm, itself visible only now and then. For his part, Darío revives, as if there were a revitalizing force in his gut, and this vitality suits him well; he’s spent years trying with all his might to pull his head out of the undertow of his anxiety—what a life, drowning daily, only half-living.

Stanton gathers all his paraphernalia with the silent medium’s help; they leave the house followed by Darío, and board the same boat that brought them to the island. The wind is blowing more ferociously and the water is much choppier. Esther fears it’s all over; no one knows better than she that there’s nothing on the other side—that the only ones who survive death and become ghosts are those who manage to grab onto something they value highly on this side. She knows very well that’s not to be her fate, General or no General (who, when it comes down to it, has no clue what he’s talking about), since she has no prize possessions, most of them being secondhand. She sighs, and ignores the stormy weather. The poet gazes at the stars and relishes the howling of the wind. The photographer is still in a foul mood about the botched session. The poet made him look like an idiot; thanks to Darío he’ll never be invited back to the General’s house again. They didn’t even ask them to stay for dinner! That makes him really angry. He’s an easygoing guy, but he’s had it.

Meanwhile, back on Governors Island, some of the officers begin to take friendly leave of the General’s house. Colonel Smith asks whether the photographer has taken any pictures of them. The General answers that there wasn’t enough time and the conversation moves on to other topics. It’s possible no one is aware that there’s a lightness, an unusual note of festivity in the room, but they all experience it. The salon has just been vacated by its longest-standing occupant; Jan Rodrigues had moved in when the room was built, nearly 90 years earlier. In the General’s dining room supper is about to be served. Two settings are removed from the table—Esther and Stanton’s—leaving Darío’s for Dr. Smith. As the remaining officers are seated, the former visitors arrive at the Manhattan dock with the same crew that had brought them to Governors Island.

There is no sign of Stanton’s assistant since it’s not yet the appointed meetingtime, so they decide to walk to the subway; the South Ferry stop is just around the corner. Rubén Darío is in charge of the tripod, Esther carries the camera, and Stanton juggles the rest of his equipment. They would have made a nice picture, dressed so elegantly, the obese woman shivering and tripping along in her borrowed shoes, the poet pale but with color in his cheeks. They struggle a little going down the stairs and again when they board the train. Instead of getting off at 14th Street, Darío decides to get off one stop ahead, at Christopher. He’s feeling terrific. He bids farewell to Stanton and Esther and sets off for the apartment of a lady of ill repute, Perla, whose company he’s in the mood to enjoy.

Perla is taking a nap. She is dreaming that a ghost appears to her and begs to be her pimp; she’s sick and tired of those guys who beat you up instead of protecting you, but a ghost is a ghost. She wakes up chortling, “A ghost-pimp! Who ever heard of such a thing!” Darío is about to find her in this excellent mood, but the effect of the caffeine is wearing off and he begins to feel cold and tired again. On top of that, the coffee is working its way through his system; the contractions in Darío’s gut make the ghost that the poet has eaten uncomfortable and constrained, so he tries to find an escape, flitting around like ghosts do, giving Darío terrible cramps. So there stands Darío, a stone’s throw away from the lovely Perla’s house, but how can he call on her in this state? The pain worsens. Darío leans against the wall. He can’t take another step. He doubles over, folds his arms over his belly, and presses down to ease the pain. The ghost, taking advantage of the angle and the pressure, and guided by the decreasing temperature, finds his way out of Darío’s ass, escaping as a poetic flatulence. Once free, the ghost is stunned. He’s not on Governors Island; he’s on Christopher Street—what a mess. The General was right in one respect: ghosts are creatures of habit; they don’t go anywhere unless they know where they’re going. What does he do when he finds himself on Christopher Street? He is paralyzed. He cleaves to a wall and stays there, as if he didn’t exist, as if he had never existed, as if he were nothing.

Rubén Darío, on the other hand, feels thoroughly relieved, although he’s completely exhausted. Forget about Perla, all he wants is to return to Dr. Méndez’s boarding house. He hops on the subway again and arrives at 14th Street, enters the guesthouse, ignoring the residents in the packed parlor-turned-bar, asks for the key to his room and falls into bed without even using the bathroom, rising again only to gulp down a glass and a half of water and slip on a pair of thick socks, since his feet feel like blocks of ice. He curls up in a ball and falls asleep unaware that Jan Rodrigues will color all his dreams. Exactly three hours later the poet awakens as if an alarm has gone off. But there’s not the slightest sound, the street is quiet, the hotel as silent as a tomb. It’s the middle of the night. Insomnia. Darío’s eye sockets hurt, burning. Every time he breathes the cold air in, his lungs wheeze. His larynx burns. His bones ache. As for his feet, the wooly socks aren’t helping a bit. He hasn’t realized it yet, but he needs to go to the bathroom; he should have gone before he got into bed. The clock ticks. The poet tosses and turns. He wants to go back to sleep but how can he with this pain; now his whole chest is burning. His breathing is rapid and he can’t slow it down. His eyes are so sore. He frets. What is he doing here in New York, and why are his feet so cold? This lumpy pillow. He turns and tosses. He finally falls asleep as the first rays of light streak the morning sky. He’ll awake well into midday with a high fever. It’s the onset of pneumonia which will land him in New York Hospital, where he will encounter his last muse, the nurse to whom he will entrust some poems, before leaving the city for Nicaragua, where he will die completely and forever, no doubt about it, as no one has ever alleged the existence of Darío’s ghost. Back on Christopher Street, Jan Rodrigues is where we left him, bewildered, clinging to the wall without moving. How long? For more than three decades. In ghost time, not much, pecata minuta, not even part of one of a cat’s nine lives. Thirty years? Bah!

Jan Rodrigues might have remained for all eternity just as Darío left him—immobilized, stupefied, marooned—if not for the fact that, late one night, in 1945, another one of our poets, Octavio Paz, leaves his lover’s apartment on Christopher Street after a huge blow-up. It’s 3:30 AM and he descends the stairs in anger, disillusionment, and amorous exasperation. He storms out the door and leans against the wall outside. He puts his head in his hands and tries to think—he doesn’t understand what’s happening to them, to him. How? Why? They don’t deserve this; everything was so different in Paris; ten years ago in New York they were in paradise. He accepted the post at the consulate in New York just to be near her and now they’re caught up in pure fury, animosity, it’s all wrong, and worse… . But he can’t think, let alone calm down. His ears are buzzing. He lifts his foot and kicks the wall repeatedly, exorcising his anger violently. This arouses Jan Rodrigues—the ghost begins to move and takes two steps (if ghosts can take steps) sliding past the nostrils of Octavio Paz, who lifts his head from his hands and sees, through the yellow color which he doesn’t even register, a taxi. He’s not going to miss the opportunity; he raises his hand to catch the cabbie’s attention, takes a step, opens his mouth and breathes in to be able to yell, “Taxi!” and, inadvertently, does the exact same thing Darío had done: he swallows Jan Rodrigues! He shuts his mouth and gets into the taxi; the cabbie asks Octavio something he doesn’t hear, but which certainly means, “Where to?” Where? Where should he go? Why return to his apartment on the Upper West Side? But where else can he go? He opens his mouth to say the address but can’t speak due to his anger and the slight swelling of his tongue, the effect of swallowing Jan Rodrigues. Right then Jan escapes from his mouth, falling onto the seat; Paz tells the cabbie the address and cross streets. The taxi speeds off. Jan, after not moving for eons, is full of energy, creating a whirlwind inside the taxi; the poet thinks it’s his anger, the cabbie doesn’t know what it is but he knows it’s something, so he opens the window even though the night is cold, and the ghost of Jan Rodrigues, without meaning to, flies out the crack in the window propelled by the whirlwind he has generated; he slides down the outside of the window and slips off the body of the car.

I’ve heard three different endings to this story. According to the first, the ghost’s natural magnetism attracted a nail that punctured the right rear tire of the cab. The second version has it that Jan Rodrigues continued sliding down the car and over the tire till he caught on the valve and let all the air out of it. The third says that Jan Rodrigues had nothing to do with what happened; the tire rolled over a broken bottle, was punctured, and deflated instantly. Personally, I like the third ending.

Let’s get back inside the taxi. Braced by the fresh air coming through the window and by the lightening of the atmosphere in the cab, the cabbie presses the accelerator and the poet begins to write in his head. His verses follow a music enveloping him. His words rise from deep within yet they’re in perfect harmony with his surroundings—it’s a poet thing. The flat tire adds a certain cadence to the rhythm. “Un sauce de cristal, un chopo de agua” (A willow of crystal, a poplar of water). The words follow the rhythm of the air pulsating through the window, and the thudding flat tire, “un árbol bien plantado mas danzante” (a firm-rooted tree, dancing), the rhythm is changing, getting stronger, “ola tras ola hasta cubrirlo todo” (wave after wave until all is submerged). The steering wheel is not doing the cabbie’s bidding, and he becomes aware of the flat tire slapping against the asphalt. He steps on the brake. He stops the car. He gets out, cursing in Sicilian. The poet is jotting words down in a notebook, oblivious to the cabbie’s yelling, deafened by the sound of his own verse. He puts his notebook in the pocket of his jacket. He opens the door. He looks out at the night.

Jan Rodrigues lies on the ground like so many yellowed autumn leaves. The poet steps on him with one foot, then the other, and leaves him behind. He walks; he’s still engrossed in his poem, in that fine space where he’s caught up in the symphony in his head. Meanwhile, Jan Rodrigues is once again left behind, bewildered, stunned, waiting in a strange new place where, for all we know, he remains today.

Translated from the Spanish by Samantha Schnee.

Carmen Boullosa is an award-winning Mexican writer based in Brooklyn. Her novels They’re Cows, We’re Pigs; Leaving Tabasco; and Cleopatra Dismounts, have been published in English translation by Grove Press.

Carmen Boullosa's Before, Translated by Peter Bush by Will Heinrich
187154125 09072016 Boullosa 02 Bomb 137
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“A writer worried about reception is cooking a dead book. A writer’s job is to produce the best possible book in absolute freedom, so the category ‘acceptable’ does not play in the process at all.”

Signor Hoffman by Eduardo Halfon

From the train I could look out onto the infinite blue of the sea. I was still exhausted, wakeful from the overnight transatlantic flight to Rome, but looking out at the sea, that Mediterranean sea that was so infinite and so blue, made me forget it all, even myself. I don’t know why.

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Carolyn Salas

That winter the city was full of ravens. 

Originally published in

BOMB 105, Fall 2008

Featuring interviews with Claire Fontaine, Nayland Blake and Rachel Harrison, Roman Signer and Armin Senser, John Giorno, Kelly Reichardt and Gus Van Sant, Alan Vega and Matt McAuley and Brain McPeck, Richard Maxwell and John Kelsey, Chris Lipomi and Kathryn Andrews, and Peter Cole.

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Issue 105  B105  Cover