THE OLD COUNTRY
f r a n k x. g a s p a r
My mother would never sweep at night,
would never let us sweep. The broom
rustling, she said, would bring the dead up.
There was a dance to make you shiver
on the kitchen's rotten linoleum.
I saw her cry once in rage and grief,
pour lighter fluid from the can,
a stream like piss, emptying
her life on the floor. I'll burn
this God-damned house down. We never came
from the old country to live like this.
We meant not ourselves but the os velhos,
that lean boat from Pico.
My stepfather could not calm her
and found his own rage, knowing somehow
that he had been beaten. He kicked her shins
and refused to weep as we did.
This was a house making its own ghosts.
You learn someday to lie
with your head pressed down,
to roll their old names in your hands,
the cool floor's grit on your cheek,
to call up their old country we only knew
in stories. The voices of the dead
are never what you expect, distant thunder
in the low hills, the dog's howl
at the far end of town, silence.
And this old country is any place
we have to leave. The voices
calling us back are dust.
I have traveled to the far edge
of a country now, fearing the dead.
They still want to speak with my mouth.
From The Holyoke, © 1989 ~ Northeastern University Press, Boston
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