Caracas is not Paris

Monday, July 15, 2013

Caracas is nothing like Paris you said. As if any place could be like Caracas. Cesar Vallejo had also lived in Paris and had died in that massive city of alleys and rancid puddles of human piss stinking up the subways. Vallejo had written about his Paris in Poemas Humanos, my own copy worn at the spine. And now here was the book again, resting on your lap, as you paused to smoke a cigarette with the ennui of a chanteuse. The café in the Latin Quarter was filled with students, most of them exiles from place like Chile and Argentina and every other country of Latin America. Yours was Venezuela, but more than that it was Caracas. Like a caress in the humid Caribbean night scented with plumerias and menaced with billy clubs—that was your Caracas you said.

Later that night the band kept playing a vallenato “Gavilan Pollero” and wine and smoke and friends and nostalgia for somewhere else, which is the purpose of Paris, the essence of that city. To feel exiled, to live exiled. Until you read Vallejo’s poem I did not understand the word. It was the dead of night, the candles out, you were on the bed, staring at the ceiling, when you recited “Piedra Negra Sobre una Piedra Blanca.”

In Barcelona years later I would recall you for no reason when I heard the stories of the executions on Montjuic during the Spanish Civil War. At the end of that night in the club, as the band put away their instruments you fell into my arms sweet as a mango in the mercado. With the others watching I circled your waist while you smiled and it seemed to me a unique occurrence, Haley’s comet prophesying the fall of Napoleon.

Vallejo died during the Spanish Civil War you said in the Louvre while you showed me the dead statues when all I really wanted was to look at you. As if Paris existed as a backdrop to your walk, sashaying across the boulevards, a red scarf around your neck, your hair in braids. You were more than anyone could ask for in one lifetime. Your voice, your words still echo in my own exile, without country or flag.

I did not believe you—believe what you said when you said you believed in the way you believed. But you meant what you said and I hope you never forgive me for doubting you.

You talked of streets that swallowed children, where rivers of sewage ran between the rows of houses and in those black waters mosquitoes thrived like flowers. And in the barrios children died daily for lack of aspirin or clean water. And right next to the most wretched hovels on earth rise magnificent palaces of marble and exotic woods where lords peer over the chaos like gods from the heaven. A city of skyscrapers and nightmares.

Guajira where your grandmother came from. Walked twenty-two days with four kids and no money to reach Caracas. But you were raised in the rich part of town, and now in Paris on a scholarship you wanted to meet someone different, someone exotic and how much more exotic can you get than a Chicano in Paris. You said.

You would recite Vallejo’s poem in the dirty rain of Paris as we sloshed our way through the Latin Quarter, one thousand years of urine staining the pavements, and the poster of Rimbaud upon which I too left my yellow trail at the feet of the queer poet. Cars rumbling somewhere, a bus honking, children shouting in the apartments, our shoes squeaking on the wet cobblestones, and above it all your voice. Your haunting voice—Me moriré en París con aguacero.

My copy of Poemas Humanos so read and reread and yet not a place mark on it, not a dog-eared page, not one fold or wrinkle on it, but worn down at the spine from the many times it has been cracked open in Paris, Mexico City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, the pages yellowed, frail, and brittle like our lives.

I remember your body on the narrow bed, the areolas of your breasts, your hair spread on the pillow, the sense of being alive—young, in Paris, sipping coffee at a sidewalk café. But you would have none of it, the harsh cigarette and your black coffee. Your tiny grotto sparse as a nun’s cell.

In a field beyond the soccer stadium dogs scavenged human bones and human fingers. You had worked with the forensic students exhuming the bodies. Whose bodies I asked. All our bodies you said. Our bodies so fragile like the dawn breaking over the llano and the parrots fleeing the first rumblings of the big cats, the jaguars, the panthers, their yawns like cannons roar, echoes of ten thousand years ago, still alive. The song “Gavilán pollero”—thirty years later I can still hear it—Gavilán, gavilán, gavilán. Te llevaste mi pollera, gavilán.

Caracas grew old and withered because you were not there.

Paris was beautiful not because it was Paris but because you were there. And Paris without you would have been dead as all the dead soldiers of World War I, when people in the City of Light died of disease and famine and those that survived ate rats. And every animal in the zoo was eaten, including the ostrich, the red foxes, the white rhinoceros, all the monkeys, and the lions. The citizen of Paris spared nothing to stay alive. It was scorched earth all the way. The army sweeping the llanos of campesinos, like the Parisians had swept clean the zoo. You couldn’t stay there in Venezuela, even though you and your country had the same name. You couldn’t stay here either—a bourgie med student on the Champs-Élyseés where your less than ice pale skin made you stand out, and children on the street pointed to your black hair in braids.

Me moriré en París — y  no me corro—Walter dead now floating like Shelley in the waters of Venice—LA that is—poet wanderer to the end, his copy of Poemas Humanos on my desk and your memory with it.

Those nights in Paris spent in your studio, somewhere I don’t remember, but do remember you, the shape of your waist, the mint taste of your mouth, your dream of Caracas like blue phantoms on the wall. You dreamt of children without hunger or tapeworms, of water without deadly amoebas, a world simple and clean for the children.

And you knew your dream was as wild and desperate as Vallejo’s dream of a free Spain in 1938 when the fascists crossed the Río Ebro and everyone knew all was lost.

The Orinoco runs through your life like a savage rain carving the land. One afternoon in the city where I live the Spanish-language television said you were killed in a shootout. You had an alias but I recognized your description. I turned off the television, the rest didn’t matter. It wasn’t in Paris that you died, it wasn’t even on a Thursday.

It was Caracas—so many years ago, so many. But I still remember how you read that night in your grotto by candlelight, by cigarette smoke, your voice filled with blood and sweat and crimes and murders and redemption of a whole continent, and finally the words you knew so well—because they were Vallejo’s, but because they were yours too. And now Vallejo’s poems linked forever to you and to Paris. Poemas Humanos yours forever in life and death and Caracas. Everywhere lovers dream of a better world you will be there, you and Vallejo. 

Tal vez un jueves, como es hoy de otoño.

Monday, July 1, 2013