Fish tales

This entry is part 42 of 42 in the series Antiphony: Paul Zweig


I have been reading Paul Zweig, and responding to his poems with poems of my own. On Sunday, I mistakenly wrote that the eponymous “Eternity’s Woods” was the last poem in that section of Zweig’s Selected and Last Poems, forgetting that there was one more (and hoping, I guess, to make an end of it). Oddly, my poem in answer to “Eternity’s Woods” seems to anticipate the forgotten final poem, which follows. See here for details on this experiment in responsive reading.

The End Circulates in the Wide Space of Summer
by Paul Zweig

We hardly speak.
You have been here so long
You are like another leg or arm.
We trot across the ice,
Approach the book, and enter it.

[Remainder of poem removed to avoid violating copyright]

* * * *

The Fish Swims Under the Mountain of the World

Sunrise, & the wren’s song bubbles
up from his feet. He dances on the wall
as the ridge turns crimson. Watching from
the window, I feel the heaviness in my chest
lifting like a field stone flipped by the plow,
turning its unmarked cheek toward the harrow.
This world was never a text. With the spring
plowing, arrowheads swim to the surface
of the field adjoining the large sinkhole
down in the valley where an underground stream
briefly exposes itself to view. You can follow it
back under the bedrock in growing darkness,
hunching farther & farther over until you’re down
on all fours & the water meets the ceiling
with a final gurgle. I think of this whenever
the sky in a poem shivers under the knife
of a wing. Some hide is forever being flensed.
Practiced fingers turn the outside in,
or pull & sever a slick fish-shape from
the mother of flint. What flesh did those stone
points seek, so near the valley’s own gullet?
The hunters left no record on the cave walls
that hundred-year floods wouldn’t have erased,
but elsewhere, a few pecked images remain:
dream creatures carved on riverside cliffs, or
on the spines of ridges hundreds of miles long,
these sinuous swimmers. Yesterday morning,
I walked the ridge crest as far as the gap
& stood watching the sun shimmering on the river
& glancing off the windshields of trucks
in the quarry beyond, back-lighting
their plumes of yellow dust. In a month
& a half, this view will vanish behind
a screen of leaves, & by midsummer,
the field next to the cave will be thick
with the rustle of corn, product of 8,000 years
of continuous editing. I come home to
the blank page with my gaze full of distances,
thinking of a fish buried under a hill
so the Three Sisters – Squash & Beans & Corn –
can sing their names into memory another year,
the pattern of scales replicated in the grain.
I too used to garden that way,
& could again. It’s spring. The first
mayflies are rising. Something leaps.

The song sparrow’s song

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As I headed out on a walk this morning, I snapped a picture of this male song sparrow (Melospiza melodia) in full throat. Song sparrows hold forth virtually year-round, but in my family, for some reason, we tend to typecast them as prophets of eternal spring. For example, in her book Appalachian Spring (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1991), my mother noted under March 13:

Song sparrows are almost always with us, but March brings them in to pack their breeding territory as tightly and as early as possible. Despite the weather, which today was hazy and cold, they all proclaimed, “Hip-hip-hurrah, boys! Spring is here!”

Mom claims she got this mnemonic from an old National Geographic record. I’m here to tell you it’s not widely attested in the popular literature. But someone named Tomm Lorenzin has compiled a helpful BirdSong Mnemonics page that includes our family’s favored onomatopoeia (albeit with an extra hip) alongside two others: Maids-maids-maids-put-on-your-tea-kettle-ettle-ettle (the mnemonic Thoreau preferred), and Madge, Madge, Madge pick beetles off, the water’s hot.

As Dave Berry would say, I swear I’m not making this up.

I try to avoid reading music criticism as a general rule. The following passage from the Birds of North America Song Sparrow monograph (No. 704, Peter Arcese et. al., Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Academy of Natural Sciences, 2002) wouldn’t seem out of place in the liner notes for some old Eliott Carter record:

Song a varied series of 2-6 phrases; 3 or 4 phrases common. Introductory phrases usually with 1-20 pure notes or complexes, but [Citations omitted.]

One nifty thing about song sparrows is that, unlike with many songbirds, the human ear can easily distinguish between the songs of individual birds. Considering the abundant variations within a single bird’s repertoire, and the variations between the many regional dialects, there’s no wonder birders can’t agree on a single onomatopoeic interpretation. But the “spring is here” business may not be pure fancy. I think Frank Chapman (Bird-Life: A Guide to the Study of Our Common Birds, D. Appleton and Company, 1910) captured the essence of it in his description of what was then known as Melospiza fasciata:

His modest chant always suggests good cheer and contentment, but heard in silent February it seems the divinest bird to which mortal ever listened. The magic of his voice bridges the cold months of early spring; as we listen to him the brown fields seem green, flowers bloom, and the bare branches become clad with softly rustling leaves.

So hip-hip-hurrah, boys and girls – and Happy Equinox!

Woods and water

This entry is part 41 of 42 in the series Antiphony: Paul Zweig


I have been reading Paul Zweig, and responding to his poems with poems of my own. This is the next to last poem in the third (“Eternity’s Woods”) section of Zweig’s Selected and Last Poems, followed by my response. See here for details on this experiment in responsive reading.

Eternity’s Woods
by Paul Zweig

I have come to this house
Of soft angular stone, wondering
How much must fall away before I have nothing.

[Remainder of poem removed to avoid violating copyright]

* * * *


I have sought to borrow inspiration
as others borrow comfort
from strange lovers. Let me

press my ear, I said, against
the scallop shell at the base
of your throat. Let me hear

the throb of the surf, & dream
of ships. What were we
talking about, again? I caught

nothing but a swallowed sob,
a corrosive drip. Compostela
remained a day’s walk away from
the Cape of the End of the Earth,

which was of course pure hype.
Right here in the hollow
where I grew up, I have heard
water trickling under the rocks,

& once my brother & I even dug
for it, four feet down through
a jumble of sandstone. When
we quit, the water sounded

just as loud as it had before
we started. I used to search
for a clearing in the woods
where, when the wind stopped,

the only sound would come
from a hidden spring. But
I didn’t want it ever to be found,

not even by me. Solitude
has since become my deadliest habit.
I don’t know what I am doing

here, talking to a dead poet as if to
my better nature, dreaming of poems
that would taste as good as water.


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In revisiting a too-brief response to a comment from Maria about light (in reaction to Friday’s post on angels), I thought of radiation: a broader and more ambiguous concept than light. It came into my head because I had just been reading the headline story about new discoveries based on studies of cosmic background microwave radiation. After editing my comment, I remembered Sandra McPherson’s second book of poems, Radiation (Echo Press, 1972), and got it off the shelf. It begins with the following epigraph (translated by McPherson, I imagine, since no credit is given in the Acknowledgements). I hadn’t read this in at least five years, and was startled to see an idea I had thought to be my own (“we are what exceeds us,” e.g.) given such complete and eloquent expression. I don’t know the exact provenance of it, but as the online quote sites demonstrate, Paul Valéry was a brilliant epigrammatic thinker.

The color of a thing is that one which, out of all the colors, it repels and cannot assimilate. High heaven refuses blue, returning azure to the retina. All summer long the leaves hold in the red. Charcoal gobbles all.

To our senses things offer only their rejections. We know them by their refuse. Perfume is what the flowers throw away.

Perhaps we only know other people by what they eliminate, by what their substance will not accept. If you are good, it is because you retain your evil. If you blaze, hurling off sparkles and lightnings, your sorrow, gloom and stupidity keep house within you. They are more you, more yours, than your brilliance. Your genius is everything you are not. Your best deeds are foreign to you.

– Paul Valéry

Concerning the angels

Favored first prodigies, creation’s darlings,
mountain ranges, peaks, dawn-red ridges
of all genesis, – pollen of a flowering godhead,
links of light, corridors, stairs, thrones,
spaces of being, shields of rapture, torrents
of unchecked feeling and then suddenly, singly,
mirrors: scooping their outstreamed beauty
back into their peerless faces.
– Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies (Edward Snow, tr.)


They are the leaves,
leaves destroyed because they wanted to live forever,
because they didn’t want to think for six moons about what makes a wasteland,
because they didn’t want to know why a drop of water insists on hitting a naked skull already nailed to bad weather.
– Rafael Alberti, Sobre los ángeles (Mark Strand, tr.)


As for me, I prefer the trees. But many are those who long for more anthropomorphic channels between earth & sky, who nurse a wordless craving for some being of light to precipitate out of solution & stroke their head – good dog – & clothe them in garments as full of the atmosphere of another world as any spacesuit.

I prefer the complex currents of the human or animal face. Reflections seen in still water are both greater & lesser than what they reflect: greater because of the invisible life that swarms within them & the bubbles of methane, lesser because – well, you know…

Tree: the very sound of the word directs our thoughts to the topmost twigs. Limbs, trunk – the homology with the human body suggests either headlessness or inversion, unfinished business or a fall from grace. But at the end of a wind-thrown tree one sees only rocks & soil gathered in a clutch of roots: a losing hand. There was never any inversion; there was never a mirroring. Again & again we mistake the messenger for the message. (What message?)

As for me, I prefer the fruit. The blossom is so urgent, so full of future. Think of the crimes it has licensed with its wasp-thin song of love & death. Long after the clouds of scent have dissipated, the limbs bend alluringly under the weight of sugar.

Bark. Skin. Scales. Feathers. Chitin. Fur. Moss. Lichen. Grass. Heath. Forest. Tree. Bark.

As for me, I prefer fat. Skin, bone & muscle all have their acolytes, but if the body stays confined to its barracks, who will fight the endless war on supper? Go tell your guardians of perfection: We are what exceeds us.

Magic 101

Do you believe in God? A lot of people consider this a meaningful question.

But how you choose to answer it, I’m thinking, tells me much less about your general worldview than your response to another, more basic question: Do you believe in magic?

I do.

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Oh, not the Gandalf and Harry Potter kind where you wave a wand or utter a spell and achieve measurable, verifiable results. If that kind of magic could be shown to exist, it would become indistinguishable from any other science-based technology – and thus it would become boring. To me, at least. In any case, it would forfeit all claims to magic. Magic must be mysterious, or it’s nothing.

The kind of magic I believe in is, I suppose, virtually indistinguishable from so-called ordinary life on a good day. It’s the way things appear if they can be seen without some of the myriad barriers, veils and filters we use to project the illusion of a separate self. It’s the way things look under the influence of a bit of cannabis or a stretch of meditation: wonderfully strange, a little eldritch, perhaps, but beautiful in their profusion of possible meanings, their lack of clear boundaries.

Things that can’t be spoken of without in some way diminishing them would all be examples of what I’m calling magic. You know what I’m talking about.

I like to maintain that there are two basic kinds of thinking necessary to sane and healthy living: analytical thinking and magical thinking. The first is reductive, and partakes of the logic of discrimination, based on what Aristotle called the Law of the Excluded Middle: x can’t be both x and not-x. The second is dialogic and intersubjective, and involves one in a logic of participation.

One way of thinking doesn’t need to be wrong in order for the other way to be right, though seeing any given problem or phenomenon both ways at once will likely give rise to paradox, due to the inherent limitations of language. The urge to persist in creating symbolic representations uniting the two has given rise to myths and rituals, through which – as Levi-Strauss once noted – one tries to grasp the world as a synchronic totality. Thus, for someone with a religious mindset, like me, magical thinking ultimately prevails.

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But I think it’s important to remember that minds come in many different varieties; a fundamentally analytic worldview can just as easily lead one to perceive beauty, order, and goodness. At root, the distinction between magical and analytical thinking may be an artificial one – who knows? I suspect that each may be the best antidote to too much of the other. To be human is to inhabit that paradox so succinctly voiced in the opening chapter of the Daodejing: “Free of desires, one observes secrets; having desires, one observes boundaries.

“These two are ultimately the same,” Laozi proclaimed. See what I mean?

Or is that just so much mumbo-jumbo?

Questions for St. Isidore

Does the glass cactus bloom for a velvet bee?

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If our days are numbered doors, does each door open on a different life?

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Why did the coyote cross the road?

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When they’re alone together in the broom closet, do the dust mop and the vacuum cleaner ever do the dirty?

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Why must the poor always give more than the rich, who regard every gift they receive as a payment justly due, and every payment they owe as an unmerited gift?

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Take a lesson from a Slinky: is life really an upward spiral, or a measured series of descents, ending in a snarl?

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If you have too much time on your hands, does it spread down your arms like a luxuriant pelt?

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Why should one walk the golden street in slippers? Why not in boots?

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St. Isidore is the patron saint of the Internet.

The Mayor of Niafunke

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Gwari women in the Sahel (photo by Abdul-Walid)
“What is wrong, my love? It is you I love.
Do not be angry, do not cry.
Do not be sad because of love.”
– Ali Farka Toure, “Diaraby”

I was in Ghent last week when I heard that Ali Farka Toure had died. I was calm and sad. I went into the living room and told my hosts that a great man had left life behind. Though they were fans of world music, they had not heard of him. But perhaps they saw in my eyes something of his spirit, because when I came down to breakfast the next morning, no one was in the room but Ali Farka Toure was singing. My hosts had gone out and bought Talking Timbuktu that very morning. It was a rainy day in Flanders, but in Northern Mali, and all across the Sahel as far as Abuja, a great dust storm was whipping around the funeral cortege of the late mayor as it moved towards Niafunke.

I first started listening to Ali twelve years ago, when Talking Timbuktu was released. Two years earlier, a friend of mine had driven me to a record shop and, in great excitement, had bought me a new disc. That CD was called Meeting by the River, and it featured Ry Cooder on a modified slide guitar and Vishwa Mohan Bhatt on a modified vina. As I listened to those musical dialogues, I was awed by the depth of the relationship between the two master musicians. So, looking for lightning to strike twice, I bought Ry Cooder’s next album when it came out.

It was an amazing audio document. There was no surprise at all when it went on to win a Grammy that year. And it caught the crest of something called “world music,” introducing many people to the musical riches of far-off places like Mali. For me, it was the sound of the spirit: Talking Timbuktu made me homesick for Africa, though the music it contained had nothing directly to do with the part of Africa I came from. In fact, a Nigerian friend used to tease me – “You’re listening to that Hausa music again!” What he meant was that the music evoked the agrarian, Sahelian world that both Northern Nigeria and Northern Mali had in common, the world of syncretic Islam and the cultures of the Mande, the Fulani, the Peul, the Hausa. It had, in other words, nothing at all to do with me, a Southerner, a Christian, a Yoruba.

And yet, playing “Soukora�? (track two) over and over again, I found in it something that had everything to do with me. I didn’t know what the words meant – still don’t – but I knew there was something in the music that was deeply relational. I was hooked. A sizable proportion of my income began to go toward music from all over the world. Much of that music was from Africa, especially Mali: Oumou Sangare, Habib Koite, Afel Bocoum, Kandia Kouyate, Salif Keita, Toumani Diabate and, of course, the great Djemilady Tounkara. It was the league of heroes. A private passion was born.

When, a few years later, the opening bars of “Diaraby�? (track ten) became a signature riff on the public radio show The World, I was pleased and irritated at the same time. This was my album being broadcast to millions daily, without due attribution or respect, used as the theme for a geography quiz – and not a particularly difficult one, either. How dare they cannibalize a masterpiece for such a humdrum purpose? I had all the intolerance of a fresh convert, but in truth I secretly grew to love this modest representation of my world in the wider world. Ali’s music was everywhere. Maybe even in the White House, it had climbed in through the windows and shot the President precisely where he most needed it.

I was living in London at the end of the last century and that was when Ali Farka Toure released Niafunke, named after his home village. I bought it right away, along with Afel Bocoum’s Alkibar, which had been recorded at the same time, in the same village, by the same crew. Both were gorgeously produced, released on the Nick Gold and Jerry Boys label World Circuit.

I loved Niafunke, but wondered – could anything really compare with Talking Timbuktu? Was there any sound on God’s earth that could measure up to the final bars of “Gomni,” when Ry Cooder and Ali Farka Toure restate the song’s theme in an almost unparalleled harmonic union of guitar lines that makes the hairs stand up every single time? Could the pained longing expressed in “Ai Du�? have an equal on any other album?

I had my answer soon enough, when Ali Farka Toure came to play at the Barbican. Ticket prices were steep, by my impoverished student standards: ₤20 per person, and it was double for me because I had invited a friend along. But what a night! Before the concert, Habib Koite had been playing in the lobby, which was apt preparation. The hall was packed. Ali Farka Toure, dark and authoritative, cracked jokes from the stage and put us at our ease before the concert started. And then, the wall of sound: Hamma Sankare was a monster on the calabash, that humblest of percussion instruments; Afel Bocoum, appearing with his mentor of thirty years, was in fine voice; and the master himself, from whose guitar glistening chords unfurled on song after beautiful song. Occasionally, he would take the stage alone with his njarka and do what can only be described as calling out to the spirits. And they came, filled the Barbican to the rafters. The Londoners were awed, shaken. This was “early music” in the best sense of the word, sounds that took us back to something we might once have known.

Soon after, I finally penetrated the mystery of Niafunke. It had become clear to me that the somewhat glossy perfection of Talking Timbuktu had been jettisoned here in favor of a rawer energy. The grooves were similar, but the guitar crackled with electricity. The ambience of the recording was noticeably warmer: it was recorded in an abandoned schoolroom in Mali, not a high-tech Los Angeles studio. In fact, if there’s any flaw with Talking Timbuktu, it’s this relative lack of ambience. But to speak of Talking Timbuktu and Niafunke in this way – not to mention The Source and In the Heart of the Moon – seems almost sinful. These albums all deserve six stars out of five. Soul runs through them all. I just don’t get those “world music” snobs who dismiss albums like Talking Timbuktu because a white guy plays on it, or because it’s not tinny and scratchy like the recordings from the seventies for Radio Mali. Who cares who plays on it? As Duke Ellington said, “If it sounds good, it is good.”

In those days, I played Niafunke everyday, along with my other favorite at the time, the album of kora duets by Ballake Sissoko and Toumani Diabate called New Ancient Strings. Once, I was sitting in the university library listening to Niafunke through my oversized headphones, when a young European woman I had been trying to attract came over and sat with me. What a wonderful opportunity, I thought.

I placed the headphones over her ears and cued up track four, “Saukare.�? Ali Farka Toure learned this song in 1946, at a wedding, and it has a deep, alien sound, nothing like one might hear growing up in, say, Trondheim. In retrospect, this was most certainly not the song to draw a first-time listener to the man’s music: it’s just Ali singing, accompanied by the njarka, a single drum, and a chorus of two other voices as unsweetened as his. In any case, I explained to this Norwegian with her bright blue eyes that the song was about an ardent groom, that he was promising to bring his bride the finest bull in the herd as proof of his love. I suppose I thought this was just the thing to make her fall madly in love with me, but it didn’t seem to have the intended effect. She listened to the song politely, completely mystified. After that, we would exchange awkward hellos whenever we encountered each other in the hallways of the school.

Since then I’ve learned to temper my enthusiasm, at least in public. In private, different rules apply: “Roucky” from the 1993 release The Source still makes me feel like I’m in the best church possible; “Sambou Ya Ya” from the new release In the Heart of the Moon still speaks deathlessness into my skeptical spirit; “Gomni” – the version on Talking Timbuktu – still makes me cry. They are the work of a man who, in his generosity, in his fierce superstitions, was utterly unlike me. And yet, if I am not in such music, I am nowhere at all.

The day Ali Farka Toure died, and a day before I found out about it, I happened to hear his music. It was a Belgian television show about AIDS in Kenya, following the story of a woman who, after living in the Netherlands for a long time, went back home to help educate her fellow Kenyans about the disease. “Why Ali Farka Toure?” I asked my wife, greatly annoyed. “It makes no sense, using West African music to illuminate an East African film! They’re always trying to pull this crap, thinking no one would notice.” My wife, a genius at handling my overreactions, said nothing.

I kept watching the film, which used fragments of different songs from Niafunke: here a bus journey in the dusk, there a scene from a mountain looking out over the slums outside Nairobi. Eventually, I had to admit that it was a perfect fit. The music went along with the images, because both were about what all good art is about: being there, being present to what is, serving mystery and the visible. I like to think that the sound of “ASCO” entered my ears that evening at the very moment that Ali Farka Toure’s spirit was leaving his body, a thousand miles away.

The great Sahelian dust storm has settled for now. Ali Farka Toure, monsieur le maire de Niafunke, is gone. But his way of being in the world will continue to speak life to many, and this surely is one way of not dying.

ALI FARKA TOURE: a recommended playlist
(all available on iTunes)

1. Roucky (The Source)
2. Gomni (Talking Timbuktu)
3. ASCO (Niafunke)
4. Saukare (Niafunke)
5. Sambou Ya Ya (In the Heart of the Moon)
6. Cinquante Six (The Source)
7. Soukora (Talking Timbuktu)
8. Diaraby (Talking Timbuktu)
9. Howadolo (In the Heart of the Moon)

Also, don’t miss the tribute by Lucy Duran and Andy Kershaw on BBC Radio 3.

Used by permission. All rights reserved by the author.
See also The grass snake.

—Abdul-Walid of Acerbia

The owl’s insomnia

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Standing in the shower on the morning after we went to see the snowy owl, I found the words to one of Rafael Alberti’s many poems called “Canción” running through my head:

Si my voz muriera en tierra,
llevadla al nivel del mar
y dejadla en la ribera.

Llevadla al nivel del mar
y nombradla capitana
de un blanco bajel de guerra.

Oh mi voz condecorada
con la insignia marinera…

I couldn’t quite remember the last few lines, so after my shower, on my way out to the porch, I grabbed my bilingual edition of Alberti’s poems, selected and translated by Mark Strand: The Owl’s Insomnia (Atheneum, 1982).

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Insomnia? Well, perhaps so. What else might explain the amazing persistence of this Arctic vagrant, a veritable capitana de un blanco bajel de guerra shipwrecked in Central Pennsylvania on one of the mildest winters on record? For a month and a half he has sat implacably at one of several locations along a stretch of interstate highway near Rockview state prison, with meal breaks presumably consisting of meadow voles and other rodents. With all the traffic roaring past, not to mention the steady stream of admirers like us, one can well imagine he might be suffering from some form of insomnia – whatever that would mean for an owl. For most of this time here there’s been no snow cover to speak of, though the ground inside cloverleaf interchanges might be nearly as barren as the frozen tundra.

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This past Saturday, the temperature was in the low sixties, and the owl huddled in the meager shade afforded by the concrete entrance to a culvert, described as his favorite spot in the birders’ listserve. I felt as if we had come to pay our respects to some avian anchorite of great holiness. My brother pointed out the heavy bars on the culvert, no doubt intended to seal off a potential hiding place for escaped convicts. The owl’s eyes were never completely open, nor did they ever appear to shut all the way. He slowly pivoted his head as other cars parked on the shoulder of the exit ramp and more visitors emerged. We were at first surprised by the demographics, which included two different sets of mother-with-daughter-aged 10-12. “Hedwig!” Steve exclaimed, ever the authority on popular culture. “They’re here to see Hedwig!” Apparently a snowy owl by that name is featured in the Harry Potter books and movies.

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A raven suddenly flew in low over our heads, and we noticed a pair of horned larks fluttering around on the cloverleaf tundra within fifty feet of the owl. Less than a mile away, the state’s official execution chamber awaited its next victim and hundreds of modern-day slaves toiled indoors and out, under the assumption that Arbeit macht frei. It was eerie. During the whole twenty minutes we kept up our vigil, the owl never stopped looking like an apparition:

sobre el corazón un ancla
y sobre el ancla una estrella
y sobre la estrella el viento
y sobre el viento la vela!

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*Here’s my translation of the poem by Rafael Alberti.


If my voice should die on land,
carry it down to the sea
and leave it on the shore.

Carry it down to the sea
and make it captain of a white
ship of war.

Oh my voice, decorated
with the emblem of a sailor:
over the heart an anchor,
and over the anchor a star,
and over the star the wind,
and over the wind the sail!