“Abacus” by Ricardo Pau-Llosa

Ricardo Pau-Llosa


Havana 1933, 1954, Miami 2002
for Nicolás, the last of the Cubans

“Melancholy is a sin, really it is a sin, instar ominum, for not to will
deeply and sincerely is sin, and this is the mother of all sins”
—Kierkegaard, Guilty/Not Guilty.

They were dancing on the roof of the house
next door, flames leaping from the windows,
in the calm metronome of a danzón,
or maybe the mob were clicking their heels
savagely, not, therefore, a dance properly,
but a sudden shaping of flesh to the clay
of vengeful joy. A boy of eight is straying
the opulent streets to amaze at the inkness
of blood on pavement, how it oils the asphalt
into mat provinces the body has seized,
imperial of just dead space, as it quietly fell,
broke and rag turned. The boy had never heard
such silence on this street. Now a grandfather,
Nicolás Quintana is writing his memoirs.
He’d build some of Cuba’s vanguard homes and buildings,
later, decades between this ancient day Machado fell
when Nicolás, then a boy, saw the swarm waltz
on the neighbor’s roof, and he pondered their arms
curving and legs jerking straight, bodies spun
as if they’d caught or were still trying to net
the incomparable fish of history. He knew
he’d always fall for the narrow joys. After his tale,
in my living room sixty-eight years after the dance,
I dreamt I had been a man the year of my birth,
forty-eight years ago, and chaos fired up
the schooner wind, whipping wave, slamming
the keel against surf. My new woman on deck,
sunglassed, trim and linened. Filling with liquor,
she might be the muse of history.
She of the Italian scarf flitting in the acetylene wind
of the Gulf stream. We’d be heading back to port
in Havana, to more rum and the climax of air
conditioning, but now she reclined like a tongue
between the lip of clouds and the jaw of cushions,
and tasted the blood metallic sea spray on her face.
Havana sparkled behind her in late fifties summer.
Gleamed like a trumpet just polished. Her turboprop
for New York leaves in the morning. A decade from now
it will be too late to live and too soon to remember.

from Rattle #22, Winter 2004


Ricardo Pau-Llosa: “Poems are the seduction of oneself that seeks to seduce others. The personal, the historical, and the imaginative are domains of the mind that converge only in the creative act. All three must be present. I write to savor the pleasure of that internalized horizon.”

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