In the Maria Zélia Political Prison, 1935

Paula Abramo

     one purgatory underneath another purgatory
     underneath a third
     that leads to a fourth

     the city awakes dotted with sparrows

     nearsighted crawl from sparrow to sparrow
     the last purgatory
     of the series sinks into another

     no way at all
     to light a match, but here comes the shade
     of my grandfather
     wrapped in onionskin
     and rusty keystrokes
     of writing underground

     phony addresses
     names hidden by changes of gender
     characters in heroic feats reduced
     to abbreviations
     here comes Fulvio
     to remind me
     “don’t navel-gaze”

     not navel-gazing
     the abyss
     disintegrates into morning trains
     orange car after orange car
     full of warmth
     redolent of the quick shower and the hair dryer
     organized crush
     of solidarity


     that—it too—disintegrates in turn
     into the streets, frays into stations
     disperses into officesmechanical shops
     with old clothes
     there it goes
     and strikes matches that light cigarettes
     that light
     stove tops that heat
     hurried breakfasts at obscene hours
     that light the day
     made in turn of other days
     down in an abyss of nuances unforeseen



See the imprint of a drop of liquid:
a rough ovoid stain
on yellowed paper,
now more than eighty years old,
what circumstances gathered here,
the violation of that closing command:


   “burn this letter,
   don’t keep it
   don’t hide papers
   erase, annul:
   fiat lux?”


And the fiat, in this case, would have meant
to leave no trace.
A gleam implying no choices
more a negation than a beginning.


   Meanwhile, the door bolts
   the only word they know: who?
   And that question locks away
   any chance of a meal,
   any access to the sun, any pause
   before the blow.
   Who, they ask, and in all their variety
   the verbs and their objects
   attached to that pronoun
   the bars
   the walls
   the days of the week
   of interrogation:
   who told you, who came to you, whom do you see regularly
   who gave you these books, who penned
   these handwritten


     And years ago, as a child,
     in sepia, slowly, you wielded a sharp pen
     and the pages
     filled slowly and neatly
     in preparation.


     And now here, in the dungeon, one tooth rotten
     almost like a seed that sprouts
     that shoots out a warm, fat root of pus
     toward your lungs.
     Who wrote these letters, whom did you get
     them from.

So the fiat
is not same
as the fiat
one is born of light to wipe out everything, a match
struck next to the corner of a letter,
that opens a hole in time, an invisible hole
in the retina
like the books of Alexandria in flame, outside
the field of vision, far
from the hypothesis of light; and the other
fiat that engenders
            and expels
its opposites,
the dark, the war, 
the soil: a fiat
fertile, embodied
in things,
not in absences.


     the days
     are quiet
     I’ve translated a manual
     on making shoes,
     I’ll send it with permission
     of the most friendly warden of this prison
     to sustain you
     and my brothers and sisters.
     Thank you for the suits  
     and the nut tart.
     Congratulate my cousin
     on her marriage.


Calculate then what complements,
what conjunctions, what subordinate clauses,
what accusatives and datives determine
the distance between one fiat and the other.


This letter, for instance,
in the rush before flight
the drops
that confess themselves by-products
of tearjerking films
microscopically burst
like clumsy bubbles,
heavy and full,
burst and fallen
over the crystal-clear-instruction:

     your obsession with saving up papers.

But in the cell, months before,
with light entering like a tropical irony,
some parrots drawn on the sky,
on the resonant horizon
of the prison block
the torch
the dark dungeons of Castel Sant’Angelo
and the interminable soliloquies
of Cellini
to god himself,
now here poured into another tongue.
in another jail—
an echo of that other one
as in a set of
Venetian mirrors?

translated from the Spanish by Dick Cluster