from Welcome to Sing Sing

Elvira Ribeiro Tobío


As you can see, the door glides. It opens for us. We’ve barely the grá left to move. The gliding of the door corresponds to the impulse of the grá. It might only be the grá to run down a laneway. And it’s been a long time since there were laneways around here. Only saps dream of laneways. There’s corridors and so there’s the itch to run. Crowded corridors. With doors like tigers. Everyone’s hitched to one. To their door or to their crab. And down those distant laneways, the laneways the grá makes, brambles grow on the first days of September and the blackberry juice fuses with the blood tapped from the fingers by the thorns. And the laneways are crowded but there’s no doors. Laneways, blackberries. On this side of the door blood rises quicker than the grass. A scream behind the walls. Behind the curtains hidden, a eulogy to madness. Blood stagnates and the floods. The floods held back, you see, by the door. It’s just a number, the door. It stares at me with its no-eyes. The gliding door keeps an eye on me; our so-called stand off. And for all that, it doesn’t care about my grá to run away from the iron. The passion of the grá hurled beyond the door’s reach. To the door it’s a fugitive. And the door has no idea there’s a noose inside looking to end it all. But thoughts are quicker, so the body is unharmed for now. The enormity of the door galls me, it’s the bane of my eye. Further along, all in a row, another door glides. And another all in a line stretching to boredom as the cavity of the mouth gapes wider. Iron out of tune. The fury of the ghost door. The mise en abyme of doors gliding, of the ante upped to the nth degree. As if the door forces flight. And the grá to be a long distance runner charges against it. But it’s pulled up against the door’s mettle. And the door wins. If you cross the door, you’ll be bogged down in the wind. The door opens, it’s a set of jaws.


I think about the Uruguayan Savannahs, the meadows warm with araucarias. About the Pampas, hemmed by the slopes of the plateau, and the open steppes covered in wheat; treeless, cultivated or fallow . . . It won’t open. I think about water rushing down the open channels, the channels that claw at the earth and leave nothing behind, channels flowing across the plains, floodwaters . . . it won’t open. I think about my mother, her angry voice and she busy doing a thousand things, and it was years later when I realised what she meant by ‘you’re like no one’s child,’ as if she knew I’d be one of those women who’d come to nothing. It won’t open. I think about my mother’s legs, open as she births me, open as she makes me, about the sow slashed from top to tail because it miscarried and was sterile, about Begonia the big pig with her legs wide open on the school bus sitting in her own funk of pheromones. About the wound on Charlie’s head after he fell off his bike, Charlie’s head open, about the open nook the day they took him in his coffin from the church to the graveyard. It won’t open. About those open days after the rains, the fig that opens its worn out skin in October in San Martiño do Bolo, about the run my grandmother still opens to sow an era of spuds and about the bitter oranges that split as they drop off the edge to the street below, the dogs’ piss and the men’s piss. It won’t open. I think about talking like an open book, I think about silence, about talking like an open body, with someone inside. I think about uncle Fernando who showed me how to open the small velvet crabs without hurting my fingers, how to open spider crabs, to open oysters . . . how to stay quiet while he put his hands down my pearl knickers. It won’t open. And again I think about the Savannahs in Uruguay, the floodwaters . . . about the mouth and eyes locked after the knife finds a vital organ. About my eyes locked on the crab. And the crab won’t open. The crab won’t open. It won’t open.


Right this minute I could just leap across the dunes in the Pinnacle Desert. Could watch the whole world, ignoring all the desiccation with the Coral Sea close by, my hankering would span the Meseta’s breadth just to reach the plains, the steppes. I’d learn to avoid fire. I wouldn’t be moved at the feet of Uluru I would touch Arnheim Land. That I could believe in. No I don’t belong in this marsupial pouch, the darkness clamouring close to my skin. I’m the burial of something that was born in tatters and the stomach that bolts me down now isn’t taking me to any meadow in the lands of the East. The air is low slung, my body up against the walls like a blind woman lost in the ’burbs. A stroke of luck this no light. And for all that, I could right now head out to the shores of Lake Eyre and give my mouth a rest. Make the most of the breach of monsoon. I could leap between the peaks of the Kata Tjuta just for the craic. Clenched under my nails the memory of sandstone and basalt and the blasts in off the Nullarbor Plain. But a paw’s weak reason against steel. The failing light’s hard on the eye. The air sinks and then more. Still the journey has one more gag. A purge of the medulla oblongata against all certainty. The fall. I snuggle up in the kangaroo’s pouch but there’s no breast feeding me. Outside, the same old scrap: I’ll always be bouncing about the place.


Everyone lands home in the tiger. The tigers all stink. Not an animal smell, but an old scruff of the neck wound. Gangrenous dreamstink or the dry jism on a paper wodge. The wodge that ends up down the tiger’s gullet. The tin tiger. The brick tiger. The tiger with his skewed eyes that pull me in to gorge me. I beg to be devoured and then scatter my bones somewhere in the Bengal swamps. I ask for more not-a-hope as he ferments the keenings of vomit and piss. And I spit in his eyes just to see if he’ll send it back, to see if miracles can happen, if he really devours. The tiger. The mildewed tiger. The tiger bleached. The cold beast. He stinks sometimes and splays us out on all fours down the lifer’s corridor. Everyone lands home in the tiger. All tigers stink.

Prolapse at 3:51 a.m.

There’s nights the insomnia has the cut of a fall. What happens is that half the body hauls itself up and all the guts end up on the floor. So it’s time to fix on the silence and try and repair the damage in the wasteland. But gathering up your guts has a price: the glass of water spills and out pours the mirage: around a shattered body scatters a rain of splinters and there’s no sign of a let up. You turn, your guts in your left hand, the empty glass in your right, and sprinkled about the flat what’s left of a love letter. In fact, the love letter has already given up the ghost and thrown itself into the abyss. You haven’t enough hands to give asylum to all those words spattered around you. Broken words and words with no more shelter in the letter. Let them all fall. Irredeemably. And down the walls falls the viscous liquid of those days, just like that, like fangs. The liquid rolls down till it meets your naked feet and with it pours hope’s ashes. No, no I’m not constant, nor am I afraid. This insomnia is just a bruise on everything I’ve learned. Peace perhaps; which was flushed down the toilet with the tranquilizers. It’s all out of control now, in this short, murky time. It’s all gone. Sinking between the joints in the floor tiles. That’s how it ends here this fall of tonight this night of orphaned grasping. Seeping through the grikes between tile number 16 and tile number 17. There’s my body, sliding into the pelagic rift. The hollow. The hole. The pit.


In the execution chamber in Sing Sing prison there was a phone connected
directly to the Secretary of Justice.
Do something, Manny, anything.
The chair wasn’t made for someone so small.
Burn all Reds.
The executioner won’t end our conviction.
It’s far from playing the stereotypical female.
The day she lay down on the ground on 36th Street to block the company’s
delivery trucks.
A helmet with electrodes attached and a wet sponge on the head.
Obstinately innocent.
Jewish working class family.
There has been an atomic explosion in Russia.
That woman’s accusation might just be our chance.
You’ll know now why we left the songs unfinished.
Her crime is worse than murder.
Out hunting red ghosts.
Go to university, sing, act.
Old Sparky crowning the whole scene.
If Ruth says she typed the notes, then she typed the notes.
Till there was smoke coming out of her head.
Three electric shocks.
Five, according to some.
This morning it almost seemed we could have been together in spite of everything.
Must die for their crime.
Sacked for organizing a strike with 150 other women.
Lower East Side.
They leave flowers by the Tuileries Gardens.
They’ll come for her.
Our convictions beat the witness.
Wellwood, East Farmingdale, Suffolk, Long Island, New York.
You’ll know why we left the books unread.
Before sunset Friday.
A stain on the whole country.
We leave the work unfinished and rest beneath the daisies.
2000 volts for 8 seconds, down to 1000 for 20 seconds, and up again to 2000 for 8 more seconds.
Death to the Communist Rats!
Outside the White House groups of protestors carry placards demanding.
And 8 more seconds.
And 8 more seconds.
And 8 more seconds.
And 8 more seconds.
And 8 more seconds.
And 8 more seconds.
And 8 more seconds.
And 8 more seconds.
And all along Ethel had known nothing.

Ethel (II)

I didn’t use a Remington.
I didn’t leave my friends in the lurch.
I didn’t choose the daisies over me.
I didn’t write lines like a keener’s long notes. 
Those carnations on my dress or the tilt of my head to the right are not a sign of cowardice.
There’s no handkerchief can wipe away deceit.
It’s not arrogance; it’s Lower East Side pride sown long ago in this neighbourhood.
I didn’t kill 50,000 soldiers at Changjing Lake.
No lover wants an incarcerated kiss.
You can’t imagine how a woman feels condemned to flop through the depths of the bog.
I wasn’t resigned to it.
Ye mustn’t mourn forever.
You can’t keep captive what must be free.
The straps don’t hurt as much as the masks.
Don’t lower yourself in front of barbarity.
The belts are no tighter than the language.
There were no typed notes.
No typing.
No typing on a Remington.
No typing on a fucking Remington.
Non omnis moriar,
or perhaps I will,
it’s what I do every moment,
in all the pages where my name

The Rape of Europa

Anna’s seventeen months in the queues in Krestý
and the waiting like dry moss in her hands, encysted.
Helga’s watercolours just a few miles from Linz
and the last toll on the Danube.
Esther’s one thousand eight hundred and twenty-six days in Rubstovsk
and the Arctic trace that doesn’t warm the field of chilblains.
Ilse’s poems in Oświęcim
and a herd of songs prior to the ash.
Heda’s star in the ghetto in Łódź
and the viper’s shadow reflected in her eyes.              
Hannah’s two thousand two hundred and eight hours in Gurs
and the spring wind in the velodrome in winter.
That quote by Brecht carried in Lenka’s head in Ruzyně
and still humanity holds the bodies.
Alice’s piano in Terezín
and the Chopin études strung along the barbed wire.
Ida’s son beside her in Rieucros
and Dora’s three winters, étrangère indésirable.
And Yevgenia’s memory of Butyrka
and Yevgenia’s memory of Kolymá
and Yevgenia’s memory of Magadán.
The poems in Nadezhda’s mouth,
Osip’s poems in Nadezhda’s mouth
in the Soviet factory in the provinces
and the rope,
Marina’s rope in Lebaluga.
The all-powerful captor and the scorched house.
And the scorched mouth.
The mouth so scorched, but always seditious.
. . .
And this cruel god showing his fangs behind the door.

Any day now, any day now,
I shall be released.
Bob Dylan

Room and Board

Because in Sing Sing it’s not only frost that’s everywhere. There’s even bright days of grazing. Bromide starry nights under the cover of centipedes. Hybrids of love with some unmentionable fighting against the cold. And if the words open furrows of acid in the flesh we can always haul up to our stomach the arachnids. We have a sunny ‘ring’ to air our miseries of the day and wear audacity in combat. Nor is a dark clothesline for the desire necessary. What more can an almost human ask for? A room, full board whose cost is counted in scars.

translated from the Galician by Keith Payne