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While I was gone a war began.
Every day I asked friends in Rome
to translate the news.
It seems I saw this story
5 in a Hollywood movie,
or on a Taco Bell commercial,
maybe in an ad for sunglasses
W h i l e I W a s G o n e a W a r B e g a n
Ana Castillo
2 5 4 P o e t r y f o r S t u d e n t s
or summer wear—shown somewhere
for promotional purposes.
10 Hadn’t I seen it in an underground cartoon,
a sinister sheikh versus John Wayne?
Remembering Revelation I wanted to laugh,
the way a nonbeliever remembers Sunday School
and laughs, which is to say—
15 after flood and rains,
drought and despair,
abrupt invasions,
disease and famine everywhere,
we’re still left dumbfounded
20 at the persistence of fiction.
While I was gone
continents exploded—
the Congo, Ireland,
Mexico, to name a few places.
25 At this rate, one day soon
they won’t exist at all.
It’s only a speculation, of course.
“What good have all the great writers done?”
an Italian dissident asked, as if
30 this new war were my personal charge.
“What good your poems,
your good intentions,
your thoughts and words
all for the common good?
35 What lives have they saved?
What mouths do they feed?
What good is your blue passport
when your American plane blows up?”
the Italian dissident asked in a rage.
40 “Forced out of his country,
the poor African selling trinkets in Italy,
does not hesitate to kill other blacks
not of his tribe.
Who is the bad guy? Who is the last racist?
45 Who colonizes in the twenty-first century best:
the Mexican official over the Indian
or the gringo ranchero over the Mexican illegal?
“I hope for your sake your poems become
the dissident said. He lit a cigarette, held it to
his yellowed teeth.
50 “I hope for my sake, too. I tried,” he said.
“I did not write books or have sons
but I gave my life
and now, I don’t care.”
Again, I had nothing to give but a few words
55 Which I thought then to keep to myself
for all their apparent uselessness.
We drank some wine, instead,
made from his dead father’s vineyard.
We trapped a rat getting into the vat.
60 We watched another red sun set over the fields.
At dawn, I left,
returned to the silence of the press
when it has no sordid scandal to report.
As if we should not be scandalized
65 by surprise bombing over any city at night,
bombs scandalizing the sanctity of night.

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