Jaime Manrique

A NON-FICTION POEM: Jaime Manrique


A prestigious literary institution 
asked me to read my poems
in a community center
to a group of recent immigrants.
Fat flies emerged
From the restrooms—
my welcoming committee. 
The immigrants 
were waiting for me
in  a gloomy room
that looked like 
a detention center 
on the border between
abundance and death.
I had not written
a hopeful poem
to unroll like a carpet
to welcome them.
But I did not want
to disappoint these tired souls—
they had been promised a program
with me as the main attraction.
There were hundreds 
of them from the Americas, 
from Africa, from Asia,
and they did not speak my language
or the language 
of their new country.
I was determined
to play the dutiful
empathetic poet;
 I told myself, 
Walt Whitman would have
opened his arms to these
orphaned children, single mothers,
the sick and starving,
the persecuted
of the earth. 
I understood these people. 
I had arrived to the States 
many years ago
with my mother 
my sister, and suitcases
that told our history.
Something urged me
to confess to my public
that back then, I had been a terrified
youth who hid my love for men
 from every one, except my sister, who was
A few years younger than me. 
I understood these people, 
I thought, because they
came from a place
familiar to me—
though I had never known
their kind of hunger.
So I read a poem about my mother 
a woman born at the edge
of a jungle, a descendant
from enslaved people
she knew nothing about. 
The immigrants clapped,
politely, I was an adequate
Master of ceremony
inducting them to the  home 
they had dreamt about all their lives.
Yet my poetry
could not give them
what they most wanted: 
food, shelter,
a room to rest, 
perhaps to sleep,
without feeling endangered
of being jailed, caged, 
shot or left to die
in the dessert, without water, 
or a simple grave.
Then an old man, part of a group,
 stood up and thanked me.
They were Indians from 
the Ecuadorian sierras, he explained,
and they had 
walked for half a year 
to the United States, all eight of them: 
the old, the strong,
the children, the toddler.
He sat down.
I was ready
 to offer the immigrants
a bromide that might,
for a few seconds, make them 
forget the fear and darkness
that gripped them.
A young woman rose
after the patriarch and said:
“Jaime, we are eight now,
but we used to be nine.
Thank you for telling us 
About you. My brother, Alejandro,
who left the sierra with us
was gay, too, and he was sick; 
I know you understand 
What I mean: he was too weak
to walk all the way;
we buried him on the side
of the road in Tolteca land
and he’s here with us tonight.”

Jaime Manrique is a Colombian-American poet, novelist, essayist and translator. He's a Distinguished Lecturer in the Department of Modern and Ancient Languages and Literatures at the City College of New York.