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"Underworld"

Underworld

[ Mexico City, 11 Dec. 1994]

Description...

Bull roar of a great boulevard. Over the meridian squats a replicant Arc de Triomphe — new world Champs Elysees, swift metallic flocks, Elysian van of horns trumpeting triumph. Maniacal rosebowl parade fun/knelled through the stone archway. Arco Triunfal that heralds my allegorical arrival / portalled portent, gather your omens where ye may.

      Fifteen unmarked lanes each side — a shoaling river of cars it takes ten minutes to ford. Never cross on WALK crossing at the corner is for suicidal sitting ducks, never stop looking left and right J-Run don’t walk in the middle of the block. Run headswiveling incessant — run graceless run. Thrill of danger in my guts — let’s call this fun, more than I’ve had in years.

      Headswimming chestpained bends on the far shore. The air’s most travestied region — two kilometres above the sea. I walk and walk ears ringing, spots of darkness skating in my eyes like waterbugs. Copper tongued — my mouth is full of blood but no it’s this air this — tasty, odorous, colour of ash — gas.

      Sharp right at the next corner into the quake zone. Low rent housing in the middle of the business core ten years after the Big One — five minutes’ walk to work at the stock exchange buy now! Upscale vagrant lots of rubble — foundered tumblewalls, concrete wracked and insubstantial. Catch glimpses of colour laundrystrung or hampered, ladies hauling water in oilcans.

      See stone-soled children play rubblefield football, while infant archaeologists — solemn, slow — sort crushed rock and cokebottle potsherds.

      Olfactory gusto — ¿Te gusta, a ti? — to smell is to taste is to swim in an excremental infusion a million molecules of dogbaby-shit-per-cubic-metre-tea, but flowers too and frying onions    tobacco    soap — a funksea.

      Ssst — oye, bonita. What are you drawing there in your notebook? Why don’t you draw my picture, chiquita, I love you. Whistle past graveyard / hum the hymn hyaenal / hear the packhunters gathering for a fresh meatkill. Me. Sharp left to a main street.

      Broken sidewalks / sclerotic, narrowed arterium of vendors warey with watch straps  extension cords    blender blades    sport socks. Adidas bags for the unathletic — pauper Samsonite. Cheap blasters blare brazen pirate music — cassettes adollar apiece — prepare to be boarded! Newsstands papervendors self-possessed resellers of obsolete textbooks — this collapsing rubble of perished technology.

      Overhead a featureless sky bounded by the sootstained enthusiasms of fifties office blocks. Bauhaus bowwow byebye. Into the Centro Histórico Centre of History, the spiral’s eye. Colonial construction, arched architecture of darkness and light, igneous and granite geometrics. The ground is porous, illfounded. Massive block-long buildings list to left and right, angling like bombed battleships sunk at shallow anchor.

      Sidewalks like cheesecloth — worn and holed — knee-deep trash-sinks — cripple machines. Beggarmakers. A million people a day stepping around holes in their lives. Or inside.

      I can’t bear to see the cathedral. Not today.

      O happy day I stumble onto the Palacio de Bellas Artes — Palace of the Beautiful Arts — whither the ugly ones? — but this place is a dream of white marble domes and columns and muscled friezes and awestruck I mount the broad steps. Surely they will bar me entry to this mosque of loveliness. Inside, unshod, sandals in my hands I walk the cool parquet. Soaring murals of pain and blood, insane greed and longings betrayed. And at the margins, pale glimpses of my bookfed ignorance of this land writ large, ten metres high. Walls a soulswept panorama, floors cryptcold — above, a skull-lifting cupola a cranial vault / brain pan trepanned by a chromatic stainglass EXPLOSION. Vertigo, a slumping on the stairs.

      Señorita, you’re not unwell? Skinny guard skinny moustache gentle eyes rustygun. No I’m not unwell. Sometimes the beauty is too much, no? Yes, Señor, sometimes the beauty is too much. Gracias — a thousand graces, I’m all right now.

      Outside across the street a fifty-storey office tower, the only one around. Tower of Babel of Rubble-in-waiting, detumescence forestalled. Earthquaked it will swing like a pendulum like a lightbuoy a lightning rod for calamity. 

      Down into the metro, embowelled earth / refuge from the thunderbolt sky, this copper air.

      BIENVENIDOS AL METRO DE MEXICO — WELCOME / WILKOMMEN / BIENVENUS / NAHUATL SUN SALUTATION — 100 STATIONS / 200 KILOMETRES OF TRACK / FIVE MILLION PEOPLE MOVED DAILY HALF A MILLION KILOMETRES — to the moon and back through the shortcut guts of the underworld. To the dead lands. Troglodyte sons of the dog, fetching the bones of a lost race of men. No Eloi beyond this point, abandon all hope, ye the well-heeled who enter here.

      Waiting, waiting, the platform a dammed flood of passengers massing — a streaming anthill, a hive. Xenophobic flutter in my guts flushed like quail. Rising pressure a high distant whine a rising wind — heralding an ochre rubbertired train ... dopplered deceleration. People dis- and embarking, turbulent collidings.

      But even whirled and battered, half-drowned, I am schooled in this people’s incomprehensible restraint, their regret, absence of malice: these trains affront an outraged, deepheld courtesy.

      Packed cars, stockyard buzzer, swish of doors. Basset-eyed gentleman of the primordial school — broad-knotted polyester tie, frayed collars and cuffs, impeccably clean — half-stands to offer me his seat. I smile in declining, strange cheek-tweaking musculation this. Salmon in sardine cans, the diffident press of bodies — hairspray, aftershave, mesquite, soap. Censered return to the olfactory sea.

      The ochre-train’s vulcan whine rises and coils whiplike over its groaning burden. This human cargo, this packtrain of burrowing burritos spurred by the neo-gachupines. These tender-hearted llamas on the Andean brink of despair. Inframundo en llamas. Landlocked submariners — what’s the weather like up there? Pressganged landsmen who inwardly cringe at each sonar ping, at the sinister wash of ventilation props.

      At each stop they spill debotched from this subterranean bottleplant — hopes replenished, lungs decarbonated, goals recalibrated — consumptive discards returned. Recycled refills, these, bobbing up, rising to the light, redeposited at the famished gates of a pearling sky. And such a school of entrepreneurship they rise from! — neo-con worldbank wetdream — a million MBAs in humility. Ambulant vendors elbowing apologetic through the cattlecote with their sharecropper’s haul. Pitchmen’s singsong patter more dove-croon than hawking — selling scissors, slide rules, palm calculators / palmed contraband, psalmed bookmarks / keychain thermometers — what’s body temperature? Refugee-army knives, penlights / biographies of Mexican Nobel laureates / Aztec herbologies / tricks with rope and lariats / tiny brass padlocks against the crime wave.

      Then, sweet moment of stillness — write it ... quiet, a solemn concentration, the passing of a precious gift: suckling a newborn, a young Indian mother teaches her daughter — cleanfrocked glossyhaired — her alphabet, from a scrap of stock quotations.

      And these, the deracinate holders of common property, how have they trespassed against thee, O great Captains of Calvinist Industry?

      I ride for hours, train after train, scanning light-panels advertising the same: cosmetology, astrology, typewriter repair, keypunch dexterities. Parchment illustrators, programmers in Pascal and other dead hieratics — join a fraternity, wear a uniform — cloak, cowl and lifeguard whistle — preserve undead knowledge through the dark age to come.

      I try to turn away from glaze-eyed children selling gum — chicles ... chicles! — from these, the glued and leaded IQs of a lost generation. Train after train, through this tatterdemalion pandemonium, we are god’s freak retinue limping through the holes in our lives. Jesters poets minstrels / the blind and pocked and crippled, playing ballads, early Beatles / protest, folk / ranchero, a cappella salsa. Guitar/banjo, clay flutes and fingerdrums...

      And oh the neap tide of voices rising and falling, a peso a song. Sing along. Quaver and plaint, sharp discord and flat melodrone. An intoning, a litany, a rosary, an incantation — all the heartbreak, the lovesick invocations. Now and then an angel’s voice to wake us from our subcutaneous sleep. And somehow for each and all, even the most tone-deaf, we find a coin. A tiny disk of embossed foil to pass along.

      Shellshocked smiles — would you smile at me if you knew my mind?

      Songs for bread. Belts cinched, one man’s family eats a little less this night that another’s — ranged round a guitar case — may feast on yesterday’s unsold bakery. In train after train salarymen in vast transit and pilgrim families and teens shyly break out their little lunches, make self-conscious offers to total strangers. Like me.

      How can I eat with you?

      But how I want to. I want to. Why does this wound me so sweetly, make me want to weep? I glance around me to ape the right reply. How should I behave? How do I act, I am a child among you, O Mexico — old soul, México hondo.

      To the barefoot, grimycheeked urchins — eyes like dazed fawns — I learn to give money only when changing trains. Some try to follow but they are too small in the crowds, too light, leaflike in this forest so heavy-limbed.

      Were you there? Somewhere in the crowd — hiding your omnipresence, did I talk too loud? Did you sell me chicklets — thine, those glazy leaden eyes? This little compass, did its needle swing to you? I found you not. Was’t from you I bought this tiny penlight to light my way each night?

      Or maybe that was you sharing food — a thin day of fishing. The loaves ran out.

      No, I didn’t find you — but O the five million souls shunting through the underground! Shot star trailing its disastrous train in hideous combustion down / through the earth’s honeycombed heart — abuzz awhirr adrone. Underground railroad, mine eyes have seen the glories of thy via negativa. Fly us to the moon and back through swisscheese skies of green. Ratheride down here with you than in a host of Elohim. In limousines.

      By this upflung tide of songs, am I not washed clean? Sing me sweetly to my rest this night / I wish I may I wish I might / in these lost bones, keep and hold you for to-night ... lost human race.

      We who falterfall to kingdomcome in second place.

      I ride and ride for hours until the shiny coins and worn-kid bills are spent, paperthin vellum   treasured notes  swapped for lenten songs.

      I know this stop, I know this name, have known it all along — Bellas Artes Underground.

      Night, a light rain falling.

 

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