This Face

You sit in a glass-walled office
at the morgue in Mexico City,
studying a cadaver photograph
of a face you love. You are trying
to convince the coroner
you know this face,
this young man who was smiling
the last time you saw him.
In your face she has glimpsed
a blankness, a momentary
refusal to acknowledge
that the photograph depicts
your son. You barely understand
it reveals the what, not the why,
of random murder.


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You have on your phone
another photograph of your son
from three months earlier. He’s looking
over his right shoulder into the camera,
smile stretched the width of his face,
underlining cheekbones just before a burst
of laughter as he shows his father
his favorite place: the Newseum,
where typewriters, Teletypes,
Linotypes and laptops are all the same
to him — a way to tell stories. It’s where
he goes to think,
to explain, to keep, 
as he says, his integrity as a journalist.

The Newseum is where
he will say his vows
with a man he has yet to meet —
he is sure of future love.
He is twenty-two.
His father’s camera has caught
the lift of his chin, ready
for his new job as a reporter,
new city, Mexico. In a walk home
one night, perhaps he failed
to see danger.
You are left
with this:
a photograph transfigured
into a sacred relic,
a shard of memory,
story untold.

(In Peru, following Mando’s death, Alters studied the work of Cesar Vallejo, the Peruvian poet referred to in this poem)

Water in an Eye

Vallejo gave me
an almost indecipherable word: empozarse,
a verb that puts water in an eye
and leaves it just under the rim
so no one has to say what eye water
becomes when it spills over lash and cheek —
it wells up, quiet
like a reservoir back of a dam
poised to inundate entire canyons,
ancient civilizations,
whole lives. A poet told me
North Americans shouldn’t write tears
Into a poem because that’s mawkish

and even in Latin America 
only Neruda could get away with it — well,
actually, Vallejo got away with it even
more deftly than Neruda
but in Buenos Aires
where tears are abundant — una lagrima is a drop
of espresso in hot milk — I can’t find a tear
in new Argentine poetry,
so when a busybody down the street
wondered why I would leave home
to study Spanish
instead of buying an app to translate
on the spot — who needs 
more than English really — 
I couldn’t explain
the truth is I don’t know
why I’ve forced my brain to butt
against cinderblocks of verbs 
and tiny lice-like words that inch
Into unexpected places
where even the regular veers
irregular late at night
when no one has the energy
to decipher my gameboy Spanish
including me — so I might have missed the tears

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because I read Spanish so slowly, well enough
to slam translators, but not nearly sufficient
to describe all I need
at the grocery store which a first grader
holding Mama’s hand can do — my son could do that
he could write the hell out of Spanish,
carve jokes with it, drink on it,
and still go strong at 1 a.m. except for that one last
early morning when Spanish was likely
the last human sound he ever heard.
Empozarse means to form pools
which means eye on the verge of spilling water
which means to Vallejo a whole life fits
Into that eye and pools form —
but even there he doesn’t write tears, 
not in that poem.

Diane Alters is a former journalist and college professor who studies poetry at the Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver. Her poems have appeared in Calyx, Crosswinds Poetry Journal, The New York Quarterly and Pilgrimage Magazine, among others.