The General

(this poem is a response to Carolyn Forché’s poem The Colonel)

The letter arrives in an oddly sized envelope with a quarter-sized blue postmark.
Dear Mr. Brandis… After five years of working with Amnesty International
writing letters to foreign leaders asking for the release of political prisoners,
I finally got a response. It is from a general in Uruguay.

Reading the letter, I can see the general in his cocobolo paneled office
in the old section of Montevideo. The balcony opens to the Isla de Flores.
It is the season of llamadas and the raucous sound of a neighborhood
candombe band drifts up through the open balcony doors.

He sits at his desk behind a pile of letters, his cuff studs clicking softly
against the desktop. At his elbow, a picture of his daughter Francesca,
with her high forehead and jaguar eyes that remind him so much
of her mother. She barely made it into this world. A breech birth in a
mountain camp without a doctor. Her mother’s body a bloody rag doll.
He had to go into the the hills for two days so his men would not see him
wild with grief.

This morning he is feeling generous. The music has made him so.
He picks a letter at random from the pile and decides to answer it.
He is not a bad man. Why do so many strangers around the world think otherwise?

It is dark in his office, but the balcony is sunny. He walks to the railing and looks down. A street vendor is cooking garlic sausages. She is striking in her plaid shirt
and wire earrings. She reminds him of Francesca, now away at college in Boston.
She wants to be a journalist! What puts such ideas in a young woman’s head?
Does she listen to the lies? In the streets? And what is a lie anyway except a truth
that is stillborn and must be buried to make way for the future. The woman in the street looks up at him and looks away. He walks back to his desk, puts down his drink and picks up my letter. Dear Mr. Brandis, Thank you for your concern about senor Mujica. We are proud of our people. We treat everyone fairly.

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