The S’s of Mexico

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Listen to the poem here

On my last day in Mexico,
Mexico City bade farewell to me
before I had had time to pack my bags.
I looked for water late at night
and every road performed
a drum-roll down each side—
shop-shutters closing,
clanging, just for me—

Goodbye, good luck
and most of all
good night.

At last, inside a little lane,
under a string of
dangling, dismal, wind-blown bulbs
I found a stall
still open for
some paltry scraps of business.
A plastic tub kept
a few bottles
cool and bobbing.
Behind it sat a lady,
one of those women
whose chairs seem to have
grown from out beneath them,
with which they have attained
a state of stability
too perfect
ever to relinquish.
She made no move to serve me
but with a languid flick
of just one finger
beckoned a child
crouching by the kerb.
“She likes to do the selling,” she said.
The girl came over chuckling
at her appointment
to a grown-up task.
She was so small, I
wasn’t even sure that
she could speak.
Never had I bought
anything from one
so young.

The oldest person was in
Oaxaca.
I sat one evening on
its multi-layered square
surrounded by the sound of
the soft S’s of Mexico
which fall like gentle, slanting rain
which has been falling
through the centuries
worrying at the land
and washing all the people’s faces
into wistful, lingering smiles.
Some Indio girls sailed by,
seeming not to walk,
but like dark boats,
carried on their own secret breeze.
Shoe-shiners in close ranks
set frantically to work.
Children fortunate enough to play
went chasing after huge balloons.
In six or seven places
music gushed or trickled out
coalescing into strange compound
harmonies around the centre of the square
where people came and went,
talked, listened, laughed
and sighed under
the majestic ahuehete trees
whose branches intermingled
so that they seemed to
stand in a huddled, leafy
conversation upon
the threshold of the sky.
From out of all this drift and bustle
there came an ancient woman.
At every step she swung her leg
in a wide arc
out from the hip.
And every step triggered
a soft, surprised complaint—
“Oy, oy.”
She dragged
her halting, slow refrain
through many minutes
until she reached the café
where I sat
watching the shuttling people
weave a tapestry
of attitude and motion
among the trees, the sounds,
the birds, the evening sky.
The waiters greeted her with
slowly offered words.
She stood in the near distance
away from me,
not saying a thing,
not even looking at my face,
but at a space beside it,
waiting to see if I would
deign to notice her.
“Señora, are you tired?” I asked.
She took two painful steps
in my direction.
“And what have you to sell?”
She placed a little basket
on my table, smiling,
perhaps embarrassed,
for all it contained
were five thimble-sized
packages of chicles
chewing-gum.
And in between that lady
and the tiny child,
in all the places I had been
upon the map
between Oaxaca and
the great city of Mexico
and at all stages in between
their two
so extreme ages—
waifs, aunts, grandfathers and fresh brides
on almost every street
had greeted me and asked
if I would buy.
The lady with the
motherly air
who used her arms
as racks for shawls,
who after bantering a while,
said jokingly
“I’m trying so hard to
sell you something
but I’m not getting anywhere
I think”.
Or else the village man
who stalked the ruins
of the Zapotecs
at Monte Albán,
who had a plastic bag
full of the ancient gods
which he had carved from stone himself
and who explained the meaning of
each furrow
on their faces
and of each portion of their
gaudy, wondrous raiments.
When I declined
he said good-bye
wished me good luck
and turned just like a
silent, closing door.
Or else the boys who bobbed up
with quicksilver hands
above me as I sat
and thrust shoe boxes
full of sweets into my face
and just as suddenly
jerked them away again
and launched back
into their endless wandering brawl
which slashed a snaking path of
toppled chairs.
And then the little girls
of eight or nine—
their faces mired in sadness,
stricken by a dismal eclipse
of which I knew nothing,
who would come up and plead
“Please buy something from me.”
I made a paper frog for one
after ten minutes
had gone by
she walked back my way
to let off a firework of a smile
just for me,
her face a glittering little sun
so utterly transformed
that for a second
I wondered who she was.
So many people
scrabbling at the cracks
in our great marketplace,
selling small things
which they had made
lovingly or painfully themselves,
or for a tiny profit
the simple convenience of
buying from my chair
something that at times
was in a shop
no more than twenty yards away.
Toothpicks, grasshoppers, pots, hammers,
key rings, sticky tape, a poem,
wooden combs, a complete
set of sewing needles for
everything from sails to
buttons— and once
in Puebla
I was sold
a local speciality— a biscuit— one!
The little girl was ready now,
she plunged her flimsy arms into the tub—
she reached, of course, for the most
brightly coloured drink—
I pointed her to the water I was waiting for.
She grabbed it with both hands
and then began to tug
turning her face and beaming
up into the sky
towards my face
which must have seemed five miles away
so small was she.
To me she seemed five hundred miles away,
I could not remember ever being that young.
Seeing the bottle weighed too much for her,
I added one of my hands to hers,
enough to help her
without snatching her important task away
and with three hands the bottle came up
like a struggling fish
into the air.
She clapped her hands once
waiting for some new excitement
and when none came
she bent down from the waist,
and started to explore
the way the world looked like
when taken by surprise and caught
backwards and upside down
from in between her parted legs.
I wondered whether one day
she would become
that hobbling old lady
on the square.
Clutching my bottle,
I walked the dim and empty streets.
The rain began to fall again
as it had done on every night
of every day that I’d been there.
I felt the S’s of Mexico
slowly rolling down my brow, my cheeks,
my nose.
And then my ears heard once again
the voices of a thousand people
meekly peddling their precious meagre wares.

Phillip Hill 2007

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(This poem is included in my book The Observation Car which is available from

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