By Margarita Engle

Harry Franck, from the United States of America – Census Enumerator

I came to Panama planning to dig
the Eighth Wonder of the World,
but I was told that white men
should never be seen working
with shovels, so I took a police job,
and now I’ve been transferred
to the census.

I roam the jungle, counting laborers
who live in shanties and those who live
on the run, fugitives who are too angry
to keep working for silver in a system
where they know that others
earn gold.

When islanders see me coming,
they’re afraid of trouble, even though
I can’t arrest them anymore—now
all I need is a record of their names, ages,
homelands, and colors.

The rules of this census confound me.
I’m expected to count white Jamaicans
as dark and every shade of Spaniard
as semi-white, so that Americans
can pretend
there’s only one color
in each country.

How am I supposed to enumerate
this kid with the Cuban accent?
His skin is medium, but his eyes
are green.

And what about that Puerto Rican
scientist, who speaks like a New York
or the girl who says she doesn’t know
where she was born or who her parents
are—she could be part native, or part French,
Jamaican, Chinese …

She could even be part American,
from people who passed through here
way back
in gold rush days.

Counting feels just as impossible
as turning solid mountains
into a ditch.

This Poem Features In: