Thursday, May 12, 2022

Poem of the Census Enumerator

          When I look at
          the person I
          meet on the street,
          what do I see?

One of the powerful and relevant poems that has come into my view recently is "Counting" by Margarita Engle.  Engle is the author of many children's books and, from June 2017 to June 2019, she served as the Poetry Foundation's Young People's Poet Laureate.  I offer this poem below -- and invite you to ponder the discrimination-issues it raises and the COMPLEXITY of counting -- and then to follow the links to explore more of Engle's work:

       Counting      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.

     I found Engle's poem here at (along with more of her work) -- and "Counting" also is available in Engle's collection, Silver People: Voices from the Panama Canal (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014).

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