This week’s poem for National Poetry Month comes from poet-physician Rafael Campo’s most recent collection, Alternative Medicine.
When we were six or seven, Dad would quiz us
on the capitals of the world, me and my kid brothers
who didn’t even know our own address. We lived
in New Jersey, not Cuba, and our ignorance
seemed like the reason we would never,
ever go there. So I tried to memorize the names
of the stars printed on my National Geographic
Map of the World: L-I-M-A was the capital of Peru,
not just a kind of bean I hated; I wondered if Peru
was anything like Cuba. I wondered if I would ever see
what I imagined were the horrible, muddy streets
of Helsinki, which sounded like a place where sinners
like me would be punished, sucked into the earth
for good; even Ottawa, in our nice neighbor Canada,
seemed incomprehensibly far away. It was always
at dinnertime when he’d start in on us: Who knows
the capital of Burma? I stared into my succotash,
pushing it around and around with my fork,
sure that children there were starving, dying
of starvation in a city whose name I didn’t even know.
One night, with the distant stars ﬂickering outside
the steamed-up kitchen windows, he asked,
Does anyone here know the capital of Cuba?
Every bone in my body ached with the answer,
the one place in the world I most wanted to visit,
the one place in the world whose name
was always impossible for me to remember.