Among the proud walkers, each one his own Napoleon

—only briefly perturbed as a 6 foot 4 blond German

passes in rope sandals—go the ones hobble-walking

through the drizzle of medieval streets.

And apart from a briefcase and beige gabardine,

the small man with the four-inch black orthopedic

platform shoe could be medieval

—that sense of the afflicted.


Nowadays in Spain you barely see it, but in the early 1990s it wasn't uncommon to see people with difficulties like this man. Although most Spanish people didn't seem to notice, to me at least there was a sense of otherness about these people: both their own sense of being isolated, and the general society's sense of them. The social tableau felt, at times, like Rilke's novel of alienation, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Briggewhere the young Danish nobleman Malte (Rilke, really) fears the people whose bodies are the texts where the terrible vulnerabilities of their inner selves are written. (He fears that his own porous sense of self will be overwhelmed by their pain and difficulty.) And, at times, the old-fashioned medical solutions really did have that sense of continuity from medieval times: that time of the hunchback, and the mockery of crowds.

(The poem is from my second book, Santiago Sketches.)