Conjectural Poem

Doctor Francisco Laprida, set upon and killed the 22nd of September 1829 by a band of gaucho militia serving under Aldan, reflects before he dies:

Bullets whip the air this last afternoon.
A wind is up, blowing full of cinders
as the day and this chaotic battle
straggle to a close. The gauchos have won:
victory is theirs, the barbarians’.
I, Francisco Narciso Laprida,
who studied both canon law and civil
and whose voice declared the independence
of this entire untamed territory,
in defeat, my face marked by blood and sweat,
holding neither hope nor fear, the way lost,
strike out for the South through the back country.
Like that captain in Purgatorio
who fleeing on foot left blood on the plain
and was blinded and then trampled by death
where an obscure river loses its name,
so too will I fall. Today is the end.
The night and to right and left the marshes —
in ambush, clogging my steps. I hear the
hooves of my own hot death riding me down
with horsemen, frothing muzzles, and lances.
I who longed to be someone else, to weigh
judgments, to read books, to hand down the law,
will lie in the open out in these swamps;
but a secret joy somehow swells my breast.
I see at last that I am face to face
with my South American destiny.
I was carried to this ruinous hour
by the intricate labyrinth of steps
woven by my days from a day that goes
back to my birth. At last I’ve discovered
the mysterious key to all my years,
the fate of Francisco de Laprida,
the missing letter, the perfect pattern
that was known to God from the beginning.
In this night’s mirror I can comprehend
my unsuspected true face. The circle’s
about to close. I wait to let it come.
My feet tread the shadows of the lances
that spar for the kill. The taunts of my death,
the horses, the horsemen, the horses’ manes,
tighten the ring around me . . . Now the first
blow, the lance’s hard steel ripping my chest,
and across my throat the intimate knife.

Translated by Norman Thomas di Giovanni