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Poem by Elizabeth Bishop


The Burglar of Babylon


On the fair green hills of Rio
     There grows a fearful stain:
The poor who come to Rio
     And cant go home again.

On the hills a million people,
     A million sparrows, nest,
Like a confused migration
     Thats had to light and rest,

Building its nests, or houses,
     Out of nothing at all, or air.
Youd think a breath would end them,
     They perch so lightly there.

But they cling and spread like lichen,
     And people come and come.
Theres one hill called the Chicken,
     And one called Catacomb;

Theres the hill of Kerosene,
     And the hill of Skeleton,
The hill of Astonishment,
     And the hill of Babylon.

Micucu was a burglar and killer,
     An enemy of society.
He had escaped three times
     From the worst penitentiary.

They dont know how many he murdered
     (Though they say he never raped),
And he wounded two policemen
     This last time he escaped.

They said, Hell go to his auntie,
     Who raised him like a son.
She has a little drink shop
     On the hill of Babylon.

He did go straight to his auntie,
     And he drank a final beer.
He told her, The soldiers are coming,
     And Ive got to disappear.

Ninety years they gave me.
     Who wants to live that long?
Ill settle for ninety hours,
     On the hill of Babylon.

Dont tell anyone you saw me.
     Ill run as long as I can.
You were good to me, and I love you,
     But Im a doomed man.

Going out, he met a mulata
     Carrying water on her head.
If you say you saw me, daughter,
     Youre as good as dead.

There are caves up there, and hideouts,
     And an old fort, falling down.
They used to watch for Frenchmen
     From the hill of Babylon.

Below him was the ocean.
     It reached far up the sky,
Flat as a wall, and on it
     Were freighters passing by,

Or climbing the wall, and climbing
     Till each looked like a fly,
And then fell over and vanished;
     And he knew he was going to die.

He could hear the goats baa-baa-ing.
     He could hear the babies cry;
Fluttering kites strained upward;
     And he knew he was going to die.

A buzzard flapped so near him
     He could see its naked neck.
He waved his arms and shouted,
     Not yet, my son, not yet!

An Army helicopter
     Came nosing around and in.
He could see two men inside it,
     but they never spotted him.

The soldiers were all over,
     On all sides of the hill,
And right against the skyline
     A row of them, small and still.

Children peeked out of windows,
     And men in the drink shop swore,
And spat a little cachaca
     At the light cracks in the floor.

But the soldiers were nervous, even
     with tommy guns in hand,
And one of them, in a panic,
     Shot the officer in command.

He hit him in three places;
     The other shots went wild.
The soldier had hysterics
     And sobbed like a little child.

The dying man said, Finish
     The job we came here for.
he committed his soul to God
     And his sons to the Governor.

They ran and got a priest,
     And he died in hope of Heaven
--A man from Pernambuco,
     The youngest of eleven.

They wanted to stop the search,
     but the Army said, No, go on,
So the soldiers swarmed again
     Up the hill of Babylon.

Rich people in apartments
     Watched through binoculars
As long as the daylight lasted.
     And all night, under the stars,

Micucu hid in the grasses
     Or sat in a little tree,
Listening for sounds, and staring
     At the lighthouse out at sea.

And the lighthouse stared back at him,
     til finally it was dawn.
He was soaked with dew, and hungry,
     On the hill of Babylon.

The yellow sun was ugly,
     Like a raw egg on a plate--
Slick from the sea. He cursed it,
     For he knew it sealed his fate.

He saw the long white beaches
     And people going to swim,
With towels and beach umbrellas,
     But the soldiers were after him.

Far, far below, the people
     Were little colored spots,
And the heads of those in swimming
     Were floating coconuts.

He heard the peanut vendor
     Go peep-peep on his whistle,
And the man that sells umbrellas
     Swinging his watchmans rattle.

Women with market baskets
     Stood on the corners and talked,
Then went on their way to market,
     Gazing up as they walked.

The rich with their binoculars
     Were back again, and many
Were standing on the rooftops,
     Among TV antennae.

It was early, eight or eight-thirty.
     He saw a soldier climb,
Looking right at him. He fired,
     And missed for the last time.

He could hear the soldier panting,
     Though he never got very near.
Micucu dashed for shelter.
     But he got it, behind the ear.

He heard the babies crying
     Far, far away in his head,
And the mongrels barking and barking.
     Then Micucu was dead.

He had a Taurus revolver,
     And just the clothes he had on,
With two contos in the pockets,
     On the hill of Babylon.

The police and the populace
     Heaved a sigh of relief,
But behind the counter his auntie
     Wiped her eyes in grief.

We have always been respected.
     My shop is honest and clean.
I loved him, but from a baby
     Micucu was mean.

We have always been respected.
     His sister has a job.
Both of us gave him money.
     Why did he have to rob?

I raised him to be honest,
     Even here, in Babylon slum.
The customers had another,
     Looking serious and glum.

But one of them said to another,
     When he got outside the door,
He wasnt much of a burglar,
     He got caught six times--or more.

This morning the little soldiers
     are on Babylon hill again;
Their gun barrels and helmets
     Shine in a gentle rain.

Micucu is buried already.
     Theyre after another two,
But they say they arent as dangerous
     As the poor Micucu.


On the green hills of Rio
     There grows a fearful stain:
The poor who come to Rio
     And cant go home again.

Theres the hill of Kerosene,
     And the hill of the Skeleton,
The hill of Astonishment,
     And the hill of Babylon.



Elizabeth Bishop


Elizabeth Bishop's other poems:
  1. Visits to St. Elizabeths
  2. The Moose
  3. The Bight
  4. Strayed Crab
  5. Giant Snail


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